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Ravens regular-season moment No. 4: Ruining homecoming

Posted on 23 June 2020 by Luke Jones

Check out the No. 5 regular-season moment in Ravens history HERE.

The 2008 Ravens were a Cinderella story with the clock threatening to strike midnight.

Coming off a 5-11 campaign that resulted in the dismissal of longtime head coach Brian Billick, Baltimore had been one of the NFL’s biggest surprises with former Philadelphia special teams coordinator John Harbaugh now in charge. An elite defense and robust running game had led the Ravens to an impressive 9-5 record entering Week 16, easing the pressure on rookie first-round quarterback Joe Flacco.

But the Ravens were coming off a heartbreaking home loss to Pittsburgh that clinched the AFC North championship for the rival Steelers the previous Sunday. The margin for error was gone for even a wild-card spot with Indianapolis on its way to securing the No. 5 seed with a nine-game winning streak and New England having the same record as the Ravens despite losing all-world quarterback Tom Brady in the season opener. A daunting trip to Dallas to take on the playoff-hopeful Cowboys threatened to put Baltimore’s playoff hopes on life support.

The story was bigger than playoff ramifications, however, with “America’s Team” closing Texas Stadium with numerous Cowboys legends present for the nationally televised Saturday night affair and post-game ceremony to follow. The Ravens were keenly aware of rumors — later confirmed — that Dallas owner Jerry Jones had requested Baltimore as the final “homecoming” opponent to help close the iconic venue. There was also the matter of Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett having declined an offer to become the Ravens’ new head coach 11 months earlier, paving the way for Harbaugh to accept the job.

The script wouldn’t go as Jones and the rest of the football world anticipated.

Despite a DeMarcus Ware strip-sack of Flacco setting up an easy touchdown early in the first quarter, the Ravens suffocated the Cowboys offense for three quarters with All-Pro safety Ed Reed intercepting Tony Romo twice. Only red-zone inefficiency kept the game close with Dallas native Matt Stover booting three short field goals in the first half to give Baltimore a 9-7 lead that endured late into the third quarter.

Seemingly ready to settle for another field goal, the Ravens ran a fake with holder Sam Koch for a first down that set up a 13-yard touchdown pass from Flacco to veteran wideout Derrick Mason, who was playing with a painful shoulder injury. The score increased the lead to 16-7 and set the stage for one of the most memorable quarters in franchise history.

After registering no more than 24 yards on any of its first nine drives of the night, the Cowboys offense came alive to begin the final period with a 35-yard field goal to shrink the deficit to one score. The Ravens answered with another Stover field goal to make it 19-10 with 6:30 remaining, but Dallas wasn’t going away as Romo threw a 7-yard touchdown to future Hall of Famer Terrell Owens with 3:50 to play.

Trailing by just two and with all three timeouts remaining, the Cowboys knew their chances would come down to stopping the run with Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron unlikely to take any chances with his rookie quarterback. To that point, the Cowboys had held Baltimore to a respectable 3.7 yards per carry and called a run blitz before running back Willie McGahee took the inside hand-off on first-and-10 from the 23.

Breaking a couple feeble tackle attempts, McGahee sprinted 77 yards for the touchdown before a stunned crowd of 63,800 that had finally come alive moments earlier. The second-longest touchdown in franchise history — for the moment — gave the Ravens a 26-17 lead with 3:32 to go.

But the Cowboys still weren’t finished as Romo moved his two-minute offense down the field, finding Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten for a 21-yard touchdown pass to again make it a two-point game with 1:36 remaining. Still holding three timeouts and having scored on three straight drives against a tired Ravens defense, Dallas kicked the ball deep and again only needed to stop the run to keep hope alive.

On first-and-10 from his own 18-yard line, Flacco handed off to the 260-pound Le’Ron McClain.

Breaking a couple tackles before delivering a vicious stiff arm to Cowboys safety Ken Hamlin, the surprising Pro Bowl selection who led the 2008 team in rushing galloped 82 yards for the score, tying Jamal Lewis for the longest run in team history. Once again, the crowd was stunned.

On consecutive offensive snaps, McGahee and McClain had produced two of the three longest runs in Ravens history to deliver the knockout blow and close Texas Stadium for good. The outcome put Baltimore only a home win over lowly Jacksonville away from a playoff berth and an unforgettable run to the AFC Championship game.

The Ravens also took great satisfaction in ruining the party for the media darling Cowboys, who would also lose at Philadelphia the following week to miss the playoffs.

“We had a lot of politics that really made this game more fun,” outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said after the 33-24 win. “They personally recommended us as their homecoming opponent. We just fed off that. We fed off it the whole game.

“We hope they enjoy their ceremony tonight, but I guess we were the dynamite.”

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Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton greets Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, left, at midfield after a preseason NFL football game in Baltimore, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013. The Panthers defeated the Ravens 34-27. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

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Ravens-related thoughts on conference championship weekend

Posted on 25 January 2016 by Luke Jones

The lack of weapons surrounding Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has been a major topic of discussion in two of the last three years.

That’s why Cam Newton’s season for the NFC champion Carolina Panthers is nothing short of exceptional. The fifth-year quarterback wasn’t exactly a popular pick to be the league MVP — especially after the Panthers lost No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin to a season-ending knee injury in August — but he’s done everything he can to silence critics about his play on the field.

To be clear, Newton hasn’t done it alone as he has a Pro Bowl tight end in Greg Olsen and the league’s No. 1 rushing attack — to go along with an excellent defense — but to watch him throw for 35 touchdown passes and a 99.4 passer rating with former first-round bust Ted Ginn Jr., journeyman Jerricho Cotchery, 2014 undrafted free agent Philly Brown, and second-round rookie Devin Funchess as his top four wide receivers?

That’s not exactly a group that instilled fear in the hearts of defensive coordinators.

We’re used to seeing the likes of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers put up impressive passing numbers despite not always having elite talent around them, but Newton deserves the praise he’s receiving as he prepares to play in his first Super Bowl. He’s always been dangerous with his legs — he’s rushed for 500 or more yards in each of his five NFL seasons — but to see his passing prowess take off this season with a less-than-stellar group of receivers is worthy of praise.

This isn’t meant as a knock on Flacco as plenty of good quarterbacks struggle to post big numbers without enough high-end talent around them, but Newton has had a special season.

Blind side surprise

Another reason that Newton has had such a successful year has been the play of Carolina’s offensive line, which includes former Raven Michael Oher playing left tackle.

Oher was mostly solid but still considered a disappointment in Baltimore as a first-round pick in the 2009 draft. The Ole Miss product was even worse with Tennessee in 2014 and was cut just one year after signing a four-year, $20 million contract with the Titans.

So, why the turnaround with the Panthers?

Oher has been reunited with John Matsko, the Ravens’ offensive line coach in his first two NFL seasons. The two share a good relationship, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that Oher has gotten his career back on track working with his old offensive line coach.

According to Pro Football Focus, Oher has graded 32nd among all offensive tackles in the NFL — Eugene Monroe was 22nd and Rick Wagner was 53rd — so it’s not as though he’s suddenly blossomed into a Pro Bowl player in his seventh season. But there’s no doubt that he’s played a key part in transforming what was a poor offensive line in 2014 into one of the better ones in the league.

Orange crush pass rush

The Denver Broncos registered a remarkable 20 quarterback hits on Tom Brady — the most any quarterback had taken in a game all season — over the course of Sunday’s 20-18 win in the AFC championship game.

But even more impressive was the fact that Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips blitzed a season-low 17.2 percent of the time, according to PFF. It certainly helps when you have a special pair of edge rushers like Von Miller — who will be a free agent this offseason — and DeMarcus Ware, but the Broncos’ success was a reminder that you need to be able to disrupt quarterbacks without leaving your pass coverage compromised.

After losing Terrell Suggs in the opener and having already lost Pernell McPhee via free agency, Dean Pees was left with a front unable to generate consistent pressure with a four-man rush for most of the season. As a result, the Ravens defensive coordinator felt compelled to blitz more, which left an underwhelming secondary even more vulnerable in coverage if the pressure didn’t get there in time. It wasn’t until late in the year with the improvement of rookie Za’Darius Smith that Baltimore started to be more disruptive without blitzing.

It’s easier said than done, but the Ravens need to improve their pass rush for 2016 and can’t just hope that the healthy return of Suggs alone will do the trick.

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