December 4, 2011
1. If the Ravens could play against Cleveland's atrocious run defense every single week, Ray Rice might rush for 2,500 yards.
I don't want to denigrate the Ravens' victory against the Browns. It was encouraging to see them prove, for the first time since they played St. Louis, that they can grind out a win against a bad team in a business-like manner on the road. I honestly think they're poised to play some pretty good football down the stretch. If they can win out and snag home-field advantage, I think they're going to be really difficult to beat.
But I'm not sure this game gave us a lot of insight into the Ravens. I don't think it established any kind of identity. I'm going to put this bluntly, because it's the only way to put it: Cleveland's run defense was an embarrassment on Sunday. Rice made some good reads, but the holes he was able to cut back and slip through were frequently the size of a small canyon. That doesn't mean the Ravens didn't block well. They certainly did. Vonta Leach was destroying guys. Marshal Yanda looked like snowplow the way he was moving linemen and linebackers out of the way. Anquan Boldin did an excellent job down the field, helping Rice pick up extra yards.
But the Browns had almost no backside pursuit the entire day. They were completely undisciplined as far as gap responsibility. Here is how a number of plays unfolded: The Ravens would run a stretch play to one side, the Browns would get very little, if any penetration, all three Browns linebackers would flow toward the ball, their defensive end would fail to seal off the backside and take himself out of the play, and Rice would then cut back and be scampering through Cleveland's secondary before he was even touched by a defender.
I'd love to tell you Rice was able to do that because the Ravens running game has finally clicked, and the offensive line is now working as a cohesive unit. But the truth is, Cleveland is just really bad at stopping the run. Rice had 75 yards on his first eight carries. He failed to get 75 yards total in seven different games this year. I still think D'Qwell Jackson is a pretty good linebacker (when healthy), and Jabaal Sheard looks like he could be develop into a poor man's Terrell Suggs if he works at it, but the rest of Cleveland's front seven is the weakest I've seen in the NFL this year. They just don't hold ground, slip blocks or stay on their feet. It makes you appreciate how valuable a player like Cory Redding is, to be honest. Cleveland doesn't have anyone like him, a guy who will hold the edge, force plays back inside, and get almost no credit when someone else makes a tackle.
Runs that probably should have gone for 5 yards frequently went for 10 or more on Sunday because the Browns either didn't want to stand and fight, or they aren't coached well enough to know what to do. The Browns made a nice stop on the 4th-down run the Ravens attempted in the first half, but that was about it as far as defensive highlights go. When the Ravens ran misdirection pitch to the outside a few times, the Browns interior defense could barely be bothered to give chase.
None of what I just said should be viewed as a knock against the Ravens. Cam Cameron got a little too cute a couple of times when all he really needed to do was keep feeding the ball to Rice and Ricky Williams. And Baltimore probably should have put the game away a lot sooner. But the Ravens were wise to mix in some passes, just to stay sharp. In the NFL, a lot of the time, you win ugly and move on. This isn't the BCS, where style points matter. It's been kind of a frustrating season for Rice, so every Ravens fan had to enjoy watching him rack up a career high of 204 rushing yards. But I don't think this means the Ravens are going to be a dominant running team going forward. They still need balance against a good defense. They still need to figure out a better plan of attack for the red zone.