1. Say what you will about John Harbaugh -- and this week, plenty of Ravens fans had negative things to say -- but he has three undeniable strengths as a head coach. He gets his players to buy into the larger concept of TEAM. He holds them together through turmoil. And he does a nice job of not losing sight of the big picture.
If you follow the Ravens closely, you probably noticed how tense things were following the loss to Seattle last week. Harbaugh was clearly frustrated with some of the media's questions early as we attempted to tie the Ravens three losses together as part of a larger theme, and a few times when he felt like he was being backed into a corner, he responded with snark and condescending answers.
I think it's fair to say that tactic didn't play particularly well with fans. Usually a head coach can give himself a little room to breathe by going after the media. Brian Billick, in fact, was the master of that tactic. But after the loss to Seattle, I'd say a majority of Ravens fans were so frustrated by the team's inconsistency, when Harbaugh started lecturing the media with phrases like "Anyone who understands football..." it felt more like he was lecturing Ravens fans instead of being accountable for the decisions of his coaching staff and his players' lack of focus.
But here is where I give Harbaugh a lot of credit, and why I think he's a very good coach. It was a bad loss to the Seahawks, and he knew it. He couldn't really spin it, and he didn't really know to explain it without potentially splintering his team. He didn't handle questions about it particularly well, and conceded as much later in the week, but he didn't throw any of his players or coaches on the bonfire. He didn't even sacrifice poor David Reed, who was honestly the biggest reason Baltimore lost. He didn't rip his quarterback for another week of inconsistent play. He didn't beat up his defense for failing in crucial moments. He didn't question his offensive coordinator (in public) for such a huge disparity between runs and passes.
He could have said any of those things, and they each would have been true. But would ripping someone, even himself, have ultimately done any good? Instead, he simply repeated, over and over, that it was frustrating to lose. But dwelling on it, questioning his coaching staff, and conceding the loss represented some larger truth about his team, wasn't going to happen. He had a game to prepare for.
I guarantee, in private, Harbaugh was pounding the drum of UNITY with maximum ferocity. I bet he felt like he had to. It's obvious there were tiny cracks forming in the Ravens united front. All you had to do was listen to Ray Rice and Joe Flacco talk last week. It's clear they both want the team to win, they just believe the Ravens should go about it different ways. And they both want to get paid at the end of the year.
The Ravens could have imploded this week. They could have started pointing fingers. They could have blamed Cam Cameron. The defense could have blamed the offense for wearing them out with so many wasted possessions. The offense could have blamed the defense for its inability to get off the field on 3rd down. Instead, they hung tough against a really good Bengals team, weathered the storm, and took care of business with a victory. It's hard to imagine the meltdown that might have occurred had the Ravens lost this game, but it would have been enormous. It might have fractured their season permanently. But now, not only did the Ravens hold on to win an important divisional game, they learned they can win an important divisional game without Ray Lewis in the lineup.
When the Ravens aren't playing well, Harbaugh is often the target of criticism from people who don't really understand exactly what it is he does. They take the fact that he was a special teams coordinator for so many years, and use it as a knock against him. I've always thought that line of thinking was a little foolish, because one of Harbaugh's greatest strengths is something I think he learned coaching special teams so many years. Special teams coaches constantly have to convince a group of fractured personnel to buy into a larger purpose, and talk them into working together even though there isn't a lot of individual glory in it. Most special teams players, they'd much rather be doing something else. But the units that are successful are the ones that are organized, the ones that can integrate young players into the mix and trust them immediately, and the ones that sacrifice for one another. When someone gets hurt -- and that happens a lot in the NFL -- a special teams coach often has to grab a player from offense or defense, quickly coach them up, and then plug him into the mix. The good ones don't panic. They fill the cracks with mortar.
Those concepts are why the Ravens have been successful under Harbaugh. True, his special teams haven't always been superb, but his TEAMS have typically embraced those principals. It's cliche, but it's true. There is a reason the Ravens are 15-4 under Harbaugh after a loss. There is a reason they've won 12 consecutive games after a loss, the longest streak in the NFL. You'll never get to see it, but he's very good behind the scenes at watching practice, watching film, and suggesting and making tweaks. There aren't many coaches in the league with a broader base of knowledge than Harbaugh. He may never have called plays in the NFL, but he's one of the few coaches who could watch a quarterback's mechanics and recognize exactly what's gone wrong, and then do the same thing after watching a free safety's drop. The Ravens may not always make perfect in-game adjustments, but under Harbaugh, few teams adjust better week-to-week.
He has his flaws. He's probably a little too emotional, both in victory and defeat. Criticism probably bugs him a little too much. And he's loyal as hell -- if you want to call that a flaw -- which is part of the reason he won't criticize any of Cameron's decisions in public. (In private is a different story.) But he's also held a few flawed teams together and weathered a number of storms.
When the Ravens stomped Pittsburgh in Week 1, I think it shifted the expectations for this year's team into hyper-drive. I don't think this group was ready for the pressure they were suddenly facing. We all knew the 2011 Ravens were going to experience growing pains when they decided to jettison a group of veterans once the lockout ended, when they decided to revamp their offensive line, fire their quarterbacks coach and promote a new defensive coordinator. But for the most part, we completely forgot about it after just one week. After one emotional win, expectations changed. It wasn't a mistake to cut those vets, everyone just needed to be realistic about what it meant: Higher highs, and lower lows.
Harbaugh has a phrase he likes to use that I love for its imagery: "In competition, we're refined by the fire, and purified by it." He used it to describe Torrey Smith earlier this season, when he dropped multiple balls, then came back and caught the winning touchdown against the Steelers. And in some ways, you might apply it to the entire team this season. They haven't been perfect, far from it, but the hope is they've been refined by the fire. And after 10 weeks, despite some stumbles, they're 7-3 and in first place in their division.
It's only the second time they've ever been 7-3 in team history. The other time was last season.
“I think you learn from everything," Harbaugh said. "It’s a situation where there’s always going to be trends. There’s always going to be challenges and obstacles that you have to overcome, and we understand that. It can be taken as criticisms, and that’s kind of what you look at. There’s always going to be something that’s an issue that you have to deal with, and you have to find a way to overcome it. Sometimes you can do that in one week. Sometimes it takes a few weeks, and it’s like ‘Why can’t we get past this thing?’ But, then you work to improve in that area, and something else pops up. You know, the other teams are getting better too, and they’re attacking you. That’s the beauty. It’s the ebb and flow of the National Football League. Really, in the end, you just have to find a way to win on Sunday. Most weeks we have, but some weeks we have not. Now, we have to go to the next one and try to figure out a way to win the next one. That’s really the best you can do."
2. Andy Dalton is one of the most fearless, confident rookie quarterbacks to come into the NFL in a number of years. He has the potential to be a nightmare to deal with for a long time.
Even thought the Ravens got the best of Dalton in the end, intercepting him three times and sacking him twice on the Bengals' final possession, he tormented them for most of the day. It's been a long time since I've seen a rookie throw the ball the way he did, with that much accuracy on short passes as well as deep balls. It wasn't like he was playing in a dink and dunk offense to hide his inexperience. The Ravens were throwing a lot of different looks at him, and he just kept making big throws. The throw near the end that he made to Jerome Simpson that put the Bengals in position to tie the game was incredible.
"He was great. Just great," Lardarius Webb said. "He was way better than we thought he was. He had great timing, he extended plays, he made plays when he needed to. He threw perfect balls. We're going to see him for awhile. We've got to be better prepared for him next time."
I thought Dalton made one truly bad throw all game, the ball that Jimmy Smith intercepted. You can make the argument that Smith's interception was the biggest play of the game, since it gave the Ravens momentum and points. Webb made an incredible athletic play on the next drive, intercepting Dalton again, and suddenly the Ravens led 31-14. I figured Dalton was going to curl up in a shell. So did Terrell Suggs.
"At 31-14, I thought [Dalton] was going to tuck it in and throw the ball everywhere, and we were going to get a few picks and a few sacks," Suggs said. "But he kept his composure. I tip my hat off to him."
Rookies are going to make those mistakes. It's how they respond that tells you a lot. Dalton responded to Webb's interception by burning Jimmy Smith for a 49-yard touchdown to Andre Caldwell the very next drive. It came against an all-out blitz, and Dalton made the perfect read and perfect throw. It looked like he led the Bengals to another score, a 9-yard touchdown to Jermaine Gresham, but got a tough break when the call was overturned.
Dalton still has plenty to learn, and I'm reluctant to praise him too much with such a small sample size. But he has very good posture, he sets up tall in the pocket, he appears to have a good feel for where blitzes are coming from. His release is both compact and lightening quick. Other than Cam Newton, I'd be really surprised if any of the quarterbacks drafted ahead of him -- Jake Locher, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder -- ended up having a better career.
"You got to like what you see," Ravens safety Ed Reed said of Dalton. "He showed a lot of poise."
3. Torrey Smith gives the Ravens offense a dynamic it hasn't had in a long time. Maybe ever.
There is no doubt that Smith is still very raw when it comes to playing wide receiver in the NFL. He may never have "great" hands, and his route running could still use plenty of polish. But mercy, is it exciting to see him accelerate, either before the catch or after. Speed -- especially when it's possessed by someone as big as Smith -- is breath-taking in its sheer beauty, isn't it?
I'm sure the play in the second quarter where Smith was dragged down by his dreadlocks will be featured in virtually every highlight package this week. That's what happens when something that's both rare and humorous occurs in the NFL. But more than the hair tackle, what I'll remember from that play is the acceleration Smith showed running through traffic after he made the catch. If Bengals corner Adam Jones hadn't snatched Smith's dreads and held on for dear life, I'm pretty sure Smith would have left a sea of orange and white jerseys in the dust.
I can't remember seeing that kind of explosive play from a Ravens wide receiver. It's one thing to get behind a defender with a double move, or a blown coverage. Even Derrick Mason did that occasionally. It's something entirely different to find a turbo boost in the middle of traffic and nearly score. That's video game speed.
Every week, Flacco seems more and more inclined to take some shots down the field with Smith, something he couldn't do his first three years in the NFL. The Ravens admitted he was pretty pumped up when Cameron called for a play-action fake, followed by a deep ball to Smith the first play after Webb's interception.
"We were talking about it on the sideline, if we had a chance, to call that play," Flacco said. "We had run a little to the left, and when we did, the safety came down. They overdid it a little bit and we were able to take advantage."
Flacco launched the ball, and for a second, it looked like it might be a dreaded overthrow. But the last few seconds, Smith looked like he was wearing a jet pack. And you could hear the crowd start to roar before the ball even nestled in his hands.
4. Brendon Ayanbadejo made the game's most underrated play, which is fitting since he's one of the Ravens most underrated players.
Jimmy Smith made a nice read on his third-quarter interception, but it almost instantly reminded you of one of Ed Reed's classic "Great play, suddenly undone" blunders. Simpson hustled after him, and because Smith was carrying the football like a relay baton, it was easily jarred loose. A wild scramble broke out, and somehow referee Ron Winter ended up looking like a tumbleweed in a buffalo stampede. Ayanbadejo wasn't the first man on the scene, but he somehow fought and clawed his way to the bottom of the pile, then back to the top with the ball.
"I knew he was going to fumble," Ayanbadejo joked. "I just ran behind him and waited. I did do a little bit of tussling in the pile. Somebody had the ball with one hand, but they didn't have it clean. I was scrapping and scrapping and working it, and once I had it with one hand, I had it with two hands, and I was able to get up out of the pile and run off with it."
No one is going to pretend the Ravens defense played particularly well on Sunday. To surrender nearly 500 yards at home, with or without Ray Lewis, isn't something you want on your resume. But the play by Smith, and the recovery by Ayanbadejo, was kind of a metaphor for what happened against the Bengals. The Ravens made some flashy plays, then some dumb plays, but ultimately did the dirty work to secure the victory.
"The interception was a huge play," Ayanbadejo said. "But he's a rookie running with the ball. We like to say 'You don't have a pass to tote that ball just yet.' He's a young guy and I knew that. So I just patiently waited behind him, hoping for the best but expecting the worst."
I really like the way the Ravens have been using Ayanbadejo more this year outside of special teams. I always felt like his role could have been a little bigger when he was healthy. He's a very solid tackler and he might be the best linebacker the Ravens have in pass coverage. All three linebackers -- Jameel McClain, Dannell Ellerbe and Ayanbadejo -- played well in Lewis' absence. The pass defense and pass rush had some problems, but against the run, the Ravens linebackers looked good all day.
5. Here is one more reason why the Ravens have to figure out ways to run the ball: Flacco can be deadly when you roll him out.
Everyone talked so much this past week about Cameron not running the ball enough, it feels there isn't a lot of new ground to cover on that topic anymore. It should be obvious by now that the Ravens can't survive on throwing the ball alone, even if Flacco feels most comfortable in the shotgun. I actually do think the Ravens had a decent point to make about the game against the Seahawks. Yes, Rice got only five carries, but at least the Ravens were moving the ball through the air. They missed on some plays, but they made some plays too. I don't agree with the imbalance, but I think what happened against Jacksonville was much more foolish than what happened against Seattle. In the game against the Jaguars, Cameron kept calling passes, and passes weren't working. So he called more passes. It was hard to explain.
But you could see on Sunday why Cameron simply has to keep feeding Rice, even if the offensive line isn't opening holes. If you don't run the ball, you can't run play-action fakes that anyone will take seriously. And when teams bite on play action, even just a little bit, Flacco can have time to roll out. And when you let him roll out and set his feet, he can rip up a defense.
His touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin was a perfect example. Flacco faked to Rice, then rolled to his right. Boldin, who lined up on the left side of the line and ran a drag across the middle, was wide open the entire play. I couldn't believe Flacco didn't get him the ball right away, and as defenders closed in, I was about to chalk it up as another bad read against the Bengals defense. That's when I realized Flacco was waiting for Boldin to work open again by running away from from the coverage. Flacco planted his feet, fired the ball across his body, and when Boldin spun around, there was no one between him and the end zone. Had Flacco hit Boldin right away, it would have been 10-yard gain. Because he was able to roll out and buy a little more time, it turned into a 38-yard touchdown.
It was a little funny to hear Flacco answer questions after the game. It obviously it bugs him a bit that so many Ravens fans want to focus on running the ball, but to be honest, I'm glad it bugs him. That's the way quarterbacks should be wired. I don't think he's ready to consistently carry the Ravens offense, but I do think he should continue to believe he can.
"I don't want to beat on everybody, but we moved the ball throwing the ball with big plays today," Flacco said. "I keep saying it, and people don't want to listen, but last week [against Seattle] the game had to be like that. I'm not saying we were definitely going to win the football game that way, but when you look at it, that's what was giving us the best shot at winning. And that's what we're going to do around here. We're going to do whatever it might be to win games. Obviously when you don't turn the ball over and you're able to run your game plan, things are going to be a little bit different than they were [against Seattle]."
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