By Jeff Zrebiec
5:21 AM PST, December 12, 2012
By now, I’m not sure what’s left to say about the Ravens’ decision to fire offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and replace him with quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell. Cameron had seemingly been on the hot seat for a couple of years, so it’s not surprising at all that he’s no longer the offensive coordinator. However, the timing is what caught people off guard. The Ravens’ offense made some mistakes in the 31-28 overtime loss to the Washington Redskins but it also did plenty of good things and was not the reason the team lost the game. Harbaugh also insisted that the game had no bearing on Cameron being let go, denying reports, including one by Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Preston, that the two got into a heated exchange on the sideline and it continued into the locker room. Harbaugh did say that he made the decision following the game, so you have little choice but to conclude that something happened during the loss that finally led to the breaking point with Cameron. The CBS cameras clearly caught the two engaging in some sort of disagreement just before the first half. I guess it’s really a moot point because one disagreement or argument didn’t cost Cameron his job. A lack of significant progress by Joe Flacco, a seeming reluctance to get Ray Rice the ball in certain games and an overall inconsistency and malaise by the offense did.
Not to pile on Cameron, or Harbaugh for that matter, but that sequence late in the second quarter that apparently led to the "heated exchange" was just head-scratching. To review, the Ravens got the ball back at their own 13 with 44 seconds to play before half and they had two timeouts and a 21-14 lead. The Redskins had no timeouts left. You either try to make a play down-the-field or take a knee, right? Well, the Ravens handed the ball off to Rice for no gain on the first play and quickly took a timeout. On second down, Flacco hit tight end Dennis Pitta in the flat for a 9-yard gain on second down, bringing the Ravens to their 22 with about 30 seconds left. On the next play, Flacco ran a quarterback sneak that resulted in a 5-yard gain and the Ravens’ final timeout with 16 seconds to play. So in 28 seconds, the Ravens ran three plays for a total of 14 yards and burned two timeouts, and they were still were about 45 yards away from Justin Tucker’s field-goal range. Still, on the half’s final play, Flacco dropped back and dumped a pass off to Rice for a 4-yard gain and the clock expired. Nothing about the sequence made sense.
The Ravens’ decision at the end of the second half, however, I agreed with despite the criticism it has gotten. After the Redskins tied the game, the Ravens got the ball back at their 20 with 29 seconds to play and one timeout and they took a knee. I’ve heard plenty of people opine that they should have tried to move the ball and set up a game-winning field goal attempt. I see that logic but Flacco was getting harassed for most of the second half and he didn’t seem to have a good feel about when and from where the Redskins’ rush was coming from. I wouldn’t have taken a chance that he’d get strip-sacked or throw an interception either.
A popular question this week, especially from the national media, has been “What’s wrong with the Ravens?” A rare two-game losing streak will prompt such questions but the reality is the there is nothing wrong with the Ravens that hadn’t also been wrong Weeks 1 through 11. The same mistakes and flaws – communication breakdowns in the secondary, lack of consistent pass rush, poor tackling, uneven offensive line and quarterback play – have been evident all season. The only difference has been that the Ravens made a couple of plays down the stretch -- or the opposition was its own worst enemy -- to overcome those things in tight wins against the Dallas Cowboys, Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs, among others, earlier this season. The past two weeks, it’s been the opposition that has made the plays down the stretch. It’s easy to forget and nobody wants to hear it, but had it not been for the miracle Rice dump-off in San Diego and that third-quarter goal-line stand in Pittsburgh, this Ravens team would be in a whole lot more trouble than they’re in now.
Here are a few stats that you’ll probably be hearing a lot this week with Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos coming to town: Manning has beaten the Ravens in eight consecutive matchups, albeit as the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts. The Ravens haven’t defeated a Peyton Manning-quarterbacked team since Dec. 2, 2001 when they beat the Colts, 39-27, behind quarterback Elvis Grbac. In eight career regular-season matchups against the Ravens, Manning is 6-2 and he’s completed 65.1 percent of his passes, thrown for 2,273 yards (average of 284.1 per game), 17 touchdowns and just five interceptions. In two career playoff contests versus Baltimore, Manning is 2-0 and he’s thrown for two touchdowns and three interceptions. The Ravens haven’t faced Manning since the 2009 divisional playoffs – a 20-3 Colts win – and he’s obviously a different quarterback than he was then. Still, those numbers don’t exactly inspire a whole lot of confidence.
While emerging as the Ravens’ most consistent pass-rushing threat this season, fourth-year outside linebacker Paul Kruger may also be pricing himself out of a return to Baltimore. Kruger, whose rookie contract expires after the year, has 6 1/2 sacks in his past five games and sacks in five straight games, tying Adalius Thomas’ team record. He now has a team-leading eight sacks in 12 games this season, which is impressive considering Kruger had only 6 1/2 sacks in his first three seasons with the Ravens. Kruger, a second-round pick in 2009, has said that he wants to return to the Ravens. However, pass-rushers are always in huge demand on the free agent market and if he keeps this up, Kruger will have plenty of teams willing to present him with a rather large contract.
The 'Will Ray Lewis play Sunday?' narrative has sort of gotten pushed to the background since the firing of Cameron, but that should change as the week goes on. While Lewis is eligible to return from injured reserve and play Sunday after missing the past seven games with a torn right triceps, it’s certainly no sure thing. Knowing how competitive he is, how much he wants to play against the best and how beaten up the Ravens’ defense is, it’s almost treated like a formality that Lewis will be in action Sunday. However, that shouldn’t be the case. He needs to put himself through a couple of physical practices and he’s going to have to prove that he’s strong enough to not only defend himself, but to make plays. I’d be surprised if his status isn’t decided right up until kickoff.
Not to discount Lewis’ potential return or fellow linebacker Terrell Suggs’ status, but another guy that the Ravens’ defense really needs back is Dannell Ellerbe. The inside linebacker has missed the past two games with foot and ankle injuries and his absence has been glaring. Ellerbe is the Ravens’ quickest linebacker and with him on the sideline over the past two weeks, there has seemingly been a lot more space in the middle of the field and far too many missed tackles. Brendon Ayanbadejo, Josh Bynes and Albert McClellan have played well at times in his place, but none of them have the ability that Ellerbe does.
Speaking of the middle of the field, my colleague, Aaron Wilson, has pointed this out on a couple of occasions but it’s worth mentioning again. It’s amazing how comfortable opposing receivers have gotten recently making plays down the middle of the field against the Ravens and not paying the price for it. Safety Bernard Pollard has made a couple of hits but more often than that, receivers are finding space and not getting much resistance. That’s uncharacteristic of a Ravens defense, but it has been the reality more often than not this season.
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