1. Chuck Pagano's done such a nice job this year, it might be hard to keep him in Baltimore in 2012. But if the Ravens make a deep run in the playoffs, he's going to be a hot candidate for a number of head coaching positions. And he deserves to be.
Before we talk about Pagano, a quick word about Greg Mattison. I stuck up for Mattison more than most during his three years as the Ravens defensive coordinator. For a long time, I thought Ravens fans blamed him unfairly for a ton of personnel gaffes. It really wasn't his fault Fabian Washington couldn't cover, Domonique Foxworth couldn't stay healthy, or that Dawan Landry was extremely overrated. It was Frank Walker who was constantly committing holding penalties or getting beat, not Mattison. A lot of time, the Ravens defense coughed up fourth-quarter leads because the offense couldn't get a first down. By the end of games, they were exhausted. I still think it's obvious he's a better defensive mind that a lot of people gave him credit for. He turned a truly terrible defense at Michigan into a pretty good one in just one year, simply by teaching basic schemes and making his players focus on fundamentals.
But Mattison lost me for good on that infamous 3rd-and-16 against Pittsburgh in the AFC Divisional Playoffs when he called for a three-man rush and hung poor Lardarius Webb out to dry. That was classic Mattison, sitting back in coverage, hoping the other team will dump the ball underneath, and trusting your players to react to what the offense does.
That's not Chuck Pagano's style. I think that's obvious now. And in an NFL where the rules are constantly being tweaked to give the offense every advantage, you can't play read-and-react defense. You have to constantly be in attack mode, trying to force mistakes. You have to have a deep rotation, and you have to trust your young guys. Because if you don't, good teams will eat you alive. Pagano is a charismatic guy with an aggressive mentality, and he seems to understand that if the Ravens make a few mistakes here and there, that's OK. At least there won't be bullets left in their six shooter when it's over.
Sunday's 24-10 victory over the Colts didn't teach us anything we didn't already know about the Ravens. But it was the fourth straight game the Ravens played without Ray Lewis in the lineup, and to be honest, the defense looks like it's rounding into playoff form. It would have been fun to watch Pagano trade wits with Peyton Manning, but as it was, Dan Orlovsky stood no chance against him. At one point, before Baltimore inserted most of his backups, it looked like the Ravens might hold Indianapolis under 100 yards.
San Diego is going to be a tremendous test for Pagano, maybe the biggest test his secondary has faced this season. But he continues to show how creative he is by moving players around, blitzing with different players, going deep into his bench, and getting everyone to buy into the Ravens overall goals. It hasn't been perfect. Matt Hasselbeck showed that if you get the ball out quickly, you can neutralize the Ravens pass rush. But that seems like years ago now. Everyone assumed that the Ravens secondary was going to be the weak line this year, but Webb, Cary Williams and Bernard Pollard have all exceeded expectations. No one imagined the Ravens having to rely so much on linebackers like Dannell Ellerbe and Albert McClellan, but both have played well in Lewis' absence. And the pass rush is just better in every area. The Ravens now lead the NFL with 45 sacks this season after having only 27 a year ago.
You can tell how much the players like and respect Pagano, too. It's different than the way they felt about Mattison, who they were a little indifferent toward. Suggs, who can't resist playing the role of comedian, said something about Pagano after the game that only enforced those warm feelings.
"If anybody is trying to hire a head coach, if they ask, I’m going to say Pagano sucks," Suggs said. "He’s terrible. He’s a terrible coach. His players don’t love him, and he doesn’t know what he’s doing when he’s calling a game."
Suggs can say whatever he wants, but he won't be able to hide Pagano for long.
2. Apologies to Jarret Johnson, but Cory Redding has become the Ravens' most underrated defender.
It's hard to explain just how good Redding has become with the Ravens, in part because he doesn't post a lot of big numbers. He has 4.5 sacks this year, which doesn't seem like much, even though it's already the second highest total of his career. (He had 8.0 sacks in 2006 with the Lions.) But if you understand what's required of a defensive end in the Ravens' 3-4 defense, you'll begin see how important he's been.
Redding's initial read is almost never up the field, which is one reason why it's so hard to run against Baltimore. He doesn't take himself out of plays by design. He holds his ground, then tries to collapse the pocket with a combination of size and strength. Back when he played for Detroit, he had a lot more freedom to come off the edge and simply chase the quarterback, but with the Ravens, he's done a lot of dirty work, embraced his new role, and become a crucial part of a defense that's probably the best in the NFL. It's almost hard to believe Redding had never been the playoffs in his career before last season.
“We’re just getting better, man," Redding said. "We’re just getting better at the right time, and we’re making a real strong push for this playoff position. And we’re just getting in the mix and fight for this trophy. We all know what we’re playing for, and we have something special here, so it’s all about getting better each week.”
3. It's hard to believe that the Ravens' wins over the Browns and the Colts marked the first time Ray Rice has rushed for 100 yards (or more) in consecutive games in his entire NFL career.
Of all that stats I heard on Sunday, this one jumped out at me the most. Even John Harbaugh seemed skeptical when a reporter mentioned it to him in his post-game news conference. Rice's 204 yards against the Browns and 104 yards against the Colts earned him that ultimately meaningless, but still interesting honor.
"I didn't realize that," Harbaugh said.
But if you look over the game logs, it's true. He's come close a few times, and easily could have done it if the Ravens wanted to do it. But officially, he hasn't done it prior to now. I would have bet a week's salary that it had happened in 2009, when he was basically the Ravens' entire offense, racking up more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage. But the closest he's ever come was when he ran for 87 yards in an easy win over the Bears, just a week after going for 166 yards against the Detroit Lions.
Willis McGahee's presence certainly played a role. But another reason it's played out this way is because Rice has been so good at catching the ball out of the backfield, Cam Cameron sometimes tries to get the ball to him on screens that are essentially handoffs. And while we've debated to death whether Cameron gets him the ball enough, it's probably saved Rice from a little wear and tear on his body. He rarely takes a clean shot when he catches the ball out of the backfield.
But what's obvious this year is how the Ravens focus on just handing him the ball him a lot more lately. In the past four games, Rice has carried the ball 96 times, the highest four-game total of his career. (He's also caught 11 passes during that span.) One thing Cameron did that I loved was give Rice the ball on a play where he lined up at wide receiver and came in motion. I still think the Ravens would have more success in the red zone if they ran the ball from spread formations like that than they would in jumbo packages. But either way, it seems safe to say that Rice won't see a game the rest of the year where he only has five carries.
"It’s really important," Harbaugh said of the running game. "That’s what this time of year is going to have to be about. You’re going to have to be able to do that. There are going to be games when you’re not going to be able to run the ball, and we’ll have to lean on the passing game. But, if you can run the ball, and you can stop the run, you should always have a chance this time of year.”
It will be interesting if the Ravens stick to that philosophy come playoff time. Rice has played in four playoff games where he was essentially the Ravens' primary ball carrier. In those four games, he's averaged only 16 carries.
“I guess I have to say I’m pretty fresh right now considering the amount of work load I had in the first half of the season," Rice said. "I’m not saying I saved my best for the end of the season, but I’m doing a great job of keeping myself fresh. I get a great relief when Ricky Williams is in there. I am just looking forward to being consistent.”
4. The Colts should be more than a little embarrassed with the way they've quit on this season.
I've seen a few people claim in recent weeks that, if they had a vote in the NFL MVP balloting this season, they'd vote for Peyton Manning, ahead of Aaron Rodgers. All you have to do, they reason, is look at how bad the Colts have been without him. That proves he should be the MVP every season.
I'm sorry, but to heck with that line of thinking. What's happening in Denver with Tim Tebow should embarrass the Colts. The Broncos had every reason to quit playing hard after five games. In fact, I think it's obvious John Elway figured that playing Tebow might actually help him get rid of the guy. The Broncos clearly thought they'd throw their fans a bone by throwing Tebow out there, show them he couldn't play, and at the same time put themselves in a position to draft Andrew Luck or Matt Barkley. It totally backfired. They're probably going to win that division.
But you know why it backfired? Not because Tebow is an amazing quarterback. He's fascinating to watch, and I'm loving every minute of this, but he's not the sole reason Denver is winning. They're winning because the entire team rallied around him. The defense is playing superb football, Willis McGahee is running hard, the kicking game has been superb, and the coaches have played to Tebow's strengths. Tebow gets a lot of the credit, and he deserves a lot for the way he's been able to finish close games, but it's still a total team effort. They're proof adversity is sometimes an opportunity.
What has Indianapolis done? The exact opposite. They undermined Curtis Painter's confidence by bringing in Kerry Collins at the start of the year, then eventually quit on Painter (even though they have nothing to play for) and signed Dan Orlovsky, who has never won an NFL game. A few players on defense are still playing hard -- Dwight Freeney for one -- but some of the skill position players on offense checked out weeks ago. I'm not saying the Colts should be in contention for the playoffs, but the fact that they couldn't muster three or four wins this year is absurd. On Ray Rice's 6-yard touchdown, Jacob Lacey gave one of the most pathetic efforts I've seen all season when Ed Dickson came out to block him. He didn't even try to shed the block. He just let Dickson walk him backward into the end zone.
The Colts seem more determined to finish the season 0-16 than they were determined to finish 16-0 a few years ago. Before their final drive, they had 91 yards of total offense. It's ridiculous. If there's any justice, Andrew Luck will stun the world by deciding he wants to be a fifth-year senior at Stanford, making the Colts look even more foolish for throwing in the white towel so quickly.
5. Joe Flacco did his best Ben Roethlisberger impression on that touchdown pass to Dennis Pitta.
One of the reasons the Steelers have had success against the Ravens in recent years is because Roethlisberger -- regardless of what you think of him as a person -- is remarkable at making plays in the red zone when he gets outside the pocket. He'll scramble and scramble and buy time, and just when you think he's about to go down, he'll zip the ball across his body to a wide-open defender. He's tormented Ravens fans with plays like that for years.
Flacco managed to pull off one of those types of throws for the first time in a long time against the Colts, hitting Pitta on 3rd-and-goal from the 7-yard line near the end of the third quarter. It was an extremely dangerous throw, but a great play by Flacco to buy enough time for Pitta to get open. That's the kind of athletic play Flacco needs to make occasionally just to keep defenses honest.
"[Pitta] was actually my main read on that, and they did a good job of covering him up," Flacco said. "I kind of felt like the pocket was closing down on me a little bit, so I kind of took my eyes off down field for a little bit and found a little crease to step up in and thought I might be able to run for it. But when I kind of got out of there, I kind of got a feeling that I might not be able to, so I dragged the play on and just make it a little bit of a longer play, and I happened to peek back and see Dennis with his arms up in the end zone.”
Overall, I thought Flacco played a very good game. He was as accurate on intermediate routes as he's been all season, and the post he threw to Boldin -- which Boldin snared with his fingertips -- was a thing of beauty.
As much as the Ravens have been talking about running the ball late in the season, I still believe how far Baltimore goes in the playoffs will eventually fall on Flacco's shoulders. He won't have to carry the team, but he will need to make more plays in the red zone. That will be the difference between beating Pittsburgh or New England and losing to them. If the Ravens are forced to kick field goals, they're going to get beat. But if Flacco can move around outside the pocket, understand where the pressure is coming from, and make a few throws that lead to touchdowns, then this Ravens team can get to the Super Bowl in Indianapolis. Flacco doesn't have to be perfect, or elite, or whatever label you want him to wear. He just has to play efficiently and convert red zone chances.
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