Ed Reed

Tom Brady, Haloti Ngata, Dawan Landry

2011 NFL Season: Championship Week

And then there were four:

Baltimore Ravens (13-4) vs. New England Patriots (14-3). 3:00 pm ET. Foxboro, Massachusetts.

Give me the Ravens over the Patriots (-7.5). How much of the betting line is driven by the Patriots impressive win over the one-dimensional Denver Broncos? How much is driven by another underwhelming performance by Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco? The Patriots are at home and have the better quarterback. They also have a defense that just might be coming together at the right time. The return of Patrick Chung (#25) to the lineup has inspired some confidence in New England that the back end just might hold up under duress. Who knows! The Patriots haven’t faced a team with a decent passing game since Week 12 (Philadelphia), and in that game, they surrendered 393 yards to Vince Young.

Conventional wisdom says the Ravens have to run the ball to win this game; that Ray Rice is their most reliable, consistent, and dynamic offensive player. The “smart money” says that Baltimore’s defense is beginning to show signs of age and strain; and, that they will be hard-pressed to defend the new tactical weapons in Brady’s arsenal (tight ends Gronkowski and Hernandez). Perhaps, this game will be decided by the battle between Patriots safeties Patrick Chung (and whomever else Belichick puts back there) and Joe Flacco. The Patriots tight ends have been tremendous all season long, but the Ravens tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta are very talented and capable of exploiting mismatches all over the field.

The production of Gronkowski (90, 1327, 17) and Hernandez (79, 910, 7) during the 2011 season has been historic. Still, the more conventional and conservative Ravens had a productive duo. Hickson and Pitta combined for 94 catches, 1033 yards, and 12 touchdowns.  Gronkowski and New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham were the only single players to eclipse those numbers. So, the Ravens also bring a viable tight end duo to this contest.

Perhaps the single greatest advantage in this game goes to Tom Brady. However, in recent years, Brady has proven susceptible to pressure up the middle combined with press coverage on his slot receivers. This approach compels him to hold the ball longer, while in a collapsing pocket. He must wait for his excellent (but slower) tight ends to uncover against man or zone coverage, or he must buy time with his feet. The Ravens have a solid rotation of defensive tackles, including Haloti Ngata, who are capable of man-handling the Patriots interior lineman, pressuring Brady, deflecting passes, and defending the run. I believe the game will turn on the ability of these players to pressure Brady and slow down the Patriots offense.

The 2011 Ravens defense, in my estimation, is not as powerful as the 2008 version. Still, the Ravens have some options. I believe that Lardarius Webb (#21) may wind up facing Wes Welker in the slot. The Patriots have the option of featuring Welker or either of their tight ends. I’m not sure that Deion Branch or any of the other wide receivers are still capable of having a big game against the Ravens (#Ocho!!). Ed Reed is going to spend a major portion of the day dealing with Gronkowski and/or Hernandez. This will place a premium on Bernard Pollard’s ability to cover, make tackles, and deliver big hits.

The Patriots did not win any games this season against teams that finished the season with winning records. I’m not sure what difference that makes. The Patriots beat teams that had Super Bowl aspirations all season long: San Diego, the Jets, Philadelphia. Still, they have managed to lose to teams that used physicality to dominate the line of scrimmage: the Giants and Steelers, in particular.

I like the Ravens physicality in the trenches on both sides of the ball. Baltimore 31, New England 21.

Stats of interest:

Tom Brady’s 300-yard passing games vs. Baltimore: 0

Brady’s 3 touchdown games vs. Baltimore: 0

Games completing under 60% of passes: 3

New York Giants (11-7) vs. San Francisco 49ers  (14-3). 6:30 pm ET. San Francisco, California.

It’s pouring down rain in San Francisco. I like the Giants as much as any team in the league in bad weather. The last time these teams met, Frank Gore played a half, and Ahmad Bradshaw missed the entire contest. Bradshaw’s return to the lineup means a great deal for him and Eli Manning, but it also makes Brandon Jacobs more dangerous…and in bad weather, with a wet track, Jacobs’ change of pace may be just what it takes to finally power through that impenetrable San Francisco defense.

The Giants have more versatility on offense. The 49ers have more depth on defense. But if the rain is going to affect the Giants pass rush, it’s also going to affect 263 pound Aldon Smith. I like Cruz, and Nicks, and Manningham more than I like Michael Crabtree and whomever else the 49ers have found to play opposite him. Vernon Davis is a phenomenal talent, but he is not a wholly unique talent. I like the Giants to live with his production and force someone else to beat them.

New York 27, San Francisco 17.

Matt Cassel Under Seige

2010 NFL Season: Wildcard Weekend Preview

First things first:  What happened in the AFC West?  The San Diego (not so Super) Chargers finished the 2010 season with a 9-7 record.  The Chargers led the entire NFL in offense and defense, but missed the playoffs.  San Diego finished 2nd in the division to the Kansas City Chiefs.  If that wasn’t strange enough, the Oakland Raiders beat every team in the AFC West twice this season, but finished in third place with an 8-8 record.  Today, they wrapped up Week 17 with a resounding road win at the new Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.  The Raiders won 31-10 and completed their sweep of the playoff bound Chiefs.

Matt Cassel Under Seige

Oakland Trounces Playoff Bound Kansas City, 31-10

The Raiders were the ONLY team in the NFL to sweep all division games this season.  Oakland became the first team since the merger to sweep a division and miss the post-season.  The Chargers could not have been better statistically on either side of the ball.  Oakland and San Diego will have a lot to think about in the off-season.  The Raiders’ focus, according to reports, is replacing Coach Tom Cable and establishing consistency at the quarterback position:

Perhaps part of the problem has been Cable’s wavering on the Raiders’ starting quarterback. After starting the season with Jason Campbell at the helm, Cable switched to Bruce Gradkowski when Campbell struggled. After Gradkowski separated his shoulder, Cable turned back to Campbell but insisted Gradkowski was still the starter. While Campbell was under center during the Raiders’ three-game midseason win streak, Cable fluctuated between both quarterbacks throughout the second half of the year until Gradkowski reinjured his shoulder and was placed on injured reserve.

Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is rumored to be taking the same job down in Gainesville at the University of Florida.  What does this for next week’s contest vs. the Baltimore Ravens?  (more…)

Super Bowl XLIV: Keys to Victory – Indianapolis Colts

We’ve already looked at what the Saints need to do.  Now, lets look at the favored Indianapolis Colts.

Tom Moore and Peyton Manning

The Colts greatest strength is that they possess most stable offense in the NFL.  Offensive coordinator Tom Moore (a former wide receivers coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers) has been in Indianapolis for more than a decade.  When you look around the league, most offensive coordinators have been hired within the last year or two.  A handful have been around since 2006.  Aside from the Colts, only the Bengals have kept their coordinator around for  more than a “New York minute.”  It is precisely this aspect of stability and familiarity that allow the Colts to consistently make great in-game and in-drive adjustments to defenses.

The success of this team is predicated, largely (though not entirely), on the capacity of the offense to simply take what is given and squeeze more out of those concessions than most defenses ever think possible.  The definitive expression of that tool this season was the Week 2 win at Miami.  The Dolphins power run game cranked out over 200 yards and Miami dominated the clock.  The Colts had the ball for little more than a quarter, but managed to put together quick scoring drives that produced touchdowns and a victory.  Contrast that win with the AFC Championship Game victory over the top-ranked defense of the Jets.  The Colts overcame a 17-6 deficit, out rushed the Jets, and still threw for well over 300 yards.  The Colts make defenses give ’til it hurts.

The Keys:

1) Remember! The Colts played in this game in 2006.  They used an unconventional approach to win that game.  They used the surprising and powerful tandem of Dominic Rhodes (113 yards) and Joseph Addai (77 yards and 10 catches) to defeat the Chicago Bears.  Peyton Manning was not the star of that game.  The Colts were also the beneficiaries of five turnovers and many other errors committed by a quarterback clearly overwhelmed by the moment.  That game is not likely to be repeated by a player like Drew Brees.  The last MVP to get outfoxed in a Super Bowl was going up against the coach who wrote his playbook.  The Colts have to be ready for THIS game — but remember all the little non-football things that worked so well in 2006.

Kelvin Hayden Closes Out the Bears

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Mr. Reed, I Presume.

Ed Reed set the tone for yesterday’s Week 8 win over the Denver Broncos with this crunching blow on rookie running back, Knowshon Moreno.  The Ravens were waiting on Denver’s screen game all day long.  This play resulted in the game’s first turnover.  The Ravens went on to win 30-7.

THE ANATOMY OF A FUMBLE.

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Loose Ball -- Inside the Blue Circle

Here it comes.  The breeze before the boom!!

BREEZE — The read by Reed.  “Screen, screen, screen!”

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Here Comes Mr. Reed

2009 NFL Season – Week 4 Picks

We’re heading to the Quarter Post.  Week 4 is here and games are on tap for 28 teams in the league (Arizona, Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia are off.).  The first three weeks have shown that some patterns are continuing:

AFC+NFC+Hall+of+Fame+Game+ENz2Ne-O4lJl

Zorn: In search of Directions OFF the Beltway

(more…)

2009 NFL Season: Week 3 – What to Watch For

Each week, the NFL schedule provides intriguing story lines.  This week is no different.  Here are a five things I’ll be watching this week.

1.  Pick me! No, pick me! Interception prone Jake Delhomme faces off against interception happy Tony Romo in INT Bowl 2009.  Defenders on both teams have to be salivating.  There is no telling if Delhomme will show up as the guy who throws for 270+ yards every time he plays the Atlanta Falcons (308 last week) or the guy enamored with the men in other uniforms.  Dallas’ Tony Romo needs to bounce back from his undressing at the hands of the depleted New York Giants.  Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall are going to sleep like babies this week.

It’s not like they’ll be up worried about Patrick Crayton and Miles Austin.

(more…)

2009 NFL Season: Week 3. On the Verge of Getting Exposed

As the 2009 season begins to take shape, there are a few trends that may be emerging.  I believe there are a few players who are on the verge of being exposed.  In some instances, these players “are who we thought they were.”  We didn’t really think they were great.  However, they may have been kept afloat by winning teams.  They might be “good old boys” with a strong fan base and an entourage of media lackeys (image — Ed Werder and Tony Romo; Chris Berman and Brett Favre).

I’m not going after Favre and Romo in this edition.  After all, that’s too easy.  “Back Foot Tony” has never won a playoff game and his idol “Back Foot Brett” hasn’t won more than one playoff game in a season since 1998.

I’d rather start with a guy who was on top of the world in 2008, and appears to be doing just fine right now. (more…)

2008 AFC Championship Game Preview: Ravens vs. Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers are poised to host the Baltimore Ravens this Sunday for the 2008 AFC Championship Game.  The winner goes to the Super Bowl to face the winner of the NFC Championship Game featuring the Philadelphia Eagles at the Arizona Cardinals.  In this, the Year of the Risen Bird, the Steelers must feel like uninvited guests to a party of winged wildcards.  Only Pittsburgh managed to earn a bye week.  Only the Steelers survived the aerial assault (mostly on defense) by the Ravens, Cardinals and Eagles.  Aggressive snatch and grab techniques pushed these upstarts past favored teams like Tennessee, Carolina and the defending-Super Bowl champion New York Giants.09000d5d80b3e4a2_gallery_6001

The Steelers and Ravens will square off for the third time this season.  The Steelers won at home 23-20 in overtime earlier this season.  They survived a controversial finish in Baltimore and escaped with a 13-9 victory in December.  Historically, the Steelers are 16-11 vs. the Ravens.  These two teams have played some of the most physical and brutal games in the history of the league.

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Back in September, Pittsburgh’s first-round draft pick Rashard Mendenhall was separated from his shoulder and the rest of the season by Ravens all-world linebacker Ray Lewis.  Ravens defenders like Ed Reed and Jarret Johnson have been rocked to their core by Steeler wide receiver Hines Ward.  Ward has been so effective that Terrell Suggs has seen fit to place a redemption bounty on Ward.

Beyond the fabled defenses which feature the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year (Steeler OLB James Harrison – 101 tkls., 16.5 sacks, 7 FF), safeties Ed Reed (only unanimous All-Pro selection) and Troy Polamalu, and the aforementioned Ray Lewis stand two quarterbacks poised to do battle once more.

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For the Ravens, the man in the eye of the storm is “rookie” quarterback Joe Flacco.  The new kid from Delaware appears to be a star in the making.  He is the big-armed quarterback the Ravens looked for in Kyle Boller.  Flacco, though, appears to have the composure the Ravens sought in discarding Boller and drafting Ohio State legend (video link) Troy Smith.  An injury to Smith afforded Flacco his chance.  He hasn’t disappointed.  While his numbers have not been stellar, he has done two things: maintained ball security and made the occasional deep throw to loosen up defenses.  In the December rematch, Joe Flacco played his worst game of the season.  He was 11-28, 115 yards and 2 interceptions.  He didn’t enjoy his second look at the Steelers.  Odds are that his third look will be somewhat better than his dismal showing four weeks ago.

The Ravens feature the 4th-ranked run game in the entire league.  It is anchored by a large, bruising offensive line and an equally punishing LeRon McClain.  The nifty fullback-turned lead back led the Ravens in carries and yards in that December matchup vs. the Steelers.  He racked up 87 yards on the ground and alleviated some of the pressure faced by Flacco.  The Ravens also feature two excellent route running receivers (Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton) and versatile tight end Todd Heap.

The Steelers feature one of only three quarterbacks* to amass five wins versus the vaunted Ravens defense since 2000.  Ben Roethlisberger is 5-2 as a starter vs. the Ravens, with both losses coming during his Season of Riding Dangerously (2006).   In 5 career wins vs. the Ravens, Roethlisberger is 81-129 (62.7%) for 1044 yards, 11 touchdowns and 4 interceptions with a rating of 103.2.

The Steelers also feature Willie Parker.  Parker was the league’s leading rusher in 2007 through 16 weeks, but he broke his leg in a game at St. Louis.  His recovery was to be aided by the insertion of Rashard Mendenhall into the lineup.  The Ravens scrapped that plan for the Steelers and forced an adjustment which was not completed until Week 17.  The Steelers dipped from 9th in scoring a year ago to 20th this season.  The rushing attack fell from 3rd in the league to 23rd.  For the first time in a long time, Willie Parker looks healthy.  He ran for 146 yards vs. the San Diego Chargers in the Division Round of the playoffs last week.

The Steelers may not be well-suited to run well against the Ravens.  Historically, even though the Steelers have had big lineman, they’ve used counters, traps and other types of pulling plays with very little success vs. Baltimore.  Reports out of Pittsburgh were that Willie Parker convinced Bruce Arians to go to a Zone Blocking scheme vs. the Chargers.  The zone blocking scheme allowed Parker to hit holes quicker and make decisive runs.  The line supported him by getting effective double-teams on Charger NT Jamal Williams.  The huge difference between the Ravens and Chargers is that SD does not have two run stuffing linebackers like Ray Lewis and Bart Scott.

*Note – The last player to rush for 100 yards vs. the Ravens was Larry Johnson (KC Chiefs) back in Week 14 of 2006.

Larry Johnson vs. Chiefs

Since 2006, most teams that have had success on the ground vs. Baltimore (100+ yards) have featured multiple backs with contrasting styles  (Chris Johnson and LenDale White, Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor, LaDainian Tomlinson and Michael Turner, Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw, Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes, Sean Alexander and Maurice Morris) or a zone blocking scheme (Tatum Bell in Denver; Vick and Dunn in Atlanta; Addai and Rhodes in Indy; Travis Henry and Vince Young in Tennessee.   The Steelers may not trust Gary Russell to provide that change of pace attack, and so will rely on zone blocking schemes and seek to approximate the success of others.  The problem?  Neither Parker nor Mewelde Moore are “pile movers” and tend to play with a higher pad level that allows them to be tackled more easily when running in traffic.  (Both, of course, are magnificently elusive in “space” … the very thing the Ravens don’t give you.)

The Steelers know the Ravens are not the Chargers.   There are no secrets between these teams.  There is no love lost and the winner will be determined between the trenches and between the ears.  Turnovers may not be a factor in this game.  The teams have played even in head-to-head contests this season.  The game may well be decided through the air, where contrary to popular opinion, the Ravens have been decidedly weak against certain players.

Since 2004, the Baltimore Raven defense has been ranked sixth, fifth, first, sixth and second in overall defense.   (Only the Steelers have been better: first, fourth, ninth, first, first.)  The legacy of that defense goees all the way back to the Super Bowl team in 2000.  However, for all of their success since 2000, Baltimore has had some very surprising regular season failings against 3 QBs: Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer.

These three QBs have a combined regular season record of 15-8 vs. the Ravens.  In the post-season, only Manning has faced the Ravens.  He won a 15-6 slugfest en route to the Super Bowl (and did not perform well at all).

In the five wins vs. the Ravens, Roethlisberger has a 62.7 completion percentage and 11 touchdown passes.  He’s thrown 4 interceptions.  His rating is 103.2.

Manning and Palmer have been even better.   Manning has a 66.8 completion percentage (103-154), 1307 passing yards, 11 touchdowns and only 1 interception.  That interception was thrown in 2002.  In his last two games vs. Baltimore, Manning has thrown 7 touchdowns and no interceptions.  He has a rating of 114.3 in his 5 wins.

peytonvsravens Carson Palmer has been unbelievable.  In his 5 wins vs. the Ravens, he has completed 71.5% of his passes for 1,397 yards and 10 touchdowns with 2 picks.  His rating is 114.6.  Palmer has been injured more frequently since his run-in with Kimo Von Oelhoffen in the 2005 Wildcard game, and has had some terrible games vs. the Ravens as well.  The 2008 season opener was one such game (9-24, 94 yards, 1 pick).  Nonetheless, Palmer has been more successful than not vs. the Ravens.  That is a claim that very few players can make.

ochocincovsravens Perhaps what is most striking about these numbers is that Roethlisberger, Manning and Palmer have significantly outperformed their career averages in wins vs. Baltimore.  Their concentration, attention to detail and execution has been razor sharp in those 15 wins.  They’ve produced amazing results.  That level of production over a full season is simply not possible – and its no guarantee of success on Sunday.  Can you imagine?

Roethlisberger:

259-413, 3341 yards, 35 touchdowns, 13 interceptions.  Rating 103.2.

Manning:

330 – 493, 4182 yards, 35 touchdowns, 3 interceptions. Rating 114.3

Palmer:

362 – 506, 4470 yards, 32 touchdowns, 6 interceptions. Rating 114.6

Caveat:  If the Ravens had the benefit of a balanced offense in these games, these numbers would probably look very different.  Big-armed QBs who do not turn the ball over have had success against this intimidating and formidable collection of players.

Prediction:

Ben Roethlisberger has two career losses to the Baltimore Ravens.  Both losses occurred during his worst season as a professional.  They occurred during a season in which he and Bill Cowher were the only two people in America who thought he should not have been benched.  Prior to his motorcycle accident, and since the beginning of the 2007 season, Roethlisberger is undefeated as a starter vs. the Baltimore Ravens.

His numbers vs. the Ravens in those wins suggest he is capable of having a productive game.  While quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer play alongside elite wide receivers like Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison, and Chad Johnson, the Steelers have had consistent production from only Hines Ward.

For the Ravens to win this game, they will need to SCORE on defense and/or getting touchdowns from their passing game.  It would be wholly uncharacteristic of the Steelers for that to happen at this time.  For the Steelers to win, Willie Parker will need at least 20 carries.  I believe if he can average as little as 3 yards per carry, that will be sufficient to carry the day.  I expect Roethlisberger to have a solid game and make a few deep throws throughout the game.

I believe the Steelers to be the more rested team.  The Ravens bye week was moved to Week 2 this season due to weather in Texas.  The team hasn’t had a week off since September.  The Steelers defense was run down after several tough games and it showed as they yielded 100+ yards on the ground to New England, Baltimore, Tennessee and Cleveland to close out the season.  Only Dallas (95), with backup Tashard Choice,  failed to eclipse the 100 yard mark.   The Steelers rebounded from this slide to hold the San Diego Chargers to a mere 15 yards on the ground.  In Baltimore’s last five games, teams have rushed for 91 (Pittsburgh), 92 (Dallas), 118 (Jacksonville), 52 (Miami) and 116 (Tennessee).  Ed Reed’s after the whistle effort to crack the back of Chris Johnson was successful in getting the speedy back out of the game.  Only the Dolphins, led by a weak-armed QB incapable of keeping the Ravens defense honest was unable to have success on the ground.  The trend is clear.  The Ravens are a fatigued team that may be just a step slow on Sunday.

(It is worth noting that the Ravens are ranked 11th in scoring.  The defense scored 6 touchdowns and created short fields for many more.  Were it not for the prowess of the defense, the Ravens would probably rank around 22nd in the league in total scoring.  The offense was ranked 18th in yards.  Perhaps the Ravens should take a page out of the Chargers book and go deep early.  The plan needs to be different than the first two games.)

Question:  Name the last team to beat another team three times in the same season?

steelers_full_width 2002 Pittsburgh Steelers.  3 wins, by 3 points each game over the Cleveland Browns.

Score: Pittsburgh 33, Baltimore 13.

(Note: Last week, I predicted Pittsburgh 42, San Diego 17.  Actual score: Pitt 35, San Diego 24.)

Ray-Ray and Warren talk Defense…at NFL.com

NFL Preview Video at NFL.com

Addendum:  The Ravens finished the season with 5 blow out wins over Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Washington, Dallas and Jacksonville.  Baltimore blew out Miami in its first playof game for the second time this season.  Only the Steelers and Titans played Baltimore closely.

Chicago Bears Mike Brown Faces the Future

Len Pasquarelli of ESPN reports, “The loss of Brown is particularly devastating since this will mark the fourth year in a row in which the star-crossed defensive back will miss significant playing time, and the third time in four seasons that his campaign ended prematurely with him on the injured reserve list. It will increase to 43 the number of games that Brown has missed in the past four years.”

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Brown, formerly of the University of Nebraska, was one of the best defensive players in the NFL. He began his career as a strong safety and moved over to free safety this season with the arrival of Adam Archuleta. Archuleta is the hard hitting safety (often struggling in pass coverage) that played for Bears coach Lovie Smith in St. Louis. Brown began his career as an explosive player against the pass and the run. His high-energy style of play, jarring tackles and blazing speed have since been replicated in whole or in part by in Baltimore (Ed Reed), Pittsburgh (Troy Polamalu) and Indianapolis (Bob Sanders). He could rush the passer, force fumbles and make dazzling interceptions. He was also a former running back and had some of the more spectacular returns of picks this decade. Mike Brown was the true anchor of the Bears defense. He keyed the run defense and the pass defense with his tremendous awareness, range and tenacity.

Mike Brown at locker on YouTube:

Brown was a tremendous player and the Bears are diminished somewhat today, on the field and off. Mr. Brown is a young man of only 29 years old. He has a bright future ahead of him when he is ready to move on from this game. Mike was an academic All-American as a senior in Lincoln. Sometimes our personal loss can lead to flowering in ways unexpected. If there were space in Canton reserved for elite players with abbreviated careers, Brown might have an entire wall dedicated to his short stint with the Bears.