Ray Lewis

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.

2010 NFL Season: John Clayton’s Quest for Integrity

ESPN reporter John Clayton is routinely lambasted on his “blog” for ESPN.com because he makes outlandish and often ridiculous statements.  Perhaps no single statement has garnered as much ridicule as his singular proclamation that Baltimore Ravens starter Joe Flacco is “an elite quarterback.”

Clayton has been stuck on stupid for some time now.  He affirmed Flacco’s future greatness years ago.  He was sure the evidence would come.  Clayton even went so far as to suggest that we were seeing was merely a mirage.  Flacco’s 4-10, 34 yards, 1 INT nightmare vs. the New England Patriots was not really a disaster!  It was a sign of greatness because he was a young QB winning playoff games on the road.  Clayton’s statements read as if Ray Lewis and Ray Rice had suddenly changed uniforms; as if Flacco’s 4 measly completions actually impressed someone in Foxboro other than his own mother and John Clayton.

Clayton, a former beat writer for the Pittsburgh Steelers, even went so far as to ignore the pitiable performance Flacco offered up in the 2008 AFC Championship game.  He served up another fitful apologia after the Colts put Joe to bed without any dinner in 2009.  In 2010, it’s been CRICKETS. (more…)

2009 NFL Season: Week 4 – What to Watch For

Five things on my radar this week:

1.  Packers at Vikings. Revenge is a dish best served old.  I have this feeling that the Vikings may not be served by the spectacular success of last week’s win vs. the San Francisco 49ers.  The Niners are a team that lacks the offensive punch and balance of the Packers.  The Niners lost Frank Gore early in the game and were unable to run out the clock with less than 2 minutes remaining.

I am wondering if newly-minted OLB Aaron Kampman is comfortable enough in his new position to bring the pain from the edge.  He was the best DE you’d never heard of for the past three seasons.  He notched 37 sacks playing in a 4-3 scheme.  He’s been moved and has only registered one sack through 3 games.  Does he break out in Minnesota?  I’m sure he’ll want to show former fellow-Hawkeye and current Viking LB  Chad Greenway a few tricks.

I think Al Harris and Charles Woodson are really going to be up for this game.  I think Brett Favre will be so charged up that he will have to work hard to resist his urges to embarrass the Packers.  The men he is most angry with will not be covering Bernard Berrian and Percy Harvin.  If Favre loses focus, Harris and Woodson could take him to the wood shed.

(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…)

Thoughts on 2009 NFL Free Agency

Some teams have better luck than others when it comes to figuring out how best to mix players from other temas with their own.  It’s not as simple as looking at a player on tape or assessing how well he plays against your squad.  There is much more to it.  Signing free agents is more art than science.  Here are some of my thoughts on the canvas of options facing teams across the league.

  • Starting at the top, the Redksins announced the signing of former Tennessee Titan defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth.  Haynesworth was the most prized signee of the off-season.  Most folks that I’ve heard and read like the signing by Washington.  Some are concerned about whether Albert will eat his way out of the elite.  I like the move by Washington because it strengthens a unit that was already very good.  The Redskins only surrendered more than 24 points one time last season.  Haynesworth figures to increase their sack and INT totals.  If he is paired with Cornelius Griffin and Jason Taylor returns to his natural position, the Redskins should impose their will defensively.
  • (more…)

NFL Coaches and Players Discuss the Inauguration of Barack Obama

Opening Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln …

AP – President-elect Barack Obama speaks during 'We Are One: Opening Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln …

Check out the video:

http://www.nfl.com/videos?videoId=09000d5d80e3bfa1

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.

jarret-ben-bart

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.

NFL: 1 Team, 1 Game – Life or Death

If you could pick a team of NFL players to play one game for all of your marbles, who would you pick? If you could run one offense which one would you pick and who would coach? What about for defense? I suppose this is merely a variation on the question of “Who’s Number 1?” In this variation of the question, I’m not talking about who had the best career or who has the best stats or even the player whose star shone brightest. I’m talking about just one game – just 60 minutes.

A bit more context first…I will assume that every player will be in their prime and performing at their optimal level. So, for one game, imagine everyone at their absolute best. I imagine this game will be played in typical fall weather – 50 to 60 degrees, moderate wind, no rain. (A nasty December game might change a few things for me – and for you.) All right, that’s it. Here’s my squad:

QB: Peyton Manning

RB (2): Earl Campbell and Marcus Allen

H-Back: Todd Christensen

WR 1: Jerry Rice

WR 2: Randy Moss

WR 3: Steve Smith

TE: Shannon Sharpe

TE 2: Kellen Winslow (the Original)

LT: Orlando Pace

LG: Alan Faneca

C: Dermontti Dawson

RG: Bruce Matthews

RT: Anthony Munoz

K: Adam Vinatieri

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Offense – Joe Gibbs’ Motion, Multiple TE Offense (Pre-Al Saunders). I prefer this offense because it allows for an attacking passing game – and a power running game. Gibbs often featured three wide receiver sets and three tight end sets in the same game. It’s not easy to get the personnel to run this well, but when you have them, the results can’t be beat. Even though the “West Coast offense” is most frequently associated with the San Francisco 49ers and Bill Walsh, the roots are deeper and organically connected to Joe Gibbs.

Gibb’s offense emphasized the ability to attack deep, run with power and utilize motion to keep defenses off balance. With respect to “style of play,” I’ve always preferred teams who could throw deep and run with power. Speed kills – that’s always there…unless the weather is bad and the defense decides to sit back in coverage. Teams that run with power don’t care what the weather is – and they dictate terms to defenses, usually. I’d like my chances with this team – against most defenses, except the one I’d line up against them.

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DE – Reggie White

DE – Charles Haley

DT – Vince Wilfork

RLB – Lawrence Taylor

ILB1 – Levon Kirkland

ILB2 – Ray Lewis

LLB – Derrick Brooks

RCB – Deion Sanders

LCB – Rod Woodson

Nickel – Darrell Green

FS – Troy Polamalu

SS – Ronnie Lott

P – Ray Guy

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Well, that’s the defense. There are some serious legends of the game here. I believe in stuffing the run and making teams one dimensional. I also believe that if there is such a thing as a shut down corner, I’d like to have one – if not two. Perhaps as important as stopping the run with your front 7 is the ability to get pressure without blitzing. This team could get pressure against most teams without blitzing – and if they did, look out! Champ Bailey probably would have made this team if Ben Watson hadn’t tracked him down in the playoffs a few years back. Darrell Green and Woodson would have been waiting for Watson in the end zone with buttered popcorn and a frosty beverage.

In looking over this roster, I can’t imagine the defensive huddles. I can imagine the sheer terror this group would inspire. I decided to go with the 3-4 because so many of my favorite players have excelled in this particular formation. This team also has more than its fair share of nastiness. A friend calls it, “Grrrrh!!” From Lewis to Lloyd to Haley this team has it. It also has a nice balance of players with sterling on/off field reputations – White, Lott, Woodson, Polamalu, Green and Derrick Brooks. That’s enough character to save a city, if not a nation. If has resilience and fortitude. Look no further than Vince Wilfork. And, it has the best punter to ever lace up a pair of cleats.

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I’d like the defensive coach to be Belichick – just because he came up with (to the best of my knowledge) that funky 1-5-5 defense. The Super Bowl rings are nice – but he clearly knows something most other folks don’t know. Since I don’t know what he knows that other folks don’t know, I’ll go with him. My next option would be Dick LeBeau – defensive coordinator Pittsburgh Steelers or Bud Carson, creator of the Zone Blitz.

That’s the squad.