Wednesday, December 2, 2009


The Ravens are better since the signing of kicker Billy Cundiff. The move has had a disproportionate effect, even a galvanizing effect. They've improved more than simply upgrading at kicker should have done for them. That's because the change has extra, symbolic significance.

The improvement I see has been obscured a little by the Ravens somewhat unimpressive results in the last 2 games: losing to Indy while failing to score a TD, and barely beating in overtime a Pittsburgh team that was missing Big Ben, Polamalu, OG Chris Kemoeatu, and a starting DE. Yet I think this improvement is real. Maybe a little subtle: but real. And much of it goes to Harbaugh's relationship with the team.

The Ravens made a lot of moves and tweaks this season.

• When Rex Ryan left, they filled the position by promoting a longtime college guy who has a relationship with Harbaugh's dad, rather than a longtime pro coach who may have deserved a shot but didn't have the relationship. The Ravens had a few candidates in-house who met that latter description: former defensive "consultant" / now LB coach Vic Fangio, DL coach Clarence Brooks, and secondary coach Chuck Pagano.

Fangio in particular seems a no-brainer to be DC, since he has coordinated for 11 seasons in the NFL: Dom Capers' Panthers & Texans teams, and Jim Mora's Indianapolis teams. Fangio was the LB coach for the New Orleans "Dome Patrol" of Rickey Jackson, Pat Swilling, Sam Mills & Vaughan Johnson. He had three All-Pro LBs when he was DC with Carolina. He was a real obvious DC candidate. (I suspect Brian Billick stashed Fangio on the staff to hedge against losing Ryan. It's the kind of move Billick has made before.) Harbaugh didn't go that route. Nor did he promote CB, who has a 5-yr relationship with the Baltimore front 7 and probably deserves a shot at a coordinator role. He hired Mattison. In the press conference they underlined that the Ravens would not change their style of defense.

• The Ravens ponied up to remake their secondary with a bunch of small fast guys. They signed Domonique Foxworth to big bux, brought in Chris Carr to be the nickel back & punt returner, and put them out there with Fabien Washington.

• The Ravens moved away from their power running game featuring LeRon McClain and Willis McGahee, and became a pass-first team with Ray Rice catching passes out of the backfield.

• However, they didn't bother to upgrade at WR to facilitate this strategic shift.

• And they let Matt Stover walk, replacing him with baby-faced kicker Steve Hauschka, who could very easily be played by Michael Cera if they ever make The Blind Side 2.

• Then in the preseason new DC Mattison started talking about "being sounder" and needing to "get pressure from the front 4."

The thing with all of these moves is, every single one of them is reasonable. You can proceed thru the bullet points. Mattison certainly knows defense. The secondary needed revamping, and having fast guys back there sure doesn't sound like a bad thing. The Ravens have needed to improve their passing game for a decade. It seemed to me that there was untapped talent in the Ravens receiving corps. Matt Stover is the same age as some of the Ravens coaches: obviously a transition was going to be made at some point. A "sound" defense seems like a fine idea, and it's great to get pressure from the front 4.

But like a lot of perfectly "reasonable" things, these moves did not all work.

On defense, the small fast guys could cover ok, but when they got there they couldn't necessarily keep the game's monster WRs from making the catch. And it turned out that "sound" and "get pressure from the front 4" are coachspeak for "don't blitz". A striking departure from Rex Ryan, one of the two or three most creative and aggressive blitzers in football. Watching games seemed like a real slap in the face against that promise not to change the defense.

The Ravens offense opened like gangbusters, but as the games got more competitive, they got more stereotyped and more easily stopped. The hypothetical "untapped talent" in the WR corps didn't materialize. Mark Clayton has been the same-old same-old: his 46 yards per game this season is right on par with his 43 ypg last season. Demetrious Williams has dried up and blown away: 1 catch for 17 yards on the season. My boy Marcus Smith shredded his knee on punt coverage in the 2nd preseason game, and was lost for the season.
(I was at the game. He made a great play. He was the gunner on the right side, fought all the way down & across the field to make the tackle against the left sideline for no gain, didn't get back up.)

The Ravens scored 38, 31, and 34 points in their first three games. They scored 7, 16, and 15 in the last three before the Pittsburgh game. More disturbing than the totals has been the way the offense seemed stale and predictable. Line up in the shotgun and either hand off to Rice, or drop back and look for Mason before checking down to Rice. Play after play after play. Despite the greater number of pass attempts, the offense was actually more boring and predictable than last year's. Last year on offense the Ravens would use unbalanced lines or bring in an extra tackle, they'd split out Flacco, they'd rotate different backs in and blast the big fullback up the middle, they'd pull and sweep and counter and run screens. It was a safe offense and a run-first offense. But it was powerful and diverse and interesting. It challenged defenses and made them adapt. And it was pretty effective, good for 11th in the league in scoring. This year's new, wide-open offense is actually scoring a smidge less than last year's did.

So you can see how there would be a sense of disappointment. When you look at the cumulative effect of these changes, even though individually each is defensible, collectively they've had the effect of making the team less physical, less tough, less intimidating, without really bringing any compensation in the form of more explosiveness on offense.

And in the midst of all this, Harbaugh's pet kicker, for whom he jettisoned one of the most respected players on the team, has been missing key FGs. He went wide left on a FG to win the game at Minnesota as time expired, and two weeks later he hooked another left in the 4th quarter, that would have brought the Ravens within a TD, as they were trying to mount a comeback at Cincinnati. He missed another one at Cleveland a week later, that fortunately did not have any effect on the outcome.

So I have exaggerated a little bit for effect. It has not, of course, been all bad for the Ravens. They are still over .500, in a league where winning is extraordinarily difficult. None of their losses have been "bad" losses: they've lost to undefeated Indy (by 2), to the 10-1 Vikings (by 2, at Minnesota), to the 7-4 Patriots (by 6, at Foxboro), and twice to the 8-3 Bengals. DVOA likes them. They have a few quality wins (Chargers, Broncos, Steelers) , with the chance to get a couple more. They are tied for the last wildcard spot, and I think Jacksonville is likely to fold (Jax has some tough games left on their schedule).
(I also think Denver has high fold potential, with 2 eminently losable games on its schedule to go with three division games.)

On offense, Ray Rice is 2nd in the league in yards from scrimmage (he was #1 until Chris Johnson went ape the last couple weeks), and in the top 10 in yards-per-carry. Kelley Washington is a football player. Flacco is among the league's top 10 in completed passes, pass attempts, yards, and completion pctg.

So: not all bad. But there was a very strong sense of things not quite coming together for this team. It didn't quite click. And maybe a whiff of the coach being a little arrogant, making decisions that were "not the way we do things around here." And the season was about to slip away.

Then Harbaugh cut Hauschka, and brought in a professional in Billy Cundiff. Cundiff makes his first 4 FGs in the game against Indy, pushes a 30-yarder wide right in the 3rd Q but then makes his next one in the 4th Q to give the Ravens the lead. Where Hauschka was seen as talented but not quite mentally ready for the job, Cundiff seems like a pro. He probably doesn't have quite the leg, but he he will make the kicks he should make.

(Even his miss against the Steelers as time ran out in regulation reinforces Cundiff's professionalism. He had said prior to the game that his range to that end of the stadium was 53 yards. They gave him an attempt from 56 yards out, and he hustled out on the field with no timeouts as the last seconds ticked off and gave them a kick right down the center of the pipes, a perfect kick, that fell just a yard or two short. His range was exactly what he said. It made it seem like he knows what he can do, and he is reliable. Kinda like Stover.)

The move is symbolic. Hauschka was Harbaugh's project, a guy who has all the tools, whom the former spec teams coordinator felt he could mold into a good kicker. It wasn't working. Harbaugh abandoned his project for the good of the team. He signed a pro who may not have as much talent but who makes the plays he can make. I think this move sends ripples thru the locker room, about arrogance and willingness to put ego aside for the good of the team, etc.

There were other small tactical shifts that coincided with the change at kicker. Rookie CB Lardarius Webb got extensive playing time in place of the injured Fabien Washington. Webb has looked terrific. Terrell Suggs was out against Indy, with a knee: LB Jameel McClain got extensive time in his place. McClain had made the team as an undrafted free agent last year, and looked awesome at times, almost like a young James Harrison. He notched two safeties on the season, one on a sack and one on a blocked punt. This year the Ravens new defensive gurus decided in their wisdom to move him to the inside. He's been invisible all year. He moved back to the outside against Indy, in place of Suggs, and looked solid. So this is another example of an experiment by this year's coaching stuff, that has been undone for now.

Perhaps most important, the Ravens D played an excellent game against Indy. Indy's 17 pts represents their 2nd-lowest scoring output of the season. Baltimore mixed coverages and rushed well and covered well: they played a fine game. It was in some ways a return to Ravens teams of old; right down to the lack of TDs on offense. The Ravens offense took a lot of criticism in the week after the Indy game, for being stale and predictable, over-relying on Mason and Rice.

The small tactical shifts continued into the Pittsburgh game. Last year's starter at RG, Marshall Yanda, replaced Chris Chester after the Ravens interior line underperformed 2 weeks in a row. That's another old-school example of rewarding performance. If it's not getting done, things have to change. The first two Ravens pass completions of the game were to – Kelley Washington and Mark Clayton! Clayton finished with 129 yards receiving. Who says these coaches don't listen to outside criticism? LeRon McClain got carries in important situations, and produced 7 yards-per-attempt. He probably would have carried more, but had to leave the game with an abdominal strain. It was a return to the 3-headed monster from last year. Willis McGahee got carries and scored a TD. The Ravens used several unbalanced-line looks. They brought in Chris Chester as an extra lineman in several of these packages. Giving the D more things to prepare for, in terms of different personnel packages, was an important part of the Ravens offense last year. It seemed to go missing for much of this season.

The overall offensive success was spotty, against one of the league's best Ds. But on two drives the Ravens tore thru them like they weren't there. There were lots of small signs of improvement.

On defense, it looked like a continuation of a return to what we think of as "Ravens football". They used more deceptive blitzes than we'd seen earlier in the season. They made a nice coaching adjustment to go to more zone coverage, when it became apparent that Dixon didn't read the zone very well. Lardarius Webb was great. Punt returner Chris Carr had his best game of the season – by far his best game, he was spectacular. Normally a fair catch machine, he busted several big runs. Three of his best returns were called back by penalties; without those penalties, this game isn't nearly as close, the Ravens get a couple more scores in regulation. Rookie 2nd-rd pick Paul Kruger played in important situations, and he made the game-changing INT in overtime. The Steelers still made more plays than I'm comfortable with. But they are the defending champs, and a tough out.

And did you see how the Ravens mobbed Cundiff when he kicked the game-winner in OT?

Two+ weeks ago there was a strong sense of things not clicking for this Ravens team. Now, I think there is a subtle but real sense of small things starting to come together for them. Individually these things aren't that big. But there are several of them:

• Cundiff over Hauschka, professionalism over project, coach setting aside ego for the team.
• A return to Ravens-style aggressiveness, with some deceptive blitzing. More setting aside ego.
• Lardarius Webb stepping in for the injured Fabien Washingon, and playing extremely well.
• Chris Carr breaking off big returns.
• Jameel McClain and Paul Kruger contributing.
• Terrell Suggs likely to come back soon.
• Marshall Yanda over Chris Chester.
• More three-headed running back. LeRon McClain getting carries.
• The return of the unbalanced line and extra O-linemen. Power football!
• K Washington and Clayton in the passing attack; Clayton over a hundred yards.

I also got a sense of unity off the TV screen, from the end of the Pittsburgh game. Part of it was from the kick squad hugging Cundiff after he won the game; and part of it was Ray Lewis gushing over Ray Rice in front of Andrea Kramer post-game.

It's been an odd, disjointed, up-and-down season for the Ravens so far. But the playoffs are still right there in front of them. Don't be shocked if they close out the regular season 5-1 (or better!) and enter the postseason looking like they're ready to make some noise.


  1. How is Tavares Gooden playing?

  2. He has not been able to separate himself from the crowd trying to replace Bart Scott, which includes UFA Daniel Ellerbe and Jameel McClain. He's fast, but sometimes early this season when he came up in run support, he wasn't strong enough to make the play. He was replaced on passing downs by Brendan Ayenbadejo, before BA got injured.

    Gooden starts, but I'm not sure he plays the majority of snaps at the position.

  3. Very good post and I agree with almost all of it, but not sure why Stover's not being re-signed (he was a FA) is on Harbaugh and not Ozzie?


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