Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ravens Roll Over Browns with Second Half Surge

The more things change, the more they stay the same for the Baltimore Ravens.

With a new coach and a new quarterback, the Ravens (2-0) continue to win with a frightening defense and a dominant running game after a 28-10 victory over the division-rival Cleveland Browns (0-3) on Sunday.

The Ravens trailed 10-7 at the half but turned two Derrick Anderson interceptions into 14 points in less than a minute to claim a commanding 21-10 lead early in the third quarter.

The offense used a bruising running game to dominate a tired Cleveland defense to close out the victory.

Here’s a final look at the Ravens’ convincing win as they assume first place in the AFC North.

The Good

Ball Control

Much as they did against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 1, the offense dominated the time of possession by a margin of over 15 minutes. The Ravens controlled the ball an astounding 13:18 to the Browns’ 1:42 in the fourth quarter. This is a formula for overwhelming success in the NFL. It will keep a dominant, but veteran-heavy, defense fresh as the season progresses.

Running Backs

Running backs Willis McGahee, Le’Ron McClain, and Ray Rice wore down the Cleveland defense in the second half. The trio combined for 157 yards on 37 carries.

McGahee looked impressive in his first live-game action of the year. Coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordination Cam Cameron hinted that McGahee would see limited action, but he carried 15 times and was a focal point of the offensive game plan.

McClain continues to be the bruising back that wears down the opposing defense. He has deceptive speed and runs with a downhill style that opposing defenders hate to challenge. McClain’s second touchdown of the third quarter slammed the door on Cleveland’s hope for a comeback. Cameron’s decision to use McClain is much like a manager using the closer in baseball, finishing off the opposition and sealing the victory.

Rice carried only five times but was a good complement to the more bruising styles of McGahee and McClain.

Veteran fullback Lorenzo Neal continued to make the tough blocks and has been a welcome addition to the Ravens’ physical style of play on offense. When lined up in the same backfield, the combination of Neal and McClain is a frightening tandem to face.

Offensive Line

The offensive line that struggled heavily during training camp and the preseason schedule has morphed into a strength in the first two games of the season.

Four of the five starters are new or playing a different position from last season. Offensive lines historically need time to gel as a collective unit, and this line appears to be moving in that direction.

The interior line of Ben Grubbs, Jason Brown, and Marshal Yanda was projected to play well, but the dominating play of tackles Jared Gaither and Adam Terry has been surprising.

Cameron even used veteran Willie Anderson as an extra tackle in some offensive sets. This sends a strong message to opposing teams that the Ravens are going to run and are daring the other team to stop them.

The group controlled the line of scrimmage throughout the game and allowed only one sack of quarterback Joe Flacco. Standout defensive tackle Shaun Rogers made four insignificant tackles for the Cleveland defense and caused little disruption.

The offensive line figures only to improve as Anderson continues to work his way into the rotation more frequently.

Ed Reed

Despite the pain of a nerve impingement in his shoulder and neck, Ed Reed provided the big play as he has so many times throughout his career. Reed read a Derek Anderson pass perfectly to intercept a pass and return it the other way for a 32-yard touchdown, giving the Ravens a 21-10 lead in the third quarter.

Reed appeared to know what was coming, as he broke on the route before Anderson even released the pass intended for Steve Heiden.

Jim Leonhard

Filling in to return punts and kicks for the injured Yamon Figurs, Leonhard performed admirably; averaging 26.0 yards per return on three kick returns and returning a punt for 21 yards.

What Leonhard did not expect was having to replace the injured Dawan Landry at safety late in the first half. Leonhard sacked Anderson and played well in pass coverage.

The signing of Leonhard was considered an afterthought when the organization drafted safeties Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura, but Leonhard has emerged as a strong complementary player in the Ravens’ pass defense.

Leonhard may lack the physical presence of Landry or the playmaking ability of Reed, but he fits the profile of a strong blue-collar role player for the Baltimore defense. He won’t astonish you, but he’ll help you win some football games.

Terrell Suggs

Suggs sacked Anderson twice on his way to a big day. He gave tackle Joe Thomas trouble throughout the day, providing consistent pressure on Anderson.

Suggs has definitely benefited from the return of Trevor Pryce, as opposing offenses cannot devote double-teams to Suggs as often.

Special Teams

In addition to Leonhard’s returns, the special teams came up big throughout the game. The directional kicking of Matt Stover and punter Sam Koch limited the dangerous returner Josh Cribbs to only 76 yards on three kick returns and two punt returns. Cribs destroyed the Ravens’ special teams in two games last season.

John Harbaugh

Harbaugh continued to impress the home crowd with his fearless decision-making. The offense converted two fourth downs, including a 4th and 2 from the Cleveland 49 in the first quarter. Harbaugh also won his first challenge of the season, overturning a Rice fumble in the fourth quarter.

Harbaugh makes observers forget he’s a rookie coach with his confident decision-making and attention to detail. The players appear to be buying into his program, given the early success.

The Bad

Frank Walker

After a rough preseason, Walker continued to draw the disdain of the Baltimore crowd for his personal foul in the third quarter.

Walker appeared to be talking trash to the Cleveland offense, but he really should focus on improving his play in the secondary.

To his credit, Walker is a strong special teams player.

Joe Flacco

While Flacco moved the offense effectively for much of the game, he threw two interceptions and had another negated by a defensive holding penalty.

Flacco’s first interception came in the first quarter when he failed to see linebacker D’Qwell Jackson dropping into coverage, a mistake every rookie quarterback has made at some point. The key will be whether Flacco learns from the mistake and does not repeat it.

His second interception came in the second quarter on a long pass intended for Derrick Mason. The gadget play was too slow developing, and Flacco should have thrown the ball away instead of throwing into heavy coverage. Neither interception resulted in Cleveland points.

While the Ravens are currently relying heavily on the running game, Flacco will eventually need to make more plays with his arm. He was unable to throw to a wide-open Todd Heap on one play, but he did not have many opportunities to throw in the second half, as the Ravens controlled the game on the ground.

Despite the interceptions, Flacco continued to show confidence and an ability to operate Cameron’s offensive system. Considering he was a rookie making his second career start, his performance was not as bad as it looked statistically.

The Ugly

Dawan Landry’s Injury

The only real damper on an otherwise thrilling game was the neck injury to Landry in the closing moments of the first half. After his helmet made contact with Cleveland running back Jamal Lewis’ knee, Landry was motionless on the ground for several minutes as a silent crowd at M&T Bank Stadium looked on.

The scene was quite scary as several Ravens and Browns knelt in prayer as medical personnel tended to Landry.

Luckily, Landry only sustained a spinal concussion and had movement in all extremities after the game. He is expected to return this season, according to Harbaugh. Though Leonhard filled in nicely in the second half, the defense will miss Landry’s physical presence in the secondary.

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