Thanksgiving is upon us, and the Baltimore Ravens are looking to get back to .500 against their rival Pittsburgh Steelers tomorrow night. The Ravens writers here at Baltimore Sports and Life, have gathered their thoughts on a number of subjects.
(You can discuss this Q&A on the BSL Board here.)
1. Lardarius Webb has shown signs of his old self of late. Do you think he will be able to keep up that level of play and get back to shutdown form?
Mike Randall- Well, he broke out against A.J. Green. There aren’t many harder tests in the league than that. Very encouraging. He performed well against another star in Brandon Marshall, but was beat by Martellus Bennett for the 43 yard gain the set the Bears up for the winning score. He’s coming back into form though, I think he’ll be ok. Shutting down Antonio Brown, who leads the NFL in receptions with 80, would be a key to victory Thursday.
Matt Jergensen- Possibly. It’s amazing to me how quickly players can return to active participation after an ACL injury. Webb has experienced two of these in three seasons so the fact that he was playing at all was encouraging. We’ve discussed how he’s had to play off his man much more since his return but I think as he becomes more comfortable he may be able to return to a more pressing physical style that made him a rising defensive player in the league. Another positive is his ability to blitz and play the run. He shown more of a willingness to step up and stick runners into the backfield.
Chris Worthington- I mean, I do think Webb is 100% healthy at this point. He’s struggled more than I expected at times this year, but was dominant against Cincinnati and really sold against New York, so he’s showing flashes of the player we all know he can be. I also think that the difference in our coverage schemes from this year to last year has had as much of an impact on Webb’s production as anything else. The secondary with Elam and Ihedigbo is vastly different from the secondary with Reed and Pollard (and Cary Williams). Before getting hurt last year, Webb played ⅔ of his snaps in the slot. This year, he’s played less than ⅕ of his snaps against the slot receiver. So it’s not exactly comparing apples to apples at that point.
Dan Bryden- Webb’s best play has never really been similar to Revis or Sherman (i.e. man-to-man island). Webb’s impact is farther reaching within the defensive scheme. Webb’s role has -and will continue to- change(d). His man coverage ability has suffered with his knee injury, few can argue that. But his use as a “force” defender against the run, a blitzer in pressure packages, and underneath slot and zone defender appear to have reemerged. Shutdown? This will likely not be his game. But a smart player and well-rounded defensive back? Absolutely.
2. Does the whole Fullback situation here bother you?
MR- Yes it bothers me. They mishandled Leach in the offseason with the timing of his release. He didn’t need to be resigned with tight cap space, and now that they brought him back, he’s not being used. His release this year is imminent, since he’s due $1.75M in base salary next year. He will cost $580K in dead money. The Ravens could have had an extra $1.47M to, if anything, rollover into next years cap space by not re-signing him. I’m fine with drafting Juszczyk. Seems like a solid special teamer with some upside for next year. I could see short yardage back in his future after he knocked a guy out cold like a wrecking ball on that short kick return in Chicago. Looked like Mike Alstott the way he clocked him.
MJ- Absolutely. It makes me wonder at times if the front office and the coaching staff are on the same page. Most assumed that Leach would be gone due to a high contract and the fact that OC Jim Caldwell preferred three-wide sets. Leach was a luxury that the Ravens didn’t need and really couldn’t afford. Now you have two Fullbacks on the active roster that don’t really contribute to the game plan aside from the obligatory swing pass or on Special Teams.
CW- I didn’t mind resigning Leach. I just think the team isn’t using him to his fullest potential. The zone scheme has had so much trouble with backside pursuit. Why not run a heavier set with Leach in there and seal off the backside defenders? In the power scheme, the offense has struggled with both Osemele and Shipley pulling poorly. Why not run some Iso Lead with Leach leading the way instead? The only frustrating thing is spending a bunch of money on a player who we didn’t plan to use prominently in our offense.
DB- Many saw the Leach resigning as a low-cost way to reduce the beating that both Rice and Pierce would take. Unfortunately, Leach hasn’t played particularly well when he’s played. And aside from that, he doesn’t have a defined role in the Ravens preferred 3WR/Shotgun-based offense. Drafting Juszczyk was a head-scratcher at the time although he has played well on Special Teams. Juszczyk presumably isn’t the tight-end option that some were hoping for since Clark and Dickson are still failing snap after snap.
3. Let’s get to know the writers a little better. Are you a fan of being at the game, immersed in the experience, or are you a sit-in-front-of-the-TV kind of guy?
MR- If money was no issue, I’d probably get season tickets. So I’m a sit at home kind of guy by default, which I’m fine with. I make it to usually one home game and one road game each year. The road trips are a blast, going to a new city and all that touristy stuff. Especially if they are known for being a great food town, or have some breweries in the area. So if I could go to the home games for the tailgating and in-crowd experience, then host parties at home for the away games with the big screen and RedZone, friends, cheaper beer, etc…, that would be perfect.
MJ- These days I prefer sitting in front of the television, usually at home with family and friends. The HD experience is top notch and the food and drink is usually cheaper, plus no lines at the bathroom. However I grew up without a football team, the Colts left in 83′ when I was in sixth grade and pro football didn’t return until I left college. (The Stars/Stallions count…sort of) So I still love venturing out to one game a season with long time friends, tailgating and enjoying a full day of football. It’s exciting for me to see the city alive with activity on game day as I wade through a sea of purple. The sights and sounds are something you just can replicate sitting in front of a screen.
CW- I’m good for about one game a year. I love the tailgating environment – food on the grill, lots of beer for everyone, maybe some Fireball shots going around – and everyone is in a great mood. But most of the time, I’d rather be on my comfortable couch, drinking craft beer that I bought for a fraction of the stadium price, watching Redzone during commercials.
DB- I love being at the game. Money and work generally prohibit me from spending 3 hours at the stadium parenthesized by a couple extra commuting hours. But seeing the live play is fantastic because I can focus on the second and third levels of the defense that the TV-copy doesn’t seem to care about. All said, the invention of the Rewind button generally keeps me on my couch.
4. What’s on the menu for Thanksgiving feast?
MR- Having the traditional family dinner early on in the day. My contribution is making stuffing from scratch, and most looking forward to my late grandma’s Jello salad that we make each year in her honor. After the typical turkey day spread, it’s off to joining friends at the game, where I know there will be a cajun “heat and eat” turkey courtesy of Popeyes. Beer of course, and birthday cake. All I’m asking for this year is a Ravens win.
MJ- Traditional thanksgiving with Turkey and all the trimmings. I’ve hosted for the past few years so we’ve gotten it down pretty well. I must have Sausage from Ostrowski’s with sauerkraut on my table as well as Berger cookies. Of course football will be on early as my Calvert Hall Cards take on Loyola but I’ll be ready for my second Turkey sandwich by game time for the Ravens.
CW- It should be a pretty typical feast, I think. I’m going to spend the day with my girlfriend’s family, and I know that her dad smokes some turkey legs, so I’m looking forward to that. I’ve also got some green beans with bacon and onions that I’m putting together. They’re always a hit.
DB- I’m a man who prefers to not mess with tradition. Bird, mashed potatoes, cranberries, pumpkin pie, etc. Couple the meal with some cold ones and it generally turns into a competition of who can fall asleep first after the meal.
5. Which Steelers player do you dislike most?
MR- Troy Polomalu. One word. Overrated. Dude can’t cover a receiver to save his life. If it wasn’t for some drops by the receivers, the Packers would have won that Super Bowl over them by about 30. He was exposed that day. Spends too much time trying to be a DE and makes one noteworthy play a year, maybe, in doing so. Otherwise he looks like an idiot when he flies offside trying to jump the line. If he didn’t have the hair, he’d be an afterthought in this league. (I’m embellishing a little bit. But he can’t hold Ed Reed’s jock strap).
MJ- Hines Ward, though Joey Porter draws a close second. He always had that certain look on his face that needed to be wiped off. Jarret Johnson’s hit on Hiney is played on continuous loop every Steelers week on my computer.
CW- Ryan Clark. So many brutal hits against the Ravens. I’ll never forget McGahee leaving on a stretcher in that playoff game.
DB- A popular answer for many – Troy Polamalu. He’s been a fantastic chess piece for the Steelers for years and continually has success against the Ravens. I don’t pay much attention to the trash-talk between the teams so on-the-field success is what I dislike most.
6. Back to the Ravens. How much of an impact will Dennis Pitta have upon his return?
MR- It will be a nice addition, but I’m not going to say that he’ll solve all the problems and turn Joe Flacco into the guy we saw during the playoffs last year. Pitta will make a few catches, hopefully catches to extend drives and set up more scoring opportunities. I’m not going to say his return makes the Ravens a contender. He’s not Jimmy Graham. Had he been healthy all year then maybe it’s a different story.
MJ- Not sure. It really depends on how healthy he is. His hands will be a boost on third down and he could still be a capable Red Zone target where the Ravens seemingly always struggle.
CW- Pitta will be a welcome addition to this offense. He’s got way better hands than Dickson (as I probably do, too, and that’s saying something), and he’s easily the best blocker of the TEs on the roster. Will his presence morph this offense into the juggernaut we saw in the playoffs last year? Not a chance. But we should see a small uptick in the running game and Pitta will certainly provide a welcome target for Joe in the passing game. Joe loves to go to his TE on the goal line, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few Pitta touchdowns before the season is through.
DB- Pitta may have minimal success catching passes in the middle of the field and possibly in the redzone. But optimism about an immediate impact is premature in my eyes.
7. What do you want to see from the Ravens offense from here on out?
MR- Put the ball in Flacco’s hands. There is nothing more dangerous than a man with nothing to lose. They are currently on the outside of the playoffs looking in. Flacco has had his payday. What does he have to lose? It’s going to be up to Joe Flacco to carry this team because the run game is stalled again. Going up against some teams that can score some points in PIT, DET, NE, but can also give up a lot of points. Give it to the most important guy on the field and turn him loose. We know Joe has got it in him. He’s just gotta find it. Make him prove that the “wildcat” packages are not needed.
MJ- They made many of the changes that I had hoped for already. I’d love to see Flacco audible more out of plays if the situation calls for it. They should continue to focus on getting their best players the ball as much as possible. Last week Jacoby Jones had a big game and it makes you wonder why he hasn’t been targeted more. The running game is what it is and I have no issue using Tyrod Taylor at times but they need to be smart about how to balance plays that feature him and times where the ball should be faked to him.
CW- Keep using more of the power running game than the Zone Blocking scheme, but don’t abandon the ZBS either. It sets up some successful boot action plays that we really need. Keep using shotgun and pistol formations. Run the majority of the offense out of these sets. Also, I for one don’t mind a few of the Taylor wrinkles we’ve been seen in the last two weeks. Maybe not 20% of the snaps in a game. But 5 or 6 well-designed plays, I’m fine with that. Our offense is struggling, so why not get creative?
DB- I’ve been a proponent of using the Power-run scheme throughout the season. Coordinated “reach” blocks and “zone scooping” have been horrendous in the zone blocking scheme. I’d like to see the Ravens continue using the Shotgun as their primary formation even for the run game. Inside Trap, Iso Lead, and Counter OF have been successful from the shotgun. Three-level half-field route combinations that can allow Flacco to move in the pocket and deeper shots down the field will also be beneficial. The Ravens offensive game-plan doesn’t need to change dramatically. Lack of execution has stalled this year’s Ravens.
8. The big question…Do you see the Ravens making a run to the playoffs?
MR- I stated after the Browns loss following the bye that playoffs shouldn’t be in the vocabulary until they fix some things. They have won a couple, but not necessarily fixed things. I’ve said that a good team would go 3-1 vs. CHI, NYJ, PIT, MIN, placing them at 7-6, in the hunt down the stretch. A loss to PIT and it’s all over. They would lose any sort of tie breaker they would have with them. Win, and beat MIN, then you have to face two road games in the last three where they struggle most. Not to mention a home game with that Patriots. Hate to say it, but I think they stumble down the stretch and come up short. They play too many close games to sustain any type of win streak needed to make the run.
MJ- I think they come up short this season. They may still be able to win the next two but Detroit and Cincinnati on the road will be tough as well as hosting the Patriots who always seem to be at their best in December. The five-year playoff streak most likely will be broken.
CW- They have to start by beating Pittsburgh. If they lose this one, I think the dream might be dead.
DB- I don’t see the Ravens making a playoff run without a lot of help. The offensive personnel entering 2013 was lacking and they’ve played even worse than expected. The defensive unit has been very solid with few exceptions. But riding a defensive unit who doesn’t have a major knack for taking the ball away is a tough way to win. My pessimism aside, if the Ravens take the 6th wildcard spot, going to Cincinnati or Indy is not particularly scary.
Wishing everyone (except the Steelers) a Happy Thanksgiving!