The first Monday Night Football game of the season brought a pair of teams to the spotlight who are both hoping for big things in 2012. The Cincinnati Bengals went to the postseason last year, but were unable to knock-off the Ravens during the regular season in two times of asking. They were hoping to show to the nation that they were ready to step up in 2012 by doing exactly that, but instead they found themselves with front row seats to Joe Flacco’s coming out party.
Flacco, running the new no-huddle offense Baltimore installed in the offseason, looked to have a command of the offense we haven’t seen from him in the past, and with the Ravens D still looking like it has some teeth despite the loss of Terrell Suggs, Baltimore ended up pulling out to a pretty dominant win, after the Bengals fell away in the second half. Looking at some of the key performers, it’s easy to see why.
Cincinnati – Three Performances of Note
Everybody knew heading into the game that the Bengals’ top weapon would be A.J. Green (+2.7), and though Cincinnati threw him the ball 11 times, they didn’t exactly put him in the best situations to succeed. Early in the game they were moving him around a lot to see how the Ravens would cover him, but then ignored the alignments that resulted in Green being covered by linebackers and instead went back to throwing to him when he was covered by cornerbacks. In the end Green hauled in five receptions for 70 yards and had what was a clear catch taken away from him by a perfect combination of poor officiating and poor rule writing. The Bengals got a complement to Green from an unheralded source, 5’7 Andrew Hawkins (+1.7). The former star of Michael Irvin’s reality show was thrown to nine times, and ended up with 87 yards off the back of some nifty work after the catch. At times it seemed like the only plays that were having any success against Baltimore were jump balls to Green and screens to Hawkins.
The Second half Demise of Dalton
Andy Dalton (-4.4) actually began the game pretty well and was moving the ball efficiently within the Bengals offense, despite some fine work from the Ravens on the other side of the ball. At half time the game was far from the blowout it ended up being, but the wheels began to fall off the wagon entirely when Dalton felt the need to press and began to chase the game. From that point he just sank deeper into poor throws, reaching his nadir with the pick-six he threw to Ed Reed. On that throw he felt pressure coming up the middle and aired out a ball high over his tight end Jermaine Gresham heading out toward the sideline. Anything high over the middle against the Ravens usually ends up in the hands of Reed, and this ball was no different. At least Dalton can console himself with the thought that Reed seemed to pull his hamstring in the dive to score the touchdown.
As we’ve had cause to point out a few times already this season, the sacks don’t always tell the whole story, and here is yet another example. Geno Atkins is one of the best defensive tackles in football. He is a player that should have the kind of hype that surrounds Ndamukong Suh, and in this game he had a pair of sacks. But that was about all he had. Despite rolling right through Matt Birk early in the game, and then abusing former teammate Bobbie Williams in garbage time, Atkins could generate no additional pressure from his 30 other pass-rushing opportunities. While he made a couple of plays in the run game, this was far from the dominant performance that a pair of sacks would suggest it was.
Given how successful Atkins was against the Ravens last season, and the new members of that offensive line, Baltimore coaches will be happy enough that two sacks was the only real impact the Bengal was able to have on the game.
Baltimore – Three Performances of Note
No Huddle, No Hassle
Jim Caldwell brought with him a decade working with Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. One thing you may have noticed about them over the past 10 years, they’ve been pretty good! He hopes to bring that kind of success to the Ravens. Operating the new system, QB Joe Flacco looked as good as he has ever looked in the NFL. Much was made during the broadcast about the 44 wins (now 45) he has as a starter, and how those team-oriented figures were putting him on lists alongside Dan Marino and Otto Graham, but Flacco’s problems have always been what happens if the running game or the defense doesn’t dominate, because he has rarely been able to pick up the slack. This time he looked far more integral to the success of the team, and despite a couple of poor decisions over his 29 attempts, he was good enough to earn a +4.4 grade for the day.
I tweeted last night that if the Ravens have that Joe Flacco turn up for every game this season they become the Super Bowl favorites. He doesn’t need to be Peyton Manning, because the defense in Baltimore remains better than any unit Manning ever had in Indianapolis, but he does need to step up from 2011. He did that on Monday Night.
Ray Lewis is Timeless
The great Ravens linebacker has worked himself into a leaner figure for this season. Once somewhere over 260lbs, when the NFL was a smashmouth league of hard-nosed impacts, Lewis understands that he needs to be leaner now, because coverage is all important. He has cut down to 235, the lowest he has weighed since he was a Miami Hurricane, and is visibly slimmer. It had an effect, and he was able to influence a couple of throws deep down the middle of the field, in areas where the Ray Lewis of old might not have been able to reach.
Ironically he was also exceptional against the run, making seven tackles and six stops as he picked his way through traffic and brought down Benjarvus Green-Ellis near the line of scrimmage again and again. Whether the loss of 25lbs has allowed Lewis to be more agile in traffic or whether his instincts are just that damn good, I would be expecting another All-Pro caliber season from him in his 17th year. Read that part to yourself again and think just how crazy that is.
The Michael Oher Conundrum
Michael Oher has been kicked from right to left tackle, back to right again, and now finds himself back on the left side as he replaces Bryant McKinnie. The chopping and changing has not helped him much in his development, and his best season has definitely come on the right side. But in his first regular season outing back as Flacco’s blindside protector he had a fine game, earning a +2.9 grade for his performance. Most of that was in the run game, as he was instrumental in giving Ray Rice the edge on a couple of runs with tough seal blocks on Bengals defenders, but on 39 pass blocking snaps he allowed only a pair of knockdowns and no other pressures.
There is a reason Bryant McKinnie was signed in the first place, but maybe Oher can prove there is more than one reason he now finds himself consigned to the bench. He may never become the mythical figure the book and movie made him out to be, but he might just make a pretty good left tackle if he can play to this level each week.
– Another rookie kicker impressed this week as Justin Tucker hit on all three of his field goal attempts, including two from over 40-yards, as well as netting five touchbacks on his kick offs.
– Running the ball out of the end zone from deep is usually not advisable. Less so when you only make it back to the 8-yard line, which is exactly what happened to Brandon Tate early in the game. From that point on, his up man became a little more forceful with the ‘STAY IN!’ command.
– The left side of the Bengals OL (the side that would usually be dealing with a lot of Terrell Suggs), was perfect in pass protection in the game.
PFF Game Ball
It’s almost inconceivable that a linebacker entering his 17th season can be playing as well as he ever has, but that’s exactly what Ray Lewis seems to be doing. He was a force against the run and the pass in this game as the Ravens D didn’t miss a beat without Suggs.