Harbaugh works magic in the playoffs
I have a confession to make. I said following the Houston game, I was over John Harbaugh. I said he is terrible at in-game management, but got by in the past with his ability to rally the troops for battle. However of late, he hasn’t even been able to do that. Not since the Super Bowl run where you can make arguments that that run was fueled by Ray Lewis’ and Ed Reed’s last games in purple and black.
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The Ravens were always competitive, no matter how good the opponent was. Even in Coach Billick’s final season, he took an underachieving Kyle Boller led Ravens squad and came the closest anyone had in 2007 to knocking off the undefeated Patriots who ran up the scores on most teams they played.
In the first game of 2013, the post Ray Lewis and Ed Reed era, Baltimore was blown out of mile high in the season opener with Denver. They faced the Patriots late in the season at home, and got blown out again with a playoff spot on line. With a playoff berth still on the line in Cincy to finish 2013, the Ravens barely showed up.
Cut to 2014 where the Ravens went 1-6 against teams with winning records. They at least have a history of splitting division games with the Bengals and Steelers. Instead they couldn’t keep it together in the fourth quarter of the Bengals games, and despite the split with Pittsburgh, they again were blown out on national television in week 9. You needed a win over Phillip Rivers and the Chargers to give yourself a real good shot at the division, and the defense couldn’t show up to get a stop on one lousy drive. You figure facing a quarterback who was unemployed six days before facing him that you should get a win there in Houston. Also ignoring J.J. Watt’s abilities and assuming an undrafted rookie in James Hurst can block the unanimous All-Pro all by himself. Coupled with the fact that a week 16 win kept you in the division race, and would have made making the playoffs much easier, well, that was the last straw that made me say, I’m over it.
So many times Harbaugh would chose poor times to challenge plays, costing valuable timeouts. Leave easy points off the board in close games that come back to haunt them by arbitrarily going for a 4th and goal instead of taking three points. The post-game pressers with no answers for the actions in a loss. It wore thin. It wore thin because on the horizon following that Houston game appeared to be a second straight season of watching a Ravens-less January. I wasn’t ready to start pondering questions like, how long of leash does a Super Bowl title buy a head coach? Or, is Harbaugh on the hot seat after two seasons of missed playoffs?
It had been two full seasons since the Ravens so much as put up a fight with their backs to the wall, but also earned a statement win against a good team…Until last night.
The Ravens may have slipped tripped and fell into a playoff spot this year. But if 2012 taught us anything, it’s that anything can happen in January. And no team has had a better showing in January football in the last seven years then the Ravens, led by head coach John Harbaugh who continues to bring the best out in his guys, and builds up their confidence by saying things like “Joe Flacco is the best quarterback in football and I’ll take him every day of the week and twice on Sunday, or Saturday,” and I’m grateful for that. Even if Tom Brady takes offense to that comment on posts it on his bulletin board this week in preparation for the Ravens.
I’ve been critical often of late. But when you look at the entire body of work from the offseason with draft prep, to coaching up the young players, to filling the holes when about 20 guys find their way on injured reserve, to the fact that after all, he hasn’t lost the ability to win a big game, I’ll take Coach Harbaugh every day and twice on Sunday, or Saturday. After finally beating the Steelers on the road in a playoff game last night. There is literally nothing John Harbaugh and the Ravens can’t do. It’s the final monkey off their back.
The Ravens sure do thrive in the underdog role don’t they? Despite Steelers All-Pro RB, Le’Veon Bell missing last night’s contest, a lot of pundits picked the Steelers to prevail last night based on the Ravens not winning a playoff game in Pittsburgh in three tries, Ben Roethlisberger still having an arsenal of receiving weapons at his disposal, and the Steelers being the hottest team in the AFC entering January. Arguably the Ravens were one of the coldest after being challenged by Jacksonville, laying an egg in Houston, and sleepwalking for three quarters in the season finale against Cleveland. But the Ravens came into Heinz field and laid down a beating worse than what the 30-17 final score would suggest.
It’s a war of attrition in these games. The Ravens pressured the Steelers all game long and won that physical battle.
Three lasting images from last night’s game tell the entire story. First, Kelechi Osemele saving Joe Flacco with a blind side block on James Harrison, knocking him to the turf, that allowed Flacco to find Torrey Smith in the endzone for the Ravens second touchdown. Second, Ben Roethlisberger sacked for the fifth time on the night, and like a boxer, receiving a standing eight count on the sidelines appearing rattled after the hit. He would return after just three missed plays and immediately threw an interception straight to Darian Stewart that sealed the victory. Third, the back breaking hit delivered by Will Hill on Markus Wheaton. Similar in violence to the hit Ryan Clark put on Willis McGahee in 2008 when the game was in hand. That was the icing on the cake just for good measure.
The Ravens secondary kept plays in front of them, and limited the yards after catch. Just the one big play, a 44 yard pass to Antonio Brown setting up the lone TD for Pittsburgh. They we’re able to keep help over the top limiting the big plays by getting pressure with their front four. Elvis Dumervil accounted for two sacks, while Haloti Ngata, Brandon Williams, and Courtney Upshaw accounted for the others. The Ravens could have had 10 sacks had they faced any other QB in this league besides Roethlisberger, the best escape artist around.
This same defensive strategy should be employed next week when they head into New England. Brady is anything but an escape artist in the pocket and the book on him is to pressure him relentlessly. The Ravens found an answer to limit Antonio Browns production. Take away the one deep ball, and he would have had eight catches for just 73 yards. Now the Ravens need to find a way to limit another threat in Rob Gronkowski.
On the offensive side, the Ravens have needed Steve Smith to come up big for a while now, not breaking the 100 yard mark since week six. Smith did break 100 last night going for 101 yards on five catches, often in clutch times to extend a drive, or on a third down conversion. I’ve alluded to it in the past that Smith takes his game to another level when there is something he needs to go out and prove. He had big games in his Baltimore debut, his reunion game against Carolina, and against long-time rival of his the New Orleans Saints. In playoff time, I’m not surprised to see him come up big in a game that most didn’t give the Ravens a shot, combined with his understanding of AFC North knock down drag out style of football the he feeds on.
This week, it’s another reunion of sorts. When the Ravens face New England, it’ll be a throwback to the “Ice up son” game Steve Smith had against the Patriots a year ago where he burned Aquib Talib all night. Talib is now in Denver, but don’t think that the other Patriots have forgotten about that night. No doubt Smith wants to take his game to that next level against the likes of another highly touted CB, Darrell Revis.
I’d be remised if I didn’t mention the fact that Joe Flacco posted a 114.0 passer rating in last night’s contest. With that, it marks the fifth straight playoff game that he has posted a passer rating of over 100. Troy Aikman had a stretch of five games with the same, and Joe Montana at one point had a record eight straight.
Tom Brady’s best stretch is a stretch of three playoff games, and he hasn’t had a playoff game with a rating over 100 since 2012 against Houston. The week before the Ravens went up to Foxboro and handled their business in the AFC title game. Brady posted a rating of 62.3 in that game. He was 29 of 54 (53.7%) for 320 yards, a TD and two INTs.
The year before that when the Ravens went up there (The Lee Evans/Billy Cundiff gaffes) Brady had a 57.5 passer rating. He was 22 of 36 (61.1%) for 231 yards, he rushed for one score, and was picked off twice again.
In the Harbaugh era spanning three postseason games in Foxboro, Tom Brady has gone 74 of 132 (56.1%) for 713 yards (237.6 per game) with three TDs (one rushing) and seven INTs.
I would bet money that secretly, the Patriots were rooting for the Steelers last night.
Mike was born on the Eastern Shore, raised in Finksburg, and currently resides in Parkville. In 2009, Mike graduated from the Broadcasting Institute of Maryland. Mike became a Baltimore City Fire Fighter in late 2010. Mike has appeared as a guest on Q1370, and FOX45. Now a Sr. Ravens Analyst for BSL, he can be reached at [email protected]