Baltimore Ravens' ruthless defence driving unlikely playoff push

Jay Asser 29/11/2017
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Defence and the Baltimore Ravens are synonymous once again and the unit’s stinginess continues to cover up shortcomings on the other side of the ball.

Baltimore’s two phases have been on opposite ends of the spectrum this season, with the defence proving to be one of the best in the league while the offence has been mediocre at best.

The contrast was evident in the 23-16 win over Houston on Monday night, when the Ravens stymied the Texans in the second half and came up with key turnovers to earn a victory that wasn’t aesthetically pleasing, but enough to move them to 6-5 and keep them alive in the playoff race.

Their offence, meanwhile, was outgained 303 to 294 by Houston as quarterback Joe Flacco threw for just 155 yards, but the defence allowed just two field goals after the intermission and produced a fumble and interception on the Texans’ final two drives.

“The defence wants the game in their hands,” said Baltimore coach John Harbaugh. “If they don’t score, we win – that’s the mentality of those guys.”

The Ravens’ pass defence has been particularly stout this season, ranking first in the league in passer rating allowed at 65.9, while being second in average pass yards given up with 189.9 and completion percentage surrendered at 57.2 per cent.

But perhaps their most impactful attribute has been their knack for timely interceptions, which they now have 18 of to lead the NFL.

“We have a goal,” said safety Tony Jefferson, who had his first pick with Baltimore in the win over Houston. Our mindset is to take the ball away and have the offence protect the ball. We did that, and I think that’s an old saying – ‘If you win the turnover battle, you usually win the game.’ We have to continue to do that.”

As effective as the defence has been, Baltimore is still only one game above .500 and will have to earn a playoff spot the rest of the way.

That’s why Flacco understands he and the rest of the offence will have to turn it around to accomplish their ultimate goal.

“If we believe we can win the Super Bowl with how we’re playing right now, I’m all for it. I really am,” Flacco said.

“[But] we can all take a look at that and say it’s probably not super-realistic. We need to go out there, we need to go get it and we need to be better on our side of the ball.”

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Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith has been the NFL's MVP so far

Jay Asser 10/10/2017
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Alex is on fire: Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith carved up Houston. Picture: Getty Images.

Coming into the season, the odds were likely higher of Alex Smith losing his job than being the league’s MVP through the first five weeks.

And yet, the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback has not only staved off any notion that rookie Patrick Mahomes is the answer for the present, but has spearheaded the attack of the league’s only unbeaten team.

Smith’s hyper-efficient start to the season continued on Sunday when he led the Chiefs to a 42-34 shootout win over the Houston Texans by connecting on 29-of-37 passes for 324 yards and three touchdowns.

The 33-year-old veteran has yet to throw an interception, while posting the highest completion percentage (76.6), yards per attempt (8.8) and passer rating (125.8) of any qualified quarterback in the league.

It’s been a surprising start for a signal-caller who has been good, but not great throughout his 13 seasons in the league. The ceiling-capping play over his career led Kansas City to trading up to No10 in this year’s draft to grab Texas Tech prospect Mahomes, who possesses a big arm and is now considered the future of the franchise.

For now, however, Smith has more than just tightened his grasp on the job – he’s consistently playing at a level he’s previously flashed, but never sustained before.

“He’s coming in with a point to prove; I feel like he’s got a point to prove, you know?” said running back Charcandrick West, who caught two of Smith’s scores against the Texans.

“We all know the situation here. We ain’t got to talk about that. He’s coming in, he’s making a lot of decisions hard for a lot of people.”

Some of the credit for Smith’s surge can be accredited to coach Andy Reid’s offensive scheme, which has put his quarterback in position to succeed by playing to his strengths with read-options and plays designed to utilise his mobility.

Smith also has versatile weapons to rely on, with rookie running back Kareem Hunt bursting onto the scene to pair with speedy wide receiver Tyreek Hill and dynamic tight end Travis Kelce.

Those weapons have allowed Smith to attack downfield – something which he’s been criticised for not doing throughout his career – to the tune of 14 plays of 20-plus yards and three of 40-plus yards.

“As far as the [improved] numbers go, I think it’s a reflection of the guys around me,” Smith said after carving up the Texans. “We’ve got a bunch of guys that make plays. You saw that tonight.”

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New England Patriots' defence is lost but bank on Bill Belichick to find the answer

Jay Asser 4/10/2017
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Burned: Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore gets beaten in coverage. Picture: Getty Images.

Forget an undefeated season, the New England Patriots right now are struggling to look like a playoff team.

The defending champions having dropped half of their games through the first four weeks – a far cry from the dominance many predicted for Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Co this season.

The good news? There certainly won’t be any pressure of finishing 16-0 and subsequently 19-0 to complete a perfect season. We’re way past that point, with the team having been knocked down multiple times already and being reminded of their own mortality.

The bad news is that mortality is much more defined and to a greater extent than anyone could have expected.

It’s almost impossible to point the finger at Brady and the offence. The 40-year-old quarterback didn’t look sharp in the season-opening loss to Kansas City, but has since completed 73.1 per cent of his passes for an average of 377.3 yards through three games, while posting a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 10:0.

Basically, Brady is once again having an MVP-calibre season and yet New England have dropped two of their first three games at Gillette Stadium, which has normally been a fortress.

It’s no secret what’s plaguing them. Their defence, and especially their retooled secondary, has been downright terrible.

Matt Patricia’s unit ranks dead last in the league in total defence with 456.8 yards allowed per game and 31st in points surrendered with 32.0 per contest.

Pass rushing was an area of concern coming into the season and so far, there’s been little reason for optimism as the Patriots are tied for the fifth-fewest sacks in the league with eight. The lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks has exacerbated the issues with the secondary, where miscommunication and blown coverages have resulted in big plays.

Cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who was handed a rich five-year, $65 million contract in the offseason, has been burned countless times and looks like a downgrade from the reliable Logan Ryan, now in Tennessee.

Gilmore has flashed in brief moments in his new digs, but too often he’s made mental mistakes, such as allowing Tyreek Hill to run past him for a 75-yard touchdown in Week 1 and committing an illegal hands to the face penalty to wipe out a third-down sack on Carolina’s final possession, eventually leading to Graham Gano’s game-winning field goal.

Opposite cornerback Malcolm Butler has been shaky as well, while safety Devin McCourty, normally one of the best at his position, has uncharacteristically been out of place at times. All of that has resulted in the Patriots defence resembling Swiss cheese and in-turn placing far too much responsibility on the shoulders of Brady to score on nearly every possession.

Even if it wasn’t for the talent New England possess on that side of the ball, this would still be embarrassing because Belichick is (rightly) considered a defensive mastermind.

This is a coach who traded his best pass-rusher in Chandler Jones before the start of last season and then shipped out uber-talented linebacker Jamie Collins after seven games, only for the defence to improve, allow the fewest points in the league and be part of a Super Bowl victory.

It’s entirely possible Belichick pulls off another magic trick with this unit and whips them into shape before the end of the season, but the margin for error has exponentially dropped.

Even with Brady functioning like he has, the Patriots won’t be infallible in the postseason, especially if they’re without home-field advantage, which is now a much more difficult proposition.

But as tempting as it may be to pour dirt on a dynasty whose decline is long overdue, no one should be burying New England just yet. It was only three years ago when the Patriots started a disappointing 2-2, only to win 13 of their next 15 games and hoist a fourth Super Bowl.

Circumstances are different this time around, but the mindset remains: Belichick wants to play his best football in November and December, not in the first month of the season.

There’s time to turn it around and if anyone should be given the benefit of the doubt, it’s Belichick, Brady and the Patriots.

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