Coach Killers, Week 13: Ravens really might want to run the ball
Coach Killers is your weekly look around the league at those performances, decisions and "Wait, what did he just do?!" moments that put the guy in charge squarely on the ol' hot seat.
|Coach Killers is your weekly look around the league at those performances, decisions and 'Wait, what did he just do?!' moments that put the guy in charge squarely on the ol' hot seat. (US Presswire)|
Ravens running game
Never mind that the Ravens lost at home to 37-year-old Charlie Batch. The bigger, reoccurring issue is how offensive coordinator Cam Cameron utilizes one of the league's most dynamics back, Ray Rice. It's a familiar story for anyone half-paying attention: Cameron leans on Joe Flacco's arm at the expense of Rice's legs, and the results have been predictably inconsistence.
We wrote about the phenomenon twice in the first two months of the season. In a game against the Eagles that was decided by one point, Flacco threw 25 times in the second half while Rice had just nine carries. On the Ravens' last drive, Cameron called back-to-back pass plays on third- and fourth-and-1, both incompletions.
"We thought about running the ball, yeah, but we thought we had some good calls,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said after the Week 2 loss in Philly. "I think that's fair. You could have called a draw or something there. But you know they were bringing some heat, and they were hugging the backs, too. It would have been hit or miss. I think that's a fair thing to talk about."
|Cam and Joe, presumably talking about the passing game. (Getty Images)|
Against the Steelers on Sunday, Rice had 12 carries for 78 yards. The last two times he touched the ball -- in the third quarter -- resulted in a 34-yard touchdown and a 10-yard run to begin a drive in which Baltimore led Pittsburgh 20-13.
Conventional wisdom might suggest that, with a seven-point lead and in the interest of bleeding time off the clock, feeding Rice would be prudent. Instead, the Ravens ran eight more offensive plays, none involving Flacco handing off to Rice.
On Monday, Harbaugh said that not leaning on Rice late in the game had nothing to do with the outcome.
“You can write that story if you want, but that’s not the factor in the game,” the coach told reporters via the team's website.
“I think it was dictated,” Harbaugh continued. “We’re going to do whatever we can, use the players we have. We’re going to try to use all of our guys, all hands on deck. I think it’s real easy to look at the stat sheet and say, ‘Hey, this guy should get the ball more, that guy should get the ball more.’ You’re trying to use all your guys and move the ball. When it’s successful, we’re happy about it. When it’s not successful, you look at it.”
Maybe, but three plays after Ed Reed intercepted Batch in the end zone, and with the Ravens facing a third-and-5, the safe, time-killing play-call when leading by seven is to give the ball to Rice. Didn't happen. Baltimore's receivers were well covered, Flacco hesitated in the pocket and James Harrison's strip-sack was recovered by Steelers defensive lineman Ziggy Hood. Four plays after that, Batch hit Heath Miller for a seven-yard touchdown. Tie game.
On the Ravens' next (and last) drive, Flacco dropped back to pass four times and threw three incompletions before the punt team took the field. The Steelers then went on a 12-play, 61-yard drive that consumed the final 6:14 off the clock and concluded with Shaun Suisham striping a 42-yard field goal attempt for the win. Pittsburgh ran the ball six times on that last series. (And even before Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger was flagged for a personal foul that put the Steelers in field-goal range, Pittsburgh ran the ball on three of its first seven plays.)
“If we had gotten one first down there in the fourth quarter, I’m quite certain Ray would have carried the ball quite a bit,” Harbaugh said. “But we didn’t. We didn’t get started. That’s the way that went.”
And Rice, who has been vocal about his lack of work in the past, didn't seem too worried about his touches.
“My touches go with the game flow,” Rice said after the game. “Obviously, I turned up a huge bunch of yards today, and we could have ran the ball a little bit more. But you know what? Situational football came into play. We put ourselves in the best situation to try and win the game. It was all about execution today. We just fell a little short."
That's all well and good, but here's something to consider: Flacco's in the last year of his rookie contract, and he might be looking for "top-5" money. Given how he has played in recent weeks, who knows if the Ravens would give it to him. But you know what would help Flacco's consistency? Ray Rice.
But you already knew that.
|The defense has been the Lions' biggest weakness in 2012. (US Presswire)|
A year ago, the Lions finished 10-6 and made the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Three-quarters of the way through 2012, Detroit is 4-8, in last place in the NFC North, and is more likely to land a top-5 pick then return to the postseason. So what has changed?
Defenses are double- and triple-teaming wide receiver Calvin Johnson (Rob Ryan's "Megatron's like everybody else" defensive philosophy proved instructional), but quarterback Matthew Stafford has still thrown for 3,742 yards and the Lions' offense is fourth in Football Outsiders' efficiency metric (7th in passing, 8th in rushing).
Which brings us to the other side of the ball, where FO ranks Detroit 25th. The ineptitude was on full display Sunday as Gunther Cunningham's unit went coverage optional as Andrew Luck led the Colts down the field for the 11-play, 75-yard game-winning drive as time expired. Four minutes later, Luck had orchestrated an eight-play, 85-yard touchdown drive. to cut Detroit's 33-21 fourth-quarter lead to five points.
"I think we get too relaxed," cornerback Chris Houston said via the Detroit News. "Guys get too relaxed instead of going out there [and] staying focused. ... Guys think the game is over," Houston said, "and that's what happened."
Safety Louis Delmas added: "It's very frustrating," he said via mlive.com. "Just when you think whatever you're doing is right, it takes one play like the one we lost on to know you're wrong. I want to say it's a learning experience, but it's not. We've been here before. We just can't seem to finish on the long end of the stick and not the short one."
The Lions have the pieces in place to be in the playoff conversation every year, but they have to figure out a way to avoid the ill-timed mental lapses on defense.
"Prior to this last three-game stretch, in nine games we've given up 17 20-plus passes," Cunningham told Detroitlions.com. "In the last three games, we've given up 14. So there's some personnel issues involved that we have to solve in a hurry and put the right guys on the field and get them to play."
No rush, Gunther. As it stands, you're playing for 2013. Get it right then, and the Lions will be able to play with anybody.
Christian Ponder, QB, Vikings
Leslie Frazier says Ponder remains his quarterback, and even with the Vikings still in the playoff chase, that's probably the right move. During the 2011 draft, four QBs were taken in the first round: Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Ponder. All have struggled this season (though Newton was the offensive rookie of the year), and the Jaguars might already be preparing to move on from Gabbert.
|Is Ponder the long-term answer at QB? (US Presswire)|
Ponder got off to a strong start in 2012, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes and not throwing an interception through the first four weeks. The Vikings won four of their first five games, and Ponder seemed comfortable in his role as "guy who gives the ball to Adrian Peterson and occasionally throws a few passes."
But even as Peterson has one of the best seasons of his career, Ponder has hit a rough patch.
He threw two red-zone interceptions in Sunday's loss to the Packers. It doesn't help that Percy Harvin has been sidelined and the team doesn't have a legit No. 1 receiver to replace him. But that problem should be mitigated by Peterson running wild every week.
"The Vikings just don't have quality receivers," former Minnesota quarterback Fran Tarkenton wrote this week. "… But that's no excuse; a great quarterback can succeed with whomever he has by adjusting the game plan to fit his team's capabilities, and Ponder just isn't there yet."
Which raises the question: Will Ponder ever be there? Here's how ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert put it Sunday evening: "At his best this season, Ponder has been efficient. At his worst, he has looked like a career backup. Most disturbing, there has been little evidence that Ponder is on his way to becoming the kind of dynamic starter who can win games on his own, the type that happen to be stationed in every other NFC North market."
And that's the real problem. This is a passing league and, without a top-flight quarterback, teams have almost no chance to consistently make the playoffs. Peterson should be the best thing to happen to Ponder, but he can't do it alone (whereas a legit franchise quarterback can). Want more proof? Consider this little fun fact: The previous nine Super Bowl winners didn't have a high-priced, top-5 running back on the roster. What they did have, however, was a franchise quarterback. Teams can survive without one but not the other.
It's wholly unfair to point and gawk at the 2012 Cardinals offense. The line has been decimated by injuries and currently features rookies at both tackle positions. A young quarterback's best friend -- a stout running game -- has suffered setbacks; Ryan Williams and Beanie Wells were both placed on injured reserve (though Wells got the "designated to return" tag, and he did just that against the Rams in Week 12's 31-17 loss).
|How long until the Cards find a legit franchise QB? (AP)|
Then there's the aforementioned young quarterback. Remember when we all thought Kevin Kolb was really bad? Turns out, he looks more than serviceable next to rookie Ryan Lindley. Unfortunately, Kolb has been sidelined with rib injuries since Week 6. And, to be fair, Lindley's in an untenable position; no pass protection to speak of, no running game, and he's a sixth-round pick out of San Diego State forced into the lineup because John Skelton's play necessitated it.
How bad was Skelton? So much so that coach Ken Whisenhunt didn't consider replacing Lindley during Sunday's 7-6 loss to the Jets in an offensive display that set the passing game back 100 years. Looking beyond the next four games, the question becomes: how do the Cards fix this?
Since Kurt Warner retired after the 2009 season, we've seen the likes of Derek Anderson, Max Hall, Skelton, Kolb and Lindley. Whisenhunt made a run at Peyton Manning in the offseason but lost out to the Broncos. Taking a look at possible free agents this spring, could Arizona make a run for Joe Flacco (assuming the Ravens don't pay him)? Beyond that, is either Jason Campbell or Matt Moore a viable option, even in the short term?
Would the Cards be better off trying to pull off another trade? Maybe for Lions backup Shaun Hill or the Cowboys' Kyle Orton?
Yes, desperate times ...
Arizona could choose to target a quarterback in the draft. The last time they did, they took Matt Leinart in the first found. But that was under the Denny Green regime. For what it's worth in his latest mock draft, NFLDraftScout.com's Rob Rang has the Cards taking another USC product, Matt Barkley, with the eighth-overall pick.
Whatever happens, the bottom line is this: no franchise quarterbacks means no playoffs. It's that simple, really. Just ask the Vikings.
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