Late Cowboys Rally Can't Knock Out Wobbly Ravens, 31-29
RUSH DEFENSE GASHED; WEBB INJURY COULD BE SERIOUS
By Joe Platania
(Look for Ravens Report's extensive "Leftovers," our usual postgame notebook, Monday morning.)
M&T BANK STADIUM, BALTIMORE -- A long time ago -- in an NFL far, far away -- the fledgling Baltimore Ravens had trouble winning at home.
When the facility now known as M&T Bank Stadium opened 15 seasons ago, an inconsistent, mediocre team set up shop in a facility that was rumored to have a Pittsburgh Steelers "Terrible Towel" buried underneath it.
The Ravens lost four of their first five games on Russell Street before ripping off consecutive 6-2 home records in 2000 and 2001, getting two playoff berths and a Super Bowl title in the process.
Since then, it's been mostly smooth sailing at home. But in the NFL's cyclical world, things might be coming around again, and at the worst possible time.
A creaky defense, which allowed a club-record 227 rushing yards, poor tackling, a few key injuries -- most notably to top cornerback Lardarius Webb, who may have a torn knee ligament -- and some overall sloppy play, dogged the Ravens on Sunday against the visiting Dallas Cowboys.
But when Dan Bailey's 51-yard field goal try sailed wide left with two seconds remaining, the bend-but-don't-break Ravens ran their home regular-season winning streak to 14 games and their overall record to 5-1 with a sigh-of-relief 31-29 win, their fourth in as many games against Dallas (2-3).
Linebacker Ray Lewis (triceps) was not on the field for the decisive Cowboys drive, while defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (knee) and several other Ravens also felt the pain of the day.
Even though 71,384 fans went home happy, the Ravens now face a trip to 5-1 Houston next week, the toughest possible circumstance the team could face before its bye week, especially on the heels of a game like this.
Like Dallas, the Texans have never beaten the Ravens. But now could be the time to catch them.
"What a hard-fought football game that was," head coach John Harbaugh said. "The Dallas Cowboys are a rough, tough, physical football team, so give 'em credit.
"I was surprised about our tackling. We're traditionally a good tackling team. We've got to get better, especially this week. Look at who we have to go play."
But before looking ahead, the Ravens would behoove themselves to look back at how this tough game nearly got away from them after they assumed a 31-23 lead with four minutes, 41 seconds to go on Ray Rice's second 1-yard touchdown run of the game.
Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (25-for-36, 261 yards, two touchdowns, interception, sack, 97.1 rating) drove his team from its own 20 to the Ravens' 49, but in clumsy fashion; four Cowboys penalties and one on the Ravens considerably slowed the proceedings until Dallas found itself facing third-and-27.
A right-side pass to Dez Bryant (95 yards, 13 catches, two touchdowns) gained 17 yards and a fourth-and-10 pass to diving tight end Jason Witten (88 yards, six catches) erased that deficit and set up Bryant's leaping 4-yard touchdown catch over cornerback Cary Williams to cap an 18-play, 80-yard drive.
But the ensuing two-point pass was low and mishandled by the drop-prone Bryant, so the Ravens held a two-point lead with 32 seconds to go.
The situation called for the Cowboys to try an onside kick. To this point during the 2012 season, teams were just 1-for-15 leaguewide in recovering their own onside attempts. But Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo let the ball go through his legs and Sean Considine also had a shot at it before Dallas' Andre Holmes fell on the ball.
Romo took a shot at the end zone for Kevin Ogletree, but reserve corner Chykie Brown had him covered. But the special teamer, in the game for the banged-up Smith, was then called for pass interference on Ogletree, putting the ball within Bailey's field-goal range.
It was his first attempt this year that was more than 50 yards and his first miss after eight straight successful kicks. But it kept the wobbly Ravens -- who have a 25-5-1 home record against NFC teams -- in undisputed possession of the AFC North Division lead before what should be a much-hyped game in Houston.
But the Cowboys broke out of the locker room during the second half by making a supposedly even game look as if it was turning their way.
DALLAS RUNS WILD, BUT
CAN'T KEEP UP WITH JONES
The Cowboys had more first-half possession, but slightly fewer yards and seven fewer points than the Ravens. Their running game was on point all day with starter DeMarco Murray (93 yards, 14 carries) and reserve Felix Jones (92 yards, 18 carries, TD) getting the kind of chunk plays that have upset Harbaugh to this point during the season.
With 214 running yards yielded at Kansas City last week, the 2012 Ravens became the fourth team in league history to allow consecutive 200-yard rushing games. The 1985 Philadelphia Eagles were the last team to do it, one year before hiring defensive-minded head coach Buddy Ryan.
Murray would have to leave the game because of a foot injury, but Jones and an impressive stable of backs picked up the slack. Jones got a pair of chunk runs as the second half began, setting up Romo's first pass of the day to Witten, who beat Ed Reed on a right-to-left dig route for 35 yards to the Baltimore 31.
The drive stalled, but Bailey's 43-yard field goal cut the Ravens' lead to 17-13. But the Ravens stole momentum right back, and in a big way.
Most kickoff returners around the league have tried to negate the new kickoff spot -- the 35-yard line -- by running kicks out of the end zone even if they are at least 5 yards deep.
Wideout Jacoby Jones took over those duties from the deactivated Deonte Thompson and, in an effort to jump-start the Ravens' fortunes, ran the kickoff out from 8 yards deep, no doubt causing consternation among the fan base.
But when the Cowboys' coverage men abandoned their lanes, Jones found a right-side hole and ran basically untouched from the east (tunnel) end zone to the west (Russell Street) side for an NFL-record-tying 108-yard touchdown, breaking David Reed's club record -- set in Houston two years ago -- by a full 5 yards.
But Dallas -- which had a 142-1 third-quarter yardage advantage -- answered back with a 14-play, 80-yard drive that took up more than eight minutes and ended with Bryant's 7-yard diving catch for a touchdown in front of Williams, who had a drive-stopping interception in the red zone, but Bryant basically abused him all day.
"Dez Bryant is for real," Harbaugh said. "But we had guys stepping up against real adversity. They threw a lot of haymakers at us. We had players playing positions they hadn't played, in packages we hadn't even practiced."
But when Jimmy Smith -- who earned more playing time in the wake of Webb's injury before leaving the game himself -- knocked away a red-zone pass for Bryant late during the third quarter, it marked the struggling defense's first significant stop in quite some time; the Cowboys had to punt.
But the Ravens -- with just 1 third-quarter yard from Rice, their only offense of the period -- could not get out of their own red zone and the Cowboys took over on the Ravens' side of the field early during the fourth quarter. Rice (63 yards, 16 carries, two touchdowns; 43 yards, one catch) has put together back-to-back 100-yard games only once during his career.
After that, third-string running back Phillip Tanner gained 9 yards over the left side to the Ravens' 22 as the visitors threatened to re-take the lead.
Lance Dunbar then accentuated Dallas' superior running back depth with a bruising 11-yard gain to the Ravens' 10. The Cowboys' third illegal-shift call of the day set them back 5 yards, and it was soon third-and-goal at the 9.
That's when Haloti Ngata -- who had appeared injured earlier -- managed to get to Romo for the first time all day, forcing the Cowboys to settle for Bailey's 34-yard field goal that cut the home team's lead to 24-23 with 8:22 to go.
By this point, no one should have been surprised; the way the game began, it was destined to be played just as close to both teams' vests as it was on the scoreboard.
The Ravens' offensive line was the beneficiary of four special occasions on Sunday.
First, center Matt Birk celebrated his 200th NFL game. Secondly, the team was able to return to its no-huddle attack in front of a home crowd ESPN recently labeled as the league's most intimidating.
Third, ex-Cincinnati Bengals guard Bobbie Williams -- expected to be the left-side starter in the wake of Ben Grubbs' free-agent departure for New Orleans -- assumed the job after 2010 sixth-round pick Ramon Harewood had played relatively well during the first five games.
Fourth, Williams -- assigned mostly to block Cowboys stalwart defensive tackle Jason Hatcher -- saw the Ravens run four consecutive plays to his area to gain a pair of first downs.
Consecutive passes from Joe Flacco (17-for-26, 234 yards, touchdown, sack, 106.9 rating) to Torrey Smith (24 yards, two catches, touchdown) and Jones pushed the Ravens close to midfield before another up-the-middle strike to Jones gained another first down at the Cowboys' 39. A diving sideline catch by Dennis Pitta (33 yards, four catches) gained 8 more.
Rice then went past Williams' spot for a first down at the 28 and Bernard Pierce grabbed a flat pass to get within 1 yard of the chains. But when run-stuffing linebacker Alex Albright -- substituting for starter Anthony Spencer -- stopped Pierce at the 20, Justin Tucker's 38-yard field goal made the seven-minute, 10-second drive worth the Ravens' while.
Harewood had played relatively well in at left guard during the Ravens' 4-1 start, but Williams' experience and efficiency showed as the Ravens ate up nearly half the first quarter and held the ball for 14 plays with seemingly little trouble.
"I think the decision to start Bobbie was that [he] is getting healthy right now," Harbaugh said. "That ankle is really starting to come around. He's practicing well. Ramon had been playing well. That's the thing I want to make sure everyone understands."
But the Cowboys took a page from the Kansas City playbook, that is, choosing to run the ball to keep a turnover-prone quarterback from playing into the flow that often.
The Cowboys, mainly because of Romo's inconsistency and a few bad-luck bounces, had come into the game with a minus-7 turnover ratio, tied with Philadelphia for the second-worst in the NFL. Dallas is the second straight Ravens' opponent to have been bitten by the turnover bug.
Not only that, veterans Murray and Jones were both able to use their experience, Dallas' version of the no-huddle, and their own ex-Bengals left guard (Nate Livings) to rip off runs of 28 (Murray) and 22 yards (Jones) to get the ball to the Ravens' 1-yard line.
The latter was ruled a touchdown after replay review, the Ravens' seventh rushing touchdown allowed this year.
But despite Dallas' effectiveness with Murray running the ball -- they were 6-0 when he had 18 or more carries -- Romo also made his presence felt, firing a 14-yard third-down slant to Bryant over a beaten Jimmy Smith to get the ball in Ravens' territory.
All told, the Cowboys had been more efficient than the Ravens, using fewer plays to score (8-14) and netting more points in the process (7-3).
But Baltimore found its rhythm during the second quarter and made the first half not only a more even affair, but one that -- despite a pair of big-name injury concerns -- found it actually in the lead by the time it was over.
With Terrell Suggs at least a month away from returning to the linebacking corps, the Ravens suffered what could be a serious long-term blow to their third level.
While Bryant was running a sideline pattern late during the first quarter, he collided with Webb, who crumpled in heap on the Momentum Turf surface. He was gingerly led off the field after Bryant's 18-yard catch and a few agonized looks from his teammates.
All at once, it looked as though Dallas had taken control of the game on both sides of the ball, what with its vaunted pass rush and tightened-up secondary controlling the Ravens' passing game and its two-pronged running attack wearing down the Ravens' front seven.
A 9-yard Murray run to the Ravens' 29 ended the first quarter, and he soon showed he could work in close quarters as well with a 4-yard gain in traffic for another first down at the 18.
On third-and-4 from the 12, it appeared Romo was in trouble as he rolled to his left with a purple-clad gang closing in on him. But the Ravens had called a timeout, negating the possible loss.
The Cowboys were then flagged for having both wideouts moving at the snap, a play that also bit the Ravens in that Ngata -- who has been battling shoulder problems -- limped off the field. Another illegal shift was declined, but Bailey's 42-yard field goal stretched the Cowboys' lead, 10-3.
Even with Rice's inside-out 12-yard juke run and a 43-yard catch-and-run after inside linebacker Sean Lee nearly leveled Flacco, the Ravens' offense still didn't have a smooth rhythm to it, with a subsequent delay-of-game call. But Hatcher handed back the 5 yards with a neutral-zone infraction.
Pierce then got behind blocks from Vonta Leach and Williams for 16 yards to the 6 before Rice bulled over the left side toward the 2. But at that point, despite heavy pass-rush pressure, consecutive passes bounced off the hands of Ed Dickson and Rice.
Kenyon Coleman then gave the Ravens new life with an illegal-use-of-hands penalty, and Rice finished off the ugly-but-effective drive from a yard out to tie the game midway through the second quarter.
But Romo then got slot receiver Miles Austin involved with two straight bullet passes against little rush. The second was a sliding grab at the midfield logo, which ended up putting the ball in Ravens territory.
Bryant then beat Williams for two straight catches for another first down at the 35, but left tackle Tyron Smith was flagged for holding -- his seventh penalty of the year -- to set up a third-and-15 from the Ravens' 40.
A Ravens offsides call gave 5 yards back, and Williams subsequently recorded his third straight game with an interception when he picked off a scrambling Romo, who has now been picked off during six straight games. Despite everything that had gone wrong to that point, the interception seemed to spark a momentum shift.
Flacco, trying to give the Ravens a halftime lead with a renewed no-huddle attack, found Boldin for 20 yards on a third-and-9 pass and then 14 more to midfield before calling timeout with 1:48 left.
Boldin (98 yards, five catches) had three drops in Kansas City, but got another 20-yard chunk -- the Ravens' league-leading 33rd play of 20 or more yards -- before Pitta got into the act for 8 yards to the 22 and 8 more to the 19 after a penalty.
With several Orioles in attendance, Flacco then quick-pitched the Dallas defense, catching it with 12 men on the field. Smith then got past rookie cornerback Morris Claiborne, who had no safety help, for a 19-yard go-ahead touchdown that made it 17-10 with 41 seconds left before halftime.
Dallas' long-ago championship pedigree kept it in this game.
But the Ravens are having trouble keeping their present-day elite status, and it could soon cost them, both at home and away.
Posted Oct. 14, 2012