Gut-Checked Ravens Pull Out 9-6 Win Against Chiefs
LUCKLESS CHIEFS HELP TD-LESS VISITORS GO TO 4-1
By Joe Platania
(Look for Ravens Report's extensive "Leftovers," our usual postgame notebook, Monday morning.)
In the ever-changing world of the NFL, a happy medium is often tough to find.
When the Ravens played four games during a 17-day period, which no team has had to do since 1936, they looked flat and tired toward the end of that stretch.
But when they returned to the field Sunday afternoon at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium for their first game in 10 days, they looked even more ineffective.
That's when a team's true pedigree of toughness is tested, and the Ravens aced their first exam of the season's second quarter by gutting out a 9-6 win against the host Chiefs (1-4) in front of the usual loud sellout crowd.
The win gave the Ravens only their fifth 4-1 start during their 17-year history. It marks the third straight year they have gotten off to such a succcessful beginning, despite the bad taste this game will leave in their mouths.
"We didn't execute in the first half," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "There were closely contested plays and we didn't make them. In the second half, we got rolling a little bit.
"You're going to have games like this from time to time. But it's a lot different being 4-1 versus being 3-2."
The Ravens won despite not scoring a touchdown for the first time in 43 games; the last such instance being a 17-15 home loss to Indianapolis in November 2009, when Billy Cundiff went 5-for-6 on field goals.
It was also the first Ravens win with a single-digit point total since a 9-7 road victory at San Francisco in October 2007, when Ravens Super Bowl quarterback Trent Dilfer started for the 49ers.
Not only that, the Ravens won despite an inconsistent offensive display, going just 3-for-11 on third-down situations; the first of those conversions coming on a penalty. But when Flacco (13-for-27, 187 yards, interception, four sacks, 55.6 rating) ran for 16 yards on third-and-15, it helped seal the victory.
"I saw the marker and thought I was going to get [there]," Flacco said.
What also helped was instead of getting tired, the Ravens' defense -- one that could reportedly get Terrell Suggs back in early November, according to reports that surfaced early Sunday morning -- stifled running back Jamaal Charles (140 yards, 30 rushes; 21 yards, three catches) to just 15 second-half yards after being buried by his elusiveness and power during the first two quarters.
"We tightened up our [defensive] fronts a little bit," head coach John Harbaugh said. "We felt like the defensive linemen were getting too much penetration and the linebackers couldn't keep up.
"So, if we tightened the linebackers up, it created more of a flat wall."
Kansas City's luckless existence -- one that had doomed it to a slow start to the season -- again manifested itself with four giveaways and eight penalties. All of Baltimore's points came off turnovers, leading to the Chiefs' seventh loss during their last eight home games.
But even while trailing, 9-3, the Chiefs seemed ready to pull out the game midway through the fourth quarter after the Ravens' Haloti Ngata slammed quarterback Matt Cassel (9-for-15, 92 yards, two interceptions, 38.1 rating) into defensive end Pernell McPhee, causing a concussion that forced him to leave the game.
Kansas City fans who had been clamoring for backup and Cleveland first-round choice Brady Quinn got their wish. Quinn then proceeded to direct a 10-play drive that nearly ended with a go-ahead touchdown to top wideout Dwayne Bowe (60 yards, six catches).
But once again, the Chiefs hurt themselves at the worst possible time; an illegal pick by receiver Dexter McCluster -- the second such penalty on the Chiefs during the game -- wiped out the score and the home team had to settle for Ryan Succop's 31-yard field goal with 4:31 to go.
And when Ray Rice (102 yards, 17 carries; 16 yards, one catch) slammed over the right side for a third-and-1 run for a first down just after the two-minute warning, the Ravens had held on.
The game had ended as it began, with a mistake-filled, uneven effort by both teams, a malaise that affected the Ravens more earlier during the game.
After the Ravens were unofficially charged with just two dropped passes during the season's first four weeks, Rice had one drop and Anquan Boldin (82 yards, four catches) had a pair as the Ravens' offense showed better balance than Kansas City's, but much poorer execution. Fullback Vonta Leach dropped a third-quarter pass, and Dennis Pitta also had one.
As a result, a much-praised Baltimore offensive renaissance that had produced a unit ranked fifth in the league -- scoring at a 30 points-per-game clip -- was rendered practically powerless for most of the game.
The Ravens had just 10 first-half possession minutes and ran only five plays in Kansas City territory, while the Chiefs had 179 rushing yards and 22 plays on the Ravens' side of the field.
The home team got an even bigger boost on the second-half kickoff when ex-Ravens special teamer Terrance Copper stripped the ball from Deonte Thompson and ex-Ravens linebacker Edgar Jones fell on it at the Baltimore 30. It was only the fourth fumble of the year for the usually sure-handed Baltimore roster.
From the 12, Cassel then pulled off a back-shoulder-fade throw to the end zone for Bowe, but the Ravens' Cary Williams interfered with him at the goal line.
One play later, the Chiefs returned the favor with another ill-timed mistake that changed the course of the game.
Cassel was no threat to become the fourth straight passer to have a 300-yard game against the Ravens, but he tried to sneak over the goal line to give the Chiefs their first regulation-time lead since last year's season finale against Denver. But a late snap resulted in a fumble, which Ed Reed recovered and ran out of the end zone for the Ravens' third takeaway of the day.
For the first time during the game, the Ravens looked energized. Flacco ran a play-action fake and Boldin caught a pass over the middle for a season-long 43-yard gain to the Chiefs' 42. Rice then headed for the left sideline and gained 26 more, but Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson, who missed most of practice last week (groin), stopped him on third-and-4.
Still, with points at a premium, Justin Tucker's 26-yard field goal gave the Ravens a valuable 6-3 lead midway through the third quarter.
After the one-dimensional Chiefs were stopped again, Flacco floated a right-flat pass to Rice for a 16-yard gain to the Kansas City 48. But a sideline throw for Boldin was too far inside, and Flowers subsequently intercepted it, running it back 29 yards to the Baltimore 36.
But the way the Ravens' defense was slowing the Chiefs' running game, the turnover didn't seem as damaging, considering how ineffective the Kansas City pass attack had been all day.
That and the Chiefs' luckless offense all came to fruition two plays later, when a high Cassel pass hit Bowe's helmet and Williams intercepted it at the 23. Tucker capitalized again with a third-quarter-ending 39-yard field goal to move the Ravens' lead to six, 9-3.
Turnovers are always crucial, but especially so during a low-scoring game that the Chiefs were actually dominating, at least at the start.
A STANDOFF, THEN
The Chiefs tried to give the Ravens a taste of their own medicine with a no-huddle, run-oriented attack, which had them running the ball on 15 of their first 17 plays.
The tactic took the game out of the hands of turnover-prone quarterback Matt Cassel -- his 10 giveaways were tied for the league lead with Dallas' Tony Romo, a number that grew to 14 on Sunday -- and featured AFC leading rusher Jamaal Charles on three straight bursts through the line on the Chiefs' first possession.
But linebacker Paul Kruger -- usually used more in passing situations -- dragged down Charles, who had 82 first-quarter yards, on a third-and-short run to force a three-and-out.
Kansas City's longest-active streak of not scoring on a first drive was extended to 23 games. But the Ravens couldn't answer right away.
The Ravens ran little no-huddle during their last road game at Philadelphia -- some reports had the number as low as six plays -- and initially didn't go to it in a hostile Arrowhead environment they had conquered during their two previous visits (2006, 2010 playoffs).
But at least Flacco tried to get tight end Dennis Pitta involved with a sideline pass and an over-the-middle toss on third-and-8, which was incomplete. Pitta (22 yards, three catches) did not have a catch last week, and the incompletion gave the Chiefs something to feel good about: they had allowed an opening-drive score to their opponents during three of their first four games.
The home crowd felt even better after Charles ripped off a 25-yard gain to the left side into Ravens territory, which was eerily reminiscent of his 41-yard touchdown run during the playoff game two years ago.
But the same play two snaps later resulted in run defenders Jameel McClain and McPhee stuffing Charles, setting up a third-and-8. The Chiefs' third-best third-down offense strangely reverted to a Shaun Draughn run that Kruger and Courtney Upshaw buried.
For the Ravens' part, their 22nd-ranked third-down offense was further hamstrung because they were backed up inside their own red zone. Penn State product Tamba Hali -- who got past left tackle Michael Oher -- and good Chiefs coverage took Flacco down and forced a punt that was returned to midfield.
But it seemed inevitable that Kansas City -- with an NFL-worst minus-13 turnover ratio -- would blink first. The Chiefs' first mistake of the day reared its head as Jones was called for holding, negating the good field position after the punt.
But even though the Chiefs had the ball, things went from bad to worse. Charles fumbled after a 10-yard gain -- Arthur Jones ripped the ball out -- but Reed couldn't come up with a clean recovery before the ball went out of bounds.
Finally, rookie back Cyrus Gray dropped a Cassel pitchout that Upshaw recovered, setting up the Ravens at the Kansas City 42, the NFL-high ninth lost fumble for the home team.
But the Ravens -- tied for the NFL lead in penalties with 37 through four games -- shot themselves in the foot as Boldin's illegal block wiped out a 25-yard Torrey Smith (38 yards, three catches) screen-and-run. But Rice glided through the left side for 37 yards behind Vonta Leach down to the 12.
The Ravens had the league's second-best red-zone offense before Sunday -- the Chiefs' red-zone defense ranked 30th -- but a third-down pass to the end-zone pylon for Tandon Doss was wide and Tucker's 28-yard field goal served as the first quarter's only points.
GROUND AND POUND
Emboldened by the small deficit, Kansas City began the second quarter the same way it started the first, pounding Charles into the line on consecutive plays and driving into Ravens' territory at the 40.
For the last three games, the Ravens' run defense had allowed a gradually decreasing number of yards, a curve the Chiefs were threatening to shatter. But Kansas City left tackle Branden Albert (Glen Burnie) false-started on third-and-5, yet another less-than-timely Chiefs mistake that led to a passing situation.
Temporarily, things broke the right way for the Chiefs as Bowe took a pass from Cassel and ran out of bounds at the Baltimore 29, giving the home team its deepest penetration so far.
And as soon as the Chiefs felt they had momentum, Williams -- playing much tighter defense the past few weeks -- covered a slant to Bowe, and Lardarius Webb snared the ensuing deflection, his first pickoff of the year and the fourth different Raven to intercept a pass in 2012.
But right tackle Kelechi Osemele allowed a sack and a third-and-15 long pass was incomplete, which could have killed the Ravens' drive. But cornerback Stanford Routt -- one of the most-penalized players in the league while with Oakland last year -- held Boldin to give the Ravens an automatic first down.
As the Arrowhead crowd reached its usual 115-decibel crescendo, Osemele was then flagged for a false start, one that made a subsequent pass to Boldin moot as it was short of the first down.
But as the Ravens' attempts at balance were falling woefully short -- thanks to physical press coverage from Routt and Brandon Flowers on the edges -- the Chiefs were determined to stay on the ground, win the line of scrimmage and play an old-fashioned brand of ground-oriented football.
Charles bolted for 11 yards into Ravens' territory, a gallop that put him over the 100-yard mark midway through the second quarter. He became the first opponent to rush for more than 100 yards before halftime (125 yards, 20 carries) against the Ravens since Chicago's James Allen did it in December, 1998 at Soldier Field, a game the Ravens lost, 24-3.
Things were going so well for the ground game that Cassel, the target of an airplane banner calling for his benching, then ran to the left and out of bounds at the Ravens' 29.
Draughn then ran right to an edge the Ravens weren't setting at all, picking up a first down at the 18, and the no-huddle allowed Cassel to plunge for a first down at the 7.
Then, the frustrated Raven run defenders showed their teeth.
McPhee and Kruger got enough penetration to knock Charles back for an 8-yard loss; Kruger then got past Albert to force another two-yard setback. A rattled Cassel then let the play clock run down and was forced to call a timeout, eliciting boos from the fickle Arrowhead crowd.
The Chiefs played it cautious, running the ball one last time -- their 30th rush in 34 plays; the Ravens had just 19 snaps at that point -- and got a game-tying 30-yard Succop field goal.
The battle had been joined and the tone had been set, albeit a flat and disjointed one. With a long set of Sunday games coming up, maybe the Ravens can get more in harmony.
Posted Oct. 7, 2012