Ravens Should Lean On Playmakers

Special to Common Sense Football @chrisbraven from chrisbraven.com

It’s Déjà vu all over again.

And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

When watching our Ravens, especially on the road, do you enjoy the feeling deep down that we will have a chance no matter what? That we will make a comeback, that we are irrepressible, that someone will make a play?

It happens time and time again.

The real variable is who we will go to with the last gasp. That decision is the stuff that wins or losses are made of. And I’ve noticed that who we go to matters. As of our latest few seasons, perhaps going back to 2011, we’ve either won a game or lost a game on the hands and feet and arm of men according to a specific grouping.

Ravens who are free agent signings, or unproven rookies (but moreso the former), tend to lose games for us.

Ravens who are tenured draft picks, or simply tenured Ravens, tend to win them.

It happened again Sunday in Cincinnati. There were two crucial plays that I would point to: the 1st quarter 4th and goal failure, and the 4th quarter, 3rd and 10 surrender of a 53 yard pass.

Both fails for us, both had free agents as key players, the latter had a rookie in the mix.

Kamar Aiken, the young journeyman who had seen three different teams before signing with the Ravens this year, simply did not catch Joe Flacco’s dart. He could not handle the on-target pass and we left points on the field. Points that could have won the game.

Dominique Franks was released after 4 seasons with the Atlanta Falcons and we signed him in the offseason. He seemed to be correctly playing a disguised cover-2 on the 53-yard pass play, until Sanu turned his route “up.” There was no one else in the vicinity, for Fran, and he did not follow Sanu, but continued to peek in the backfield. Meanwhile, Ravens rookie FS Brooks carried out his cover-two duties solidly until Sanu turned up. He then abandoned his look at the QB and simply chased Sanu. The ball was thrown short, so his expectation to perhaps bat the ball upon arrival was thrwarted when Sanu stopped to catch it. That was a technique error; Brooks could have had a pick had he continued to backpeddle and play the eyes of the QB. It is clear, now, that The Bengals’ Dalton simply threw up a prayer. What his pass should have found was double coverage and probably an INT, like the other side of the field was showing. His prayer was answered to the positive, and the rest is history.

Now, I’m not one of these writers who purports to know all of the X’s and O’s and how to play better than the pros themselves. I have studied this game for over 30 years and know a little bit, with much more to gain. I am capable of viewing an all-22 film and deducing what might have been the purpose of a scheme. But when, time and time again, it seems that our non-essential personnel are at the heart of these crucial plays, I wonder: what if we began to let our playmakers make plays? What if, in crucial moments, we go to our go to guys, instead of trying to trick the opponent with the least likely guy? Reason being, the least likely guy is more likely to foul the play up. There is a reason he was released. There is a reason that he is not a marquee free agent, like a Steve Smith Sr. or an Anquan Boldin. (Please check out my frame-by-frame breakdown of Smith’s nullified catch at chrisbraven.com) Should we continually put these very effective role players in the limelight moments, only to narrowly fall short?

The list goes on: Lee Evans, free agent WR signing from Buffalo, drops the TD pass that would have made us a dynasty (2011). Earlier this season, Ravens Safety Darian Stewart whiffed on tackling A.J. Green, and was critically late in his coverage help, allowing a 77 yard, final 2 minute- TD to Cincinnati. Stewart was a free agent signing from St. Louis, who arguably is playing out of position. In 2013, the season where one extra win would have afforded us a playoff entry, we had momentum and Green Bay pinned on a 3rd and 3 late in the 4th quarter. QB Aaron Rodgers hit his tight end J. Finley on a crossing route that burned rookie Matt Elam, and saw no help deep from free agent SS James Ihedigbo. 52 yards, first down, game essentially over.

I am not begrudging these men. Players make myriads of plays that go unsung, but routinely stop the opponent in their tracks. I am specifically talking about crunch time, with the game on the line. It seems that if we were to focus on making our leaders, our marquee playmakers the ones who are sought in the utmost time of need, that perhaps our fortunes could change.

It was Ravens 2nd rounder Torrey Smith that caught the pass that murdered Pittsburgh AT Pittsburgh in 2011. It was Raven Dennis Pitta who caught a crucial TD pass in Super Bowl XLVII. It was Flacco who led us through those playoffs without an interception. It was Ray Lewis and Ed Reed that led this defense to greatness year after year.

Yet, it was free agent TJ Houshmanzadeh who dropped a 4th down pass to sustain the final drive vs. Pittsburgh in the 2010 divisional playoff. “Everybody’s Favorite” Fabian Washington, a free agent corner, might have helped us secure home field in the playoffs for this game had he not been victimized by Tom Brady in the 4th quarter enroute to a 23-20 OT loss. It was free agent Billy Cundiff who missed the chip shot to tie the Patriots in 2011.

The point is, we need to make our marquee players, the playmakers, make the plays as much as we can control it. Perhaps we should scheme against a rookie and free agent covering the other team’s best WR in the crucial, waning moments of a game. Perhaps we should line up a draft pick, like Michael Campanaro, instead of a free agent, for a 4th and 1 catch. At least this way, we will know how to evaluate things going forward, instead of continuing to tread in the hit-or-miss world of free agent dependency.

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