ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Most people figured the Baltimore Ravens offence would regress. No one thought it’d be this bad.
The defending Super Bowl champion — a team that prides itself on its physical toughness — has struggled all season to move the ball consistently.
In Sunday’s 23-20 loss to the Buffalo Bills, the Ravens sunk to what they hope is rock bottom. But you know what? The Bills had a lot to do with it.
First, the Ravens couldn’t run it a lick. This, despite the return to action of running back Ray Rice, who sat out last week with a hip flexor. (That’s my pregame photo of him, at right.)
The Ravens amassed all of 15 yards on the ground by halftime, and abandoned the run almost completely thereafter, gaining only nine more yards.
Through the air, Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco — the reigning Super Bowl MVP — flashed his precision-passing playoff performances. He just couldn’t stop throwing the ball to Bills defenders.
Five times in all — including two to re-repositioned Bills cornerback Aaron Williams, and another two to dynamic rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso.
“Hey, they picked me off five times (yet) we still had a chance to win at the end,” Flacco said.
True enough. Baltimore trailed 20-7 at the half, then narrowed Buffalo’s lead to 23-20 in the fourth quarter, getting the ball back with 2:20 left at their own 37.
Six plays later, Flacco faced a 3rd-and-8 at the Buffalo 48. That’s when he threw to trusty tight end Dallas Clark up the middle.
But Bills safety Da’Norris Searcy — who’d made plays all game long, like many of his second-string defensive backfield mates — tipped the pass.
Alonso, with his uncanny nose for the ball in clutch situations in just his fourth game as a pro, dived and snared the ball just before it hit the turf. Ball game.
Both teams are 2-2 at the quarter-pole.
“I just go and try to play my hardest … That’s all I care about,” said the laid-back Californian. “Whatever happens happens, man.”
Notwithstanding a few killer deep strikes from Flacco, the Ravens couldn’t muster a decent drive all game. They never possessed the ball for longer than six plays — in 17 drives.
“We definitely have to get better,” Flacco said. “A lot of that falls on me today, throwing the ball to the wrong people. If we don’t do that, this game probably goes a little differently.”
Perhaps. But you have to give a ton of credit to the no-longer-to-be-laughed-at Bills defence.
Up front the Bills D-line whipped the Ravens in the trenches, not just in the run game but in harassing Flacco — to the tune of four sacks, 12 hits and a slew of hurried throws.
The injury-ravaged Bills secondary did bleed yardage in the second half — 233 — but it kept making drive-ending plays. Not just the five interceptions, but 13 pass-breakups too — four apiece by Williams and Searcy.
Even third-string cornerback Brandon Burton had a key breakup late in the game, in the end zone, while subbing for Williams, after Williams bruised his back.
Under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, the Bills are schematically aggressive — often showing blitz, usually with corners in press-man coverage.
And they aren’t veering from that strategy, no matter how many defensive backs go down.
Top cover corner Stephon Gilmore, last year’s first-round draft pick, broke a bone in his wrist in August. A hamstring kept Buffalo’s next best corner, Leodis McKelvin, sidelined on Sunday. And Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd still hasn’t played a down because of a foot injury.
The injuries required Williams, a cornerback in his first two seasons before relocating to safety in the spring, to move back to corner. He was spectacular at times against the Ravens. Williams nearly had a third interception on a diving lunge. (Williams breaks up a pass in Reuters photo, above.)
“It’s unbelievable,” veteran safety Jim Leonhard said of Williams. “There are not many guys in this league that can go back from safety to corner and play the way that he did and gut it out. He’s nowhere near 100% right now … He’s earned a lot of respect.”
Leonhard, a nine-year man in his second stint in Buffalo, intercepted Flacco once.
The Ravens QB said he expected to see all those backup Buffalo defensive backs continuing to play press-man.
“That’s what they do,” Flacco said. “They feel comfortable doing it, and you’ve got to tip your hats to them for sticking with what they do well.
“We thought we could take advantage of it. But like I said, when we throw the ball to them five times …”
At this point last year, the Bills defence had surrendered 131 points, or 32 per game. Twice in the first four games of 2012 they allowed 48 or more. And the worst was yet to come, in San Francisco.
This Bills defence hasn’t allowed more than 27 points and is averaging 23 against. Things are looking up.
The same cannot be said for the Ravens offence. Yet head coach John Harbaugh promises improvement.
“The team we’re going to be two months from now is not the team we are right now,” Harbaugh vowed.
Offensively, it can’t get much worse.
Spiller and Jackson run it up, then limp off
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson hobbled out of Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Nothing serious, apparently, but hey — there isn’t much time to heal. Their Buffalo Bills play at Cleveland on Thursday night.
Spiller hurt his left ankle in the third quarter on Sunday against Baltimore. He had it taped up and returned for one play, before gingerly walking off again. He gained 77 yards on 23 carries.
Jackson gained 87 yards on 16 carries, and had an impressive 16-yard burst for a first-half score. He suffered a slight knee sprain, according to NFL Network’s Albert Breer, but expects to play against the Browns.
With Spiller and Jackson gaining 164 yards combined to lead Buffalo’s big day on the ground against a good Ravens defence, Bills head coach Doug Marrone was more than a little pleased.
“Let’s make no mistake about it — they’re the defending Super Bowl champs,” Marrone said. “I want to celebrate, yes. I think we did an outstanding job. You have 207 yards (rushing) against a Baltimore Ravens defence — (it’s) very difficult to do on the ground.”
Manuel has his bobbles but wins again at home
But after taking a big step backward last week in an ugly loss to the New York Jets, the Buffalo Bill made enough plays with his arm to help defeat the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, 23-20.
Manuel completed just 10-of-22 passes for 167 yards, he was picked off twice, and a bad fumble of his led to a quick Ravens touchdown.
But Manuel threw a beautiful touchdown pass to fellow rookie Robert Woods, a 42-yard strike, which gave the Bills the lead for good in the second quarter.
A second-half TD pass to Woods was overturned on review.
The Bills offence ran mostly out of the I-formation, with Manuel under centre. That helped the running game, and better protected Manuel.
The rookie from Florida State chuckled about his near fumble that nearly gave the game away. On a keeper he repeatedly bobbled the ball before dropping it.
“That was a record of four or five (bobbles). I don’t know, but luckily we got it back,” Manuel said.
He’s one late field goal by New England away from being 3-0 at home.