Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Who's on first?

Derrek Lee makes a lot of sense for the Orioles in 2011.

As the Orioles are gearing up for baseball's winter meetings, the only major free agent to have been signed thus far is Victor Martinez, who sighed a 4 year, $50 million contract with the Detroit Tigers last week.

Martinez was on the Orioles radar. They offered 4 years, $48 million for the catcher, who has played 1B in the past. But Martinez wants to catch, and playing with fellow Venezuelan Miguel Cabrera was too much for Martinez to pass up.

As the Orioles move on, the major candidates for 1B include Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn, Carlos Pena, Adam LaRoche and Derrek Lee.

None of those players would be bad options for the 2011 season, but each player comes with their own issues: money, age, defense, years of contract, declining numbers, etc...

Konerko would perhaps be the biggest name of them all, but he'd likely command a 3 year deal. And for a 35 year old player coming off a career year in which he hit 39 home runs and had a .977 OPS, there is some risk involved. Will Konerko be worth a 3-year deal? Will he decline past 35 years old? If the Orioles could snag Konerko for a 2 year deal, I'd put the right-handed slugger at the top of the list. But players are paid for past performance in free agency, and it's unlikely that Konerko is worth the life of the contract he gets this offseason.

Adam Dunn is another big-name free agent, as evidenced by his gaudy home run totals (he hasn't hit less than 38 home runs since 2003. But he is infamous for his horrific defense and he's refused to move to the DH role for an American League team. He is also likely to command a 3 or 4 year contract for well over $15 million a year. But at 30 years old, Dunn is likely to be well worth the contract.

Carlos Pena was making the most sense out of all of the candidates until he turned in a poor 2010 season where he hit .196. He still hit 28 home runs and got on base at a decent clip compared to his average (.325 OBP), but his numbers have been in a steep decline since he joined the Rays in 2007 and caught lighting in a bottle. Pena's defense at 1B is stellar and coming off a down year he could be had for cheap. But he's struggled to hit LHP in his slump, and the Orioles are desperately in need of players who can hold their own against LHP. So after years of failing to get consistent production from the biggest power position on the field, will the O's commit to another project at 1B? Especially after the epic fail that was Garrett Atkins?

Adam LaRoche may remind people a lot of Aubrey Huff. He bats left-handed and seems to alternate between up an down years. LaRoche, 30, could be nabbed for a cheap 1 or 2 year deal, but it would be viewed as another safe, low-reward move for the Orioles, who are in desperate need of a big splash signing to keep fans interested. But LaRoche is at least consistent in the home run department, averaging 26 home runs over 162 games throughout his career. However, LaRoche could very well end up as Huff did in Baltimore, turning in 2 down years compared to one very good year.

Last on the list is Derrek Lee. You may remember Lee when he was traded to Baltimore from Florida before the 2004 season. But Peter Angelos (yeah, that guy) didn't want to extend Lee and he ended up in Chicago with the Cubs for some very productive years. The GM of the Cubs back then? Andy MacPhail.

Lee had a down 2010 season, hitting only 19 home runs and a .774 OPS while splitting time between the Cubs and Braves. But Lee was hampered by an injured thumb for most of the season which may have lead to his down season.

Lee was not offered arbitration by the Braves last week, meaning that if he signs with another team, that team will not have to give up a second round draft pick. You might remember the fans frustration over the Orioles parting ways with a second rounder to sign Michael Gonzalez last offseason, especially when Gonzalez imploded and then went on the DL at the start of 2010. So Lee will not cost a lot of money, and no draft pick.

That said, Lee has his drawbacks. Injury or not, the mediocre 2010 season cannot be ignored. And Lee, who will be 35 for most of the 2011 season, is no spring-chicken. But he is a right-handed hitter who kills LHP (.907 career OPS) and has a solid glove at 1B.

And then there is the MacPhail connection. I don't have enough time to list all of the former Cubs players the O's have acquired since MacPhail arrived, so that alone should be enough reason to say the Orioles as seriously considering Lee for 1B in 2011. And when you factor in Lee's price and the 1 or 2 years he will command, it's a no-brainer for the O's.

That isn't to say he's the best option -- or a player that fans will go bonkers for if signed -- but he makes a lot of sense for the Orioles in their current position.

I wouldn't be surprised in the least to see the O's sign Derrick Lee, whether it's this afternoon or in 2 months.

And you shouldn't be either.

Ravens top Bucs

Derrick Mason hauls in a touchdown pass in the Ravens 17-10 win over the Buccaneers.

It was another one of those games that'll give critical Ravens a lot of ammo for the week.

The Ravens beat the Buccaneers, 17-10, in a game they dominated on both sides of the ball for most of the game. However, the Bucs drove the ball 77 yards over 4 minutes and 38 seconds for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter to make the game look a lot closer than it really was. The Ravens lead 17-3 for almost an entire half of football.

If they had been able to stop the Bucs on that final scoring drive, they would have turned in their "statement game", in which they put the game out of reach early on. But as they have done against the Jets, Broncos, Panthers and now the Bucs, the Ravens have a way of making a game look closer than it really was.

Tampa Bay is a good young team who is going to be in the hunt in the NFC South for the next few years as their guys mature and keep learning to win. But the Ravens clearly showed that they were the better team.

The Ravens won the time of possession battle, 31:02 to 28:58. They accumulated more total yards, 349 to 263. They had more first downs, 18 to 14. And they had only 4 penalties for 30 yards to the Buccaneers 9 for 78 yards.

Joe Flacco kept his roll going, tossing for 289 yards, 2 TD's and 1 INT. He completed 71.4% of his passes. He held onto the ball too long, resulting in 4 sacks, but overall he had another fine game in what is sure to be his best season as a pro. He is on pace for 3,946 yards, 26 TD's and 12 INT's.

Derrick Mason, who'd had a spat with Flacco last week in Carolina, rebounded in a big way, catching 2 balls for 87 yards and a score. And Todd Heap, who is infamous for making tough catches while he's draped by defenders, caught a pass in stride and took it 65 yards for a TD.

On the ground, Ray Rice played the role of the closer, catching a pass for a first down and rushing for another on the game's final drive that allowed the Ravens to take a knee for the win. He had 85 yards on 20 rushes on the afternoon.

The defense turned in a solid performance against a tough QB. While they didn't record a sack, the defense flushed Bucs QB, Josh Freeman, from the pocket regularly, forcing him to make passes off balance. He completed only 46% of his passes. The Ravens D also did well against the run. They allowed 101 yards on the day, and 4.5 yards per carry, but they limited the big plays, which kept the Buccaneers in many 3rd and longs.

Would I have liked to see the Ravens be more dominant? Sure. They left at least 7 points on the field, and seemed uninterested to stop the Bucs on their final scoring drive. But for the most part, they played well, and beat the Bucs soundly in most statistical categories.

It wasn't pretty, but it was a win. And if that gets this team deep into the playoffs, I'll take it.

Moving on, the 8-3 Steelers come to Baltimore for a Sunday night matchup. The Steelers needed OT to beat the 2-9 Bills in Buffalo, and are banged up on the offensive line. Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 5 times by the Bills defense and is said to be nursing a sore ankle.

The Ravens have to be licking their chops.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Bucs stop here

Gotta love those unis! Josh Freeman is leading the resurgent 7-3 Buccaneers into Baltimore.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 7-3, same record as the Ravens. This is a team that was 3-13 a year ago and many thought would fight it out with the Panthers as the last place team in the NFC South.

But the Buccaneers have opened the eyes of many in the NFL, and at 7-3, it's time to take them seriously.

Josh Freeman, a second-year QB out of Kansas State, is having a tremendous season, with 2,099 passing yards, 14 TD to only 5 INT. At 6 foot 6 inches and 240 pounds, Freeman is a monster, and can break sacks like Ben Roethlisberger.

The Bucs are also benefiting from the improved play of their running game, starting with rookie bruiser LeGarrett Blount. Like Freeman, Blount is a specimen at 6 foot, 2 inches and 240 pounds. And Cadillac Williams, the oft-injured 28-year-old running back, is also having a solid season. Throw in WR Mike Williams and TE Kellen Winslow, who head up a much improved receiving corps, and the Bucs have a nice little offense in the making.

The Bucs are the Chiefs of the NFC. They are playing much better and learning how to win but they are benefiting from playing a last place schedule. They've hung with the 8-2 Falcons, failing to convert a 4th and 2 on the Falcons goal line at the end of the game and losing 27-21, but otherwise, the Bucs were blown out by the other good teams they've faced in the Steelers and Saints.

So this Sunday, we'll find out what these young Bucs are made of. The Buccaneers will also be the best team the Ravens have faced at home, having had all their most challenging games on the road thus far, so we'll continue to learn more about this Ravens team, as well.

Freeman and Blount are good young players and could pose problems for the Ravens. Blount, especially, since the Ravens run defense has been lacking as of late despite being ranked 9th in the NFL. But overall, the sum of the Bucs' offense is better than the whole, since they're ranked 22nd in total offense. Their defense is ranked 10th in pts and 16th in yards, but their rush defense is 29th in yards. So you know where their weakness is on defense -- stopping the run. Now it's time for Cameron to exploit it with Ray Rice and Willis McGahee.

I do think the Bucs can hang with the Ravens for a half, but sooner or later, talent and experience has to take over -- and the Ravens have much more of both.

As long as the Ravens don't play sloppy on offense like they did against the Panthers -- fumbling 4 times and losing 2 -- I think the Ravens will eventually pull away and win 27-10 after the first half stays pretty close.

But if the Ravens turn the ball over, or the defense allows a couple of big plays for TD's, it's anyone's game.

The Ravens host the Buccaneers at 4 PM this Sunday.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Ravens eventually blowout Panthers

Ray Rice celebrates a touchdown in the Ravens 37-13 win over the Panthers.

The Ravens improved to 7-3 for the second time in team history yesterday with a "closer than the scoreboard indicates" 37-13 win over the 1-9 Carolina Panthers.

It was closer than expected due to some Raven turnovers and a lackluster offensive performance that allowed the Panthers to get back into the game, 20-13 early in the 4th quarter. But two interceptions returned for TD's within 11 seconds made the score 37-13.

The blowout was eventually realized.

It was the kind of game that drives critical Ravens fans nuts. The Panthers, who are as banged up as they are terrible, started former stay at home dad and practice squad extraordinaire, Brian St. Pierre, as well as 3rd string running back, Mike Goodson. Goodson rushed for 120 yards and St. Pierre connected with David Gettis for an 88-yard TD pass that put the Panthers back in the game.

So apparently the Panthers didn't get the memo that they were supposed to lie down while the Ravens dismantled them. Maybe the Ravens should rethink their mail provider -- the Browns and Bills didn't get that memo either.

On offense, the Ravens had trouble holding onto the ball, which killed drives that could have made the game a blowout much earlier than the 4th quarter. The Ravens scored on their first drive, with Joe Flacco connecting with TJ Houshmandzadeh. They scored again on a Ray Rice TD in the second quarter, but came out limp after halftime. And fumbles by Flacco and Anquan Boldin didn't help either.

The one positive on offense was Flacco, who completed 72% of his passes and threw for 301 yards and no interceptions. He also moved well in and around the pocket, avoiding sacks and making things happen. It was quietly one of the better passing games of his career.

The defense, again, showed that they are no longer a force to be reckoned with. Goodson, who shredded the Ravens in preseason, did the same yesterday. And even though it was only one play, the 88-yard touchdown on Josh Wilson proved once again that the Ravens are susceptible to allowing big plays.

However, things look better on special teams, with David Reed being named the new kick returner. He had a great game yesterday, returning 3 kicks for a total of 135 yards, including an 85 yard return. And Billy Cundiff booted a 49-yard field goal that would have been good from 60 yards. He also kicked 2 more field goals and continually landed his kickoffs in the endzone.

The defense redeemed themselves in the 4th quarter, putting the game away after the Panthers had pulled within one score. Ed Reed picked off St. Pierre and lateraled the ball to Dawan Landry who took it in for the score. And only 11 seconds later, Ray Lewis showed us again that he still has plenty left in the tank, returning an interception for a touchdown.

So in the end, the game was like the heroine in a horror movie stabbing the killer only once and then dropping the knife right next to the killer's hand instead of taking that knife and cutting the killer up into chum. The game should have never been close to begin with, but the end result was the same.

What's next? The surprisingly 7-3 Tamp Bay Buccaneers travel to Baltimore this weekend for a 4 p.m. game. We'll see what they're made of, and we'll continue to see what the Ravens are made of as well.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Eighty Yards, Forty Seconds

Roddy White scores the game winning touchdown in the Falcons' 26-21 win over the Ravens.

80 yards, 40 seconds.

That's how long it took for the Ravens defense to prove that they are no longer a championship caliber defense.

The Ravens offense gave the defense a 21-20 lead last night in Atlanta with 1:05 left on the clock in the 4th quarter. The Falcons started on their 20 yard line. Seven plays and forty seconds later the Falcons had retaken the lead, and won the game, 26-21.

The Ravens defense couldn't get off the field all night on 3rd down. The Falcons converted 12 of 20 3rd down conversions, including 2 on the game-winning drive. Matt Ryan carved the secondary up for 316 yards, 3 TD's and 0 INT's. Two of those touchdowns went to Roddy White, whom the Ravens had no answer for. The only thing the defense did well last night was stop the run, holding Falcons running backs to just 60 yards.

And while the Falcons are a very good team -- and played a perfect game -- the Ravens still should have won this game despite scoring zero points and holding the ball for a little over 8 minutes compared to the Falcons' 21 minutes in the first half. Also a factor -- Cam Cameron's stubborn play calling. Ray Rice had a 4.9 YPC last night, yet with two and a half minutes left in the 3rd quarter and the Ravens trailing 13-7, Cameron threw 5 straight times, taking 50 seconds off the clock. After the Ravens punted, the Falcons drove 75 yards in 5 minutes and 16 seconds, and scored to put them up 20-7.

You can say that the defense is to blame for this loss, and it definitely is. After all, the offense did enough to win the game. But Cameron played his hand terribly on that drive. He should have used Ray Rice to milk the clock and keep the defense off the field. In all three losses, Cameron's play calling has been a major factor. I don't know if he will be back next year -- or if he even should be.

But let's talk about what really cost the Ravens the game last night. The defense. This is not the defense of Ravens teams past. This is a mediocre defense with mediocre players and a mediocre coordinator. The Ravens again failed to pressure the QB consistently, sacking Matt Ryan only twice. They had no answer for Roddy White. How many times this season have we allowed WR's to have huge games? I can think of several off the top of my head: Steve Johnson, Lee Evans, Deion Branch, Brandon Lloyd, and now Roddy White.

The Ravens used to be able to take the other team's best WR and hold him to scraps of yardage. Now they are laying out the red carpet for opposing WR's to torch them. White and Falcons' TE Tony Gonzalez had nothing green turf around them all night. Greg Mattison perhaps isn't the only scapegoat but he's not the answer, either. He hasn't been given much to work with on defense this year, and he has failed to put what he does have in position to succeed. His defenses are pure vanilla. After two years of Mattison, it's time to look elsewhere. The Ravens should have two new coordinators next year.

On a positive note, Joe Flacco played his heart out once again, and aside from one dumb throw that was picked off, he single-handedly put this team in a position to win the game after looking so flat for more than a half of football. He passed for 215 yards, 3 TD's and 1 INT, and spread the ball out to several receivers: Todd Heap, Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason and Ray Rice each had more than 40 yards receiving. If the Ravens offense would have shown up for the first half of football, the Ravens owuld have won easily.

In the end, the Falcons needed a a perfectly played game to beat the Ravens at home, and they did just that. My hats off to them. But this game hurts more than just one loss in the standings -- it proved that the Ravens defense is just average. They can no longer control the tempo of a game -- not with Cam Cameron refusing to run the ball at times to keep the defense rested. And that no doubt plays a part into the ineffectiveness of the Ravens defense, but I just think they aren't that good any more.

Thankfully, the Ravens have 10 days off before they play the 1-7 Carolina Panthers.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Get to work

It's time to make Baltimore's Red Line a reality.

The elections are over. Martin O'Malley defeated Bob Ehrlich. Now it's time to get the ball rolling on the Red Line.

O'Malley supported the Red Line, Ehrlich said he would scrap funding for it. So you can probably tell how I voted.

That's not to say Ehrlich hasn't done well with mass transit in the past. His Greater Baltimore Bus Initiative (GBBI) streamlined some of the MTA's meandering bus routes and added two "QuickBus" routes, including the #40 bus, which runs along much of the proposed Red Line route.

But when push came to shove, O'Malley backed the Red Line, which is something the city of Baltimore is desperately in need of. And now that the elections are behind us, it's time for O'Malley to put his money where his mouth is.

The many reports have been turned in, compromises have been made, and videos made, showing where the line will run and what it would look like.

And it all looks good to me.

Now it's time for the city to get to work!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Ravens spear Dolphins

Derrick Mason hauls in a touchdown pass in the 26-10 win over the Dolphins.

The Ravens came out of their bye week a refocused team with the scare they'd received at the hands of the Buffalo Bills fresh in their minds. And with the help of some trash talk from the Miami Dolphins' Channing Crowder, the Ravens were motivated to start the second half of the 2010 season on a positive note.

And they did just that, handing the Miami Dolphins (4-4) their first road loss of the season, 26-10. Ironically, the Dolphins are 0-3 at home.

The game started excitedly enough. The Ravens scored on their first drive, capped off with a Joe Flacco screen pass to Willis McGahee (who made some great cuts and received some great blocks) for a 38-yard touchdown.

On the next drive, the Dolphins answered on a Ronnie Brown 12-yard touchdown run. And then the Ravens clamped down on defense and didn't allow the Dolphins back into the game for the rest of the afternoon.

The game was not without some turning points, however. The Dolphins failed to score a TD from the 1-yard line, when Chad Henne was unable to hook up with Anthony Fasano, who was open in the endzone. And Joe Flacco threw behind Anquan Boldin, resulting in a pass that was nearly intercepted and returned for a touchdown had the Miami defender not dropped the pass.

The Ravens also left way too many points on the field as well, stalling in the red zone on several occasions. That meant Billy Cundiff had a busy day, attempting 5 field goals and making 4 of them. Another field goal was fumbled by the placeholder.

So it wasn't a pretty win. But it was an easy win, which is something the Ravens needed after the Bills game and heading to Atlanta on a short week to play the Falcons on Thursday night.

The limited bright spots of the day were Joe Flacco, who completed a whopping 74.1% of his passes for 266 yards, 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. Since his week 2 debacle in Cincinnati, Flacco has thrown 11 touchdowns to just 1 interception. Ray Rice also had a huge day, rushing for 83 yards on 22 attempts and hauling in 7 passes for 97 yards.

The defense also tightened up after the drilling they took from the Bills 2 weeks ago, limiting the Dolphins to just 289 yards of total offense, and picking off Chad Henne twice. Even the special teams chipped in with kick/punt returns of 25 and 23 yards. Nothing to write home about, true, but the Ravens have been dreadful on kick/punt returns so far this year.

After the game, Crowder accussed Ravens fullback Le'ron McClain of spitting in his face. Video of the incident shows McClain jawing with Crowder, and his head jerking forward as if to spit, but nothing else. It was Derrick Mason, the target of Crowder's pre-game trash talk, who had the last laugh: he caught a touchdown, and then blasted Crowder, calling him a "horrible player" after the game while talking with the media.

At 6-2 the Ravens are tied for the best record in the AFC and head into Atlanta for a showdown with the Falcons, who are also tied for the best record in the NFC.

And after 2 sloppy wins at home, it's time to see what these Ravens are really made of.

Bills give Ravens a scare

Billy Cundiff celebrates his game winning field goal in overtime over the Buffalo Bills.

It was one of those games where you ask yourself, "is this really happening"?

Coming off a tough loss to the New England Patriots a week before, the winless Buffalo Bills gave the Ravens everything they had -- and then some -- in the Ravens 37-34 overtime win.

The Bills were up 17-3 and 24-10 at one point and even came back from a 10 point deficit to tie the game in the 4th quarter and force overtime.

Their offensive stats are staggering: 506 total yards of offense. 4 passing touchdowns. 38 minutes of ball control. If not for Ray Lewis stripping Shawn Nelson of the football on a Bills drive in overtime, the Ravens probably would have lost. They were unable to stop the Bills on offense the entire day.

It was one of those games that cemented the truth for Ravens fans -- this isn't the dominant Ravens defense of year's past.

Maybe the Ravens were looking forward to their bye week. The Bills had just come off their bye. Maybe it was one of those perfect storm kind of games where a winless team can put the fear of God into a Super Bowl contender at home.

I'm chalking it up to "any given Sunday". But the game was not without many wake-up calls.

Thankfully, Joe Flacco was Joe Cool, even as the Ravens trailed by 14 points on two different occasions. He passed for 250 yards and 3 touchdowns to no interceptions. His completion rate was a lackluster 51.6%, however, and was sacked twice. But he made the throws when they needed to be made.

The receiving corps was lead by Todd Heap, who caught 3 balls for 59 yards and 2 touchdowns -- while Anquan Boldin caught 6 balls for 92 yards and 1 TD himself.

The ground game was workmanlike for the Ravens. Ray Rice gained 72 yards on 16 carries and Willis McGahee earned 64 on 11 carries with a touchdown. Both had good yard-per-carry averages on the day, but with the Ravens trailing by so much so early, they were forced to pass the ball.

The biggest problem on the day was on defense, where the Ravens failed to stop the Bills running game (132 total rushing yards) and exhibited atrocious tackling in the secondary. Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick did a good job getting his receivers the ball quickly, underneath the Ravens pass coverage, which allowed them to break some terrible attempts at tackling for big gains. It was a fundamental breakdown. If the Ravens could have tackled properly, the game would have never been as close as it was. Not to mention, Fabian Washington was torched on the day, and it was a performance that should ultimately cost him his job as a starting cornerback with Josh Wilson on the roster.

Thankfully, Bill Cundiff made all 3 of his field goals, including the 38-yard game winner. Cundiff has been pretty reliable on the season, but he isn't going to make Ravens fans forget about Matt Stover anytime soon. However, his kickoffs are routinely downed in the endzone. Any worries that Ravens fans had about the kicking game last year with the Steve Haushka debacle and then a shaky Cundiff taking over and ultimately winning the job again this year, should be put to rest. Cundiff is fine.

In the end, it will be a game remembered for the win, rather than the close call. Hopefully the Ravens head into the bye realizing they aren't invincible, and that even an 0-6 team can go toe to toe with anyone in the NFL.