Friday, January 30, 2009

Free Kicks

With those burdening previews and ensuing vacation out of the way, Free Kicks is back! So far I have wavered on whether to make Free Kicks all about national issues or whether to keep the focus on the Maryland area sports world, but I think I will keep it focusing on whatever strikes my interest that week, Maryland or not. I know some of you might be expecting a brief Super Bowl preview, but I couldn’t possibly put one together- for one, I am not nearly unbiased enough to write one fairly. I want Kurt Warner to win so badly, and I just hate the Steelers. Either way, let’s line up for the kick…

King of the Hill
I love the idea of the Orioles going after the Cubs’ Rich Hill, especially if they can get him for a “player to be named later”. This is a win-win. If he succeeds, the O’s may give up a mid-level prospect but they get a solid starting pitcher in return, which as we know the Orioles desperately need. If he flames out, they dish out some cash to the Cubs and say “so long” to the enigmatic right hander. This team cannot have too many potential starters- as we saw last year, the bare minimum won’t cut it. Anyone concerned about the young pitchers not getting a chance should take a look at the number of starters who went down or just plain stunk last season. I don’t want to hand the ball off to Radhames Liz unless I have to- no harm intended, but the man just isn’t ready yet. I would rather trade or waive a veteran pitcher in July or August to make room for a young starter who is burning through the minors than bring up a young guy in May because we have to. Rich Hill could be a long-term answer for this rotation. Or he could stink. Either way, it is a low-risk, high-reward move by an increasingly active front office.

Stand by Me
I am having trouble with this Gary Williams situation. For one, I simply cannot take the side of the athletic department- by nature, they are beancounters, concerned with how much it would cost to replace Williams more than whether he is a good coach. Secondly, it isn’t as though Gary is a new man than he was 20 years ago. Sure, perhaps he is a bit more grumpy than he was when he was winning titles, but he is still the same man. This conflict erupted when Kathy Worthington emailed the papers to challenge what Williams had said to the press. Yes, what Gary said was wrong- but as Head Coach, it isn’t his job to always be politically correct or watch out for his boss. Ms. Worthington was downright unprofessional when she chose to go over Coach Williams’ head to criticize him. Her statements were not made in the heat of a devastating loss; she sat down and had time to think it through. Have Williams’ teams been competitive over the last few years? Not particularly, but I have a tough time forcing him out, even after this season.

It reminds me quite a bit of Lloyd Carr, the former head football coach at Michigan. He had lost 5 straight times to Ohio State, hadn’t won a bowl game in years, and had just lost to Appalachian State (I’m sure you remember that part). The fans were tired of him, and they wanted his head. No mention of how he was a beloved coach who traced his roots to the glory days of Michigan football under Bo Schembechler, and no mention of his National Championship from 1997. When he was criticized for being “behind the times” or being “too old school for today’s recruits”, the athletic department stood by him. That way, when he did leave at the end of that season, he left with dignity and respect, honored by the fans and the school that booed him during the blowout loss to Oregon. If Gary leaves after this season, more eyes will be on Kathy Worthington and Debbie Yow than Coach Williams, and suspicion will reign. That is not the way he deserves to go.

Obligatory Super Bowl Thoughts
Okay, so I talked to Windsor and apparently I should say something about the Super Bowl beyond who I am rooting for. This looks to be a relatively high scoring game in my opinion, as the Steelers will be able to put up 24 or more against the Cardinals defense. Their defense hasn’t done a great job of pressuring the quarterback without a significant blitz, and Pittsburgh is just too creative not to have ideas of how to score on them- the Cards D has come through great in the postseason, but I still don’t buy it. The key in this game will be whether the Cardinals can keep a threat of a running game going- they had just enough against the Eagles and Panthers, but the Steelers are whole other story. I don’t think they will give James and Hightower any room to operate, and it will fall on the offensive line to protect Warner enough to let him find Steve Breaston in the slot- mark my words, Breaston is the wild card in this game. Fitzgerald will be doubled, and they will have tight coverage on Boldin as well. Breaston will be one-on-one and have to make plays against the linebackers they will foolishly line him up against. I believe this game will end with a combined score in the 50’s. Who will win? I want to say Cardinals, but this is the perfect moment for the Steelers to crush the nation’s collective Cinderella story.

The nod goes to the Steelers, 31-27

Ray Lewis Doesn't Want Advice for the Offseason

In about a month, Ray Lewis could be going into free agency for the first time in his career unless the Ravens re-sign or franchise him. Many things have been said in the media by other people giving Lewis suggestions on the situation, including CBS analyst and former teammate Shannon Sharpe saying he shouldn't leave, Terrell Suggs saying Lewis and he take hometown discounts to stay, and even Steve Bisciotti saying he would like him here. But all of that doesn't seem to matter much to Ray Lewis.

While at an event in Tampa, Jamison Hensley of the Baltimore Sun reports that Lewis told the media this: ""What I'm thinking, nobody needs to know. I've given my prayers to God. It's between me and him. It's nobody else's business. That's between me and God."

It is not often that many figures would come out and suggest to them what to do in the offseason. Unless you are Brett Favre. But for Lewis, apparently it does not matter what anyone else thinks.

Lewis is right on one thing. This is his decision, and only he knows what he is thinking. We don't know everything. Clearly it is a hard decision he has coming up, and only he can make it. Sure we can tell him to stay, but what if the Ravens don't give him a better offer than another team? Then should he still stay? The fact is until the Ravens make or don't make an offer, only then can something be decided. There is nothing wrong with people wanting Lewis to come back, but it won't be that easy.

(Photo credit: MASN)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Gary Williams, Maryland Athletics Continue to Fight

It is not good between Maryland's coach of 20 years and the athletic department. After Maryland's latest loss to Boston College, an already controversial situation got worse. Gary Williams has made public statements about how he feels the athletic department is not helping him with recruiting, losing Gus Gilchrest and Tyree Evans notably, and the athletic department has had different stories. In the end, right now is a Maryland program in complete disarray. With the recruiting problems, the losses, Jin Soo-Kim declared academically ineligible, among other problems, it is now looking possible, possible, that this could be the final year for the man that brought Maryland a national championship.

In the last three weeks, Maryland has gone from a hopeful 11-2 team to a problematic 13-7 team that has lost big leads in a few of their losses. On the verge of getting to their fourth NIT in five years, possibly worse to the CBI, tempers are flaring everywhere.

The simple fact is that in order to buyout Gary Williams, who has three years left on his contract, Maryland would need $6 million. Under current economic circumstances, it is hard to imagine that Maryland could gather that right now. To add, the boosters are not in any hurry, and for the most part they want to keep him. To add, most students still support him over Yow.

In many ways, this conflict was bound to reveal itself. Although it is well known that Gary Williams and Debbie Yow don't get along, in some ways it was accepted that both needed each other. Now that the program is having major problems that are gaining national attention, it may be too late to stop. One thing is for sure, Maryland needs to defeat Miami on Saturday night, or else there won't be many supporters left.

(Photo credit: Baltimore Sun)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Steve Davis laid off from WBAL

It is not often that we talk about the Baltimore sports media here at ATH, but when the sports director of the Ravens flagship station is laid off, it is important.

Steve Davis, who was at 1090 WBAL for the past five years as the sports director and talk show host of "Sportsline," has been let go. This was a cost-cutting move at WBAL.

Davis was not the most liked Baltimore sports personality for his often critical and harsh attitude, but the fact he is he was a realist and knew his stuff. He understands many things in sports that don't appear on the box score, and is not afraid to bring it up. Many critics of his didn't like the fact that he wasn't positive enough, but honestly, in the Baltimore sports world, there wasn't much to be positive about right now. But he always seemed to be knowledgeable about the Baltimore sports world.

It is a hard time for all local sports media. Lower budgets are forcing people who have been in the business a long time to leave and pursue other areas. This was the case with Davis at WBAL, Scott Garceau forced to leave ABC2 after over 25 years there, Roch Kubatko taking a buyout at the Baltimore Sun after many years there, and many others. It is our hope that Davis can find a job here in the area and keep talking about Baltimore sports.

(Photo credit: WBAL Radio)

Maryland Collapses (Again) on National Television

What is there really to say after last night's inexcusable 76-67 choke by the Maryland Terrapins? Maryland held a double-digit lead for most of the game and, playing at home, should have had no problem finishing off an uninspired Boston College squad. Instead, fatigue and sloppiness led to the Terps collapsing down the stretch and giving away this ballgame.

We are approaching the point in the season when teams truly reveal themselves as what they are, and Maryland has done as much. They have excellent guards in Greivis Vazquez and Adrian Bowie, but have a nonexistent bench, and no frontcourt players whatsoever. For Maryland to excel they must execute to near perfection, and not simply for one half in a ball game as with last night. For most of the game the Terps ran only seven deep, rotating in Dino Gregory in the frontcourt and Sean Mosley in the backcourt. Both of those subs played well, but the inexplicable absence of Cliff Tucker and the ineffectiveness of Braxton Dupree meant that those were the only two reliable bench players Gary gave minutes to. That to me is the easiest and most understandable reason for the continued failings of the Terps in the second half of games.

This team is not losing for lack of trying; they're just not that good, plain and simple. They came into last night's game playing hard and playing fast, but they were simply outmanned by Boston College. The roster this year was gutted before it even took the court in the unexpected departures of commitments Gus Gilchrist and Tyree Evans (not to mention the botched recruitment of Bobby Maze which still baffles me), and it took another shot last night in the announcement that freshman Jin Soo Kim has been declared academically ineligible to play this year.

After the Duke loss, it wasn't yet prudent for Maryland fans to claim that the sky was falling; bad games happen, particularly against the best team in the country (currently). However, for the Terps to lose a game such as they did last night, it not only virtually guarantees another year out of the Tournament, it makes you wonder just how low these Terps can go. With no depth and an average starting five, this could be one of the worst Maryland seasons in recent history. Oh, how the proud have fallen.

(Photo Credit: Kenneth Lam/Baltimore Sun)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ravens Offseason Juggling Act Begins

I just had to take this opportunity to outline some of the turnover going on with the Ravens in the postseason, so please excuse the Free Kicks-esque format, it was necessary for organizational purposes. It seems that with the free-fall of Maryland basketball (and the accompanying questions about how the game has passed Gary Williams by) and the annual attempt to piece together a starting rotation on the Orioles (with so many cheap free agents, why haven’t we brought them in?), it is easy to forget that the Ravens have a good deal going on themselves, in the front office, the coaching staff, and on the field.

The Front Office
I sure hope George Kokinis has the same impact on the Cleveland Browns that Phil Savage did. For that matter, I hope his departure from the Ravens has the same impact Savage’s did. That is, very little. The Ravens have a long history of reloading in the front office, like the USC of pro football front offices. There are a lot of great groups, but so long as the Pete Carroll/Ozzie Newsome is there, they will succeed. Since Kokinis is in the division, I won’t wish him the best of luck, but I hope he is happy there in his 4-6 win seasons. Kokinis, as many of you know, has served for the last 6 years and has just been hired as the new General Manager of the Mangini-led Cleveland Browns. I don’t know much about Kokinis except that I hate it when division rivals get our front office people because they have an in-depth knowledge of our personnel and Eric Mangini is a perfect coach to make full use of it. I for one love the Mangini hiring for Browns fans; but I hate it for the Ravens. With any luck I will be wrong, and Mangini/Kokinis will turn out as bad a match as the feared Crennel/Savage duo.

The Coaching Staff
Speaking of Mangini, his former post as Jets head coach has been filled by beloved Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. The man deserved that top spot eventually, and he will have his team fired up like no other. The good news for Ravens fans is that Ryan likely will not be calling the defenses, so the best defensive coordinator in the league won’t ever have the scheme or quality of defense he had here in Baltimore. His replacement, Greg Mattison, is a safe choice. You knew it had to be a Harbaugh hire, and would have to be someone in-house with the unique defense and personnel on that side of the ball. Moreover, in order to persuade Lewis/Suggs/Scott to return you had to have someone at the top they would like and respect, and they have that in Mattison. I doubt he will be a great defensive coordinator in the traditional sense, or he would have been offered an NFL coordinator job earlier. He has only been in the league for one season, either for lack of interest or lack of production, but I don’t anticipate that will be a huge problem- he will take input from the veterans and if the group stays intact there may be a slight dropoff in the defense, but it may not be noticeable if the offense is able to hold onto the ball longer.

There is word that he wants to blitz more, and while I am not sure that is possible, I wouldn’t buy much into it anyway. I have seen a lot of coordinators hired, and I have never once heard any of them say they want to blitz less. They all say they want to be more aggressive, attack the quarterback, etc. Once they are in the booth and are worried about those short crossing routes, we see how committed they really are to sending the house.

The Team
Nothing yet, but it is coming. The move not to franchise Lewis was a good move; he is just not worth that much on the free agent market to merit it. Remember how tough it was to move Jason Taylor? And he was a defensive end (perennial position of need on many clubs) and reigning defensive player of the year! Ray just would not get that kind of money. Hopefully he knows it. I can’t see a scenario where they let Lewis go, not after what he has meant to this franchise. There isn’t even an Aaron Rodgers situation here that would merit pushing out the face of the franchise. Terrell Suggs has suggested that he, Bart Scott, and Ray should take hometown discounts to stay together, and Scott made similar remarks earlier in the season, noting that when players leave this scheme they tend to have less success with other clubs. I certainly hope they are genuine sentiments, but they will not settle for pennies on the dollar, and I don’t blame them. The Ravens will be in a real crunch this season, with Jim Leonhard and others also looking at other clubs. I doubt Leonhard will want to stay if he has a shot at losing his job to a healthy Dawan Landry, so Baltimore may have to pony up a respectable contract offer or make him some promises in order to keep him. This will be a dicey free agent market for the Ravens, and they won’t even have to look past Owings Mills to keep it interesting.

ATH is Newest Voter on College Basketball Blogpoll!

Hey everyone, I know you must have been pining to get me back, but no worries, I am back on staff. No, it wasn't the Ravens loss that had me off of blogging for a week, but the length of those previews were getting to me and I just needed some time off! However, I wasn't entirely through working on the blog during my brief vacation.

I got in touch with some great people at March to Madness about joining their blogpoll for college basketball, and I am happy to report that ATH is their newest voter! I encourage you to check out their blog on Wednesday evenings to find out the general poll results and how different blogs around the country voted. We will do our best here to make sure we post our top 25 so we can get your reaction. This week the top 25 was put together by Falco and Windsor, so here goes:

1) Duke
2) Connecticut
3) Oklahoma
4) Pittsburgh
5) Wake Forest
6) North Carolina
7) Louisville
8) Marquette
9) Michigan State
10) Clemson
11) Xavier
12) Butler
13) Texas
14) Arizona State
15) Syracuse
16) Illinois
17) Purdue
18) Memphis
19) St. Mary's
20) Villanova
21) Gonzaga
22) UCLA
23) Kentucky
24) Minnesota
25) Notre Dame

Thoughts? More content coming later today, stay tuned!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Maryland Basketball Still Feeling the Heat After Duke Loss

After Maryland's 41-point loss against Duke, the voices of calling for Gary Williams's firing got louder and louder, and even two days after the defeat, the game is still resonating among Terp fans.

The question I have is why? No one expected Maryland to win this game. Duke was the #2 team in the nation on their home court with better shooters plus the big men to compete. They are now #1 in the country. Looking objectively at this game, did anyone believe Maryland could handle 7' Brian Zoubek or future NBAer Kyle Singler? Did they think Maryland could keep up with the speed despite a relatively young team? Coming into this season, Maryland's flaws were very clear, they don't have sufficient big men and likely this would be a down year. If a couple points go the other way, Maryland could be sitting at 16-3 instead of 13-6, and no one in their right mind would be talking if Maryland was 13 games over .500.

There is no question this loss was terrible. There is no question that Maryland has issues that need to be addressed if they wish to contend for the NCAA Tournament. But just because of one lop-sided game, everyone should jump ship? Before the season it was said that Maryland would have a hard time competing, but once again, now that it has happened, many are getting upset.

For those wanting Gary Williams fired, it isn't happening this year. Maryland like many schools has big financial issues, and the basketball program is the only sport making money for the athletic program. Fire Gary and a lot of sponsors go away. But more to the point, this season is not over. It looks grimm, but it isn't like a 10-point loss to Duke would have changed anyone's thoughts.

(Photo credit: AP)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Maryland Gets Destroyed by the Blue Devils 85-44

There is a reason why Maryland's press release is only four lines long. Maybe it will get longer, but probably not. The fact is there is nothing good to take out of this loss. Nothing. It doesn't matter that Landon Milbourne had 19 points, it doesn't matter that the Maryland defense played all right for 14 minutes. The fact is they lost by 41, the worst loss ever by Maryland to Duke. Duke is a far better team then Maryland that will take the #1 ranking, but you couldn't help but think the Terps just didn't show up in Cameron Indoor Stadium today, a place they call their "home away from home." This is a game they will want to quickly forget.

All year Maryland has been trying to play a game like Duke normally does. A guard-heavy offense that relies on shooting well. Problem is they don't shoot well. They don't have enough accurate three-point shooters or people that can grab the rebounds when they do have problems. Maryland normally runs a mixed offense of forwards and guards, and they are just not used to this. Though they prefer players that are bangers in the paint, even in earlier years with athletic forwards they have found success. But this year, they have neither.

The stats speak for themselves. Outscored 85-44, outrebounded 56-38, outstolen 11-5, outblocked 12-6. None of the Duke starters played more than 25 minutes; they didn't need to. Greivis Vasquez, who says he loves to play at Cameron and feeds off the crowd, shot 2-10 and got four points. Maryland shot 2-12 beyond the arc. It is not to take anything away from Duke, as they are a great team, but this is a rivalry, and rivalry games should be closer than this.

With all of this, Maryland needs to regroup and put this loss behind them. This schedule is not getting any easier, and if they want to go .500 in the ACC, they need to get their act together. They still have North Carolina twice, Duke again, plus Wake Forest and Clemson, all which will be losses if they put performances like today's, count all of those as losses. It doesn't matter if they are close losses, a loss is a loss to the NCAA. There is still time, but they have to be ready.

(Photo credit: Baltimore Sun)

Terps Head to Durham

To Maryland fans, the two Duke games are the bigger games of the year. Maryland-Duke may not be a full-blown rivalry, but these two do not like each other at all. The first installment of the 08-09 season commences this afternoon as the Terps will face the Blue Devils in Cameron Indoor Stadium at noon ET.

#2 Duke is prime to take over the #1 ranking for next week if they defeat Maryland, as current #1 Wake Forest got upset at home to Virginia Tech earlier in the week. They hold a 4-0 record in the conference with a 17-1 record overall, their lone loss coming against Michigan back in Ann Arbor on December 6th.

At the frontcourt, Kyle Singler is is a 6'8'' forward that plays hard down low, having a strong sophomore season, averaging 16.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. Their other big man is junior Brian Zoubek, a 7'1'' pure rebounding and defensive center. He averages 4.7 boards a game, but only averages around 14 minutes a game. Maryland needs Dave Neal and Dino Gregory to step up today. The Terps saw how a seven foot player does against Maryland on the board when they played Virginia, 7' freshman center Assane Sane had seven boards in just 10 minutes; the Terps were very fortunate he got into foul trouble.

Duke has normally been all about their backcourt in recent years, and this season has a strong one. While junior Gerald Henderson isn't the cleanest of players, he averaging 14.4 a game, and Jon Scheyer is getting 13.3. The Blue Devils love to own the perimeter and are a big time shooting team.

One key aspect against Duke especially down in Durham has been Greivis Vasquez. He thrives off the hatred from the crowd and has scored more than 20 points each time he's been down there. But the Terps need more than just him to step up. Maryland still is not looking good all-around, barely defeating Virginia and Georgia Tech at home and in turn barely losing to their two Florida opponents. Adrian Bowie and Dino Gregory have been decent of late, and will need to continue their success. Duke is heavily favored in this contest, but Maryland needs to play well.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Adrian Bowie: The Surprise of the Season

With all of the talk of the controversial Greivis Vasquez, underwhelming frontcourt play, Dave Neal's improvements, and Landon Milbourne' s inconsistency, one Terp has been consistently overlooked this season: Adrian Bowie. Initially Bowie was not in the starting lineup, instead providing a healthy spark off of the bench. However, after a strong start Gary Williams inserted the Greenbelt native into the starting lineup and Adrian has taken the reins as the primary point guard. Adrian has come on particularly strong as of late as a scorer, putting up double-digit points in five of the past six games and averging 18 points per game over the last three.

Entering this season I did not have a particularly high opinion of Bowie; his jump shot was nonexistent, and his decision making was suspect. This season Bowie has been arguably the best finisher on the team, and has fit very nicely as the primary point. The root of this is confidence; Bowie knows his advantage in quickness over most other defenders, and when he gets into the paint has superb body control to either draw the contact or finish the bucket (or both). This perhaps is the biggest difference. Last season, Adrian often played out of control and thus had difficulty finishing around the basket. His jump shot has also improved, although his accuracy from the three point arc still could use work.

The biggest drawback to his game is that he has a penchant for turnovers, and still needs to work on his ball distribution. His assist totals are up from last year admittedly, but his assist to turnover ratio still ranges around 1:1. This is the key ratio that needs to improve for Adrian Bowie to become a legitimate ACC point guard.

Regardless, Bowie has become (at least as of late) the motor for this offense. Not many people expected him to excel like he has this season, and the success of Maryland during the daunting stretch of ACC games ahead depends heavily on how he matures at the point.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Orioles Offseason Roundup, January Edition

While the whole city was having Ravens fever, as we all should have, Andy MacPhail and the Orioles have been making some moves during the offseason to prepare for 2009. Here's a look at some of the moves that have gone on in the post-Teixeira world:

Nick Markakis signed to a 6-year, $66.1 million deal

The Orioles re-sign one of their rising stars to a six-year deal. Markakis had a .306 average plus 20 home runs last season, and at only 25, his career is getting better. Earlier in the year, it was a concern with the Orioles and Markakis as negotiations were not going well and although no one expected MacPhail to let him go, it wasn't making anyone feel better that this was getting drawn out. But now he has his contract and will be a fixture in right field for years.

The signing could incur Brian Roberts to want to stay now since the Orioles seem to be trying to go in the right direction. Adam Jones mentioned that Roberts should be next. I'm still not sure if it would be better to trade Roberts or re-sign him since he is 31-years-old, but the market for Roberts does not seem like is that good right now, so until there is, keep him around and happy.

Cubs trade Felix Pie to Orioles for Garrett Olsen, Henry Williamson

The Orioles had been going after Felix Pie for a while, and they finally got him, just not for Brian Roberts. Pie, a former #1 overall prospect, gets traded for Olsen and Williamson after not panning out the way the Cubs wanted. The Cubs tried him out as a center fielder but did not have a good 2008 season, only batting .241 in 43 games played, so the Orioles will put him as the starting left fielder for the season. If Pie pans out, this would set the outfield possibly for the next decade: from left to right Felix Pie, Adam Jones, and Nick Markakis, all are under the age of 25 and are considered future stars. Nothing is assured, but for the future of the Orioles, this is an exciting premise of a sturdy outfield.

As for who the Orioles lost, Garrett Olsen showed some decent talent, but the fact is he would not have been a part of the future. He does not have the longevity you want in a starter and there is even talk the Cubs would use him as a reliever. And no one quite knows who Williamson is. So the Orioles are trading away two players that probably would not have meant much to the future for a possible big time player, a risk well worth taking. But, John Maine wasn't expected to be much either in the Benson trade.........

Orioles sign Koji Uehara, first ever Japanese-born player to play for franchise

The Orioles have dipped into the international market to grab Koji Uehara, a former Yomiuri Giants pitcher that will play his first game in Major League Baseball. Though he has seen better years, he was formerly one of the best pitchers in Japan, being a dominant starter in the early part of his career.

This will give the Orioles a new and possibly good starter, but I'm not sure this will have the effect a lot of people do. Some have been saying this will open the Japanese market and get the Orioles some great foreign players. Although Uehara had been approached by other teams, he will be 34 going into the '09 season and it appears that he will not get much better. The Japanese market is dominated by a few teams, mainly the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, and Mariners, and it is unlikely that the Orioles getting Uehara will give them much influence. But it still is a good idea, he could be a good pitcher here and the Orioles need starters badly.

Other news:
--Luke Scott is signed to a one-year deal. Since Pie is here, likely he will either be a designated hitter or a primary reserve outfielder.
--Red Sox trade David Pauley to Orioles for Rancor Beird. Pauley, 25, was a solid starter in triple-A but had a terrible run with Boston. Beird did well as a reliever in the beginning for the Orioles then had a bad stretch.
--Other signings include veteran catcher Gregg Zaun, pitcher Mark Hendrickson, and infielder Chris Gomez.

(Photo credit: SI (Markakis), MLB (Pie), Japan Times (Uehara))

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Maryland Basketball Moves Back to Center Stage

So now that the Ravens season is done, we can finally turn the page and move on to college basketball; just as much a part of this state's sports culture as football in my humble opinion. Around the Harbor will be switching focus primarily to the Terps and college basketball (though there will be some discussion on the Orioles offseason thus far and the coming Ravens offseason moves).

With that out of the way, let's get to tonight's crucial (yet unconvincing) win over the rival Virginia Cavaliers. I know a good number of Maryland fans don't recognize this as a rivalry, but historically the Terps and Cavaliers have been rivals and their recent encounters in all sports have begun to fuel that rivalry. This game in particular, which ended with a Maryland win by the score of 84-78, was far closer than it should have been and indicative of the second-half struggles this team has had in their recent ACC play. Regardless, their improved shot selection and rebounding helped this team edge out the Wahoos.

The good:
- Eric Hayes quietly had a very good game, making two key three pointers (albeit on an overall 2-7 beyond the arc) and dishing 11 assists with zero turnovers. Hayes' decision making has been suspect for the last couple seasons in my opinion, and this game really shows a turn in a positive direction. The key for Hayes offensively is to have more faith in his three point shot and not be too eager to drive to the basket; when Hayes is playing to his strength there's a far better flow to the Terps offense.
- Dave Neal and Landon Milbourne both had solid performances both scoring and on the glass. While Neal only put up 8 points, his shots came at the right times in establishing the tempo at the start of the game and giving the offense a spark when they were struggling in the second half. Landon on the other hand put on a more statistically impressive show, converting on all of his free throws and shooting a solid 5-9 resulting in 17 points. Landon Milbourne's mid-range jump shot is, in my opinion, the key to his game and when he's hitting it he can be a major offensive force.
- Gary Williams was able to get more of his bench involved in the game. Yes, the bench is thin and you certainly want the best players on the floor, but the starters need more rest to be effective in the second half. Plus, the only way these bench players are going to improve is by throwing them into the fire; there is no way the Terps can be a tournament team if Gary uses the smaller rotation employed in the Miami and Florida State debacles. Dino Gregory and Sean Mosley made solid contributions off the bench tonight, and both will be vital down the stretch.

The bad:

- Dino Gregory needs to keep himself out of foul trouble. Maryland only has two true big men in Dino Gregory and Braxton Dupree. Given Braxton's ineffectiveness offensively and defensively, Dino Gregory must step up and be able to take on significant minutes. And speaking of Braxton, he continues to struggle with his shot and in controlling the boards. With Braxton's frame, at the very least he must be a presence in the paint and haul in more rebounds than he has been; I believe if he played with a little more fire he could do just that.
- The second half struggles of this team is more than just a passing concern. In losses to Florida State, Miami, and Morgan State, the Terps held second half leads that they could not hold onto. In particular, Miami and Morgan State were well in hand before the Terps coughed them up. Certainly an improved rotation and staying out of foul trouble are the top two goals to avoiding these collapses.

That's about it for now; let's hope the Terps build off of this success to give Duke a run on Saturday. Trust me, I'm not the most optimistic Terps fan by any stretch, but keep this in mind: based on their track records, these two facts are true of Gary Williams' teams:
1) They can lose to anyone on any given day (Morgan State).
2) They can beat anyone on any given day (Michigan State).

Monday, January 19, 2009

Playoff Report Card: Steelers 23, Ravens 14

The word of the game is... ugly. Even for the victors, this game was flat-out ugly. Players on both sides went down with injury and most simply played through the pain. Neither offense got much in rhythm (with the Ravens never getting in rhythm at all), and defenses ruled the day.

It was by far Joe Flacco’s worst game as a professional in my opinion, but he wasn’t alone. The lack of a true deep threat showed itself most clearly in this game, and the Ravens’ inability to beat single coverage deep and take advantage of Flacco’s big arm was a key determinant in the offense never getting started. The gadgetry and creativity of the resurgent Ravens offense during the regular season was nowhere to be found, and it felt like the Billick years all over again.

If nothing else comes out of this game, at least it has been recognized by the football community at large that the Ravens-Steelers rivalry is at or near the top in the NFL. The Steelers beat us up and beat us up badly this year, and hopefully that will help fuel the flame to return the favor next year.

Offense - Overall Grade: D-
Quarterbacks: D-
Flacco looked overwhelmed and confused for large stretches of the game. He had difficulty going through his progression and looked like a rookie for one of the few times this season. He threw three interceptions, one of which returned for a touchdown to seal the game. This grade isn’t all on him however; the coaches did a terrible job of giving him manageable throws to get into a rhythm. Flacco needs a true deep threat for this offense to be effective, and I’ll be repeating this ad nauseam until one is acquired in the offseason.
Running Backs: C+
Actually if you really look at how he ran, Willis McGahee ran pretty well when given the opportunity. The Ravens would have been far better served to let him carry more of the load early in the game, and mix in Ray Rice more than they did. Le’Ron McClain was hurt, so there can be no expectation that he run up to his usual standard.
Wide Receivers: D-
They couldn’t get open consistently, and couldn’t make plays for their young quarterback. Joe Flacco needed some help, and didn’t get much. The dropped passes early in the game absolutely killed any chance for their quarterback getting into a rhythm.
Tight Ends: D
Todd Heap should have been more involved in the offense than he was, and that was one of many mistakes made by the offensive coaching staff. He made one big play late in the game but very little else.
Offensive Line: D
The run blocking was generally poor, and Joe Flacco made the pass protection look better than it really was. Jared Gaither was absolutely taken to school by James Harrison, and it resulted in a few very costly penalties. Success of the offense is built around the success of the line, and in this game they saw little success.

Defense - Overall Grade: B+
Defensive Line: B+

The running game was controlled, contrary to Willie Parker’s pregame comments expressing an expectation of a big game against the Baltimore defense. Haloti Ngata played a huge game (no pun intended), and for most of the game Ben Roethlisberger was kept in the pocket.
Linebackers: B+
The discipline and overall play of this unit went up as the game progressed. Willie Parker was a non-factor, and Roethlisberger was harried just enough to keep the offense off-balance. It was a good final game for the free agent trio of Ray Lewis, Bart Scott, and Terrell Suggs. And a quick note about Suggs: two sacks with one arm? He is the consummate warrior.
Defensive Backs: B-
Not as bad a game as most pundits thought it would be for this group. Frank Walker and Fabian Washington both played solid games, and Corey Ivy actually made a couple of positive plays for the defense. Yes, they were burned for a couple of very long completions, but other than that the performance was acceptable. Ed Reed being a non-factor was more a function of Ben throwing away from him than Ed doing anything wrong.

Special Teams - Overall Grade: B+
Kicker: C

Or more accurately, Stover gets an A, Hauschka gets an F. I don’t know if it was nerves or what, but Hauschka’s kickoffs were abysmal and were a large part in setting the field position game in favor of the Steelers from the very beginning of the game. Stover did all he was asked to do, so he shouldn’t have to be part of the bad grade.
Punter: B+
Sam Koch didn’t do anything spectacular to change field position, but he did his job consistently well and was called on far more often than any punter should. He didn’t slip up under pressure and that’s worth something in my book.
Returners: B+
Boy, it’s the AFC Championship game and the Ravens are still shuffling kick returners. Figurs is going to be in a dogfight to get his job back heading into next season. But you know who won’t? Jim Leonhard. His work yesterday (and for the last several weeks in fact) has been nothing short of game-changing, and it looks like he has more than secured a spot on this team next season, whatever the capacity.
Coverage: B-
Not terrible, but certainly not very good by any stretch of the imagination. They blocked well for Jim Leonhard, but had difficulty stopping Russell on the short kickoffs and nearly let Santonio Holmes go for a long punt return touchdown.

Coaching - Overall Grade: C+
Offensive: F

Absolutely terrible, terrible game plan and execution by Cam Cameron and his staff. The coaches never put Flacco in a position to get into a rhythm early in the game, never tried out the run early to build a foundation for their passing game, and didn’t use enough of the playbook. When this offense is successful, Cam Cameron is letting out all of the weapons at his disposal, most notably including Troy Smith in his single-wing formation. For some reason the playbook closed back up in this game, and Pittsburgh feasted on a vanilla Ravens attack. Trickery can work in big games, just ask the Steelers: they won a Super Bowl with it.
Defensive: A
Considering all of the circumstances, the Ravens defense was brilliant in this game. After a rough first quarter, the defense rallied to make the Steelers offense just as anemic as their Ravens counterparts. Kudos to Rex Ryan and his staff for an excellent game, and we wish all the best of luck to Rex in his new job.

And for my MVP/LVP...
MVP (Most Valuable Player) –Jim Leonhard–
Leonhard was offense and defense for the Ravens, as he not only set up the first Ravens touchdown with a big punt return, he recovered a fumble and played solid defense throughout the game. A great day for the young safety from Wisconsin.
LVP (Least Valuable Player) –Jared Gaither– Gaither was overmatched by James Harrison, and in trying to compensate committed drive-killing penalties. Gaither has had a sensational year on the whole, but this was arguably his worst game.

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Rex Ryan To Become Jets Head Coach

The Associated Press is reporting that Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan will be the Jets head coach next season. Many had speculated this would happen once the Ravens season was over, and now it has happened. All three Ravens defensive coordinators in history have moved on as a head coach, the first two being Marvin Lewis to the Cincinatti Bengals and Mike Nolan to the San Francisco 49ers, though Nolan no longer retains his job.

Ryan has spent the last ten years with the Ravens starting as a defensive assistant then becoming the defensive coordinator in 2005. He has always been a popular figure around here as some even wanted him as head coach when Billick was fired. Even when he wasn't chosen here or for any other potential jobs, John Harbaugh asked him to stay and Ryan was a huge help to him all season. The Ravens defense has been great as always this season, being in the top-3 in nearly every category, and he has garnered respect from most of the players.

This now bodes the question, who will be the new defensive coordinator? Normally the Ravens tend to look in house for the defensive coordinator. There is not one standard for the Ravens, as Lewis was brought in at the start of the franchise, Nolan was a former defensive coordinator of three other teams, and Ryan has found in house. But the job is a valuable one, as the Ravens are always known for defense.

We here at Around the Harbor wish Rex Ryan the best in New York. Don't let all that Brett Favre nonsense cloud you, that is what cost the last coach his job.

(Photo credit: NY Daily News)

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Ravens Season Reaches an Abrupt Finish

The Ravens just got finished off by the Steelers tonight, in a tough and hard-fought battle sealed by a late Polamalu interception for a touchdown. Don't tell me this doesn't hurt, and don't tell me that the silver lining is the most important thing. We have all offseason to try to be positive on this season. I'm not going to write on here that 'well, we should be happy with our season' and 'there will be brighter days ahead'. Let's paint this situation for what it is. It stinks, it hurts, and that hurt won't be lessened by forced positivism.

The fact is the city of Baltimore had their hopes pinned on this team, and now those hopes have been dashed by the Ravens' most hated rival. What do us Baltimoreans have to look to now Around the Harbor? Terps basketball. Lacrosse. The Orioles.

On a last remark, our thoughts and prayers here at Around the Harbor go out to Willis McGahee. He battled hard and was certainly NOT the reason the Ravens lost.

Postgame will go up sometime tomorrow. (sneak peek : Jared Gaither is LVP)

Ravens-Steelers Preview, Part 4: The Rundown

Well, the pundits are all right about one of their cliché’s, this will be like a heavyweight boxing match. Unfortunately, the Ravens have already fought for 8 rounds against a powerful opponent when a fresh-faced Steelers team steps into the ring. They are both tough and both talented, but the Ravens are exhausted. With the way the offense dominated time of possession, last week was all but a bye week for the Steelers defense, while the Ravens clung on to victory by the skin of their teeth in game that in retrospect they won because they got the right bounces.

If Baltimore goes to the Super Bowl, it will be because of their ability to overcome a couple key elements. One, their injuries and fatigue will not have to be a factor. The replacements on defense will have to play as though they were starters, and Le’Ron McClain and others will have to play as though they were not hurt. The Ravens will have to be able to tackle underneath and keep up with the deceptively fast Steelers receiving corps (not to mention a rejuvenated Willie Parker), and run inside to wear down the Steelers defense. Secondly, Joe Flacco will have to go out and win this game. So far he has been able to get by “not losing” games; this one he will have to win. Whether it is driving the ball down the field through the air or delivering that perfect pass for a 54 yard strike, the Ravens rookie will have to overcome his inexperience and not only avoid mistakes, but make plays.

However, I don’t know if this will happen. The Ravens have gotten by with bounces going their way, with a fumbles falling into their laps, with little fortuitous events that has kept this Cinderella season alive. I can’t see that happening in Pittsburgh. The Steelers are the team that dashes hopes, that get you to the brink of victory before snatching it away. This year, the Steelers have gotten all the bounces- be it against the Ravens, San Diego, Dallas, or any other opponent. When you break down the numbers, the Steelers are the clear favorite. They will play the Ravens close for the first quarter and a half or so, and then bust it out with a few big plays as the Ravens D starts to get fatigued. The Ravens offense will be forced out of their comfort zone and “Joe Cool” will make that mistake. He has had too much hype about him not making mistakes for it not to happen.

I want to say that the Ravens have a psychological advantage, but that will be muted by the rabid crowd of fans in Heinz Field. I want to say that the Ravens have all the intangibles to win this game, but the Steelers have the personnel. I want to say the Ravens are going to win today, but I can’t.

The nod goes to the Steelers, 27-13

As for my compatriots:
Windsor gives it to the Ravens, 20-14
Falco gives it to the Steelers, 17-10

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Ravens-Steelers Preview, Part 3: Ravens Offense vs. Steelers Defense

Programming note: This is ATH's 250th post! Hoorah!

Much attention has been paid so far to the dominance of the Ravens’ defense during these playoffs, and it is much-deserved. Despite the yardage given up, they have only allowed 9.5 points per game in their two contests this season. While the Steelers weren’t quite so stingy last weekend, allowing 24 points on 3 Chargers passing touchdowns, this defense is still arguably the best in the NFL. Remember, this team has had almost the exact same schedule as the Ravens, yet their defense leads in all significant statistical categories over the Ravens. This may be partially aided by a better offense than the Ravens, but nevertheless it is impressive. They have not forced as many turnovers, but that is about it. It will take a very innovative attack to neutralize this pressure and allow Flacco the time he needs to deliver the deep balls that have become the staple of the Ravens scoring offense.

However, I do not like the over-reliance on the deep pass that Cam Cameron has instilled in his young quarterback. At the risk of being repetitive, it bothers me a great deal that Flacco has very few short routes to take advantage of on passing plays aside from a delayed dump-off to the running back for minimal gain. About midway through the season, Mark Clayton began hitting his stride and taking the short slants he was accustomed to catching to the house, burning secondaries along the way. Cameron took that and began to have Clayton go deep more often. Granted, this has been effective and has allowed the Ravens to get some big plays, but it has also made them unable to convert critical first downs. When the shortest route is a 15 yard out pattern to the sideline by Mason, that leaves the quarterback in the pocket for far too long and forces him to throw it away. Even Todd Heap is being used on deep routes over the middle of the field- he is good at it, but it is overworked to the point of taking away the types of throws that keep drives alive. As a result, the Ravens have gotten away somewhat from their ball-control offense and have limited their passing game to the point of predictability.

As anyone who watched the Dolphins and Titans game can attest to, the short passing game can complement a running attack that goes south to the point of extending time of possession and getting key first downs. Sometimes, on 3rd and 5 it is okay to run a 7 yard route. Unfortunately for the Ravens, Cameron has been calling 15 or 20 yard routes on those plays and exposing his quarterback to undue pressure. Some would counter that by citing Flacco’s relative inaccuracy with the football on shorter routes as the reason why Cameron has stuck with the deep throws he can make. Flacco’s problem is that he throws it too high on short routes, he puts a little too much on it and lays his receivers out. This is not too much that it should be taken out of the playbook. The Steelers defense will be watching the deep routes, and Troy Palomalu will be looking for an interception. Throwing in some short slants or out routes will play keep-away with the better DBs on the Steelers and extend time of possession for the Ravens. The Ravens won’t get past this contest with 9 first downs like they did against the Titans.

Keeping the Steelers defense on the field will be critical. As has been generously documented, the Ravens D is exhausted and if it is put in a normal contest between these two teams, they will break first. That is no slight to Baltimore, but they have fewer bodies to go around and have been playing for 18 straight weeks. Moreover, with Le’Ron McClain banged up and Willis McGahee struggling this season, the Ravens will need another option to come through big, possibly in the form of a rejuvenated Ray Rice. Rice has not played since Week 14 against the Redskins, and apparently could have carried the football for the last two weeks but the coaching staff elected not to. Prior to the Steelers taking the football and not giving it back to the Chargers, Darren Sproles had a surprising level of success against the Steelers through the air, with 5 catches for 91 yards and a touchdown. However, on the ground the entire Chargers team only managed 15 yards on 12 carries. The Ravens must establish a presence in the middle of that Steelers defensive line, and if Le’Ron McClain is not 100% that will be incredibly difficult. Assuming he can run with his normal level of power, he should be able to duplicate his success from the last time these two teams met, when he ran for 87 yards on 23 carries. After he establishes himself with a couple solid runs, the Ravens would be wise to swing Rice out or run a screen to draw the defense in and spread them out. Pittsburgh will be putting 8 in the box and daring Joe Flacco to throw. That doesn’t mean he has to throw deep or has to do anything miraculous. Sometimes the easy throw is the right one. If Rice is successful on one or two screen passes, the defense will be forced to check for it on every play, and it may add just an instant of hesitation, which will be all McClain needs to find the hole and make a play.

Unfortunately, the Ravens signal caller had a career-low 22.2 passer rating during the Ravens 13-9 loss to the Steelers in their second matchup of the season, in which Flacco threw 2 interceptions and completed only 11 passes for 115 yards, the second-lowest number of completions and the lowest yards this season. All this despite his being sacked only twice all game. “Joe Cool” will have to bounce back, as Pittsburgh clearly saw something that they could exploit. Going into the game, the Ravens had scored 36, 34, and 24 points in their previous 3 games. Against the Steelers, they mustered only 9 points and while they came painfully close to the endzone 3 times, each time they had to settle for chip-shot field goals. If any of those field goals is converted into a touchdown, they have a whole other ball game. The Ravens will not win this game on field goals alone, as the Steelers know how to put the ball in the end zone when they have to. Baltimore runs the ball an astonishing 80% of the time in goal-to-go situations (that is, 1st and Goal, 2nd and Goal, etc.). This week they will have to put some faith in their quarterback to make the throw at the goalline, because I doubt the Steelers will be relaxing on the run game. Play action passing has been very good to the Ravens in completing deep passes downfield, why not at the goalline?

The Steelers defense is menacing. They will apply pressure at any opportunity (the team is 2nd in the NFL in sacks with 51 on the season) and stack up against the run. They don’t care what people have said about Joe Flacco’s calm demeanor and easygoing state of mind, they want to rattle him and make him realize the gravity of the game he is playing in. They won’t rattle him, but they could force him into throwing the ball away or not having enough time to recognize the coverage. Flacco has been incredibly diligent these playoffs in holding onto the football and not throwing interceptions- but unless he has time in the pocket, he may not spot that trailing safety before he lets go of the ball. Moreover, unless the Ravens have a legitimate threat of a rush, the Steelers will ignore a gimpy McClain and go after Flacco. The Ravens offensive line has been adequate this year, but they won’t be able to stop a pass rush with reckless abandon for the run. The key for the Ravens will be to establish a variety of offensive approaches- short routes, screen passes, etc. that avoid the biggest threats of the Pittsburgh defense and can neutralize their ability to react quickly to the play. Then, only then, can Flacco air it out and hit big.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Ravens-Steelers Preview, Part 2: Steelers Offense vs Ravens Defense

Okay Ravens fans, this could be rough. Excuse me for possibly overreacting here… but did you see the Steelers on Sunday? Perhaps it was exhaustion from a grueling stretch of 5 straight “must wins” for the Chargers, but my eyes told me they came to play. They were simply beaten at the line and overcome from the first snap. Watching that football game, there was never a doubt in my mind who was the better team after seeing the physicality that the Steelers came out with. Ben Roethlisberger held onto the ball for a long time as always, but he could afford it with the protection he was getting. Nothing was penetrating that line, and Ron Rivera knew it. So by the time he held back his blitzers, Ben was already in a rhythm. San Diego’s corners were outmatched against the rested and aggressive receivers, and Big Ben did not fall into a trap of relying on one or even two receivers primarily. 6 players had receptions, and all had at least 2 catches- he completed passes to his tight end, running backs, and of course the detestable Hines Ward. It was a scary-efficient offense.

What does this mean for this weekend? A lot. No, San Diego is not as physical as Baltimore, but the ability of the Steelers to keep drives alive and extend time of possession most certainly is. Even with Chris Johnson, the Titans consistently were able to convert critical third downs, and were it not for a few timely turnovers would have finished with points every time. I don’t care how effective the Ravens have been in forcing turnovers, we shouldn’t expect the same out of Pittsburgh. Tennessee held the ball for almost 35 minutes, roughly the same as Pittsburgh did against San Diego. The Ravens cannot afford to allow the Steelers to hold onto the ball that long or they will get gauged- and this home team knows how to finish with points, having found an excellent short yardage back in Gary Russell.

But it isn’t Gary Russell who poses the greatest threat for the Ravens. After struggling with injuries for much of the season (conveniently at moments that he was playing the Ravens), Willie Parker looked like his old self on Sunday, rushing 27 times for 146 yards. He wasn’t all that effective early in the game, but as the contest went into the second quarter, Parker started to go wild, and it wound up opening gaping holes in coverage downfield. The offensive line, too, looked like it did before the loss of Alan Faneca and the 49 sacks allowed this season. They dominated the Chargers, who accrued only one sack the entire game. Sure, this defense only generated 28 sacks all season, but the Ravens only sacked the quarterback 6 times more this season, and will likely be even more tired than the Chargers were. Remember, the Ravens themselves only made one sack on Kerry Collins all game, and their exhaustion was showing from the second quarter onwards.

The Ravens were just in a dogfight of their own, and have the scars to prove it. Terrell Suggs will force the coaching staff to let him play, but the Raven’s best pass rusher will not be 100%. Samari Rolle could be out next week, leaving Frank Walker against Santonio Holmes and Fabian Washington against Hines Ward. The latter matchup is especially distressing for one reason. Without Rolle, the Ravens do not have a cornerback who is either smart enough on the field or physical enough to match up with Ward. Against the Steelers, your cornerback has to have one or the other at least. You won’t find a more adamant advocate for Fabian than I, but the man does not know how to tackle, or at least hasn’t shown it thus far this season. Meanwhile, Hines Ward has been known to elude the grasp of linebackers on a regular basis. As many of you readers would know, Corey Ivy is not very popular on this blog. He won’t be very popular with any Baltimore fan after he is matched up with Nate Washington. Washington converted several key third downs down the stretch for the Steelers, and he is their most underrated offensive threat. He has the deep speed to break down the field, but he is even better at positioning his body and boxing out defenders for first downs when the defense is keying in on Holmes, and Ward. Oh, and there is always Heath Miller, who has the receiving skills of Todd Heap, even if his blocking ability isn’t quite there yet.

If the Ravens can hold stout at the line and move the offensive line backwards, they will force Ben to throw into coverage and make a mistake. He will make a mistake- I believe Roethisberger will be even more prone to the big error than will Joe Flacco. This season, the Pittsburgh quarterback has been easily suckered into the feeling that the entire offense rests on him, and it has had two important results. Primarily, he has held onto the ball far too long waiting for the open man, resulting in sacks. Secondly, he has thrown unwisely at the last minute and turned the ball over. His 15 interceptions are second worst in his 5 year career, while his 17 touchdowns are tied for the worst- but most telling are his 7 lost fumbles that resulted from his trying to hold onto the ball in the pocket when pressure came from behind. His games against Baltimore have not been especially poor, with only 1 fumble lost, 1 interception thrown, and a passer rating that is actually slightly higher than his season average. The teams he struggled against- Philadelphia and New York Giants, most notably, were teams that were able to apply significant pressure with every snap. I sure hope Rex Ryan doesn’t have his mind on head coaching jobs and can dial up something new for Big Ben.

However, when it comes to playing the Steelers, it starts and ends with stopping the run. In 2 games against the Ravens this season, the Steelers have rushed for a combined 160 yards on 55 carries for a paltry 2.91 average. While Parker didn’t play in that opening game, it still shows the ability of the Ravens D to stop the Pittsburgh run game. The Ravens must rely on that extra day of rest they got from not playing on Sunday to get rejuvenated because if they can come out and play the way they did in the first two matchups, this defense has the potential to harass and stifle any Pittsburgh rushing attack and, while it will give up the underneath passing, could benefit from a turnover or two courtesy of Brian Leonhard and Ed Reed that could swing the balance of this ballgame. If, on the other hand, the Ravens come out like they did against the Titans, this will be a very very long game, and we will see the defense out on the field for possibly 40 minutes of this ballgame. I don’t doubt the intensity of this game; I doubt the ability of the Ravens’ bodies to hold up for 4 quarters of football after the row they have been through.

Of course, all of this changes depending on the health of Suggs, Rolle, Washington, and others. And that is exactly the problem. Pittsburgh will attack the Ravens right up the gut, trying to wear them down for the 3rd or 4th quarter before gashing them in the passing game. With a fully healthy Ravens, I wouldn’t even note this point because I have no doubt that a rested Ravens team stuff this sort of attack. When Ryan is forced to pull the linebackers and safeties in towards the line of scrimmage (as he was forced to against the Titans), it will be up to the backup corners to try to make a play- and I just don’t trust Frank Walker and Corey Ivy. If, however, the Ravens blitz starts to hit and the run is stuffed, Baltimore will get the second wind they need to dominate the line of scrimmage. Ben can be forced into mistakes. He will have to be for the defense to win out over the Steelers physical offense.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Ravens-Steelers Preview, Part 1

Well this has certainly been the more hyped matchup (as expected), and Steelers-Ravens is always a game to watch. First there were bragging rights on the line. Then there was the AFC North Division Title on the line. And now there is a Super Bowl berth on the line. If the first two games are any indication, this will be one hell of a game- if anything, we will see our share of injury time outs. I cannot believe that the Ravens are in the AFC Championship game, it is absolutely incredible as a Ravens fan that they have gotten this far. As last week, we are going to have a much more involved preview session for playoff season. Here is our schedule for the next few days:

Today: What I’m Wondering
Friday: Steelers Offense vs. Ravens Defense
Saturday: Ravens Offense vs. Steelers Defense
Sunday: An Extended Rundown with Predictions

What I’m Wondering:

Will Flacco stay unflappable? Will he stay upright?
Joe Flacco was sacked 5 times in the Ravens first matchup against the Steelers. He was only sacked twice the second time around. However, he also happened to throw 2 interceptions and only complete 11 passes en route to throwing for only 115 yards- his 22.2 passer rating was worst for his rookie season, including the playoffs. I am not certain what the Steelers saw in the tape, but it is likely that without those interceptions the Ravens might manage a touchdown or at least hold onto the ball longer than the first time around. Joe Flacco will not only need to be competent this weekend and not make mistakes, he will have to make plays for the Ravens to win. And not just the occasional bomb to Derrick Mason, either. With the Steelers stuffing the box with defenders against the run, Cam Cameron will have to open up the playbook on those 3rd and longs to enable Flacco to have a variety of 1st down options- and it will be up to the rookie to complete them. Is Joe Flacco ready to win versus “not lose” a ballgame?

Which stellar defense will step up this week?
Well, while much of it was in garbage time, the Steelers did allow 24 points to the Chargers despite them being completely one-dimensional on offense. The Ravens allowed the Titans to rack up 391 yards and pierce the red zone 3 times, but forced 3 turnovers in their own territory and took advantage of a missed field goal to hold Tennessee to 10 points. It is hard to say which is better, and it is hard to say which one will perform better this week. The Ravens are banged up, worn out, and gassed after playing for 17 straight weeks. Also, they happen to be playing Ben Roethlisberger, who always seems to pull a rabbit out of his hat in the 4th quarter this season- and the Ravens, if the last couple weeks are any indication, will be out of bodies and out of energy by late in the game. Add in injuries to Samari Rolle, Terrell Suggs, and the mere presence of Corey Ivy on the field, and I can’t say the Ravens will outplay the Steelers. Even if the Ravens can throw on Pittsburgh, the Steelers are too well rested to get gassed in the 4th. Will the Ravens be able to overcome injury, aches, and pains to play in midseason form?

Which injury will hurt the Ravens the most against the Steelers?
This one is tough. You could make the case for Suggs, but I believe that the Ravens have linebackers in waiting who, while not as good as the Pro Bowl pass rusher, can still do a decent job- there is not as huge a dropoff in talent as there are at other positions. Samari Rolle will be a tremendous loss if he cannot play, but only because it would wind up with Corey Ivy as the nickel back. I don’t want Corey Ivy on anyone, much less an underrated receiver like Nate Washington. Believe it or not, I am going with Le’Ron McClain. Against the Steelers, the biggest need on offense is for a running back who can punish the Pittsburgh defense as much as they punish the running back. Last weekend McClain was running like a big back, but not a powerful back. He wasn’t getting a push at the point of attack, and whatever was wrong with his ankle really showed. I am sure he will play this week, but if he cannot drag defenders or hit the lane with determination, the Steelers will drop him right at the line. I am more comfortable with our depth on defense than on offense- I don’t trust Willis McGahee to carry the load this week and be successful.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Breaking News: Baltimore Recommended to NCAA for 2010 Men's Lacrosse Final Four

Christian Swezey and John Jiloty of Inside Lacrosse are reporting from two sources that the NCAA Men's Lacrosse Tournament Committee has recommended Baltimore for the 2010 NCAA men's lacrosse tournament Final Four. Although 2011 and 2012 were also being considered, the recommendations for those years are to Boston and New Jersey respectively.

M&T Bank Stadium would be the host venue for the event as it has been in years past. The last time Baltimore hosted the Final Four was in 2007, when Johns Hopkins upset Duke in the championship.

This decision is not final; it is only a recommendation. It is up to the NCAA to determine the final sites, however this is a good step for Baltimore. The final decision will likely be made next month.

(Photo credit: E-Lacrosse)

Terps Take Trip to Florida

After a close victory over Georgia Tech last Saturday, Maryland has started its ACC schedule 1-0, but now heads to the Sunshine State for two matches against Miami tonight then Florida State this weekend.

Maryland's last game against Georgia Tech may have been a win, but it is clear that there are depth issues. Only four players played more than eight minutes, the normal starting five plus Sean Mosley. While this lineup won and depends on speed to win, only playing primarily six players can potentially turn into major problems. It will force less aggressive play to avoid foul trouble, it is still a small lineup so it is hard to adjust with other people not getting any playing time, and if a couple of people have a bad night, then Maryland will not have many people to turn to. But even so, Maryland is 12-3 and is going on their first true road test.

For the Miami Hurricanes (12-3, 1-1 ACC), the man to watch is Jack McClinton, a former Calvert Hall player. He is a dangerous point guard that can drain the three and dish for the assist. Dwayne Collins is their main big man, standing 6'8'' averaging 12.1 ppg and 7.8 rpg. Though Miami has a slight height advantage, it is not so much that Maryland shouldn't be able to rebounding issues in the frontcourt if they play their hardest.

For Florida State (14-3, 1-1 ACC), they are all about Toney Douglas on shooting, as of January 7th he averages 18.4 ppg, the only one that gets double digit scores a game. Florida State is not the most efficient rebounding team, but they have a freshman starter Solomon Alabi who is 7'1'', so he may be constantly under the basket. Taller doesn't mean better rebounder, but it won't help Maryland can't possibly post him up.

These two games are very important for Maryland. It will be the first time the Terps go on the road against a hostile crowd plus we will see if they continue the six player rotation. Maybe we'll see more Dino Gregory and Braxton Dupree in these games, possibly Jin-Soo Kim. Nonetheless, Maryland shooters need to break out fast to win.

(Photo credit: Baltimore Sun)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

MLS Draft on January 15th: Many Terps Looking to Get Drafted

The 2009 MLS SuperDraft will be on January 15th at 2:00 PM ET in St. Louis, and many Maryland players fresh off their national championship run are looking to get drafted, including the senior class plus some underclassmen chosen as Generation Adidas players, which means they forfeit their college eligibility so they can play in the MLS and get scholarships to college if they don't make it in the pros, as well as they don't count as being on an MLS roster. With the draft coming up in a few days, where will some of the Terps get drafted? has done solid coverage of the upcoming draft, and is worth a look. Also check out our favorite soccer blog Pro Player Pipeline for player analysis. Predictions will be updated as they come.

Omar Gonzalez- Jr. Defender, Generation Adidas
A 6'5'' central defender that also has scoring abilities, Gonzalez is the most highly sought after back in this year's draft. He was the two-time ACC Defensive Player of the Year. No doubt he will go high. ATH Prediction: 2nd or 3rd overall.
MLS "Gonzalez is strong, composed and just a beast in the air." Prediction: 2nd overall to Toronto FC.
UPDATE: 1/13/09: now has Gonzalez going #1 overall to the Seattle Sounders.

Jeremy Hall- Jr. Midfield/Forward, Generation Adidas
A quick player that can also play forward if necessary, Hall is a solid corner midfielder that can anchor an attacking formation. He had one of his strongest years this season, scoring 14 goals, including six game-winners. ATH Prediction: 4th-6th overall.
MLS "He has the speed, the size and the ability to be a force down the wings." Prediction: 5th overall to FC Dallas.
UPDATE: 1/13/09: now has Hall going #14 overall to the New York Red Bull.

Rodney Wallace- So. Midfield/Defender, Generation Adidas
A solid all-around player that can solidify a wide back position or at corner midfield, Wallace has good speed and shooting abilities. He moved to the back line in his sophomore season to help solidify Maryland's defense, but his speed could make him a better midfielder. ATH Prediction: 5th-7th overall. "An attacking left fullback who loves to get forward and he can help the offense out with his speed." Prediction: 7th overall to D.C. United.
UPDATE: 1/13/09: still has Wallace going #7 to D.C. United.

Graham Zusi- Sr. Midfield
Zusi saw his draft status skyrocket after getting both of Maryland's goals and subsquently game-winning goals in the College Cup. He is an all-around decent central midfielder, nothing extraordinary, but decent speed and shooting ability. Can also play forward. ATH Prediction: Middle 2nd round. "In a season where you could say Maryland is rebuilding, Graham Zuzi doesn’t seem to have a problem making his team tick."
UPDATE: 1/15/09: predicts Zusi will go in the 2nd round, 28th overall to the Chicago Fire.

A.J. Delagarza- Sr. Defender
Delagarza was a four-year starter at central defender for Maryland, though his small size will likely push him wide. He has decent speed, though he will need to improve to be a starter in the MLS. ATH Prediction: Middle 4th Round. "If he can make the transition to a full back or a defensive midfielder I can see him play in the MLS."
UPDATE 1/15/09: predicts Delagarza will go in the 2nd round, 24th overall to the New England Revolution.

For other Maryland seniors, including Rich Constanzo and Michael Marchiano, they have not entered the draft.

And for non-Terps players that play around here:
Milos Kocic- Jr. Goalkeeper (Loyola)
Kocic at 6'5'' is a tall, athletic keeper that has great speed in the cage, making solid dives into corners. Some teams may be worried about drafting him due to overall lack of competition while at Loyola, but physically he has the tools to be a solid MLS keeper. ATH Prediction: Late 3rd Round.

As the draft nears, we will update the coverage in the draft, so check back here for updates.
UPDATE: 1/15/09: Five Terps plus Kocic got drafted in the first 23 picks today in the MLS SuperDraft.
--3rd overall, Los Angeles Galaxy: Omar Gonzalez
--6th overall, D.C. United: Rodney Wallace
--11th overall, New York Red Bulls: Jeremy Hall
--19th overall, Los Angeles Galaxy: A.J. Delagarza
--21st overall, D.C. United: Milos Kocic
--23rd overall, Kansas City Wizards: Graham Zusi

Congrats to everyone here, and good luck in the MLS.

(Photo credit: Matt Slocum, AP)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Greivis Vasquez Gets Angry at Maryland Student Section

During Maryland's home game against Georgia Tech last Saturday, Greivis Vasquez was seen shouting numerous times at the student section in the later part of the second half after he was booed by some students earlier in the contest. According to Jeff Barker of the Baltimore Sun, Vasquez said after the game "If they don’t want to believe in us, get the hell out. We don’t need them here. We need the people who are going to support us and be with us,” Vasquez said. “I want to say thank you to the people who were supporting us and believing in us. If you don’t want to support us, get out.”

Vasquez is routinely the subject of attack from certain Maryland fans due to his play and his extreme "out-there" behavior. Maryland was under some duress after the Morgan State loss and the subsequent slow start again Georgia Tech. But this is the first time during a game where Vasquez got visibly upset during a game at Maryland fans.

On the one hand, Vasquez should not be yelling at any fans, regardless of who they are. Most of the time if fans boo or jeer you, they are trying to throw you off. Players can easily get distracted by hostile fans, especially in college games with very energetic students involved. But you have to keep your cool and focus on the game, if you are thinking about the jeering crowd, then you are not 100% focused on the game, and that is exactly what they want. Obviously Maryland fans want them to do well, but home booing fans are booing fans, and in some ways have the same effect if not worse.

But really, once again the Maryland student section is showing its bad side. Just like the ones who were not cheering their hardest during football games, the Maryland students at basketball games can be the same way, just going against their own players. Vasquez is undoubtedly Maryland best player and leader on the court, and like many leaders, he is trying to make shots and guide his team to victory. He is not perfect by any means, but often he is the one that at least tries to make things happen. It is terrible that Maryland students are booing him at any period, the fact is he is a college athlete and Maryland's best player. If it were not for him, this team would be lost. Other teams fear him, and the NBA wants him after this year. And there are actually some fans who would rather have him off the team.

It is easy to understand his frustration, it must be a terrible thing that a college athlete puts his best effort on the court only to have his home fans booing him. Even one as wild and loud as Vasquez. Even the most nasty players still have the comfort of knowing that they have a place that will support them and cheer them on. But for players like Vasquez and Jordan Steffy, some Maryland fans will always hate them no matter what they do. Disappointment is one thing, and so is being angry. But this was over the line by the student section. Vasquez shouldn't have yelled at the fans, but the fans need to be more supportive of their leader.

(Photo credit: Baltimore Sun)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Playoff Report Card: Ravens 13, Titans 10

The word of the game is... miraculous. How a team like the Ravens could grab a victory in that environment, with a rookie quarterback, after being wholly outplayed for nearly the entire game? I would characterize that as miraculous. Considering the yardage statistics, the Ravens should have had no place winning this game as they were outgained by over 180 yards of total offense. What kept the Ravens in the game were costly turnovers by the Titans and a couple serendipitous calls by the officials. But that was not the whole story.

Make no mistake the Ravens won this football game, and the better team is going to the AFC Championship. The Titans decided that, to break down the Ravens defense, they were going to air the ball out. This is a fair and smart strategy for moving the ball, but note to the Titans: if your game plan involves 40+ throws by Kerry Collins, don’t be shocked when there are multiple turnovers. The Ravens defense was gashed, yes, but the turnovers were not just good fortune. And on the flipside, the Ravens offense played smart conservative football all game which ensured that there were no turnovers and no sacks on Joe Flacco. The Ravens gambled that ball security was far more important than yardage. They were right.

And by the way, I think we should all chill out over that non-called delay of game penalty. It was a blown call, and that gaffe really is not excusable. That being said, it is simply a five yard penalty on a 3rd and 2. The game does not end if the call is made, and there is nothing to say the Ravens don’t convert. If folks in Tennessee think that that play lost them the game, then they just weren’t paying attention.

Offense - Overall Grade: C-
Quarterbacks: B

Like last week this grade is bumped up for the fact that he is a rookie quarterback, made the key throws when they counted and, well, is making history to be quite honest. That being said, Joe was inaccurate on several throws throughout the game which cost the team precious first downs. He needs to stop throwing too high on short patterns, as that not only lays out the receiver but could lead to interceptions. His poise and decision making were both excellent, but if he could get his accuracy back on track this offense can go to the next level (which it will need to).
Running Backs: D+
Awful, awful game for the backfield tandem of Le’Ron McClain and Willis McGahee. Le’Ron, even before his injury, was running poorly and couldn’t hit the holes quickly. Willis ran slightly better, but still the production was not there. 24 rushes between the two for an average of less than two yards? The running game has to be effective for this offense to move.
Wide Receivers: C+
Derrick Mason had some outstanding catches, and Mark Clayton had a beautiful deep reception close to the goal line, but the highlights just about end there. The depth on this receiving corps is absolutely nonexistent, and that fault could easily come back to haunt this team.
Tight Ends: B-
Catch of the day, drop of the day for Todd Heap. But the catch was far more important, so the grade is a B- rather than a C+. The 23-yard reception was Heap’s only of the game, and Wilcox only had one catch for four yards. Flacco needs to be able to lean on this group more in the passing game, as they are big and easy targets, particularly Heap who can be a matchup nightmare.
Offensive Line: C-
Yes, Flacco didn’t get sacked, but that was more a product of his decision making and athletic ability than superior protection by the offensive line. The fact of the matter is, this group could not establish running lanes and that cost the Ravens dearly. Because of that the running game could not get going and thus the offense continually stalled and the defense was hung out to dry.

Defense - Overall Grade: C+
Defensive Line: B-

They were pushed around by the Tennessee defensive front all night. You can talk all you want about the play of Kerry Collins, Justin Gage, Chris Johnson, but there’s no secret as to how they ran over the Ravens defense; their offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage. It was clear that this group was tired, as they had difficulty wrapping up and generated no pass rush whatsoever.
Linebackers: B
Overall not a bad job, but their performance was far from their lofty standards. The blitz could not get to Kerry Collins, and the pursuit of Chris Johnson was sloppy and undisciplined. The missed tackles and slower movement to the football are most likely a product of fatigue, and hopefully with an extra day to rest this week they will be re-energized for the AFC Championship Game. (sidenote: doesn’t that sound fantastic to say?)
Defensive Backs: D-
Poor tackling, poor position, and slow footed. This was a terrible day for the Ravens secondary as they made Collins-to-Gage look like Montana-to-Rice. The lack of a pass rush exposed this group, but they are playing hurt. Nice interception by Samari Rolle, but that was a pure product of a rare pass rush.

Special Teams - Overall Grade: A
Kicker: A+

Matt Stover won the game with a 43-yard field goal. Yep, Stover is clearly all washed up at this point in his career.
Punter: A
Sam Koch had one of his usual excellent games, and was put in some very tough spots to boot. His punt to the 2-yard line was absolutely gorgeous.
Returners: B+
Tom Zbikowski is looking like a better and better pickup each day, and what can you say about Jim Leonhard? He doesn’t have the measurables that leap out at you, but there’s no arguing with his production. He’s smart, catches the ball, and makes plays. The most underrated offseason pickup in the NFL this year.
Coverage: B-
Considering the Titans have the best kickoff return team in the NFL, not a terrible day. Harbaugh was right in saying that the Ravens’ kickoff coverage has to improve. The discipline in coverage and returns are improving.

Coaching - Overall Grade: B
Offensive: C-

A very bad game for Cam Cameron, as he was unable to get the running game going and did not get Flacco into a good rhythm by letting him make some short throws early. If McClain hurts his ankle, why not give Willis McGahee more carries? Instead he threw in a gimpy McClain until very late when McClain was in significant pain. And if neither of those is successful, why not get Ray Rice involved? Ray Rice has the special ability to make things happen in the open field; a quick screen would be low risk and high reward, but it wasn’t even attempted. Also, it might have been smart to run some quick misdirection or a reverse, because the Titans were stacking the run straight up the middle.
Defensive: C
It’s a whole lot tougher to be a brilliant defensive coordinator when your line is dominated by the opposition. I understand that Ryan didn’t want to expose his secondary to the big play, but it took him far too long to send significant heat at Collins. Bart Scott is a pass rusher at heart, not a coverage linebacker. It was good to see more guys coming in and making plays like Nakamura and Jameel McClain.

And for my MVP/LVP...
MVP (Most Valuable Player) –Matt Stover–
There are a number of people who made huge contributions—Joe Flacco, Ray Lewis, Jim Leonhard for certain—but Stover won this game with an impressive 43-yard field goal. Without his clutch kick, this would have been in the loss column for the Ravens.
LVP (Least Valuable Player) –Le’Ron McClain– Le’Ron played through injury, but he rushed for only 12 yards on 12 carries in a game when the Ravens needed him big. The coaching staff is heavily responsible for this, as he should have been out of the game when his ankle went bad.

(Photo Credit: Derrick Mason(Gene Sweeney Jr./Baltimore Sun), Jim Leonhard(Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun), Ray Lewis/Matt Stover(Doug Kapusitin/Baltimore Sun), Matt Stover (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun))