Ravens outhit, outwit, outlast another opponent

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Ravens outhit, outwit, outlast another opponent

NEW ORLEANS Against the Patriots, the Ravens just waited until New England played into their hands. In the Super Bowl, there was no need to wait. The 49ers gave Baltimore the game early.

All hail the Ravens. Because the absence of screw-ups in games of high import is every damn bit as important as big plays.

But the Ravens are Super Bowl champions this morning because their last three opponents Denver, New England and San Francisco screwed up.

And the Ravens never did.

That Raven buzzsaw hit 'em early, Terrell Suggs suggested after Baltimores skin-of-its-teeth, 34-32 win. Real early.

It could just as easily be said that, pre-blackout, the 49ers merely fed themselves into the wood chipper.

Their cavalcade of errors discreet and conspicuous and the Ravens ability to take advantage of them doomed San Francisco. And even when San Fran climbed back to the cusp of the lead, they got overwhelmed by the Ravens defense and playcalling that didnt seem to anticipate Baltimores aggression.

All year, we had the bend but don't break attitude but especially in the red zone, said Suggs. You gotta know your opponent too. We didn't want him to beat us with his feet and it came down on the goal line, in the red zone, on that last stand, we were gonna make him throw for it. He was gonna have to use his arm. You know nobody hates quarterbacks more than me but I have the utmost respect for Colin Kaepernick. At first I thought, 'The kid, he's just fortunate, he's had some early success. We'll see.' But the kid's the real deal. I respect him. I respect him tons and I don't usually say that about quarterbacks. The kid can play. I don't usually say that about quarterbacks, but you gotta take your hat off to the San Francisco 49ers, they came to play.

But they did it too late.

A catalog of the Niners early miscues. First, they had a formation penalty on their first play from scrimmage that wiped out a 20-yard gain and resulted in them punting from their goal line. Baltimore got the ball at their 49. When the Niners got them in third-and-9, Ahmad Brooks stepped offsides. That penalty wiped out an incompletion and the Ravens got seven on the next play.

The Niners had a chance to answer with a touchdown but a throw that may have been directed to a wide-open Randy Moss was deflected by teammate Michael Crabtree and fell incomplete. The Niners settled for a field goal. A LaMichael James fumble ended a Niners drive at the Ravens 24. The Ravens chugged downfield and scored a touchdown to make it 14-3 as San Francisco left tight end Dennis Pitta uncovered despite having defenders covering air.

Kaepernick got over-exubertant and threw a pick to Ed Reed. No damage there, but on the next Ravens drive, Chris Culliver got spun inside-out for a 56-yard touchdown. The Niners never got a throw to the end zone despite having second-and-2 with 50 seconds left in the half. They settled for a field goal that made it a fortunate 21-6 at the half. And then came the 108-yard Jacoby Jones kickoff return.

We were just running around a lot of places, Culliver explained when asked about that one.

Meanwhile, the Ravens just rolled along, ruining red-zone drives as they had against the Patriots and watching Joe Flacco become the precision thrower he wasnt when the season began.

Consider this: Flacco hasnt thrown an interception since December 16. Hes thrown 13 touchdowns and no interceptions since. The quarterbacks on the other side of him in the postseason Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Kaepernick threw six.

The Ravens were plus-5 in turnover differential in the postseason. The next-best team was San Francisco at plus-2.

The Ravens scored touchdowns on 80 percent of their red zone trips and scored touchdowns on 83.3 percent of their goal-to-go possessions. Their opponents scored touchdowns on 40 percent of their red-zone trips and just 50 percent of the time when they had goal-to-go.

The Niners final possession of the season will be one they lament for a long time. Did Michael Crabtree get held by Jimmy Smith on the fourth-down fade route that fell incomplete. Yes. High-percentage play? No. None of their four plays down there were.

We really thought it was gonna be some kind of a quarterback run down in there so basically we pressured almost every down in there, said Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees. We changed up the pressures but we brought it every down.

Vernon Davis, the Niners outstanding tight end, was asked if the playcalling could have been more imaginative.

As a player, all I could think of was maybe running a different play but that's just a player mentality, he admitted. (Offensive coordinator) Greg Roman, he called the shots. We gotta go with it and respect his calls. He believed in it, we believed in it but it just didn't work.

As for Crabtree on the final throw?

It was the last play, he said. I can't blame it on the refs. I mean, it is what it is and that happened. That was the play call at the moment. We tried to execute the play and make something happen at the end of the game but it didn't happen. When somebody grabs you, you always expect the call but you can't whine to the ref. It is what it is. You gotta take it like a man. I won't talk about the playcalling, it is what it is. I think we could have hit some more plays, I think we could have did a better job in the red zone from the (5-yard line) but coach called the play and I just tried to execute it to the best of my ability.

In the end, the Ravens and Pees dictated to their opponents.

They did (make it easy with throws to the perimeter) on those downs but the problem was we hadn't done a good job in the second half, Pees admitted. The problem was, they got the offense rolling and we had a tough time really getting out of our gaps and playing our assignments.

We did a great job in the first half and I think everybody then got a little bit panicky with trying to make a play, he added. And that's the problem with that offense. If you get out of basic fundamentals they're gonna hurt you. And he hurt us with his feet scrambling out of the pocket. We played very well on the run but later on we didn't do a very good job. But again, we played well in the red zone and to me that was the key to the game for us on defense.

Call the Ravens cocky. But they didnt feel the heat, said Suggs.

That power outage happened, and THEY got going. But at no point did we ever think that we were gonna lose, said Suggs. "As long as we had the lead, we knew we had it. They can call us whatever they want, but they gotta put 'Champions' at the end of it.

Film review: Burkhead provides Patriots combination of power, quickness

Film review: Burkhead provides Patriots combination of power, quickness

Rex Burkhead knew he was staring at a rare opportunity.

Going into Cincinnati's 2016 season finale, the 5-foot-10, 210-pound back was averaging just three carries per game. But with both Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard injured, the fourth-year player out of Nebraska understood he had a chance to put something on tape that would help him land a job in the offseason. 

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"Can't lie," Burkhead told his college teammate Adam Carriker. "Going into free agency, I knew that game was huge. It was a good opportunity for me to show what I could do. I guess it kind of helped me out."

It certainly didn't hurt. 

Burkhead ran 27 times for 119 yards and two scores against the Ravens, showing off an intriguing blend of toughness and elusiveness in the process. 

Burkead was already an accomplished special-teamer -- he led the Bengals in special-teams tackles last season -- but his performance against the NFL's fifth-ranked rushing defense made it clear that he could be leaned upon for more than just a few carries every week.

The Patriots must have taken notice. 

They signed Burkhead earlier this month to a one-year deal that will pay him $1.8 million in base salary and carry what some considered a relatively surprising maximum value of $3.15 million. That's more than the $1 million LeGarrette Blount was offered on his one-year deal last year, and it's enough to make Burkhead the highest-paid running back on the roster. 

What did the Patriots see from Burkhead that made him worth that kind of money? Let's take a closer look at his film -- particularly what he did in Week 17 last season -- to get a sense of what he might be able to do in New England. 

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The Patriots have long had a "big back" on their roster. Most recently, that's been Blount, who has been complemented by sub back James White and all-purpose runner Dion Lewis. 

Before Blount it was Stevan Ridley. Before Ridley, it was BenJarvus Green-Ellis. You can go all the way back to Corey Dillon and Antowain Smith. Belichick likes runners who can get what's blocked, protect the football, then create their own yards in the secondary by punishing defensive backs.

Burkhead doesn't quite tip the scales as those players listed above -- though he comes close to Green-Ellis (5-11, 215) -- yet he's currently the biggest back on the Patriots roster, and he seems to run with a bruiser's mentality. 

On his very first carry against the Ravens, when he got through the line of scrimmage and into the secondary, he saw that safety Matt Elam had him lined up. Instead of trying to spin away from Elam or hurdle him, Burkhead lowered his shoulder and became the aggressor. 

Elam, who was thought to be one of the biggest hitters to enter the league four years ago, had to give himself a moment before popping back up to his feet after the collision. 

Statement made. 

Burkhead's strength, it seems, is his strength. Just ask Eric Weddle and the rest of the Ravens how he turned this play into a nine-yard gain to help the Bengals bleed the clock late in the fourth quarter. 



Burkhead consistently fought through first contact and fell forward to pick up maximum yardage snap after snap versus Baltimore's stingy run defense. On his first touchdown of the game, he was tripped up near the line of scrimmage but showed good balance by stumbling into the end zone from five yards away. 

Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of Burkhead's performance against the Ravens was his ability to keep the Bengals out of negative plays. On multiple occasions, he was hit at the line of scrimmage or behind it and consistently made his way back to the line or beyond it. 

Early in the fourth quarter, he was hit for what looked like it would be a three or four-yard loss yet somehow he was able to twist and dive back for no gain. Midway through the second, he was hit at the line and turned it into a four-yard pickup. 



One of the reasons Lewis has been so valuable to the Patriots when healthy the last two seasons is that when things break down up front, and when it looks like Tom Brady is about to be looking at second-and-11, he cuts and knifes forward for a yard or two or more. 

Those aren't big plays in the box score, but they're critical when it comes to extending drives. It seems like Burkhead has the ability to submit the same kinds of small-but-important gains with a hard-charging style all his own.

VISION, QUICKNESS TO FIND RUNNING ROOM
For someone who seems to enjoy imposing his will on would-be tacklers, Burkhead has a good amount of wiggle to his game. His vision and lateral quickness helped him make Ravens defenders look silly at times. 

As opposed to burrowing into a pile of bodies at the line of scrimmage early in the third quarter, his jump cut to the right helped him find space in the open field for an eye-opening eight-yard run. 



On the very next down, he was stopped a yard behind the line of scrimmage but was able to pick up three thanks to another jump cut that allowed him to stretch the run out wide.

In the fourth, Burkhead showed good patience by stalling behind the block of receiver Brandon LaFell, picking a path, and running decisively once he did. 



Burkhead may not be Lewis when it comes to his elusiveness, but he has the ability to mix in some off-speed stuff in between snaps spent trying to bowl over tacklers. 

Asked by Carriker if he preferred powering through defenders or bouncing around them, Burkhead said he'd actually go with the latter. 

"I think making a guy miss just because I feel like they don't expect that from me a lot of times," Burkhead explained. "But growing up I always took good pride in that. Just my quickness, my ability to make my guy miss."

MR. VERSATILITY
Part of what makes Burkhead's signing so interesting is that he doesn't fit tightly into the definition of either "big back" or "sub back." He seems somewhat like a larger version of Lewis -- an all-purpose runner who he can be used in a variety of packages and deployed in a variety of positions.

Burkhead has run out of the I-formation and the shotgun. He's caught the ball out of the backfield and lined up as a receiver, where he spent most of Cinci's 2014 Divisional Round game against the Colts. He caught three passes that day for 34 yards and ran a reverse for a gain of 23. 

"He has tremendous short-area quickness," then-Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said during training camp two years ago. "His 10-yard times were off the charts; his three-cone was off the charts. He's very talented [as a receiver]."

However Burkhead is used, he'll very likely continue to see time as a contributor in the kicking game. Not only does he have a wealth of experience when it comes to covering kicks, but he's served as a kick-returner in the past as well. 

So to recap: Running back...receiver...special-teamer.

Sure sounds like someone Belichick would be willing to invest in.

Ohio State LB on Belichick: 'When you first meet him, you're scared'

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Ohio State LB on Belichick: 'When you first meet him, you're scared'

Even for some of the nation's top athletes, confident 20-somethings with the rest of their (perhaps very lucrative) lives ahead of them, there's a feeling you just can't shake when Bill Belichick walks into the room. 

"When you first meet him, you're scared," said Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan, per WBZ. "He's quizzing you. It's like a little test. But after you get done with the test, the quiz or whatever, drawing up the defense, it's pretty cool. They're real down to earth people. Really cool."

Belichick was spotted at Ohio State's pro day getting a closer look at McMillan and his teammates on Thursday. He then headed off to Ann Arbor, Michigan for the Wolverines showcase Friday.

During various scouting trips across the country, the Patriots appear to be showing significant interest in the incoming class of linebackers. Belichick spent some extra time with Vanderbilt's Zach Cunningham -- who's projected to be a first-rounder -- at his pro day. The team reportedly scheduled a meeting with a speedy linebacker from Cincinnati. And Matt Patricia caught up with Notre Dame linebacker James Onwualu once his workouts finished up on Thursday. 

As for McMillan, the 6-2, 240-pounder was a second-team All-American and a first-team All-Big Ten choice. He's instinctive, but there's some question as to whether or not he has the strength to hold up inside at the next level.