And so the final week of the 2009 NFL regular season has passed. The week 17 game against the Ravens was the Raiders' last chance to come out of the season with their best record since their '02 Super Bowl season. The only other positive note the Raiders could take from this game was the opportunity to play spoiler for the second season in a row. If the Raiders had won the game, it would have knocked the Ravens out of playoff contention just as the Raiders had done to the Buccaneers at the end of last season. But it wasn't to be.
The Ravens running game and run defense both proved to be too much. While the Ravens were picking up large chunks of yardage on every drive, the Raiders couldn't break through the line to get any kind of momentum.
Despite the dominance in the trenches, the Raiders crept back to within one point (14-13) in the third quarter. But in the end the team that wanted it more triumphed over the team that had nothing to lose as the Ravens would score another touchdown to win 21-13.
So let's lay out those who felt like losing wasn't an option and those who just played like they were on a 5-11 team.
After a poor showing in last week's loss to his hometown Browns, Frye came out looking like he deserved the starting nod in this game. He went out with injury after the first half, but in that half of football he didn't make any big mistakes or turnovers and he put the Raiders in a position to win the game, despite running for his very life nearly every snap of the ball. He really got it going on the Raiders' third drive of the game. He started the drive with a perfect throw to Chaz Schilens for 15 yards. Two plays later he executed a beautiful play fake that fooled the defense and allowed for a nice 16 yard completion to Jonnie Lee Higgins. Then on third down and 7 with the Raiders just outside of field goal range, Frye escaped the oncoming rush of several Raven lineman to get out of the pocket and hit Higgins for another 16 yard completion. This would set up Janikowski for his first field goal and the Raiders' first score of the game. Two possessions later, he was back at it again. The drive began with two short catches and an automatic first down on a Baltimore pass interference penalty. Then he completely fooled the Ravens again on a great play fake and hit Higgins again, this time for 21 yards. The next play was a designed roll to his right. He hit Murphy for a 17 yard gain. A couple plays later, with the Raiders in third and one, he sneaked it for a first down on the Ravens' 12 yard line. On the next play he threw a gorgeous ball over the leaping Ray Lewis to hit Zach Miller in the back of the end zone for a touchdown. That would be his last pass of the day as he would leave the game with a lower back strain. Honestly, it was a surprise he lasted as long as he did. He was getting nailed from every direction by oncoming rushers every time he dropped back to pass. But one of the things he has always been known for is throwing on the run and that ability was on display on Sunday. He would have more passing yards (180) in the first half than JaMarcus Russell had in the second half (102) and Joe Flacco had the entire game (102).
Chaz Schilens, Louis Murphy, Jonnie Lee Higgins
While their quarterback(s) were constantly under siege all day, these guys really worked their tails off to get open, come back to the ball, and make the tough catches. The run was not working against the stout Raven run defense so they needed to pick up the slack. Chaz Schilens led the team in catches and yards with 8 grabs for 99 yards. He had the first nice catch of the day when he dove to scoop up a low thrown ball on third down to keep the first drive alive. Two possessions later, he got things started with a 15 yard catch. Then Higgins, who was second on the team in receiving yards, got into the act. He would make two consecutive 16 yard catches that set the Raiders up for their first score. Next possession, it was Schilens' turn again. On the third play of the drive he caught a ball at 15 yards and made an acrobatic (and risky) leap over Chris Carr to gain 7 more yards and a 22 yard gain on the play. He had another 10 yard catch on the drive but it was third and 17 so the Raiders were forced to punt. Then, after the Ravens quickly scored another touchdown, the Raiders would get the ball back down 14-3. Now it was Murphy's turn to go to work. He had a short 5 yard catch on the second play and on the following play he beat his defender and was interfered with to give the Raiders a much needed automatic first down. Next, after a 21 yard completion by Higgins, Murphy would grab a 17 yard catch to put the Raiders in scoring position. A few plays later, Frye hit Miller for a touchdown. On the first Raider possession of the second half, Schilens had the only first down with an 18 yard grab. The next possession, Murphy started things off with an 11 yard catch. Then a few plays later on third and 14, Schilens caught a pass for 17 yards. This would set Janikowski up for his second field goal of the day to put the Raiders within a point at 13-14. These three would continue to make several more great catches but the Raiders could not capitalize on them due to costly turnovers.
Although he only had 39 yards on the day, he was second on the team in catches with 7 and he caught the only touchdown for the Raiders. On the touchdown he broke open in the back of the end zone and caught a perfectly placed ball that was too high for Ray Lewis as Miller reached up to pluck it out of the air. It was a thing of beauty -- but no surprise there. He is a Pro Bowl alternate this year because he has been performing feats of beauty since he came into the league three years ago.
Seymour is the only defensive player to make the Baller list from an otherwise weak and ugly effort by the Raider defensive line. Oddly enough, he was a Buster for the first time last week after his lack of professionalism and leadership gave the Browns a pivotal score. This week he seemed like he either wanted to make up for that or give the Raiders and other teams in the NFL something to think about with him heading into possible free agency. He led all Raider defensive linemen in tackles with 5 solo and 1 assist. On the Ravens' third possession of the day, he book ended the drive with nice plays. He started it off when he held containment on a run play and then when he forced the back to the inside, he tackled him for no gain. Two nice plays in one. He later ended the drive by deflecting a Flacco pass at the line to force a punt. On the Ravens' final drive of the first half, he had a run stuff tackle for no gain. Two plays later, the Ravens would miss their field goal attempt to keep the Raiders close at 10-14 heading into the locker room. After the Raiders forced two straight three-and-outs to start the second half, they were in line for a third. On third and 8 the Raiders blitzed and Seymour got pressure on Flacco that flushed him from the pocket where he was sacked. On the Ravens' final two possessions he tried desperately to keep the Raiders in the game. On the first of the two he had a run stuff tackle for a short gain that would set up a 51 yard field goal attempt that fell short. Then with just under three minutes left in the game and the Raiders needing a stop, he stuffed a run attempt for a short gain. This would set up a pivotal third down. But unfortunately the Ravens were able to convert and kneel down to run the clock out.
Lechler was in line to possibly overtake Sammy Baugh with the all-time leading single season punting average. Baugh set the mark at 51.4 and Lechler just missed it with a 51.1 average this season. Still pretty impressive though. Lechler had four punts over 50 yards on Sunday with his longest traveling 59. But distance is just part of his impressive work. His shortest punt may have been the best of all. While it traveled just 45 yards, this was by design. It was a towering shot that the returner stayed well away from. It landed at the ONE yard line with a backspin and bounced away from the end zone to be downed at the 5 yard line. His 59 yarder was taken at the 3 yard line and Baltimore was called for a hold on the return to start their drive on their own 10 yard line. His final punt was a moon shot that sailed 51 yards and was fair caught at the Ravens' 7 yard line.
Cornell Green, Mario Henderson, Chris Morris
I had to give these three the top Busters to share. I couldn't decide which of them was worse. When on the first play of the game Green is called for a penalty, you know it is going to be a long day. The Raiders would start the game in first and 15 after Green was illegally downfield. They would dig out of that hole just in time for Morris to give up a run stuff. Two plays later the drive ended when Henderson allowed pressure on Frye to force an incompletion. Then, after a couple of possessions and a nice drive, they couldn't hold it any longer. A promising drive that had the Raiders in Raven territory ended quickly after Morris gave up a run stuff, and Morris, Green, and Henderson were all pushed back into Charlie Frye where Henderson gave up a sack. The drive ended on the next play. Then the first drive of the second half had the Raiders in a third and one. But when Bush tried to go through the right guard/tackle gap, he had a defender there waiting for him because Green couldn't block him. When Bush tried to break it outside, it was too late and he was tackled for a loss to force a punt. The next drive, the Raiders were able to overcome a false start penalty on Green to get a field goal. The next drive, they weren't so lucky. The drive ended when Henderson gave up a hit on Russell as he threw and the ball fluttered into the arms of a defender for an interception. The next possession, Morris would give up yet another run stuff. And another drive would end when Henderson's man rushed the outside and as Russell stepped into the pocket he ran up and slapped the ball out of the quarterback's hands to force a fumble. After a time consuming possession, the Raiders had one last chance to tie the game. The drive would begin with yet another Cornell Green false start penalty. It ended in three plays because Russell was pressured from all sides and in a panic he threw a rushed pass that fell incomplete. It ended up as the last time the Raider offense would have the ball.
As I have said all season, the Raiders' special teams is a shell of its former self. They can't return and they can't cover. Even with the best kicker and the best punter in the entire NFL, they can't capitalize. The Ravens averaged 34 yards on kick-off returns in this game and their longest was 53 yards. Janikowski often kicks into the end zone but opposing returners rarely take a knee for a touchback because they know that they have a really good shot at getting a nice return against the Raider coverage unit. All the while, the Raiders averaged less than half as many return yards than the Ravens. And this is against a kicker in Cundiff that missed a 51 yard field goal short. Punt returns are not great either. Even with Lechler's big leg, on the two returns the Ravens had, they averaged 16 yards. Meanwhile the Raiders averaged THREE YARDS on two returns. The Ravens' average field position off of kick-offs was the 38 yard line including one return to the Raider 43 yard line. The Raiders' average start was the 20 yard line. This should not happen with the strongest legged kicker in the NFL. And they sure as hell shouldn't be averaging 16 yards a return on punts with Lechler back there launching it. The fault lies in poor blocking and the lack of a good scheme falls on Fassel.
One thing that really jumped out at me was that Warren didn't record a single tackle or assist in this game despite being the starter. This was no fluke either. He was out there, he just was a complete non-factor. Well, at least for the Raiders anyway. He was certainly a factor for the Ravens. He was a nice target for a positive run when the Ravens needed it. It can be hard to keep track of a guy who is no where to be found in the stat line but there was a couple of times he could be spotted. The first time came on the Ravens' first possession. With the Ravens in second and 5 they ran it right up the middle where Warren was embarrassingly pushed at least five yards off the line to allow a six yard run and a first down for the Ravens. That should never happen but it wouldn't be the last time. On the next Ravens' drive, they were set up on the 2 yard line and went up the middle again. Same exact result too. Warren was driven about 4 yards into the end zone to allow the Ravens to score easily. When your starting nose tackle is getting plowed over by the opposing team's center, you have problems. Which the Raiders certainly have. Warren wasn't done embarrassing himself though. He would completely whiff on his best chance at recording a tackle in this game on the Ravens second-to-last drive of the game. It would set up a third and short that the Ravens would convert to keep their lengthy drive alive and put them in scoring position.
He was another guy who wasn't around the ball much -- unless he was giving up a big catch or a score. On the Ravens' second possession, he gave up a pivotal catch for 22 yards that put the Ravens at the 6 yard line. Then, two plays later, he completely missed the tackle on a run up the middle for the Ravens' first touchdown. He was nowhere to be found on the Ravens' second touchdown. And on the Ravens' third touchdown, he was late getting over to make the tackle on another run in from short yardage.
Again, he led the Raiders in tackles, and again he is a Buster. It is always about those lapses he seems to have that end up in huge gains and touchdowns by the opposing running backs. On the Ravens' first touchdown drive, he was responsible for the biggest gain when he failed to get containment on the outside and Ray Rice ran around the edge for 27 yards to put the Ravens in scoring position. In the second quarter, after a huge punt by Lechler that pinned the Ravens at their own 5 yard line, he immediately gave up an 18 yard catch to the tight end. On the very next play, he was handled on the block that allowed Willis McGahee to run 77 yards for a touchdown. Later, in the third quarter with the Ravens looking to score, he gave up a 7 yard catch to the running back to set them up at the one yard line. They would score on the next play. He would have two more missed tackles in the game. The first kept a long drive alive to run too much time off the clock to allow the Raiders another chance to score at the end of the game. Game over.