Coaches' Message: No More Flag Football

December 31, 2009|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

You spent three hours last Sunday screaming at the TV, watching penalty flags flutter to the turf like dead canaries and cripple the Ravens in that ugly 23-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

And you don't want to go through that again this weekend when they face the Oakland Raiders with a playoff berth on the line, because you'll end up pulling your hair out.

Well, guess what? The Ravens don't want to go through it again, either. Eleven penalties for 113 yards, including two calls that negated touchdowns - you don't think that drives them nuts, too?

That's why the message delivered to the Ravens by their coaches this week is simple: Keep playing the tough, physical, nasty football you're known for.

But play smart, too. Play like you stayed at a Holiday Inn Express. Or at least pulled up a chair in the lobby.

Oh, yeah - penalties - John Harbaugh said at the Ravens media session Wednesday, have been a "huge priority" this week.

"We're all very concerned about it," he said. "We're not happy about it, and it's something we all acknowledge that's got to be corrected."

As to what exactly you can do to cut down on penalties this late in the season, well, that's debatable.

Sure, you can work on technique in practice.

You can take even a veteran like Kelley Washington, who drew a holding flag against the Steelers that snuffed out Willis McGahee's 32-yard touchdown run, and work on getting his hands in the right position to make a block.

But shame often works well, too.

I say this because in the Monday film session after every game, according to Harbaugh, the Ravens "go through every single play all the time. So each one of these penalties is a specific conversation."

And these conversations are not a whole lot of fun if you're the guy who drew the flag.

Take, for instance, what Haloti Ngata had to go through in the film room Monday.

Ngata, of course, is the big defensive tackle who was just voted to his first Pro Bowl.

And he deserves it. The guy is having a phenomenal year. And no one has worked harder to get to an elite level.

But in the third quarter of last Sunday's game against Pittsburgh, he was like a runaway 18-wheeler on that punt return when he plowed into a couple of Steelers out of bounds.

The key words here, of course, are "out of bounds."

"With mine, it was just a stupid penalty," Ngata said Wednesday, nicely cutting to the chase.

So if you're the Ravens' coaches, do you give Ngata a pass when you replay his penalty in the film room with the rest of the team looking on?

Do you say: "Well, Haloti's a guy who doesn't play a lot on the punt-return unit and he was just being aggressive"?

Do you say: "Look, he's the size of a mountain and you can't expect a big guy like that with a full head of steam to just stop on a dime and not wipe out a few people in the process"?

No, you don't. That's a cop-out.

And from what I was told, the Ravens coaches went after Ngata Monday over his dumb penalty.

He was held accountable in front of his teammates. Which is just another way of saying they shamed the heck out of him.

And maybe that makes him think twice the next time he's got a shot at decking someone on the sideline.

"You can never play this game passive," Ray Lewis said. "If it's an aggression penalty, so be it. But if it's a decision penalty, I just think we have to make smarter decisions."

I guess you can flip a coin to decide whether Ngata's was an aggression or decision penalty.

If it was the latter, he sure made a bad decision - which at least he owned up to.

"There are going to be penalties," Harbaugh said Wednesday. "We're not going to play penalty-free. And some teams are more highly penalized than others, and a lot of those teams are winning football teams.

"But you can't have penalties that cost you games. You can't have penalties that cost you chunks of yards, that cost you first downs or that cost you points.

"... We're not gonna do it. We're gonna get it corrected."

We'll see if he's right.

We'll see if the Ravens play smarter this Sunday against the Raiders. We'll see if they play tough and physical and nasty - and the refs still keep their flags in their pockets.

If you hear people screaming at their TVs, you'll know what happened.

Listen to Kevin Cowherd on Tuesdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. with Jerry Coleman on Fox 1370 AM Sports.

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