This week, the Ravens play their third straight game against an NFC South opponent, taking on the upstart Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Many Ravens fans had circled this game as a win coming into the season, as the Bucs were coming off a 3-13 2009 season, and have the youngest roster in the NFL. Tampa, however, has surprised so far in 2010, matching the Ravens’ 7-3 record, and look to be no walkovers on Sunday. The Ravens should still be able to pick up their eighth win of the year, but this game will be much tougher than we had hoped for when looking ahead to it back in September.
On paper, the Bucs’ offense doesn’t look too intimidating, as they are just 23rd in the NFL in yards per game. Second year quarterback Josh Freeman, though, has been deceivingly efficient, throwing 14 touchdowns to go with only 5 interceptions and 1 lost fumble, good for a QB rating of 92.0 – just 0.1 behind Joe Flacco. Rookie wide receiver Mike Williams leads the team in receiving, with 43 catches for 681 yards and 6 touchdowns. The Ravens secondary, after basically a week off in Carolina last week, will have to be on top of their game, and prove that they can at least stop a good — if not elite — quarterback.
Where Freeman and the rest of the Tampa offense should really give the Ravens and their fans a case of post-Thanksgiving indigestion, though, is on the ground. Freeman is a horse at 6’6″ 250, and can really hurt opposing defenses with his feet. He has 236 rushing yards this season, and averages over 6 every time he decides to take off. Even more dangerous is rookie running back LeGarrette Blount. Blount, the former Oregon Duck (you remember him, right?), is a 6’0 247 lb. battering ram, and is averaging 4.4 yards per carry since the Bucs started really working him into the offense about five weeks ago. Throw in Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, a big threat catching passes out of the backfield, and the Ravens front seven will have their hands full this week.
Blount is like a more athletic Peyton Hillis, who torched the Ravens in Week 3 for Cleveland. The Ravens looked like they had gotten their run defense fixed two weeks ago in Atlanta, completely shutting down Michael Turner. Last week, though, Mike Goodson of the Carolina Panthers went for 120 yards against them. The outcome of this one will depend heavily on the Ravens’ run defense, and they’ll need to perform much better than they did in Charlotte to contain the Bucs’ much more potent attack.
First off, Brandon McKinney should be back on the field. McKinney played in seven games earlier this year, and started four, but has been a healthy scratch the last three contests. He played very well when he was in there, and could be an asset for this team down the stretch.
Who does McKinney replace?
It may be sacrilege to Ravens fans, but I’d nominate Kelly Gregg. “Buddy Lee” is having his worst season, and at this point is a liability to this defense. He’s a fan favorite, but it may be time to give #97 a game or two off.
The next guy who could help bottle up Blount is Dannell Ellerbe. Ellerbe, whose specialty is being a run stuffer at the linebacker position, has apparently made his way into the infamous John Harbaugh “doghouse,” after some special teams penalties. Ellerbe, like McKinney, hasn’t been active since the Buffalo game. Not only are these two very good at helping shut down opposing running backs, but they should also both have very fresh legs. Keep an eye on the inactive list Sunday morning – if these two are on it, I’d be very disappointed, and that much more worried.
Regardless who is active on the defense, the entire unit needs to tackle better. Freeman and Blount will be licking their chops in film study this week seeing the Ravens’ dismal tackling of late. Keeping the yards after contact down will be especially crucial on Sunday against the physical runners the Bucs showcase.
Offensively, Joe Flacco and the rest of the Ravens will look to continue the kind of performance they put up in the first half of the Carolina game, and put the second half of that contest behind them. Remember, despite the 37 points put up by the team, the Ravens managed only two offensive touchdowns against the Panthers. Fortunately, they’re generally better at home, having put up 31, 37, and 26 points in their last three at The Big Crabcake. Flacco has eight touchdowns and no interceptions at home this season (although defenders have dropped should-be interceptions on at least three occasions), and will look to continue that trend against a Tampa squad that is tied for second in the NFL with 15 picks.
The Bucs’ ability to force turnovers helps mask their deficiencies in run defense, where they rank 29th, giving up over 136 yards per game. Ray Rice and Willis McGahee should be in for big games, though at this point I’m not still delusional enough to think that Cam Cameron will come into the game with a plan of anything but something along the lines of “we’re going to pass the ball because they THINK we’re going to run it!” I can’t help but think back to the Buffalo game – the Bills came into B’More with the league’s worst run defense, and the Ravens’ first possession went: pass, pass, pass, punt. Tampa can’t stop the run, has very strong cornerbacks in Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib, and thrives on interceptions, so needless to say I expect a similar ass-backwards attack from Cam as the one we saw against Buffalo (at least prior to the Bills playing “light up the scoreboard.”) Hopefully the Ravens have enough talent running routes and throwing the football to move the ball and get into the end zone in spite of the guy calling in the plays.
With this game getting “flexed” by the NFL and moved to a 4:15 start from it’s original 1:00 slot, game time temperatures will drop significantly. Currently, the forecast calls for a high temperature of about 47 degrees on Sunday, which will likely have the mercury dipping near 40 by the time the second half rolls around. Historically, Tampa is awful in the cold; the franchise didn’t win their first game that featured sub-40 degree temperatures at kickoff until their Super Bowl season of 2002. As a Ravens fan who will be sitting at M&T Bank Stadium shivering, I’ll gladly plan on piling on an extra layer if it means the Ravens have even a slightly better chance of emerging victorious. If Mother Nature is on our side Sunday, all the better.
We’ll likely know by game time whether or not Pittsburgh pushes their record to 8-3, as they play at 1 PM. They are in Buffalo, so most likely the Ravens will need this win to keep pace in the division. Moreover, the Ravens need to win this game regardless of what the Steelers do, as the rest of the schedule doesn’t get any easier. If they can’t defeat this feisty but inexperienced (and, truthfully, overachieving) Bucs squad on their own turf, what chance do we really give them against the likes of Pittsburgh and New Orleans here, and Houston and Cleveland teams on the road?
Gotta have this one.
Ravens 27 Bucs 17