Archive for the ‘Ravens Game Previews’ Category

Ravens (5-2) @ Steelers (6-2)

November 4, 2011

Once again the Ravens and Steelers clash with the AFC North title seemingly on the line. Even though it’s early November (way to go, NFL Schedule makers), and with all due respect to the 5-2 Cincinnati Bengals, doesn’t it just feel like yet another playoff-type game between these two heavyweights?

They say “the records don’t matter” when these two meet, but just for fun let’s look at the records when these teams have gotten together over the past four seasons:

2011: 0-0; 5-2, 6-2

2010: 2-1, 3-0; 8-3, 8-3

2009: 5-5, 6-4; 8-6, 7-7

2008: 2-0, 2-1; 9-4, 10-3

Coming into Ravens-Steelers regular season games since 2008, the Ravens have entered with a combined record of 39-21, and Pittsburgh with a combined mark of 42-20. Thats a collective winning percentage of .66. Yeah, these teams are good. Throw in the records for the two playoff matchups, and it obviously jumps even higher.

The stakes are always high. This time is no different.

Since that opening day beatdown, when the Ravens supposedly exposed Pittsburgh as being old and slow, the Steelers have (predictably, and annoyingly) gotten their act together, winning six of seven. Granted, they’ve done it against some sorry teams (Seattle, Indy, Tennessee, Jacksonville, and Arizona – combined record of 9-28), but the Ravens stumbled against one of those same teams and nearly fell to another. Those Ravens’ hiccups denied themselves what should have been some breathing room going into Heinz Field.

The Steelers do have one very impressive win on their resume though, last week’s 25-17 win over New England. Pittsburgh played lights out on both offense and defense in that game, holding the ball for nearly 40 minutes and allowing Tom Brady to complete just 3/10 third down tries.

The NFL is definitely a “what have you done lately?” kind of league, so that performance against the Patriots – along with the Ravens falling behind 24-3 to Arizona – has everybody and their mother picking the Steelers to stomp the purple and black this Sunday night.

Again, the Ravens find themselves as underdogs going into western PA. Nobody seems to remember 35-7, nor the fact that the Ravens have built their team to matchup favorably with, and to beat, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

I’m sure they wouldn’t have it any other way.

Pittsburgh is also dealing with a mess of injuries on both sides of the ball. Linebackers and perennial Ravens headaches James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley are both no better than questionable for the game, as is fellow LB James Farrior. On the other side, wide receivers Hines Ward and Emmanuel Sanders are both dealing with injuries. The way it sounds right now, only Ward and possibly Harrison are likely to play out of that group.

Pittsburgh’s best offensive and defensive players – Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu – will both be on the field though, and the Steelers’ “next man up” philosophy mirrors that of the Ravens. They have depth at linebacker and defensive line, so I don’t see the injuries tilting this one TOO FAR in the Ravens’ favor.

Ben won’t have nearly as easy a day against the Ravens’ #3 passing defense as he did against New Englands 32nd-ranked unit. Along with Terrell Suggs (who keeps Ben’s ass in a refrigerator in his basement), and his team-leading six sacks, Ben will have to deal with the emerging pass-rush threats of the Ravens, Pernell McPhee (2.5 sacks) and Paul Kruger (3 sacks). The Ravens have 25 sacks this season through just seven games, after registering only 27 all of last season (Thank you, Greg Mattison!).

There is little doubt the Ravens will get to Ben on Sunday (heck, the Patriots got him 5 times), but the key is turning the yardage lost on those sacks into punts from the Steelers. Despite the five sacks, Steelers punter Daniel Sepulveda stepped on the field just once last week, as Pittsburgh went 10/16 on third down. On the other hand, the Ravens have allowed only 4 third down conversions on opponents’ last 31 tries (not including two that were converted by penalty). For the year, the Ravens are allowing just 28.6% on third down, good for best in the NFL. Keeping that trend going will go a long way toward walking out of Pittsburgh with a win.

The loss of Sanders (18 rec, 243 yards, 2 TD) hurts Pittsburgh, but they still have plenty of weapons at WR. Ward, while past his prime, can still move the chains with the best of them, and his little antics to get under the Ravens’ skin are always a worry to draw a personal foul flag or two (though lately, the Ravens have handled themselves well). We all know about Mike Wallace, and Antonio Brown (34 rec, 431 yards, 1 TD) is another young speedster.

An aside about the “young” wide receivers on Pittsburgh. Ravens fans have spent so long hating Hines Ward that it’s second nature at this point. Ward won’t be around on the field a whole lot longer though, so it’s time to get used to hating these guys. Wallace, Sanders, and Brown have given themselves the name “young money.” Ugh. Not only is this horribly douchey and annoying, but they stole it from rapper Lil’ Wayne. He wants it back.

On defense, the Steelers have gotten their act back together after allowing four touchdowns in Baltimore. The most points they’ve given up since then is 20, and they are allowing under 12 points per game at home (slightly skewed due to shutting out the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2). They flustered Tom Brady – which the Ravens have done on occasion – and had much better success against Matt Hasselbeck than the Ravens were able to. Even without Woodley and/or Harrison, my biggest worry about this game is Dick LeBeau coaching circles around Cam Cameron.

LeBeau went against every instinct in his body last week against New England, playing press man coverage instead of his usual zone blitzing scheme. If he can come up with something to confuse Brady and Belichick…I shudder to think what he can do to Cam and Flacco.

I know Ray Rice likes to say that football is a “players game” not a coaches game, and that they should be able to execute no matter the play call, but I’ve seen Cam take too long to adjust too many times to be comfortable.

What worked last week? Well, the shotgun/muddle huddle/short passing game did. But don’t expect to see too much of that this week. The Ravens came out early in the week dropping preemptive strikes suggesting that they have no interest in that scheme becoming their de facto offensive philosophy.

Ravens say Flacco has completed only 50.9% of his 109 throws out of the shotgun, w/ 4 INT’s, 2TD’s & 9 sacks for a 62.8 quarterback rating.

Translation: don’t expect to see Joe in the shotgun on every play.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If the Ravens can establish the kind of running game they were able to in Week 1 against the Steelers, when they ran for 170 yards, it will also be a huge key to victory. The Houston Texans were also able to gash Pittsburgh on the ground, going for 180 yards in Week 4. The Ravens and Texans have similar running schemes, so that leaves some hope that Vonta Leach will be able to clear some space for Ray Rice.

The Ravens have the chance to sweep Pittsburgh for the first time since 2006. They had chances in 2009 and 2010 as well, but came up short both times. With the injuries the Steelers are dealing with, there is no better time than now to go into “The Lion’s Den” and come out on top.

Win Sunday, and you’re in great position to still – despite the two eggs laid in Tennessee and Jacksonville – control your own destiny moving forward and potentially earn a top playoff seed in the AFC. Lose, and it’s the same old story for the Ravens – you’re likely to find yourselves in yet another dogfight for a Wild Card spot, and another steep, steep climb to get to the Super Bowl.

John Harbaugh’s 14-13 regular season road record inspires little confidence. Still, the Ravens have outplayed Pittsburgh the last two times they have met. Here’s hoping they do it again, and avoid the costly mistakes that have hounded them in years past.

Ravens 20 Steelers 17

P.S. Just came across this on twitter: In his last 5 starts vs. Pitt, Flacco has 8 TDs & 2 INTs. In his last 5 starts vs. Bal, Roethlisberger has 5 TDs & 6 INTs.

So there’s that.

Cardinals (1-5) @ Ravens (4-2)

October 28, 2011

Coming off one of their worst offensive performances in team history Monday night in Jacksonville, the Ravens look to get back on track against the Arizona Cardinals this week at M&T Bank Stadium. The debacle against the Jags most reminded me of The Worst Offense in All the Land Game from back in 2007, when Shayne Graham kicked 7 field goals as the Bengals beat the Ravens 21-7. There are some unfortunate other similarities between this team and the ’07 purple and black, most notably that they too, started 4-2 before forgetting how to score points. Sunday is a chance for this year’s squad to right the ship and hopefully avoid a fate resembling in any way that team that ended up a dismal 5-11 after a promising first six weeks of the season.

They couldn’t ask for a better opponent to “get healthy” against, as the Cardinals have been struggling mightily all year. Their only victory came in week 1, by the skin of their teeth, against Cam Newton in his first NFL start. They have since lost five straight, falling to such powerhouses as Washington (3-3), Seattle (2-4), and Minnesota (1-6). Throw in that they are a west coast team flying east for a 1 PM game against a Ravens team that is 22-5 at M&T Bank Stadium under John Harbaugh, and the deck is clearly stacked in the Ravens’ favor here.

After what we witnessed last week, though, it’s hard to imagine any sort of cakewalk for this team, even if it was the Towson Tigers lining up against them on Sunday afternoon. While all Ravens fans (and defensive players) will be clamoring for a heavy dose of Ray Rice against Arizona, the numbers suggest that attacking the Cardinals’ secondary is the best way to beat them. Joe Flacco has always played better at home through his three-plus years in Baltimore anyway, and Arizona has been torched through the air here in 2011, coming in with the 28th-ranked pass defense. Hell, they even gave up 291 yards to Rex Grossman back in week 2. They’ve intercepted only four passes and registered just 13 sacks in their six games, both near the bottom of the NFL.

They’ve been much stingier on the ground, having allowed only Adrian Peterson of the Vikings to break the 100-yard plateau this season, and coming in at #14 in rush defense. Last week, they held Pittsburgh’s Rashard Mendenhall to just 2.5 yards per carry on 13 attempts (though Isaac Redman managed 4.8 on 6 carries). While getting Rice going will (and should always) be a priority for the Ravens, this may be a situation where the passing game can open up the running game, as opposed to vice versa. If that’s the case, we have to hope we have “Good Joe” this Sunday, and not “bad Joe.” It looks like Ben Grubbs and Lee Evans will again sit out, so there are no white horses coming over the horizon to rescue this Ravens offense. It will simply be a matter of continuing to jell on that offensive line (especially Bryant McKinnie and Andre Gurode on the left side), and of Joe making the proper decisions and better throws than he did on Monday night.

Again, everything in his past suggests that he’ll do just that, as he usually not only plays better at home, but follows up a bad game with a good one, especially here in 2011. While that kind of inconsistency is not exactly comforting, and won’t fly long-term, it at least bodes well for a strong performance against Arizona.

Of course, the Cardinals can sling the rock in their own right. While new quarterback Kevin Kolb has not exactly lit the world on fire through six games after coming over in the offseason from the Philadelphia Eagles, he is at least a much more formidable opponent than the likes of Blaine Gabbert, who the Ravens handled easily last week. Kolb was a respectable 18/34 for 272 yards 2 TD and 1 INT against a strong Pittsburgh pass defense last week, and even though nobody is confusing him with Kurt Warner (who nearly led Arizona back from a huge deficit the last time they came to B’More), he still has Larry Fitzgerald to throw to, which would make even you or I dangerous under center.

The Ravens’ secondary is finally starting to get healthy. Jimmy Smith returned for a few snaps in Jacksonville, and both Chris Carr and Tom Zbikowski could make their returns to the lineup this week. While nobody expects Smith to step right in and lock down Fitty in what would amount to his first real coverage assignment in the NFL, it’s at least nice to have somebody who can even come close to matching Fitzgerald in physical stature (6’3″ 218 lb to Smith’s 6’2″ 211) running around with him. Ed Reed is due for a pick, having not pulled one in since week 1, and Kolb would be just the guy to get one from. Kevin knows all about #20, as he was the one that threw Ed’s 108-yard interception return touchdown back in 2008 after the Ravens knocked Donovan McNabb from the game.

Again, the Ravens couldn’t have really asked for a better situation to rebound from their embarrassing loss to the Jags. Which isn’t to suggest that the Cardinals will simply roll over and die; they’re an NFL team. As Jacksonville showed, even an inferior squad can rise up and pull off an upset if you don’t bring your “A” game. But if the Ravens are anywhere near the team they fancy themselves to be, they’ll rebound – and in a big way – this week in front of the home crowd. If they’d won on Monday Night, I’d worry about this being a bit of a trap game, with the team perhaps looking forward to Pittsburgh in week 9. They can make no such mistakes now though. Let’s hope New England, coming off their bye, can stomp the Steelers at Heinz Field, which would help put the Ravens back on top in the AFC North (assuming they take care of business against Arizona).

Time to show that last week was a fluke. The margin for error has been cut dramatically moving forward.

Ravens 27 Cardinals 13

Ravens (4-1) @ Jaguars (1-5)

October 24, 2011

The Ravens make their first appearance on Monday Night Football in 2011 tonight, taking on the Jacksonville Jaguars in J’Ville for the first time since way back in 2005. They need a win to keep pace with New England and Pittsburgh as the AFC’s only 5-win teams through the season’s first seven weeks.

The Jaguars are but a shell of the contender they have been in the past under former Ravens linebackers Coach Jack Del Rio. Del Rio’s job is in quite a bit of peril as his team sits at a dismal 1-5, losers of five straight since somehow knocking off the Tennessee Titans 16-14 back in Week 1. Rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert has started the last 4 games, throwing 4 touchdowns and 2 interceptions while completing 48.8 percent of his passes and taking 14 sacks. The Ravens, for as long as anyone can remember, thrive on making young quarterbacks uncomfortable on defense, and Chuck Pagano’s squad should be licking their chops heading into EverBank Field Monday Night.

Jacksonville’s only hope to take some pressure off their first-year signal-caller is running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who was Ray Rice before Ray Rice showed up in the NFL. The diminutive sixth-year runner out of UCLA has managed a hefty 4.8 yards per carry this season despite opposing defenses being pretty much able to focus their efforts on slowing him down. In the last meeting between these two, in Week 17 of 2008, the Ravens managed to hold “MJD” to 78 yards on 23 carries. They’ve been their typical stingy selves to running backs here in 2011, with defensive tackles Haloti Ngata, Terrence Cody, and Cory Redding all playing at high levels. No runner has managed more than 53 yards against B’More here in 2011.

Mike Thomas is the Jags’ leading receiver, with 27 catches for 301 yards, while Jason Hill is averaging 17.1 yards on 14 catches. They also resigned Mike Sims-Walker last week. Sims-Walker was the #1 in Jacksonville for the last two seasons before starting 2011 in St. Louis. The Ravens have the league’s 12-ranked pass defense despite playing much of the season with a depleted secondary. They may be starting to get healthy again though, as Chris Carr is listed as questionable for tonight and rookie Jimmy Smith as probable. The Ravens have racked up 15 sacks through five games.

Don’t be lulled into too much of a false sense of security by the Jaguars’ 1-5 record. Their defense is stout, ranked ninth in the league. Defensive end Matt Roth has three sacks, and the secondary has picked off opposing quarterbacks six times. They are 13th in the league, allowing 22.0 points per game.

For the Ravens to put Jacksonville away early, and avoid having to grind out a four-quarter victory, they’ll need to improve on their red zone efficiency. They have scored touchdowns on just 36.8% of their possessions inside the opponents’ 20-yard line, good for 29th out of 32 teams. They were 2/4 last week against Houston, but one of those was aided by several Texans’ penalties near the goal line. While this new big strike offense is a blast to watch, teams that go deep into the postseason need to be able to consistently put it in from goal-to-go situations as well.

Since John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco arrived in Baltimore in 2008, the team has lost just two games to teams that entered the game with a sub-.500 record. Both of those losses came in Week 2 of their respective seasons, to teams sports 0-1 marks. Recent history suggests nothing to indicate that the Ravens should have any problem disposing of the hapless Jags tonight. Rookie quarterback, bad team, run-focused attack – all of these things should play right into the good guys’ hands.

However, Del Rio, in addition to being in a fight for his job at this point, would love to stick it to his old team in front of a national audience. Expect the Jags to come out fired up, and maybe even take an early lead. I won’t be surprised if the crowd to is at least 30% Ravens fans though, and the team should be able to fight through any early Jacksonville success for a workmanlike road victory.

Ravens 23 Jaguars 14

Texans (3-2) @ Ravens (3-1)

October 14, 2011


In a match-up of 3-win teams, the Texans roll into M&T Bank Stadium Sunday to take on the Ravens. Houston will be without their star players on both sides of the ball, WR Andre Johnson on offense and DE/OLB Mario Williams on defense. Matt Bowen of the National Football Post put together a piece last week on how he would attack the Texans on defense without Johnson. Here, I’ll look at how the Ravens are able to comply, personnel and scheme-wise, with his points:

Drop a safety into the box. Use the SS (or the FS with a weak side rotation) to create an eight-man front. The Texans want to see a 7-man front and ride RB Arian Foster, but I’m not going to let that happen. Bring the safety down to limit the production in the downhill running game. If Schaub wants to challenge my secondary, that’s fine, because I’m not going to let Foster consistently move the sticks. Instead, play the run and force Houston into adverse down and distance situations.

So far, so good for the Ravens. They are currently the #2 rush defense in the NFL, holding opposing teams to just 72.5 yards per game. Chris Johnson of the Titans had the most success against them so far this season with his 76 yards on the ground. With Tom Zbikowski likely to miss the game after suffering a concussion two weeks ago, former Texan Bernard Pollard will fill in at his strong safety spot. Pollard is a run-stuffing and blitz specialist, and does his best work down in the box. On top of that, he’ll be eager to “crush some bones” of running back Arian Foster and his other former teammates.

Play press-coverage on the outside with a single-high safety in the middle of the field (Think Cover 1 here). I’m going to tell my corners to play with an outside shade, get hands on the WRs at the line of scrimmage and challenge them to beat press-looks. Without Johnson in the game to convert routes down the field, I have no issue playing aggressively vs. Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones. Funnel the WRs to my help in the middle of the field.

While it would have been nice to have Jimmy Smith, the Ravens’ only prototypical press corner, back on the field, he will miss his fourth straight game. I was encouraged to see both Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams playing a lot of press against the Jets though, and they should be able to have success against Walter and Jones. Ed Reed is obviously the best single-high safety to have back there; that is, as long as he stays disciplined and doesn’t gamble too much, leaving Williams or Webb exposed against the speedy Jones.

Use the blitz fronts—both zone and man. With Johnson on the field, you can get caught if the blitz doesn’t get home. Here, I’m going to take some risks. And when I get into some third and medium situations (3rd and 4-7), I might have to play some Cover 0 (blitz-man with no safety help). Align the corners with an inside shade (in an off-man position) and send seven and eight-man pressure. Plus, when I go zone pressure, use some CB “Cats” (CB blitz) and get creative.

Think Chuck Pagano likes to blitz? Ever since the first touchdown his defense allowed this season, on a play where they used the Mattison 3-man rush against Pittsburgh, the first year defensive coordinator has chosen to err on the side of pressure more often than not. He’s had two weeks to draw up some creative new blitzes, and Matt Schaub will hardly recognize the defense he sees Sunday compared to the one he faced last December at Reliant Stadium. He’s much tougher to rattle than the Jets’ Mark Sanchez, and Houston’s offensive line is one of the best in the game though. This will be a key battle. If the Ravens are able to get pressure and force turnovers and 3-and-outs, they’ll win handily. If Schaub continually beats their blitz, we could have another shootout on our hands.

Take away the TE position. This is where I expect Schaub to work the ball. If I see production, then I bring my sub package on the field (nickel) and use an extra corner on Owen Daniels. Take away the short to intermediate route tree inside of the numbers. Even without Johnson, the TEs in Houston still can cause issues vs. a safety or a LB in coverage. Might have to make an adjustment there.

This is where I worry most about the Ravens’ defense against the Texans’ offense: Daniels and fellow tight end Joel Dreesen against the Baltimore linebackers, who are great against the run and when bringing pressure, but suspect in coverage. Ray Lewis especially, but Jameel McClain nor Dannell Ellerbe do much to inspire confidence either. Daniels is a mismatch whether the Ravens put a linebacker, safety, or cornerback on him. On the other hand, I completely expected Jets’ tight end Dustin Keller to have a field day in B’More as well, and he was totally shut down. Again, here it’s going to come down to pressure. Don’t give Schaub time to find his tight ends, just as we saw with Sanchez and Keller.

Have to play some coverage. I am looking at 2-Man and even some Tampa 2 when I have the Texans in 3rd and long situations. This is where you will see the deep dig, some combination routes and vertical concepts to move the sticks. Daniels can work the middle of the field vs. Tampa 2, so I am going to lean towards 2-Man. Underneath man-coverage with the defender playing inside with a trail-technique.

The Ravens aren’t a Tampa 2 team. Ray Lewis doesn’t have the speed to get deep enough any more for this type of scheme (not that it was ever really his specialty). Instead, I expect to see big blitzes on most of Houston’s 3rd-and-long situations. If Schaub beats the blitz a couple times, we could see some 2-Man, but as mentioned above, Pollard is at his best when he is moving downhill, not backpedaling.

Since this preview is already over the 1000-word mark (Thanks, Matt Bowen!), just some brief comments on the Ravens’ offense. If Schaub won’t recognize the defense he sees Sunday, Flacco certainly will not either. The Texans, who had the league’s 31st ranked defense when the Ravens went to Houston last season, now boast the #7 D in the league under new coordinator Wade Phillips. The blitzing 3-4 scheme, though, is very similar to the ones Flacco faces against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and in practice every day.

The status of both Lee Evans and Ben Grubbs is very much up-in-the-air for Sunday, a disappointment given that most expected these two back on the field after the bye week. Andre Gurode has played well in Grubbs’ stead, but the Ravens’ running game is still limited without the former Auburn Tiger. After exploding against the St. Louis Rams, Torrey Smith was marooned on Revis Island two weeks ago, catching just one pass for one yard. If Evans can’t go, Smith needs to have a bounce back game.

Flacco faces his old nemesis, former Cincinnati cornerback Jonathan Joseph, who has intercepted Joe in three of the last four games. Joseph will likely be shadowing Anquan Boldin all afternoon. As always, Ray Rice needs to be the centerpiece of the Ravens’ attack, both in the running and passing games. While Houston held Oakland running back Darren McFadden to only 51 yards, the Raiders still averaged 4.3 yards per running play. Let’s hope Cam Cameron spent the bye week doing some soul-searching, and doesn’t stubbornly continue to try to force the pass if it’s not working.

As we discussed earlier this week, the Ravens have been very reliable coming off of bye weeks under John Harbaugh. Add to that their home dominance since 2008 (21-5) and playing in front of a rapid purple crowd that hasn’t seen football in two weeks, and the Ravens should be too much for a depleted Texans roster to handle.

Ravens 24 Texans 13

P.S. Oh yeah, I almost forgot. Derrick Mason is back again. LOL.

Jets (2-1) @ Ravens (2-1)

September 30, 2011

Rex Ryan and Gang Green come to M&T Bank Stadium this week for some Sunday Night Football action. The Ravens are riding high following their 37-7 shellacking of the St. Louis Rams, while the Jets are licking their wounds after being run over roughshod by Darren McFadden (171 yards) and the Oakland Raiders last week 34-24. Despite being 2-1, the vaunted New York defense has been looking very vulnerable and un-Rex-like here over the last couple weeks. They find themselves ranked 31st in the league against the run on the heels of allowing Maurice Jones-Drew and McFadden to rush for 4.9 and 9.0 yards per carry, respectively. They undoubtedly come into Charm City with a chip on their collective shoulder, ready to do anything and everything to stop Ray Rice.

Rice, the Ravens do-everything running back, is off to a fast start here in 2011. The diminutive former Scarlet Knight sits fourth in the NFL through three games with 409 yards from scrimmage, and is averaging a hefty 5.6 yards per carry. It was tough sledding for Rice when these teams last met though, as he gained only 43 yards on 21 carries in 2010 week 1.

Helping open things up for Rice has been the Ravens’ suddenly (maybe) respectable passing game. Joe Flacco threw for a personal best 389 yards in St. Louis last week, hooking up with rookie Torrey Smith for touchdowns of 77, 41, and 18 yards. Smith, though, will have to prove he can make plays in the NFL on a consistent basis, and going from facing the Rams secondary to that of the Jets is akin to jumping from the high school J.V. to a BCS opponent. Smith will likely find himself matched up with Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie for most of the night. Cromartie had a rough game in Oakland before leaving with a bruised lung – as incredibly painful as that sounds, he has been practicing and expects to play. On the other side, Anquan Boldin, one of the most physical wide receivers in the league, will find himself dealing with one of the most physical cornerbacks in the league, All-World defender Darrelle Revis. Boldin had 7 catches for 110 yards in his Ravens debut against New York in 2010, as the Ravens moved him around while pretty much avoiding Revis altogether. They’ll likely aim to do the same this week, unless New York decides to just match Revis up with Boldin wherever he goes, daring the Ravens’ rookie wideouts – Smith, Tandon Doss, LaQuan Williams – to beat them. The Ravens would certainly feel better about their chances if Lee Evans was on the field, but he may miss his second straight game. In his last two games against the Jets though, Evans has just 2 catches for 44 yards.

While the Jets have struggled to stop the run of late, the other side of their typical “ground and pound” philosophy has also failed to live up to expectations. New York finds themselves just 25th in the NFL in rushing yards, with both Shonn Green (3.3) and LaDainian Tomlinson (3.6) averaging less than four yards per carry. They’ve been successful through the air however, riding this new NFL wave of 300-yard-passers as the norm, with quarterback Mark Sanchez putting up 295 yards per game passing. Sanchez’s favorite target is tight end Dustin Keller (16 receptions, 249 yards), and if Keller can shake the memory of what happened when he went over the middle against Ray Lewis in 2010, he could do some damage on Sunday night.

Of course the Jets also bring perennial Raven-killer Santonio Holmes to town. Holmes, who gave the Ravens nightmares as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, missed the 2010 opener due to suspension. This will be the first time the Ravens face Holmes wearing white and green, so let’s hope the results are much different than when he wore black and yellow.

The Ravens’ already depleted secondary got some more bad news this week when Dominique Foxworth was placed on injured reserve. Lardarius Webb has played well lately, and Chris Carr should continue to improve the pain from his quad injury fades away and he gets more reps, but teams have been picking on Cary Williams. Rookie Chykie Brown and practice squad signee Danny Gorrer don’t inspire much confidence either. One thing the Ravens may have going for them is that Sanchez has never faced Ed Reed. The ballhawk extraordinare could goad the Jets’ QB into some mistakes, despite Rex undoubtedly stressing to Sanchez all week how dangerous Reed can be.

New York have given up nine sacks as well, while the Ravens have registered nine of their own.

The Jets, for the first time in Rex’s tenure, can’t run the ball and can’t stop the run. While Rex will be pumped up to beat his former team, his intensity won’t be able to match that of the Ravens, who are not only playing at home for the first time since decimating Pittsburgh 35-7 in Week 1, but they’re doing so in their all black uniforms, at night, in a nationally televised contest. M&T Bank Stadium will be rocking, Ray Rice will be running, and the Ravens will get enough pressure on Sanchez to keep him from doing too much damage to their still very questionable secondary.

Ravens 23 Jets 13

Ravens (1-1) @ Rams (0-2)

September 23, 2011

The Ravens’ wound-licking from the beating they took in Nashville finally comes to an end Sunday. Unfortunately for them, they find themselves facing a fellow wounded animal of a team in the winless St. Louis Rams. St. Louis nearly won the NFC West in 2010, and had hoped to take the next step in 2011; the next step being of course, not only winning the division, but doing it with a winning record (7-9 earned the Seahawks a home playoff game last season). They find themselves desperate for a win coming off a short week in which they fell in New York to the Giants by a score of 28-16.

Those of us that watched that Monday night contest saw a Rams team with some strengths that look to potentially match up quite favorably for them with many of the weaknesses the Ravens displayed in Nashville. Second-year quarterback Sam Bradford – lucky him – has a head coach and offensive coordinator who actually trust him to run a hurry-up offense, and St. Louis has moved the ball extremely effectively between the 20’s through two games, but have been undone by some red zone woes.

Bradford lost his favorite target in week 1, when wide receiver Danny Amendola went out for at least another week or two with a dislocated elbow. They may also be operating without stud running back Steven Jackson, who has also been out since opening day. Jackson was limited in practice on Thursday. Even without Amendola, the Rams have had some guys step up, as four other wideouts have caught passes from Bradford (this, of course, more than doubles the number of WRs that Joe Flacco has connected with so far). Brandon Gibson and Mike Sims-Walker combined for 10 catches at the Meadowlands, while Danario Alexander is the team’s main deep threat, averaging over 40 yards on 3 receptions.

Even with that group of no-names, the Rams may have some degree of success against the depleted Ravens’ secondary. Dominique Foxworth is quickly becoming 2011’s version of Frank Walker or Fabian Washington, as his surgically repaired knee is still causing him pain and has rendered him largely uneffective. John Harbaugh hinted that Foxworth may get a rest this week, in the hopes of healing up more. This does no favors for the Ravens, who are already without Jimmy Smith. Chris Carr says that he hopes to play Sunday, but how many plays will he be out there before his injured quad flares up again? Cary Williams was toasted in Tennessee, and will need to bounce back quickly. Lardarius Webb has been the team’s best CB through two games, and rookie Chykie Brown may see his first NFL action against the Rams.

Long story short, the Rams will test the Ravens through the air. Bradford doesn’t possess the quick release that Matt Hasselbeck used so effectively, but you can bet getting the ball out on time will factor heavily into St. Louis’ game plan after watching film on the purple and black. Hitting the young quarterback early and often will go a long way toward coming out of the Edward Jones Dome with a victory. Watching Monday’s game, once the Giants were able to get in Bradford’s face, they slowed the former greatest show on turf considerably.

One tactic the Ravens won’t be able to use to slow the hurry-up is the ol’ “fake an injury” formation. With the Giants doing so extremely blatantly on Monday, this issue has become the overblown story of the young season. The refs will undoubtedly be on high alert for such shenanigans in all games this week, but especially the one in St. Louis.

When the Ravens have the ball, they will look to reestablish the power running game that had so much success against Pittsburgh before sputtering in week 2. The Rams allowed 236 and 119 yards rushing, respectively, in their first two games, and they couldn’t stop the Giants at all late in the game Monday even when everybody in the stadium knew they were going to run the ball. Philadelphia’s Lesean McCoy gave them fits all afternoon, and his skill set very closely matches that of one Ray Rice. The Ravens’ best offensive play a week ago was the screen pass to Rice, but for some reason they only ran it once.

Hey Cam – RUN IT UNTIL THEY PROVE THEY CAN STOP IT!

The Rams have a high-pressure pass defense, and they racked up three sacks in each game so far. They blitz from all over the place, and the Ravens’ O-line will need to rebound and – like the rest of the team – play more like they did against Pittsburgh than like they did against the Titans, or Joe will be running for his life all afternoon yet again. Lee Evans could miss the game, which means the young wideouts – Torrey Smith, Tandon Doss, LaQuan Williams – will need to grow up quick and finally make a contribution to the team.

Basically, if you have Ray Rice on your fantasy team, feel good about starting him Sunday. If you have Flacco or any of the Ravens’ wideouts…you’d probably be well served looking for better options.

These two teams haven’t met since the “Battle of the Backups” game back in 2007, a 22-3 Ravens win. I don’t see this one being nearly as much of a laugher, but the Ravens should rebound and get to 2-1. A more efficient red zone offense from the good guys propels them to the victory.

Ravens 20 Rams 13

Ravens (1-0) @ Titans (0-1)

September 16, 2011

The Ravens go from their current most heated rivalry to one of their former fiercest rivals this week, taking on the Tennessee Titans in Nashville. Back in the old AFC Central days, these two teams had some epic battles. The Ravens were the first visiting team to win in what was then Adelphia Coliseum (now LP Field), and they knocked out the #1 seeded Titans on their way to the Super Bowl XXXV victory.

The rivalry heated up again nicely in 2008, when these two played two more hotly contested games. During the regular season in Baltimore, the Ravens dominated the stat sheet but lost 13-10 on a last minute Titans’ touchdown drive that was aided by a very questionable roughing the passer call on Terrell Suggs. In the playoffs, the Titans once again had the #1 seed, and this time it was they who dominated most of the game only to lose at the end. In what we at the time described as a bit of cosmic justice, the Ravens’ game-winning drive was also aided by the officials, who gave Joe Flacco an extra second or two after the play clock had expired to get off a key snap that turned into a first down completion to Todd Heap.

The rivalry has again gone dormant though, as those 2008 playoffs were the last time these two teams met.

The Titans are no longer coached by Jeff Fisher, the guy at the helm for every one of those aforementioned rivalry games, and the NFL’s longest tenured head coach at the time he was let go. Mike Munchak takes over a squad that went 14-18 over Fisher’s final two seasons, and won only 6 games in 2010. Munchak is looking for his first win as an NFL head coach, as the Titans fell last week in Jackonsville 16-14.

Veteran Matt Hasselbeck comes over from Seattle to quarterback the Titans this year. Hasselbeck has had some success against the Ravens in the past as a Seahawk; in 2007, he was 18/27 with 2 TDs and 2 INTs as Seattle rolled the Ravens 27-6, and in 2003 in Baltimore, he went 23/41 for 333 yards and FIVE touchdowns in that crazy game where the Ravens came back to win 44-41. Hasselbeck was respectable in his Titans’ debut, going 21/34 for 263, 1 TD, and 1 INT last week.

The Ravens will look to get after him like they did Ben Roethlisberger last week, when they forced the Pittsburgh quarterback into five turnovers. They will again be without #1 cornerback rookie Jimmy Smith, who suffered a high ankle sprain in the Steelers game, and likely without Chris Carr, who is dealing with a hamstring issue. Tennessee’s main weapon in the passing game is third-year player Kenny Britt. Britt, who many Ravens fans were hoping to see the team draft back in 2009, caught 5 passes for 136 yards and two scores last week, including an 80 yard touchdown reception. Containing Britt will be no small task, especially considering that the Ravens’ main focus will still have to be on the Titans’ running game.

Chris Johnson, perhaps the fastest man in the NFL, is coming off a very un-CJ2K like performance in Jacksonville, where he had just 9 carries for 24 yards. Johnson had success against the Ravens in the ’08 playoff game (11 carries, 72 yards) before leaving with an injury, after B’More had bottled him up well in week 5 (18/44). Johnson, like Jamaal Charles of Kansas City who the Ravens had to deal with in last year’s playoffs, can break off a 70 or 80 yard score at any time. Ravens’ nose tackle Terrance Cody played reasonably well against Pittsburgh, but he will really need to step up this week with Johnson taking handoffs.

The Titans’ defense should realistically be easy pickens for the Ravens this week, considering what they did to Pittsburgh in week 1. Aside from cornerback Cortland Finnegan and former Bucs linebacker Barrett Rudd, there aren’t many recognizable names on the unit that gave up 323 yards (163 rushing) and 20 first downs to the Luke McCown-led Jaguars in week 1. Maurice Jones-Drew, a very similar back to Ray Rice, averaged over 4 yards per carry last week.

The Ravens offense looked better against Pittsburgh last week than they ever have, and they need to carry that momentum forward to prove that it wasn’t just a fluke. The newly added speed, including tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, and wide receiver Lee Evans (who, though he didn’t have a catch, effectively opened up underneath routes for the backs and tight ends) made the Steelers look old and slow. B’More’s new-look offensive line had a very good game, and should only continue to get better. Look for the Ravens to again aim for a balanced attack (they had the same number of runs as passes last week), with Rice and the tight ends as the focus until Tennessee forces them to go elsewhere.

The Titans and their fans will be fired up for their home opener. The Ravens, though, know that a let-down this week would immediately erase not only all those good feelings from the Steelers win, but also their advantage in the standings moving forward. Games like this always make Ravens fans, who remember Brian Billick teams continually losing to lesser teams, very uneasy. John Harbaugh squads have had no such issues during his tenure though (save for the Bengals), and the Ravens should be able to go into LP Field and handle their business.

Ravens 27 Titans 13

Steelers @ Ravens

September 9, 2011

For the second consecutive year, the Ravens start off the season with one the previous season’s AFC Championship game participants. Last year, it was the New York Jets, who had fallen to the Colts for the right to play in Super Bowl XLIV. This year, it’s the Steelers coming to town, fresh off their Super Bowl XLV loss to the Green Bay Packers. Both these teams’ 2010 campaigns ended in the most excruciating fashions possible, with the Steelers coming up short on a final-minute 4th-and-5 in Indianapolis when a touchdown and extra point would have given them Lombardi Trophy number 7, and the Ravens once again failing to get over the hump of their hated rivals despite building a seemingly comfortable 21-7 halftime lead at Heinz Field in the AFC Divisional round.

The Ravens have undergone plenty of turnover on their roster since that playoff game. Gone are Derrick Mason, Todd Heap, Willis McGahee, Le’Ron McClain, Kelly Gregg, and others. New on the scene are Vonta Leach, Lee Evans, Ricky Williams, Jimmy Smith, Tandon Doss, Torrey Smith, Bernard Pollard, and Brandon McKinnie. Terrance Cody, Cary Williams, and Ed Dickson go from backups to starters. Michael Oher returns to his rookie-year position at right tackle, and Marshal Yanda moves back inside from right tackle to right guard. All told, the Ravens will have nine players either new to the lineup or in new positions compared to the last time they lined up against Pittsburgh in January.

The Steelers, on the other hand, stood nearly completely pat following their Super Bowl defeat. They return 21 of 22 starters, with the only “new” addition being right guard Doug Legursky. Legursky isn’t really new though, having started several games last year, including the Super Bowl, where he filled in for injured center Maurkice Pouncey.

So which team is at an advantage? The Ravens, who know exactly what they are getting from Pittsburgh, but aren’t nearly as certain what to expect from all their own new pieces? Or the Steelers, who are fully confident with their roster, but aren’t quite sure what to make of or expect from these new look Ravens? Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin came out this week and said that he was “uneasy” after the Ravens changes – don’t put too much stock in that, though. Mike Tomlin isn’t rattled; he was just blowing smoke.

The changes that the Ravens made were 100% necessary if they ever want to evolve as a team. They got younger, faster, and stronger. However, the timetable on which all of these new pieces will gel to be in a position to take the next step is far from certain. It seems highly doubtful that the offensive line, for instance, five guys who have never played a single snap together in their current formation, will be world beaters here in week 1, especially against such a formidable front seven as the one possessed by the Steelers. Or that a secondary with 75% new pieces will be able to adequately contain a strong Pittsburgh passing attack right off the bat.

IF the offensive line can open holes for Ray Rice and protect Joe Flacco

IF Dickson and Dennis Pitta can pick up Heap’s slack not only receiving, but blocking

IF Cary Williams can carry over his strong preseason performances to a time when the games really matter

IF Jimmy Smith can learn from his mistakes and match up with Hines Ward and/or Mike Wallace in his first ever real NFL action

IF Flacco and Evans can be effective in their debut, despite missing nearly a week of practice together as Evans sat out with an injured ankle

If all of those things come together, the Ravens should be able to not only beat the Steelers, but beat them handily. Which is to say, if these teams were once again meeting in week 4 or 5, things would be looking a lot more optimistic in Charm City. The Ravens, as currently constructed, are built to improve as the season goes on, not fire right out of the gates on all cylinders. A warm up game or two against Cincinnati or Seattle would sure be nice, but the NFL schedule makers granted the Ravens no such reprieve. Three straight AFC games right off the bat, one against 2010’s division/conference winner and another against the AFC runner up. Things get real immediately.

To expect all of those “If” coin flips to come up Ravens in the season opener is probably a bit much to ask.

While the way to beat Pittsburgh is to spread them out and throw the ball, John Harbaugh and Cam Cameron seem much more likely to retreat even further into their conservative shells this Sunday with all the question marks around the team, rather than to suddenly get super aggressive and risk a potential feast on Flacco by linebackers LaMarr Woodley, James Harrison, and Lawrence Timmons. After all, their conservative approach beat the Steelers once last year, and very nearly beat them two additional times. Save for a single play in each of the final two match ups between these teams in 2010, the Ravens could have very realistically posted a three-game sweep.

Which isn’t to gloss over the Steelers’ wins. Hell, if Charlie Batch is able to pick up just one first down in the final two minutes in week 4, Pittsburgh sweeps the Ravens three games for the second time in three years.

The point is, the approach that Harbaugh and Cameron have been using over the past several years against their fierce division rivals hasn’t been nearly as futile as their 2-6 record would indicate; they’re close, time and time again. But, time and time again, someone wearing a logo on only one side of their helmet steps up in crunch time and wins the game. The law of averages would seem to dictate that, eventually, a Raven or two will step up when it matters – like Flacco and T.J. Houshmandzadeh did last year.

Which is why Ravens fans should expect the coaching staff to once again put together a game plan designed to limit mistakes and keep the game as close as possible as long as possible, with the hope that it will be Flacco, Rice, Suggs, or Reed that makes the decisive crunch-time play, and not Polamalu, Roethlisberger, Wallace, or Woodley.

That’s the hope.

There are, unfortunately, just too many “ifs” to feel too confident in that hope.

Steelers 20 Ravens 13

I just can’t bring myself to do it.

/puts on homer glasses

/chugs purple kool aid

Ravens 23 Steelers 17

Hey Cam! Wanna Beat the Steelers? SPREAD THEM OUT!

September 3, 2011

In 2010, the Pittsburgh Steelers lost a total of five games. Four of these came with Captain Rapey, Ben Roethlisberger, as the starting quarterback – the fifth was, of course, in Week 4 when the Ravens won in Pittsburgh against starting quarterback Charlie Batch.

In three of those other four losses – all with Ben as the starter, an obstacle the Ravens have not been able to overcome since 2006 – the offensive game plan of Pittsburgh’s opponent was strikingly similar: spread them out and throw the ball.

Let’s look at some visual evidence of this, from each of those three games:

Week 8 – New Orleans Saints 20, Squealers 10

Drew Brees: 34/44 305 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT

5 WR, 0 TE, 0 RB – 18 yard completion to Lance Moore

3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB – Run, 1 yard loss

4 WR, 0 TE, 1 RB – 14 yard completion to Jeremy Shockey (TE lined up as WR)

Week 10 – New England Patriots 39, Shittsburgh 26

Tom Brady: 30/43 350 yards 3 TD, 0 INT

3 WR, 2 RB, 0 TE – 19 yard TD to Rob Gronkowski (TE lined up as WR)

5 WR, 0 TE, 0 RB – 16 yard completion to Wes Welker (tackled by James Harrison)

The Steelers’ final regular season loss came to the New York Jets, who scored only one offensive touchdown in the game, to go along with a kick return touchdown and a safety. Their game plan didn’t fit this mold, so I’m not including any screencaps from that contest. If it weren’t for the special teams touchdown – hardly something you want to count on – they would have likely lost the game.

The Steelers’ final loss of the season – one we all very fondly remember – came at the hands of the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV.

4 WR, 0 TE, 1 RB – Incomplete to Nelson (likely TD if caught)

4 WR, 0 TE, 1 RB – 21 yard TD to Jennings

4 WR, 0 TE, 1 RB – Drop by Jones (likely huge TD if caught)

Please also take note that, in addition to having three, four, or five wide receivers, in each of the above plays the quarterback is in the shotgun formation.

We Ravens fans have been begging Cam Cameron to use the shotgun more often for two full seasons now, to no avail.

Joe Flacco shows, time and again, that he is most effective from the shotgun, yet for some unknowable reason, Cam keeps putting Joe under center. Under center, where valuable seconds are wasted dropping back and setting up, seconds Flacco often doesn’t have, with his offensive line’s shaky play and his (still, ugh) relatively long delivery.

The blueprint on how to beat Pittsburgh is right there for all to see. Spreading them out gets their blitzing linebackers and safeties away from the line of scrimmage, severely hampering defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau’s ability to disguise his intentions. As noted in the second Patriots picture above, James Harrison was 16 yards downfield tackling Wes Welker, not wreaking havoc in the backfield.

Troy Polamalu is a severe liability in coverage, something other teams take full advantage of, while the Ravens simply let him blitz off the edge and blow up their plays again, and again, and again.

Now, some will obviously point out that a detail I am glossing over in my above analysis is that the three quarterbacks in the example games are three of the top five in the NFL today – Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Aaron Rodgers.

(As an aside, I wonder if dipshit sports-talk radio callers in Pittsburgh drone on and on about how Ben “can’t beat the elite quarterbacks?”)

Flacco, while good, is not on the level of those guys at this point in his career. However, my point is simply that you have to give the guy a chance – send him out there with a strong game plan and let him sink or swim. Use the blueprint that the successful teams have handed you.

In 2011, the Ravens have the personnel to spread the Steelers out. Cam, just pick any combination (at least 4) of the following: Anquan Boldin, Lee Evans, Ed Dickson, Tandon Doss, Dennis Pitta, Torrey Smith (hell, just send the guy deep and they have to at least pay attention to him), and even Ray Rice (remember his huge 4th-down catch against the Steelers in Baltimore in 2009, when he split out to Joe’s right). Line those guys up on the outside, put Joe back in the shotgun, and let’s see what happens.

I’m begging you.

Game after game, the Ravens continue to play right into the Steelers’ hands, trying to run the ball against their immovable front seven (eight, if you count hair-boy), and passing from under-center five- and seven-step drop designs. They’ll likely come out on September 11 and do the same, and I’ll be in a bar in Beaufort, North Carolina banging my head against the wall.

Preseason Game 2: Chiefs @ Ravens – What to Watch For

August 19, 2011

Aaaaaaah, memories

Coming off their less-than-inspiring performance in Philadelphia last Thursday, the Ravens will be looking to improve upon more than a couple things in their second preseason tune-up contest.

Coming to town are the Kansas City Chiefs, who have suddenly become “Ravens West” to the Jets’ “Ravens North” and the Redskins’ “Ravens South” this offseason, adding former Ravens Kelly Gregg, Le’Ron McClain, and Jared Gaither to their roster. While the B’More faithful will be eager to give at least two of those guys a nice warm welcome in their returns to Charm City, let’s take a look at what more important issues Ravens fans will be watching for after kickoff.

O-Line

As always, the Ravens’ main concerns seem to start up front. With Marshal Yanda sitting this one out due to back spasms, public enemy #1 Oneil Cousins will be moved inside to right guard, where he hopes to reverse his fortunes from last week’s awful showing. Jah Reid will get the start at right tackle, where he will have his hands full with Chiefs’ linebacker Tamba Hali, who led the AFC with 14.5 sacks in 2010. On the other side, Michael “False Start” Oher will try to rebound from a similarly dismal performance against Philly, where he was manhandled at times, especially while run blocking.

The Ravens couldn’t block anyone in the preseason opener, regardless of whether they were trying to run the ball or throw it. Let’s hope to see some improvement tonight.

Tackling

The Ravens’ other most glaring weakness against the Eagles was their inability to wrap up ballcarriers when they had them dead-to-rights. Time and again, Mike Vick, Le’Sean McCoy, and Ronnie Brown slipped out of what should have been tackles-for-losses, and turned the play around for positive – sometimes hugely positive – gains. Ravens’ defenders were in the right place at the right time more often than not, they just couldn’t seal the deal. I’m willing to give them a pass for last week’s effort – rust and all that – but I want to see a much stronger showing of sure-thing tackles here in game #2.

Lee Evans

I’m very anxious to see newly acquired wideout Lee Evans in his Ravens debut. Early reports from Evans’ first few practices with the team were that Joe Flacco was having a tough time adjusting to Evans’ speed, throwing behind him or underthrowing him several times. This isn’t surprising – while there have been a burner or two in the WR corps since Joe showed up (Yamon Figurs, Torrey Smith), Flacco hasn’t had anybody with the combination of speed and “polish” running routes for him well…pretty much ever. I’d like to see a sign that Evans and Flacco are adjusting to each other tonight, in the form of a few targets and hopefully at least a catch or two.

Sergio Kindle/Paul Kruger

While it was great to see Sergio Kindle out there on the football field running around and engaging in live contact against Philadelphia, it was Paul Kruger who really caught the eye of Ravens fans. In the never-ending search for a pass rushing compliment to Terrell Suggs, the third-year player from Utah looks like he might finally be ready to step up, recording five tackles and a sack against the Eagles. What we need to start seeing now from Kruger is some consistency – he can’t have a great game one week, then come back and be an invisible man tonight against KC.

As for Kindle, he had himself in good position several times in Philly, but seemed overanxious – understandable, considering his circumstances – which cost him the chance to make a play or two. Watch for him to be a bit less nervous/hyper out there tonight, and hopefully make a more tangible impact.

Well, that’s all I’ve got for preseason game 2. How about you – what will you have your eye on tonight?

And now, just for fun:


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