Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, finally. We survived another offseason, and we finally get the chance to spit out that nasty aftertaste that has lingered in our collective mouths since that fateful night in Pittsburgh last January (damn you, Daren Stone!) A new season is upon us, one that sees our expectations for our team astronomically higher than they were just one year ago. In this space in Week 1 last season, I picked the Bungles to trounce the Ravens 27-13. Like most of you, I all too vividly remembered the nightmare 5-11 previous season, and had little confidence that a rookie QB and rookie head coach could come in and make such an immediate impact.
Shame on me. Joe Flacco and John Harbaugh made me eat my words, leading the Ravens to an 11-5 record and two playoff wins. The question now becomes, can they duplicate their success, and avoid a second-year letdown (or “sophomore slump,” if you want to get all cliche’ about it)?
The Ravens lost a couple pieces from that squad, most notably inside linebacker Bart Scott, safety Jim Leonhard, center Jason Brown, and defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. Every preview you read about the Ravens drones on and on about the loss of Ryan and Scott being potentially catastrophic. To which I say, GET OFF MY CLOUD!
The Ravens have proven, time and time again, that no matter the coordinator (Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan, Rex Ryan), or the pieces plugged into the positions, that it is the scheme, aggression, and defensive tradition here in Baltimore that makes them a perennial Top-5 defense. As much as we hate to admit it, there is another team to the northwest of us who have done the same thing for far longer than we have. Being stuck in the same division as those who shall not be named, the Ravens have followed the same model, and success has come along with it.
Bart Scott was the third best LB on last year’s team. Tavares Gooden is more than ready to pick up any slack that the departure of Bart may have left. Jim Leonhard was only playing because of injury to the usual starter, Dawan Landry, who is a better all-around safety. New coordinator Greg Mattison has been coaching for 38 years. Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata, and Terrell Suggs are all back. The Ravens will once again be an elite defense, make no mistake about it.
The unknown, as always with the Ravens, is whether or not the offense can continue its evolution, and build upon the modicum of success it showed a year ago. Nine of 11 starters return, with center Jason Brown and tackle Willie Anderson being the only losses. Brown is replaced by Pro Bowler Matt Birk, a definite short-term upgrade, while rookie Michael Oher takes over for the retired Anderson. Oher has been a beast in the preseason, and looks like another first round gem from Ozzie Newsome. Still, expect some growing pains as he gets used to matching up against the top pass rushers in the NFL.
Flacco comes off a season in which he became the first rookie QB to ever win two playoff games. He passed for 2,971 yards in his rookie campaign, throwing 14 TD and 12 INT. Over the final 11 games of the season though, he had 13 of those TD, and only five of the picks, showing steady improvement. After a brief retirement due to the loss of his good friend Steve McNair, Flacco’s favorite target, Derrick Mason, returns for another shot at his first Super Bowl ring. Joining Mason in catching balls will again be Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams, and the Ravens added former Bengal and Patriot Kelley Washington to the WR corps (no Brandon Marshall or Anquan Boldin, much to the chagrin of some). Todd Heap appears healthy and involved in the offense in the fake games, and L.J. Smith, if he can ever get on the field, will provide another strong target for Flacco.
Also expected to contribute heavily in the passing game, as well as on the ground, is second year RB Ray Rice. Rice appears by all accounts to be the Ravens “starter” at RB, with Willis McGahee relegated to the change-of-pace role, and Le’Ron McClain returning to his natural blocking-back FB position with the departure of Lorenzo Neal. We still expect “Pain Train” to get some touches here and there, but Rice should see the lion’s share of carries in 2009. Rice averaged 3.6 yards on 23 carries (ehhhhh) and 9.0 yards on 12 receptions (ooooh) in three preseason contests. The Ravens seemed very pass-heavy in the fake games though, and I have a feeling that was more for “practice” for Joe than an indication of their actual game plans for this season.
Kansas City won just two games in 2008, and as a result installed a whole new regime. New head coach Todd Haley replaces Herm Edwards, and a big trade brought Matt Cassel from New England to displace Tyler Thigpen at QB. Cassel tweaked his MCL against Seattle in the third preseason game, and is still questionable for the game. If he is unable to go, Brodie Croyle will start at QB for the Chiefs, in which case, you might want to look away, Mama Croyle. The Chiefs still have WR Dwayne Bowe, an emerging star in the NFL, but they lost their longtime stalwart in the passing game, TE Tony Gonzalez, to the Atlanta Falcons.
Chiefs RB Larry Johnson was the last back to gain 100 yards on the ground against the Ravens, a streak of 35 games; this is an impressive number, despite what perennial nay-sayer Mike Preston would have you believe. He isn’t what he used to be, but Johnson could still give the Ravens trouble, especially if the ease with which the Jets and Panthers were able to run the ball on the Ravens in the preseason is any indication. Look for the Ravens to stack the box, and dare Cassel/Croyle to beat them through the air.
On defense, the Chiefs were #31 in the NFL in 2008 (#28 passing, #30 rushing). Linebacker Mike Vrabel came over in the Cassel trade (a fact he is none too pleased about), but one man can’t fix that kind of ineptitude. After losing DE Jared Allen, the Chiefs plummeted to the bottom of the league in sacks, taking down opposing QBs only 10 (!!!) times all year. This all paints a rosy picture for Joe Cool & Co.
The one thing that gives us pause is this – Todd Haley was the offensive coordinator for Arizona prior to coming to Kansas City. During Week 3 of the 2007 season, the Cardinals were stymied by Rex Ryan’s D for three quarters, before storming back with 17 points in the fourth to force a last-second FG by Matt Stover to win it for Baltimore. Did Todd Haley figure something out that he can carry over to Sunday’s game? Add in that the Chiefs acquired WR Terrance Copper, who spent part of 2009 with the Ravens, and the potential for some Willie Anderson-like shenanigans (the Bengals accused Anderson of tipping off the Ravens to their plays during Week 1 last year)…does this game get a little closer than we might originally think?
In short, no. As discussed, Greg Mattisons’s defense is not Rex Ryan’s defense. Nobody is confusing Cassel, Copper, and Bowe with Warner, Boldin, and Fitzgerald. And Copper wasn’t around long enough to learn much, if anything, of the Ravens’ system.
Ravens 24 Chiefs 10