Sunday, October 26, 2008

Ravens-Raiders Preview: Beating the Teams You are Supposed to Beat

I know it’s the Raiders, but… no, it is still the Raiders. This football team has every reason to pack it in, but fought hard against the Jets and truly earned their second win of the season. Record-wise the Ravens aren’t much better, but they have beaten the teams they are supposed to beat. The Bengals, Browns, and Miami are inferior teams, and the Colts (I don’t care what the record is this year), Titans and Steelers are above-average teams at the very least. The Ravens will be looking to keep that streak alive and stay relevant in the AFC North. The Raiders will be looking to stay relevant at all.

What I’m Wondering:

Can Joe Flacco string together two strong performances in a row?

The Oakland Raiders are in the bottom half of the league in passing yards against, allowing 224.3 yards per contest. Joe Flacco is throwing roughly 180 yards per game- this would appear good for the Ravens. However, Flacco has yet to have a truly break-out game and as long as he is limited to dump off passes and the occasional wild shot downfield we shouldn’t expect much more from him. Last week he did appear to turn things around somewhat against a deplorable Miami secondary, completing almost 74% of his passes and not throwing a pick. It should be no surprise that this exemplary effort was matched by the Ravens first 100 yard rushing performance of the season. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the running game will determine whether Flacco can extend the field and take on a more ambitious offensive gameplan. Will Flacco make it two solid games in a row against awful defensive units?

Will the secondary continue to struggle against young signal-caller JaMarcus Russell?
Chad Pennington torched the Ravens for almost 300 yards. Peyton Manning returned to form against a dazed and confused secondary. Chris McAlister, Samari Rolle, Ed Reed and Dawan Landry, the entire starting secondary, could be out for this game (if John Harbaugh decides what he wants to do with Chris that could change) and while Russell isn’t destroying opponents by any means he has not turned the ball over much through the air, throwing only 2 picks to 7 touchdown passes. I don’t trust any defensive unit with an entire secondary of replacements. It appears as though the Ravens D might be following the pattern predicted at the beginning of the season- great when healthy, but rarely healthy. Will the Raiders be able to take advantage of the battered Ravens secondary?

How dangerous is Darren McFadden to the Ravens?
One things the Ravens linebackers have been able to hang their hat on is sure tackling, which will be the key to preventing McFadden from breaking a run or return long for a score. The rookie running back out of Arkansas cannot be treated like any other back- he has the ability to suck linebackers into the middle and the break a run outside. Traditionally this has been effective against the Ravens in the past. Their aggressive (perhaps overly aggressive) style has led to big plays against them in the past, and it will be of top importance for Jarret Johnson and Terrell Suggs particularly to stay in their lanes and not crash in on an apparent run up the gut. Darren McFadden is a special talent. Will the Ravens be able to keep him contained by staying true to their assignments?

My Mildly Informed Analysis:

Forget the offensive and defensive analyses. There is no reason why the Ravens should not be able to defeat the Raiders by a fairly comfortable margin. This game is about whether the Ravens can set the offensive tempo from the very beginning of the game and not allow the Raiders to gain confidence enough to stay in the ballgame. This is a fragile football team, but one that can be dangerous if allowed to stay in the game. Last week against the Jets the Raiders were able to frazzle and harry Brett Favre into 2 interceptions and the forced a fumble from Leon Washington that kept them in the driver’s seat. If the Ravens offense does not turn the ball over and continues to pound the ball up the middle of the field, the game will be the Ravens’ by the fourth quarter. The Jets managed to wear down the Raiders, the Ravens should too.

Remember, Thomas Jones rushed for 159 yards last week on 24 carries; if he had had some semblance of a passing game to rely on then the Jets could have completely dominated the football game. The question here will be whether the same Raiders secondary shows up- I say no. They will not be facing the same type of quarterback this time. They will be getting a young quarterback with a coaching staff careful not to make any mistakes instead of a gunslinger known for high-risk high-reward play. The Raiders will not have as many wild passes to take advantage of, and this game should not be half as exciting, but much more efficient.

JaMarcus Russell has only been sacked 14 times this season, but he has fumbled the ball 6 times, with 4 being recovered by the opposing defense. The Raiders offensive line has improved in pass protection significantly from last season, but I don’t trust it jut yet. I hope Rex Ryan dials up a series of blitzes and forces the Raiders to make that one mistake that can break the game wide open. As far as coverage is concerned, even without the entire starting secondary I just cannot see the Raiders receivers being anything above average- Javon Walker will be a threat but has yet to come into his own and Zach Miller, well… I will accept the tight end getting some catches but he will not single handedly be able to dismantle the defense.

The Rundown

The Raiders have not backed down to any opponent, and have a fire they lacked at times in the last few seasons. The effect of the firing of Lane Kiffin has yet to be seen, but the coaching staff will not be winning any games for them this season. Likewise, Rex Ryan’s brother Rob Ryan does not have the personnel to do what he can do on defense. Believe it or not the Raiders and Ravens are similar in a lot of ways- strong armed young quarterbacks, a questionable offensive line, with new coaches and a defense that traditionally has been the stronger side of the ball in recent seasons (though not so much this year for the Raiders). In the end however… the Ravens do all of that just a bit better in every way than the Raiders.

The nod goes to the Ravens, 21-10.

(Photo Credit: Baltimore Sun)

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