Sunday, November 23, 2008

Ravens-Eagles Preview: Not So Sunny for Philadelphia

Sorry Terps, there’s always next year. Well, if Darius comes back and the team can find a quarterback who doesn't need a sideline therapist to keep composed and a defense that won't get gashed by every counter or cutback on a stretch play, then there is next year. Otherwise, I will defer to Windsor's analysis. My god that was ugly. Uglier than the Raven's loss to the Giants? Yes, much worse.

In the meantime, we can look forward to seeing if the Ravens can rebound from their drubbing last week at the hands of the New York Giants against the underachieving Eagles. Philadelphia was favored by some going into the season to win the NFC East, they are currently waiting for their first win in the division. The Eagles, for their part, are still actually in striking distance of a wild card spot in the NFC while the Ravens cling to that #6 spot in the AFC. This game will be about which team can recover from embarrassment- the Ravens D (particularly in the running game) and Donovan McNabb (for having no idea that a game could end in a tie… or maybe the fact that they tied the Bengals… either one). Let's toss out the Mentor vs. Pupil stuff... if they don't care, I don't either. Everyone knows what each other does anyway, it won't make much of a difference this week.

What I’m Wondering:

Will Joe Flacco bounce back from last week’s performance?
Flacco played very well last week, but there is a chance that his actual numbers got to him. Mason failed to catch that big gainer that turned into an interception and ensuing touchdown that put the game out of reach, and Joe showed surprising elusiveness in limiting the number of sacks by the Giants. His poise was impressive given the lack of the running game, and he was entirely unafraid of the pass rush being sent his way. However, he still threw two interceptions and orchestrated an offense that was six feet under by the 4th quarter. He has the opportunity to reverse those fortunes against a banged up Eagles secondary, but a great deal will depend on the ability of the offensive line to keep the #1 pass rush in the NFL at bay. Last week I saw a turning point in Joe Flacco’s season. He will either break and fall into rookie habits trying to save the offense on his own, or he will play within himself and play mistake-free football. Will Flacco start playing like a rookie or keep a clear head under pressure?

Will the Three-Headed Monster stay under the bed for a second straight week?

Last week I predicted that McClain, McGahee, and Rice would struggle but still turn in a decent performance against one of the top rush defenses in the league. I was wrong. It is difficult to say with certainty how bad the running game really was, as the Ravens fell behind so early so quickly, but I was intrigued by Coach Harbaugh’s insistence in keeping with the run. This was likely to protect Joe Flacco and keep the game from collapsing in front of his rookie QB. The Giants gashed the Eagles for 219 yards rushing two weeks ago, and now it could be the Ravens’ turn. This football team cannot afford to have Joe Flacco be the leading rusher for another game. It is odd that the running game struggled so badly as the offensive line wasn’t abhorrent in pass protection, particularly given the general wisdom that run blocking is easier than pass blocking. Will the Ravens running backs return to form or be swallowed up by the Eagles defensive line?

Has the defense gotten over that black eye yet?
When Ray Lewis comments that the defense was surprised and unprepared for the Giants’ intensity and aggressiveness, you have problems. Luckily for Baltimore, the Eagles are legendary for not having any semblance of a goal-line back; Westbrook is a 5-tool player (to borrow a baseball reference) but cannot get the tough yard inside. There won’t be Brandon Jacobs across the line. However, a game like last week’s can have a lasting effect on a team’s psyche. The Ravens are used to entering every game as the intimidator, for beating up the other team at the line and not backing down. Last week the Giants were the aggressor and took it to them from the opening snap. The Eagles know that in order to stay in the playoff hunt they have to win a game like this. Look for them to throw everything they can at this defense. Will the defense regain their swagger or are they still wounded after the whooping they received last week?

My Mildly Informed Analysis:

The Eagles schizophrenic offense has traditionally been led by running back Brian Westbrook making miraculous plays and quarterback Donovan McNabb making the most out of substandard receivers and rescuing drives with his feet, but this traditional model may be getting an overhaul. Offensively, this is not the Eagles offense of the last few years- and it may not be a good thing. While most prognosticators have hailed the emergence of rookie DeSean Jackson as a go-to wideout with gamebreaking potential, but in many ways the passing offense is as inconsistent as it has ever been. McNabb is en route to his most interceptions in a season since 2000, when he finished with 13. Additionally, his 88 yards rushing puts him on pace for the lowest yardage in his career, sporting a 3.8 yards per rush average. For comparison, Joe Flacco has 35 rushes for 142 yards, a 4.1 yard average. This is not the Donovan of old.

Brian Westbrook, on the other hand, has taken his normal place for the Eagles this season- on the injury report. The dynamic Philadelphia back is listed as questionable and did not practice on Friday; it doesn’t look good for him playing on Sunday. However, even if he does play, he has not been as effective this season as in the past. After averaging almost 1300 yards rushing and 750 yards receiving over the past 2 seasons, Westbrook has been hemmed in by opposing defensive coordinators, dropped for losses by frequent penetration and consistent coverage out of the backfield. He is currently on pace for less than 1000 yards on the ground and 400 yards through the air.

I am excited about the Ravens prospects against this offense. The Ravens rank 2nd in the NFL with 15 interceptions despite losing their entire starting secondary for stretches of the season. When the running game fails Donovan and his legs aren’t quite quick enough to make up positive yards on his own, he will force the ball into coverage and the Ravens will make him pay. Unlike the Giants, the Eagles are a finesse running team. This team has never been one to pound the ball through defenders. The Ravens defense is too good to be tricked by the moves of Buckhalter if Westbrook is out tomorrow. The Eagles are 26th in the NFL in rushing. The Ravens are still 3rd in rushing defense. It will come down to Donovan, and when a team is one dimensional this defense will feast.

The Ravens offense has problems of its own, however. I won’t dwell too much on Joe Flacco this time around. We are starting to understand what we have in Flacco- he will force some balls now and then, but by and large he has not taken huge risks. This is due in no small part to the coaching staff giving him a very conservative play calling to work with. One issue not getting enough attention for the Ravens is the inability for any receiver not named “Mason” to make plays downfield. Mark Clayton was brought on board to turn small catches into big gainers, to catch the short slants or screens and make a man miss. Unfortunately, he is averaging only 2.2 yards after catch, the lowest YAC of any player on the team with more than 4 receptions- lower than any of the running backs, Todd Heap or any other receiver. Moreover, the so-called #2 receiver has only 21 catches this season, paltry in comparison to the 53 from Derrick Mason. Last week was a perfect example. 9 catches by the running backs, 7 receptions by Mason, and only 1 by Clayton. With Lito Sheppard and Asante Samuel in the secondary that sports the #11 pass defense, more than one receiver will have to step up and make multiple plays to take the pressure off of Flacco and the running game.

Speaking of which, the Eagles pass rush might be the most underrated in the country with 36 sacks on the season, the most in the NFL through 10 games (the Steelers have 37 after Thursday night’s win). The running game will be crucial in keeping the mad blitzer at bay- defensive coordinator Jim Johnson has a penchant for blitzing up to 45% of the time and has been known to send the house on any 3rd down situation. The Ravens will have to replicate at least some of the Giants’ success on the ground to keep the Philadelphia defensive line at home. As far as keeping Joe Flacco upright, I am starting to believe in this offensive line. They limited the Giants to only 1 sack, and Flacco did an excellent job of stepping up to avoid the pressure as the defensive ends flew up the field. If Willis McGahee and LeRon McClain can pound the ball between the tackles, the Ravens signal caller might not have to dance quite so much in the pocket and keep his eyes downfield.

The Rundown

Last week I fought to be enthusiastic about the Ravens and give them a shot against the Giants. This week I feel very good about their chances. The Ravens offensive line has proven that it can protect the quarterback (how they are doing it I have no idea), the defense will not stay down two weeks in a row, and the Eagles lack the very elements that allowed the Giants to dominate the football game. Namely, a bruising running game and the killer instinct to punish opposing teams into submission. The Eagles are much better than 5-4-1, but they have not shown it this season. They have played down to the level of their competition and their superstars have been anything but. The Ravens are a surprise team this year, and they will surprise the Eagles.

The nod goes to the Ravens, 28-21

Photo Credit: (Sports Illustrated: Al Tieleman)

No comments: