Sunday, November 16, 2008

Ravens-Giants Preview: Taking on the Champs

Take a deep breath Ravens fans, this is a big one but it is not the only big one the Ravens will have this season. While a win would mean a lot towards legitimizing this team in the eyes of the nation, it does not on paper mean anything more than any other out of conference game. But I won’t say it doesn’t matter. Ravens fans need this game to see how good this team really is. So far this team has been able to beat up on the inferior competition of this league (winning the games they are supposed to win), but has not yet taken down a true playoff team.

The AFC is tight this year, and with Ben Roethlisberger struggling in Pittsburgh this would be the perfect time to steal a win and make a move for the AFC North division title. Likewise, a loss would still keep the Ravens in the playoff picture with the rest of the AFC East and the Colts fighting for Wild Card spots. Things are so close in the hunt for the playoffs that there is still time no matter what happens… but a win on Sunday would certainly put the Ravens in the driver’s seat.

What I’m Wondering:

Will Joe Flacco be able to handle the Giants pass rush?
The offensive line has performed admirably this season, but this will be the greatest test they have faced this season. In their last game against a blistering pass rush, the Colts sacked Flacco 4 times and harassed him for the entire game- the Colts, for their part, have had a nonexistent pass rush since. Granted, this team is a lot better than they were 4 games ago, but have they have yet to be challenged in a significant way along the offensive line. Of the opponents they have faced over their 4 game winning streak, none have ranked higher than 9th in sacks (Miami)- and Joe Flacco was sacked 3 times in that game. I will spare you more statistics, but the fact is that Joe will get sacked, and it will be more than once or twice. The Ravens rookie has been praised for his composure in the huddle and in adverse situations, but it is doubtful that Justin Tuck won’t rattle him a bit. Will Flacco keep his cool with a 300 pound defensive tackle in his face for much of the afternoon?

Which is better- #1 rush offense or #1 rush defense?
The Ravens have quite a 3-headed monster at running back. Unfortunately, the Giants have a better one. Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward, and Ahmad Bradshaw make up the #1 rushing attack in the country, amassing over 168 yards per contest. The Ravens D, on the other hand, are allowing only 65.9 yards per game on the ground and haven’t allowed a 100 yard rusher in almost 30 games. However, it is unlikely that any one of the Giants backs will look to get 100 yards. More than any other team, the Giants will be able to keep their backs fresh while exhausting the opposing defense. If the Ravens offense can’t keep the hydra attack of New York on the sideline they will have to rely on depth at linebacker and along the defensive line- which is something the Ravens don’t have with injuries mounting on defense. Will the Ravens be able to shut down the Giants attack? Will they have enough bodies to keep it in check in the 4th quarter?

Will the Ravens secondary be ready against the other Manning? Or is Peyton the “other” Manning?
Okay, so in writing these previews one begins to notice some patterns. I know I said that as long as the Ravens started a rookie QB he would always be one of my questions- but the secondary? Well, that ground game has given Eli a lot of time in the pocket, and it is unlikely that Rex Ryan will want to sell out on the run and go after the passer too much, which will put the onus once again on the secondary to shut down the Giants receivers. While New York only averages 214 yards in the air, much of this is mitigated by the powerful running attack and the lead that the Giants have held in most of their games. When needed, it comes alive. Unlike previous years, Eli has not shown the tendency to get rattled and put the Giants in difficult spots- he is most certainly a reason they are winning. Aside from a disastrous performance against Cleveland, Eli has thrown 14 touchdowns to only 3 interceptions. Will the Ravens secondary be able to handle the heavier burden they will be given?

My Mildly Informed Analysis:

Much of this game will be about containing the Giants offense- they can drag a drive out for 15 plays and 6 minutes or they can score in an instant. This versatility makes them, in my opinion, the scariest offense to face. Unlike the Saints, for instance, they change their approach to the situation in the game and still be successful. The Ravens will have to be prepared for everything and anything. As far as the passing game is concerned, Samari Rolle will almost certainly be matched up on Plaxico Burress, but unlike Houston this will not be a team effort- it is likely that one of the Ravens safeties will have to creep towards the box or at least be prepared to come in for run support. Additionally, Plaxico is not the only threat the Giants pose in the passing game. Steve Smith (no, not that Steve Smith) has emerged as a potential gamebreaker at the oft-overlooked slot position, though he can move to #2 in a hurry if need be. Amani Toomer is a solid 3rd down receiver who, while he won’t kill you downfield at his age, can get you 5-8 yards consistently and isn’t afraid to get hit over the middle of the field.

Now to the running game… Haloti Ngata is playing like the best defensive tackle in the NFL right now, and he is peaking at the absolute right time. It will be up to him to take on the center-guard combination along the line and free up lanes for Ray Lewis, Bart Scott and others to penetrate the line and get hits on the Giants running backs before or at the line of scrimmage. The Giants backs are all averaging over 5 yards per carry; it will be critical to get that early hit. However, Terrell Suggs will need to exercise a great deal of patience along the edge of the line, as the Giants love to pull a guard or a tackle over to serve as a lead blocker for the running back and sell it very well when they aren’t. It will be up to Suggs to recognize the pulling guard and get in behind him before he is sucked into the play. The Ravens D has a reputation for being overaggressive, and the Giants have a reputation for exploiting this- look no further than last week against the Eagles in which Philadelphia’s blitzers were consistently drawn into the blockers while Brandon Jacobs rushed right by them. The Ravens have the ability to stop the Giants running game- it will all be about how Rex Ryan schemes against it to put his defenders in the right place.

Well, there is another side of the ball too. Those of you hoping there was a porous Giants D that the Ravens could exploit might be disappointed. The Giants are only allowing 87.7 yards per game, and unlike college football this does not take sacks into account. This defensive line could easily set the tempo from the beginning of the game and force Flacco to throw off of his back foot all day… but that would be forgetting the Ravens own three headed monster, one that ranks 3rd in the NFL (and best in the AFC) in rushing. Once again this will also be about scheme. Unlike the Giants, the Ravens have had difficulty getting tough yards in short yardage situations and lack a true power back to bring in (LaRon McClain isn’t quite there yet). It will be up to the Ravens to spread out the linebackers by swinging the backs out on screen plays and quiet the pass rush by running draw plays that will force Kiwanuka and Tuck to hesitate before charging after the quarterback.

Luckily for the Ravens, Todd Heap is becoming a weapon once again in the receiving game and will not be overlooked by a rookie quarterback in need of a first down. Ray Rice and Todd Heap will both serve as consistent safety valve receivers for short gainers to keep the Giants defense guessing. Heap can physically match up with any player on defense- over the middle, for a jump ball in the end zone, or even along the sideline. For whatever reason he has been absent this season, but he has started to come around. The focus however, will always be on Joe Flacco’s ability to make the big play down the field. The Giants will be able to score in a hurry, and it will be up to the Ravens to respond. Regardless of the young signal caller’s recent success (6 TDs to 0 INTs in his last 4 games), the Superbowl Champs will be keying in on him in the secondary and challenging him to throw the ball by putting 8 men in the box if need be. This game will be won or lost offensively on Joe Flacco’s arm and his mind. This is still a pass offense that ranks 28th in the NFL. Just a hunch, but that will improve this weekend.

The Rundown

All things being equal, when the #1 offense meets the #1 defense, defense wins. It should be that way on the ground. The Ravens and Giants boast similarly effective pass rushes and similar ground games. The trouble is that the Giants are slightly better at each. Additionally, the Ravens have only defeated one opponent with a winning record while the Giants have beaten everyone in the NFC East, the toughest division in the NFL. I would like to look at the last 4 games and say the Ravens will take down the defending Champ at their home turf, the Ravens traditional poor performance on the road tips it over for me; I just can’t go with Baltimore on this one.

The nod goes to the Giants, 31-20

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