Saturday, December 20, 2008

Ravens- Cowboys Preview: Make or Break Time for Playoffs

This is the game that will go a long way towards deciding the wild card races in the AFC and NFC. A win by either team puts them in incredible position to take these spots, and a loss puts their fortunes in jeopardy. This also happens to be the Cowboys’ last game at historic Texas Stadium as they make way for their new “state of the art” facility to open next year. The Ravens offense has sputtered in recent weeks, while dissent between Jason Witten, Tony Romo, and Terrell Owens has made the headlines of ESPN but hasn’t exactly hurt their ability to take care of business, taking down the Giants last week 20-8. These last two games are must wins for the Ravens, but the Cowboys will be looking to capitalize on their recent struggles and keep Joe Flacco on the ground. This game will be about whether the Ravens offense can rebound and keep the crowd out of the game to control the tempo and let the defense force Romo into mistakes late in the game.

What I'm Wondering:

How will Joe Flacco respond to consecutive poor showings?
Last week the Ravens rookie was all over the place- except in his receiver’s hands. Even when he had time to throw he sailed it on them, losing key 1st downs and even scoring chances (see Derrick Mason wide open in the endzone and overthrown), only completing bullet passes over the middle of the field. He seemed to be struggling just to keep the ball low, and could only seem to complete a pass when he forced it into a hole. I don’t know whether he is feeling more pressure mentally or is worn down by the length of the season, but he will have to turn things around in the last 2 weeks for the Ravens to make the playoffs. His passer rating of 64.4 and 22.2 will not cut it against the Cowboys or any other team in the league for that matter. He will have to respond and in a big way for the Ravens offense to get a jumpstart. I will credit him with taking the team on his shoulders to spur this offense on this season, but I will also look to him when the team looks classically inept.

How will the Ravens contain the Dallas pass rush?
This seems to come up every week as a major concern, and as soon as the Ravens stop playing teams with a dangerous ability to get to the quarterback we will be able to stop talking about it. Last week I wrote that Pittsburgh led the league in sacks. This week, I would be wrong. The Cowboys have 53 sacks on the season, and sport the league leader in sacks with 19 in DeMarcus Ware. Yes, 19 sacks in 14 games. While the rest of this team went up and down all season, this Cowboys front 7 was oblivious to all that, crushing opposing offensive lines and consistently harrying the quarterback- never more apparent than last week against Eli Manning when he looked like a deer in headlights while he was being protected by what is supposed to be the best line in football. The Ravens offensive linemen are not nearly as good as the Giants’, and this could be a long night if they aren’t prepared. The bright side is that they only allowed 2 sacks against the Steelers- but it is fair to say that Joe Flacco wasn’t exactly sitting pretty in the pocket. Will the Ravens be able to contain Ware and the Cowboys on that fast surface at Texas Stadium, or will Joe Flacco get an extended introduction to the turf?

What impact will Adam “Pacman” Jones’ return have on this game?
Adam Jones gets a lot of credit for his off-field criminal and generally unwise conduct, but on the field he has been known as a dangerous return man, an increasingly competent cornerback, and an amazing athletic talent. However, in his 7 games this season, he has been none of that. He has no interceptions despite playing significant time in a starting role, he has averaged only 4.6 yards per punt return and has only actually gotten the chance to return a kickoff 3 times, with mediocre results. The national media has made a lot of his return to the lineup, but I don’t. There is a chance that if he gets his hands on the ball it could go to the house, but he has to get a pick or get a return to do so. So far the Cowboys have not given him any opportunities for that and he hasn’t gotten that precious interception yet this season. Look, Jones will give this team depth at a position they desperately need it, but right now he will not make or break this game. There are a lot bigger worries against this Dallas D than an extra cornerback on the roster. Will he find his old form from 2006 or will he play as he has so far in 2008?

My Mildly Informed Analysis

Ravens Offense vs. Cowboys Defense
The Ravens offense has been surprisingly good this season, but let’s be honest- things are sputtering right now. Against the Redskins an incredible defensive performance and a late touchdown drive by the offense hit a generally moribund effort that day. There were many more possible excuses against the Steelers, but more than anything else the offense did not move the ball because Joe Flacco delivered the ball too high for his receivers on a consistent basis, unable to complete even the simplest pass. I would argue that last week was not all about the Steeler’s defense, but about Joe Flacco finally underachieving relative to what we have seen this season. We are used to being surprised by his weekly improvement and confidence, and perhaps last week the coaching staff put a little too much faith in him. I didn’t see those safe throws, those easy attempts to get him in a rhythm, but instead he was being put in situations where he had to try to big completion rather than the safe one. This won’t work against the Cowboys, either. Joe needs to be able to have some shorter routes at his disposal, particularly in the 1st quarter so he can build confidence and get a feel for this team. While pass protection is critical, we have seen Flacco perform well while under pressure. More important is the need to establish that passing threat early to create lanes for McClain and others.

Speaking of which, Ravens fans should be hoping that Ray Rice plays this week, because I see him becoming a big part of this offense against Dallas. Yes, Dallas has the most sacks in the NFL, but it is not because they are patient to find the ball carrier. They will be keying in on Flacco from the first whistle, and pushing Anderson and Gaither up the field to try to get to the Ravens QB. This will be a perfect opportunity to use Rice in draw plays out of the shotgun to force the Cowboys to back off their rush and play the run more seriously. The difficulty the Giants had against the Cowboys (besides Eli Manning being made to look like a lost puppy) was their lack of a power back to complement the speed they had in Ward and Bradshaw. The Ravens will not have that problem this week. They will look to wear down the Cowboys front by running right at them, likely through the unbalanced line, to keep the front 7 on their heels. This week I think the unbalanced line is both necessary and will be effective given how it will take up defenders and physically punish the Cowboys. It might not be effective in getting big gains, but it will slow down the defense give Flacco time and confidence to throw.

Even with Adam Jones back in the lineup, the Cowboys do not sport nearly as strong a secondary. While they are in the top 10 in yardage allowed, they have only 8 interceptions on the season, 28th in the NFL. This latter stat is crucial to the Ravens’ success through the air. Joe cannot afford to make the big mistake, and even if he only throws for 180 yards in the air, if he doesn’t have an interception the Ravens could hold onto a lead. Besides, with the emphasis on the power running game it is likely that the linebacker pretending to be a safety Roy Williams will sneak up into the box to help, opening up the deep throw down the field. If there is one thing Joe Flacco can do it is throw deep, and it could be one big completion that starts things rolling for the Ravens tonight.

Cowboys Offense vs. Ravens Defense
Regardless of whatever infighting is going on behind the scenes in the Cowboys’ locker room, it is fair to say that it isn’t affecting their play on the field just yet. Through 11 games this season, Tony Romo has only been sacked 15 times, a far cry from what the Ravens faced last week. In those games he is also on track for one of his best seasons ever, with a 98.1 passer rating to go with 24 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. While he struggled against the Steelers (prompting questions about his ability to finish games), he is still a stellar quarterback and has the weapons to back him up. Among these is his favorite target (though don’t tell Terrell Owens) is Jason Witten, who has been an even bigger part of the offense over the last 3 games with 20 receptions over that span. He is their primary first down man, and will have to be bracketed just as a wide receiver is. Witten is capable of getting deep in the same way Todd Heap does, and will bulldoze a defender at the 14 if he has to get to the 17 for the first down. The Ravens D cannot afford to allow the Cowboys to keep long drives alive, and they will be going first to Witten in passing situations.

However, I cannot write a preview without mentioning the second best receiver on this team. I wanted to say Roy Williams or even Patrick Crayton, but T.O. is the one showing results this year. Williams has been unable to develop a rhythm, catching only 14 balls in his 8 games with the ‘Boys this season. Crayton, for his part, is an excellent returner and slot receiver and could surprise the Ravens defenders, but the game will not be about him. As we know, Owens will be looking for the ball and has a big problem with the Ravens defense. Ever since he scoffed at the notion of playing for the hapless Ravens offense in 2004 and then followed it up by imitating Ray Lewis’ dance after a touchdown with the Eagles, Ravens fans have not been too fond of him either. The Ravens cornerbacks have had a huge problem in tackling this season, and it was their inability to take down receivers immediately after the catch that allowed the Steelers to drive the ball down the field last week. Baltimore will have to wrap up on Owens or he will break away for a big gainer. The Cowboys sport two very tough receivers in Williams and Owens; the Ravens will have to make sure to be the aggressors instead.

If Marion Barber is back for Dallas (he is currently listed as a game-time decision), it could spell more trouble. Barber is one of the most underrated backs in the league- while he is known as a bruiser, the reason that the Cowboys felt safe in releasing Julius Jones in the offseason was because Barber was also proving himself to be more shifty and elusive than Jones. His average is down to 3.7 yards per carry from 4.8 a year ago, but that is partially due to him having to take the full load for the first time in his career (including college, where he split carries with Lawrence Maroney at Minnesota). Hopefully wear and tear is getting to him. Otherwise, Tashard Choice is no slouch for a backup either, and has performed relatively well in his absence.

The Rundown

The Ravens, oddly enough, need this game slightly more than the Cowboys, though the Cowboys will get extra energy from playing their last game at Texas Stadium. Dallas is 6-1 at home this season and haven’t lost there since September. Baltimore is 4-3 on the road this season, despite Flacco’s apparent success there. I don’t see the Ravens offense overcoming its recent slump against a defense that sacked Eli Manning 8 times last week, and while Dallas might make more mistakes on offense, they will also make more big plays. I wish I could see the Ravens winning tonight, but I don’t think it’s in the cards.

The nod goes to the Cowboys, 21-10

Photo Credit: (Baltimore Sun: Doug Kapustin)

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