Saturday, December 27, 2008

Ravens-Jaguars Preview: Win and They're In

The Jacksonville Jaguars are one of those teams that has you scratching your head, begging for a reason why this 12-4 running juggernaut was reduced to a 5-10 turnover-laden whimper of a football team. At the beginning of every season, Windsor and I make two sets of predictions- who will appear in the Superbowl, and which team that finished in the cellar of their division will win it this year (it often, though not always happens somewhere). Without boring you with all the predictions, I called the Jags to be the AFC winner. They had two great running backs that combined for 150 yards per game last season, a quarterback who did not turn the ball over and could make a first down with his legs, and a defense that was suffocating against the running game. Well, it didn’t quite work out that way. But whenever one faces a team who had recent success, there is a chance that that old spirit and talent will show up, as it did for 3 quarters last week against the Colts. If that same team shows up in Baltimore tomorrow, the Ravens might not be celebrating a trip to the playoffs.

What I’m Wondering:

Will Flacco keep his eyes on this week?
Win and you’re in. Luckily, being in 1-AA (I will not acquiesce to the new acronym they have for it) he has some experience with playoffs, but he will have to make sure to keep his focus on this week. Scoreboard watching will not do him much help, particularly with the Ravens game coming after the pivotal Bills-Patriots game. Additionally, Flacco will have the responsibility of making sure the Jacksonville doesn’t stay in this game late into the second half. Joe has been impressive this season, but in recent games he has sat in the pocket far too long looking for the big completion- and has risked either the big interception or the big fumble that gives new life to the opposing offense. Jacksonville is in their last game of a losing and disappointing season; deep down inside they do want to go home. They will be up for this game because it is their chance to have an impact on the playoff race and knock the Ravens out. Any turnover or change in momentum will keep the Jags hungry, and it will be up to the rookie to keep them from getting those opportunities.

How good is Fabian Washington?

I know I usually use this section to ask a question, but this time I am giving an answer. I think Washington has the potential to take over one of the 1 or 2 cornerback spots once Rolle and/or McAlister stop being effective at the position due to their age. No, I was not happy at all with his performance last week, but he has really come on strong, showing flashes the way many rookies do entering the NFL for the first time. In a way, he is. Being drafted by the Raiders in the 1st round tends to have that effect on players. Once they have a change in scenery, it is like they are starting all over again, and the combination of winning and competent coaching starts to turn them around. Personally I loved the trade of a 4th round pick for Washington this offseason. I will always take a still-young 1st round talent for a 4th round pick even if that player is considered a bust. There is always a reason a player is taken in the 1st round, and often the only thing they need is a motivating force or the right staff around them to be successful. I think Washington should be treated like a rookie with a lot more to learn, but I think he has a great future. Taking over against the depleted and pedestrian receiving corps would go a long way towards that future as a starter on this team.

Can Marcus Smith make a contribution in the passing game?
Marcus Smith? Who? Marcus Smith is currently the third wide receiver on the Ravens’ depth chart, and has seen increasing playing time over the past few weeks. He has yet to catch a pass, but with Derrick Mason’s injury the pressure is on him to start making a tangible impact. Derrick Mason will play to some extent on Sunday; I don’t believe that’s in doubt. However, even when he does play there will surely be a number of plays he has to take off due to the shoulder injury, leaving Marcus Smith as the second wideout. Smith is a rookie out of New Mexico, taken in the fourth round of this past years’ draft and has a good amount of potential although he is unpolished. Polished or not he has to be ready to step into Mason’s shoes and do a serviceable job. The receiving corps is thin already, and Flacco can’t afford to have only one viable threat at the wide receiver position when Derrick Mason is out. Marcus Smith stepping up this week would go a long way to the Ravens winning not only on Sunday but moving forward into a possible playoff run.

My Mildly Informed Analysis:

The Jaguars are allowing a full 3 points more per game than last season, which may not seem like much until you consider that it moves them from the top 10 in the league last season to the bottom half of the league this season. Additionally, 6 of their 10 losses have come by 7 points or less- one less score allowed here or there and this team could be in playoff contention. The primary reason for their defensive collapse is largely connected to their inability to stop the run as effectively as past seasons. After losing Pro Bowl defensive tackle Marcus Stroud in a trade with the Bills, the Jags lost two more tackles to injured reserve, the results have been glaring- almost 20 yards more allowed on the ground last season than this season, and 11 fewer sacks issued than last year. The Jacksonville pass rush was in need of improvement before last season, and it did not get any better with a lack of push up front. While the run defense is still somewhat strong, the weakness of the Jaguars up front plays right into the hands of the Ravens rushing style.

With La’Ron McClain firmly established (whether the coaching staff will admit it or not) as the starting running back, the Ravens will be pound the ball right up the gut, “between the guards” even more than between the tackles. This will put immense pressure on the Jaguars to rotate their tackles inside to keep them fresh. With their lack of depth at that position, the 4th quarter could be a good one for Baltimore. By then Jacksonville will be worn down and be pushed back at the snap, opening up significant holes up the middle. Last week, Jacksonville stayed with, and even beat up on Indianapolis for much of the game, needing Peyton’s arm and some timely mistakes to ensure a Colts win. However, Indy lacked a strong inside running game, with Joseph Addai more of a shifty, off-tackle back. And no, Dominic Rhodes does not count as a power back.

What worries me about the Ravens offense is the faith that Cam Cameron has had in Joe Flacco. Wait, let me correct that- excessive faith. In recent games, Flacco has not been given the easy, short routes that a rookie, or any quarterback operating with a suspect offensive line, must have to be successful. Short outs, curl routes, a quick slant here and there have been absent in the 1st halves of recent games. As a result, Flacco is forced to stay in the pocket and wait for long-developing routes. Cam should be taking some of the kid gloves off in dealing with Flacco, but he is not a full-fledged passer yet. The result unfortunately has been decreased productivity and increased interceptions in the latter half of the season, and those deep attempts that were sprinkled in throughout the game and incredibly effective have now become a regular staple of the gameplan that has reduced its effectiveness tremendously. If Cameron does not give Flacco enough safety valves or short routes to work with, don’t be surprised if an early turnover keeps the momentum on Jacksonville’s side.

David Garrard was given much more control over the Jags offense this season, and it has shown with 30 more passing yards per game and about 100 attempts more than last season. However, much of that has been due to a running game that has faltered significantly this season. Regardless, Garrard’s passing has not registered more touchdowns, but instead more mistakes. After waiting until Week 11 to throw his first interception last season, Garrard took all of… 1 game to throw his first this season. Rather than being the controlled, disciplined passer who limited his mistakes, the increased pressure on him to throw has resulted in 7 interceptions over his last 8 games, while throwing 4 fewer touchdowns this season than he did in only 12 games last season. Look for the Ravens to focus on stopping the run and forcing Garrard to throw- he has shown that when he has to take the offense on his back, he is not a top-tier quarterback. Players like David Garrard are excellent caretakers of the offense, and will make the occasional play to keep a drive alive- but don’t ask him to do it himself.

He has had to do it himself however, due to the failure of the running game to get established, which happened long before Fred Taylor was placed on IR. After rushing for 150 yards per game last season, that number has dropped by 40, placing the Jags in the bottom half of the league. The Jags have attempted to alleviate the pressure from Garrard and the inside run by utilizing Maurice Jones-Drew in the passing game, highlighted by a performance against Minnesota in which Jones-Drew ran only 3 times while catching 9 passes for 113 yards. Unfortunately for Jacksonville, they too lack the power running back with the loss of Fred Taylor, and have not seen much action out of backups Chauncey Washington or Montell Owens. The Jaguars have thrived over the last few seasons by rotating their top 2 backs in and out of the game to give opponents a different look. Look for Maurice Jones-Drew to be exceptionally tired by the end of the game if he is placed in a situation as the sole back that he hasn’t had since college at UCLA.

The Ravens will attempt to deliver the knock-out punch early on in this football game, get up by a couple scores and let the lockdown defense take over. Though I feel like I am saying this for the 16th time this season (and I might be), look for the Ravens defense to force Garrard to throw, even if it takes putting extra players in the box. Garrard has become mistake-prone this season and it shouldn’t take much to get that out of him with a cacophonous home crowd and an early deficit. The Ravens won’t try anything fancy on offense if they don’t have to- they don’t want to use up all of their tricks they could break out for the playoffs, and it might be wisest to punish the Jaguars inside and let Flacco complete a deep pass or two against their secondary that ranks in the bottom half in the league in yards allowed, interceptions, and completion percentage allowed. However, they will have to be careful not to let Flacco go too wild or a timely mistake could turn momentum and make the Jaguars forget their 5-10 record long enough to pull the upset.

The Rundown

By the time the game kicks off Baltimore will know whether they are already in the playoffs, but I wouldn’t expect it to affect their approach. They still have a great deal to gain from giving Flacco experience against a team that is better than their record, and while you could see injured players like Mason being taken out early if the Ravens are in, the players who are in will still be playing strong. The Ravens are favored by 12 ½ points, and this is far too optimistic. Jacksonville is a score here or there away from their own playoff berth. The Jaguars will not pack this one in- this is their playoff game, their chance to knock the Ravens out of the playoffs. But if the Ravens can get up early they could take the energy out of this Jacksonville squad and be on their way to the AFC East Winner.

The nod goes to the Ravens, 24-20

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