Sunday, December 7, 2008

Ravens- Redskins Preview: Cross-State Matchup is about Standings, Not Rivalry

Okay, so work has been crazy this week (and will be next week, too), so I enlisted a bit of help for this preview. Two of our three “What I’m Wondering” questions have been put together by Windsor and Falco, so big thanks to them. And I think that is appropriate, as this is a Maryland-wide event. After all, the Ravens represent the largest city in the state, and the Redskins use Maryland land for a D.C. team that primarily targets fans in Virginia. Though I suppose there is some form of Maryland connection from the Redskins, as their ownership spent the majority of the 80’s and early 90’s trying to prevent the state from getting a team of their own- and Peter Angelos spent his time trying to prevent D.C. from getting its own baseball team.

As you can see, D.C. and Baltimore have long competed for the same fan base (which is only 23rd in the country among major sports areas), but their teams have not always been at each other’s throats. I mean, the Ravens-Redskins and Orioles-Nationals rivalries make sense, but I don’t get the feeling that these teams really hate each other. But this week it won’t matter who the teams are. The Ravens are 8-4 and just hoping to hang on to that wildcard spot with the Steelers looking like the best team in the AFC right now. The Redskins are 7-5, having lost 3 of their last 4 games and just one loss away from losing reasonable hope of a playoff spot in an incredibly competitive NFC this year. Most rivalry previews involve some form of the expression “Throw out the records.” For this one, keep the records in mind- that is what these teams will be thinking about.

What I'm Wondering:

Are these young QBs heading in different directions?
The good news for Jason Campbell is, he went until the ninth game of the season without throwing an interception. The bad news is, he hasn’t exactly been hot since then. After starting out the season with a passer rating under 80 only once, he has hit that mark only one time in four games since. Why? Well, facing Pittsburgh, a healthy Dallas and the New York Giants can’t help, nor can the 16 sacks he has endured in those 4 games. With Clinton Portis in and out of the lineup with injuries and a shaky offensive line, he has not had the same tools as in October. Joe Flacco seems to be on the opposite end of the spectrum. Aside from the common opponent, the Giants, Joe Flacco has been on fire in his last four games- those of course game against the hapless Bengals, the schizophrenic Eagles and the eternally downtrodden Texans. Are these quarterbacks really going in different directions or has the schedule simply been favorable for Flacco and rough for Campbell?

How deep is this rivalry?
Many question how deep the relationship between the Ravens and the Redskins is. Is it a full blown rivalry or just a regular relationship since they don't play each other that often? It clearly isn't the main rivalry, Washington's is with Dallas and Baltimore's is with the Steelers, but these two could be a natural rival. The historic team and the newcomer (relatively), but even when these two have played in the past, it never felt like a rivalry game. The fact that this is in Baltimore will not mean much, since Redskins fans will gladly travel north for the game, but considering that these two are so close, there has not been a lot of buzz about if these teams believe it is a real rivalry. But you have to believe there is some thought of wanting to be the leader of the state.

Are the Ravens finally ready to show up in prime time?
The struggles of the Ravens under the national spotlight have been well documented through the past few seasons. Oftentimes these games come under significant hype, and for whatever reason the Ravens often fail to rise to the occasion. The question now is that with a new coach and a new attitude, will that trend be bucked? While the Ravens did lose earlier this season to the Steelers on Monday Night Football, that was still a game in which the Ravens seemed to bring their best to the table and only lost by three points in overtime to a superior opponent. Now there is a different scenario where they, and not their opponents, are the ones burdened by expectations. The Ravens have already been bitten by their own hype once this year, as their overaggressive defensive play cost them dearly during their big matchup against the Giants. We’ve already finished three quarters of the season, and it’s still very hard to say how this team will really respond when the lights are on. We’ll know a little bit more Sunday night.

My Mildly Informed Analysis:

Like Jason Campbell, the entire Redskins team is difficult to figure out right now. It would be easy to point out the collapse in their offensive numbers over the last 4 games, but that would ignore their incredibly difficult schedule over that stretch, which we have already touched upon. From a broader perspective, this team has not been blowing people away at any point this season. The ‘Skins have yet to score more than 29 points in any game this season, and that number came in Week 2 against a New Orleans squad that couldn’t keep anyone out of the endzone. What the Ravens will have to be aware of is the threat of Clinton Portis out of the backfield, one of the best and most underrated backs in this league. When you think of the great running backs in the NFL today, Clinton Portis is not always near the top of your list- Tomlinson, Peterson, Westbrook, why not Portis? Aside from an injury-plagued 2006, Clinton Portis has rushed for over 1260 yards every single season, including 3 1500 yard seasons. This year he is averaging over a hundred yards a game despite having nagging injuries. The Ravens better not simply assume that the running game will be stopped and start thinking about Campbell- once they do, Portis will break off a 30-yarder and change the game.

In the passing game, the Redskins sport one of the most versatile players in the NFL, the Brian Westbrook of tight ends in Chris Cooley. Despite being converted to a more conventional tight end role this offseason by new head coach Jim Zorn, Cooley is off to the most productive season in his career from a yardage standpoint. His dropoff in touchdowns is a likely product of reduced utilization in the red zone, not a reduction in usage. He will likely pass his personal single season record in receptions tonight, and will no doubt be a key first down target. When the tight ends have success against the Ravens, Baltimore has struggled to keep the game in hand. Cooley will be a man to watch.

The Ravens are 19th in yardage on offense and 12th in scoring. The Redskins are 13th in yardage on offense and 28th in scoring. Which is more important? Points, obviously. But it will be interesting to see whether the law of averages plays out and the Redskins yardage starts to match its scoring or visa versa. I vote no. The difference for the Ravens has been turnovers. The Ravens have 20 interceptions this season, their cross-state rivals have 11. Likewise, the Ravens have 5 defensive touchdowns, the Redskins have none. Turnovers like these have given Baltimore early leads (and late comebacks), and put their offense in incredible field position where even the 19th ranked offense can put up 30 a game. The Redskins, for whatever reason, have not had that privilege. They are forced to go the length of the field on every drive, which has given them one of the better times of possession this season but has not amounted to points. With Campbell’s recent struggles against opportunistic defenses and the offensive line’s inability to block the last 4 games, this could be the perfect time for the Ravens D to strike and put the offense in excellent field position.

Washington’s defense may have its work cut out for it. The Redskins defense is equally threatening. Despite their low scoring (only 17.3 points per game, sandwiched between Cleveland and Detroit), this team is still 7-5 and in the playoff hunt. Why? The 7th ranked rush defense and 7th ranked pass defense have kept this team in most games; and was what kept the Giants game last week from becoming a complete blowout.
However, this team ranks near the bottom of the league with sacks at only 19 for the season despite their blockbuster move for Jason Taylor this past offseason. After weeks against debilitating pass rushes, the Ravens line may get a respite against this squad, but they should not take it for granted. Flacco will likely have a great deal more time in the pocket than he has in recent games, leading to more attempts downfield a la Cincinnati last week. However, don’t expect it to be as effective as it was last week. This is not Leon Hall and Jamar Fletcher anymore, it is not a secondary you can simply loft it past the defenders- Fred Smoot and Carlos Rogers (not to mention DeAngelo Hall and Shawn Springs) are too talented and too experienced to be duped over the top as easily. Flacco will have time, but he will also have to pick his spots carefully.

On the ground, it will be all about mixing up the running attack. The Redskins were able to key in on Brandon Jacobs last week and held the Giants running backs to only 101 total yards. If Brandon Jacobs can’t bulldoze the middle of the Redskins line, don’t expect Le’Ron McClain to do so. The Giants did not rotate their backs and keep Washington on its heels with fresh legs- the Ravens have relied heavily on punishing their opponents with repeated carries that may or may not have much success but keep the opposing defense honest. We make much of the fact that the Ravens sport the #3 ranked rushing attack in the country, but behind those numbers the Ravens are still in the bottom third of the league in yards per rush, with only 3.8 yards per carry. This is not the recipe for success, but it has somehow worked thus far. Baltimore will need a strong night out of one of their three to put up points and keep drives alive with any consistency.

The Rundown

The Redskins have their backs against the wall, and will have a significant contingent of fans making their way up to Baltimore to reduce the homefield advantage. If they can keep the crowd out of the game and stuff the Ravens rushing attack they way they did the Giants, it will be much easier to beat Joe Flacco than it was to beat Eli Manning. The Ravens will follow their familiar formula- force turnovers out of Jason Campbell and try to get the early lead, then pound the ball until the Redskins come apart on their own late in the game. Who will be more effective? Well, the Ravens are scoring in bunches, it doesn’t matter how. The Redskins are not. In fact, desperation by the ‘Skins and prime-time woes of the Ravens will be the things that keep Washington in this game. While I want to say that Baltimore will choke away another late-night game, I can’t do it.

The nod goes to the Ravens, 31-18

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