Thursday, September 17, 2009

Ravens-Chargers Preview: Time to Make a Statement

The Ravens offense looked incredible in putting away the Chiefs on Sunday, racking up a franchise record 501 yards of offense en route to a 38-24 win that was in question up until the final minutes of the game. It was disappointing to me to see a backup quarterback (and the third-best quarterback in Kansas City in my opinion) on a bad team put up those kinds of numbers against a Baltimore defense. I realize that much of this was turnover induced, and… exactly. Turnovers will kill an offense, but I will try not to take away from what was all-in-all a stellar performance from this team. They did what they were supposed to do- win, and do it impressively. The Chargers had a similar task in front of them- beat the hapless Oakland Raiders, who will either finish 3rd or 4th in the division depending only on the hope of supreme ineptitude on the part of the Broncos and Chiefs. Instead the Bolts struggled, relying on a late touchdown to seal a less-than-convincing 4 point victory. This is still a great San Diego team and a very trendy Super Bowl pick to finally live up to the talent of their roster.

What I’m Wondering:

Was that the Ravens offense?

It certainly seems like it. Joe Flacco racked up yardage but continued to overthrow his receivers on intermediate and short routes; and I will harp on it for as long as it continues- you can’t afford to lose the easy completions. However, if this is Cam Cameron’s vision, I like it. As long as this team continues to feature the run as their primary attack (which Harbaugh seems to favor), this team could be dangerous. It isn’t that Baltimore will become a passing team, but when this team is behind or against a stellar defensive front, they will need to be able to have more than one passing option. I still need to see whether Derrick Mason is still the only receiver Joe Flacco is looking for/getting open, and that is a major concern of mine.

Was that the Ravens defense?

No- well, not exactly. The 24 points put up by the Chiefs was a mirage caused by blocked punts and interceptions- not things the Ravens should be doing anyway, but nothing to be overly concerned about. It looks to me like Greg Mattison isn’t changing all that much from last season, and while I’d like to see more pressure on the quarterback, Baltimore hasn’t ranked in the top echelon of the league in sacks in several years for whatever reason. I am still worried about the cornerback situation, more on that later.

Was that the Chargers?

No. Not by a long shot. Even if LaDainian Tomlinson is unable to go this weekend, this team has plenty of options on the ground in speedy Darren Sproles and Michael Bennett, who are consistent home run threats on any play. Moreover, Philip Rivers was worth every penny of his $40.5 million contract and has large targets to go to in Chris Chambers and Vincent Jackson. They won’t look offensively befuddled on Sunday, at least not by their own doing. Oakland was giving them vanilla looks on defense and San Diego shot themselves in the foot over and over. It won’t happen two weeks in a row.

My Mildly Informed Analysis:

San Diego had the 31st ranked pass defense in the league last year, despite not having a single major injury in the secondary. Antonio Cromartie took a step backwards last season, making way more tackles and forcing way fewer interceptions than a season ago. With Quentin Jammer only an adequate #2 corner in the league, this could be another ripe opportunity for Baltimore to attack the corners in single coverage with comebacks and out patterns that are tougher for the safeties to get over and help. Eric Weddle is a very Jim Leonhard type of player, and won’t back down from the big hit- he came into his own last season with 103 solo tackles; Joe Flacco would be wise not to test him too much. Keep attacking the corners and there will be first-downs to be had. The front seven of the Chargers kept them in games last year, and they should be even better with the return of Shawne Merriman (especially with Merriman in a contract year). Baltimore will need to run the ball, but this game might very well be won in the air.

Baltimore’s defense will have its hands full with Philip Rivers, without whom this would not have been a playoff team last year. His 241 passing yards per game was good enough for 7th in the NFL last season, helping the Chargers become the second highest scoring team in the league last year at 27.4 points per game. Chris Chambers is an extremely physical receiver and should give problems to whichever corner is assigned to him. Vincent Jackson came into his own last season with 1,098 yards receiving and with his 6’ 5” height he will have a 6 inch advantage over either of the Ravens cornerbacks. The Baltimore front 7 will have to penetrate the Chargers veteran line, largely unchanged over the last several seasons and who gave up just 25 sacks last season. The Ravens will be able to stop the run, regardless of how fast the running back is. Sproles may be able to break one here or there, but I have to believe that this team will be ready for it. Baltimore can force Rivers to be the one to make plays, and Norv Turner will be more than willing to oblige by having his quarterback air it out.

The Rundown

For the Ravens, the disadvantage caused by traveling cross-country will probably be cancelled out by the extra day of rest the Chargers missed out on by playing on Monday Night. The Baltimore secondary will be tested by a quarterback and receivers who are much more talented than the ones they struggled against last weekend. However, the Chargers have consistently underperformed to their talent level and looked dazed and confused against one of the worst teams in the NFL. The pundits are all over the place on the Ravens, some ranking them as high as 4th in the NFL and others as low as 12th. This game should go a long way in showing where they belong.

The nod goes to the Ravens, 31-27.
UPDATE (9/19/09, from Falco): The Associated Press is reporting LaDainian Tomlinson is out against the Ravens due to his sprained ankle.

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