Friday, September 11, 2009

Ravens-Chiefs Preview: No Reason Not to Win This One

The Ravens ended the preseason 4-0, riding a wave of enthusiasm and energy that comes with showing the depth of your team and the precision of your starters in winning the first half or quarter, whatever it may be. Then again, so did last year’s Lions. However, I was pleasantly surprised with what I saw of Baltimore this preseason, much more so than I was of the Lions when I watched them last year before the season started. Joe Flacco seems poised to take his game to a more aggressive and more accurate level, dispelling my fear that he would settle into a role as a deep thrower who couldn’t be relied on to carry a team. I still don’t think he is there yet, but I don’t think he has a sophomore slump in him either. The defense is as sound as ever, with the return of Dawan Landry almost making up for Jim Leonhard’s departure, a stable of great linebackers replacing Bart Scott, and Kelly Gregg making life that much better for star-in-the-making Haloti Ngata.

This week the Ravens will take on their first opponent of the 2009 campaign, and one coming off a very different offseason. At the beginning of 2008, this team was planning to go young, take its lumps, and develop its talent to contend after a few seasons, like many rebuilding clubs. They had patience in Herm Edwards’ plan and were willing to take their time with him and his project. However, as we have seen with the Orioles, fans know the losses are coming but become indignant when they do. The result? A seeming reversal of plans that have left this team without much direction. They dropped many of their young project players, picked up the likes of aging Mike Vrabel, and fired their coach, replacing him with Todd Haley, the Cardinals Offensive Coordinator who only garnered interest from teams as a head coach after his team went to the Super Bowl. The front office traded a second-round pick for the franchised Matt Cassel, and I am not exactly sure what this team is trying to do from a long-term perspective. They went 0-4 in the preseason, as did the Patriots last season. But this team is not the Patriots.

What I'm Wondering:

It's Week 1. The world is hope and optimism. Nothing to question until we get to see this team on the field for real.

My Mildly Informed Analysis:

Chiefs Offense vs. Ravens Defense
When Todd Haley was hired as Chiefs’ head coach, I scratched my head and wondered what the front office was thinking. Not that Haley wasn’t a solid head coaching candidate- I have no idea, but I do know that his offense was lost in its use of the running back. The Cardinals ranked near or at the bottom of the league in each of Haley’s two seasons as coordinator, and that can’t all be blamed on a porous offensive line. That offensive line was still good enough to pass protect Kurt Warner all the way for 4,583 yards last season. He runs a high-flying passing attack, I get that. But the Chiefs are unsettled at quarterback even IF Matt Cassel is healthy (one season does not a quarterback make) and have no real threats at wide receiver outside of Dwayne Bowe, who has shown promise but not #1 wideout material. Without Tony Gonzalez at tight end as a safety blanket, this team will struggle in the passing game.

How Haley adjusts his offensive philosophy to suit the overworked but still dynamic Larry Johnson has yet to be seen, but so far the results are unimpressive- no more than 13 points in any preseason game this season. Johnson needs to be healthy for an entire season for the Chiefs to be competitive, but with an amateur passing game this could be a struggle. The Ravens won’t have to do anything fancy to stop the Chiefs attack. They will need to dominate the line of scrimmage, which shouldn’t be difficult even with a veteran-but-thin offensive line (a player just picked up off of waivers is on their 2-deep at tackle). Landry and Reed might be attacked by play action, but if the front seven is doing their job then they won’t have to bite up and take the chance, hanging back on every play.

If Tyler Thigpen plays, I would be more concerned- he plays like it is his last game every time he is out there, throwing his body around and playing the game as it should be played. His escapability and inventiveness when rolling out of the pocket could allow Kansas City to keep drives alive after Johnson is snuffed out. However, it is important to remember that for all of his guts, Thigpen was 1-13 last season when he saw significant action. Additionally, Brodie Croyle is listed as the #2 quarterback behind Cassel at the moment. That would be entertaining.

Unless the not-as-good-as-advertised starting cornerbacks of the Ravens (sorry, but Foxworth was traded for a 6th round pick and then cut, and Washington is still a Oakland cast-off who didn’t impress much last season) completely blow a few coverages, this side of the ball shouldn’t be a contest.

Ravens Offense vs. Chiefs Defense
When the defense is dominant, the Ravens offense doesn’t need to do much. That should be exactly the gameplan on Sunday for Baltimore. With a trip to San Diego coming up in Week 2, there should be no reason to pull out any of the Cam Cameron’s new material for the playbook. One of my pet peeves of Cameron last season was his tendency to pull out the trick plays or new wrinkles in the offense against vastly inferior teams in games that were already out of hand. Often they were the type of play you could only use once a season anyway. This game should follow last year’s base set, while allowing Flacco to have more reads in the passing game. I have not been sure that Flacco could adjust his throwing motion so that he isn’t constantly throwing short and intermediate passes over the heads of his receivers, and he still struggles with it. However, it is clear that he has a better grasp of the playbook and the position than he did last season.

Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson, Kansas City’s first round picks of the last two years, could be a lot to handle for Jared Gaither and rookie Michael Oher. The LSU teammates may help improve the Chiefs pass rush from a season ago and take a bit of pressure off of a substandard secondary that ranked 28th in pass defense. The leadership and knowledge of Mike Vrabel should help a linebacking corp that had a habit of running into blockers last season, but the group as a whole doesn’t have the talent to gel this early in the season. While this squad only allowed a high of 17 points in any game this preseason, given the players on this team I wonder how well that will hold up once the regular season starts.

For the Ravens, pound the ball with McGahee and Rice and force Mike Vrabel to run side-to-side with some flares by Rice out of the backfield and (hopefully) get Todd Heap out on linebackers over the middle. This will make sure that Dorsey and Jackson are rushing without linebacker support, which should even the playing field for the Ravens offensive line. The passing game doesn’t have to be fancy, but merely efficient enough to keep the defense honest, with at least one obligatory Flacco bomb down the field. I don’t normally advocate a conservative approach, but with the Ravens defense against a dysfunctional Chiefs offense, Baltimore just needs to be sure not to spoil the show by turning the ball over. There will be plenty of opportunities for the offense to make plays, but with a young offense that is still growing in their grasp of Cameron’s offense, there are no reasons to take a chance today.

The Rundown

Regardless of the offensive approach, this will be a great opportunity to see how far Joe Flacco has come as he makes this offense his own. Despite the recent dominance by the Chiefs over the Ravens, that should come to an end on Sunday. Try as I might, unless Matt Cassel comes out completely healthy and the Kansas City wide receivers morph into legitimate deep threats, I don’t see how the Chiefs can win it.

The nod goes to the Ravens, 27-9

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