Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ravens-Broncos Preview: Taking Down an Upstart Undefeated

I am going to take a different approach to the preview this week- I am going to talk about one major point for each part of the offense and defense (rushing and passing games) and what the Ravens will have to do in order to win. Because after all, isn’t that what we really care about? This team is good enough that if it plays up to its talent in every phase of the game, every game is more than winnable.

My Mildly Informed Analysis:

Broncos Pass Offense vs. Ravens Pass Defense
Kyle Orton is an effective but not terrifying quarterback. Compared to the other QB’s the Ravens have had to face this year- Favre, Palmer, Brady, and Rivers come to mind- Orton just doesn’t compare. However, he has tall, strong receivers to throw to who can make any quarterback look good. The key in the passing game is not only going to be the ability of the cornerbacks to contain Denver’s threats in Eddie Royal and Brandon Marshall, because they won’t, but it will be Dawan Landry and Ed Reed’s commitment to their assignment. I have seen way too much freelancing in the secondary with Reed trying to make plays outside his assignment and Landry biting up on play action. A desperate playmaker will often try to compensate for a weak overall unit by taking more risks- but that often works against the team and allows long touchdowns. The Ravens cornerbacks are not good enough to handle being all alone, the safeties need to be disciplined.

Broncos Rush Offense vs. Ravens Rush Defense
Some have voiced a concern over Tavaris Gooden’s size and whether he is too slight to be an inside linebacker, but I think this is too much worry over making another Bart Scott and not enough looking at what Gooden does well. Smaller, quicker linebackers can be great at stopping the run provided they have the lanes to penetrate to the ball carrier. I have seen Ray Lewis hit too often and taken out of the play, and I put this on the defensive line. Ngata is playing fine, but Kelly Gregg is not the dominating tackle he was two years ago. In the Ravens’ defense, unlike other systems, the DT’s job is not to rush the passer, but it is to occupy the interior offensive lineman and allow athletic linebackers (like Gooden) to penetrate to the running back. That has not been happening, and I see it as the reason that the Ravens have allowed two consecutive 100 yard rushers. It doesn’t matter who carries the ball for Denver- if Baltimore does not control the line of scrimmage, especially inside, they won’t be able to stop the Broncos on the ground.

Ravens Rush Offense vs. Broncos Rush Defense
Ten rushes for Ray Rice? Even against a rush defense like Minnesota’s you need to keep pounding the football just to keep the defense honest. McClain? McGahee? The Ravens made a great comeback at the end of the game, but Joe was being pounded back there when Jared Allen & Co. didn’t have to watch for the run. Flacco was cool under pressure in standing in the pocket despite getting hit, but he won’t be able to keep that up forever. It is okay to run the football once every few plays, Baltimore needs to do what made them great. Despite this, Rice is quickly becoming the next Brian Westbrook with his ability to do so many things on the field, from pass blocking to making linebackers miss in the open field. However, this side of the ball comes down to the offensive line returning to form with (hopefully) Jared Gaither moving back into the left tackle spot and Michael Oher taking his superb play of late to right tackle. That will not only protect the quarterback (as we will discuss later), but it will open up opportunities for Willis McGahee off-tackle rushes or the occasional stretch play to Rice where he could threaten to break a big play. With McGahee and McClain in the fold, Rice has the complementary backs to help him become even more effective than Westbrook, who has suffered being the undivided attention of whatever defense he’s lined up against.

Ravens Pass Offense vs. Broncos Pass Defense
Champ Bailey has rediscovered his old form and Brian Dawkins is showing that he still has plenty of gas left in the tank. If the Ravens try to throw at the Broncos secondary all afternoon, they will turn the ball over. No 43 pass attempts this week, and no dropping back 43 times against Elvis Dumervil at linebacker, who has a whopping 10 sacks so far this season. The Ravens offensive line will have to come together quickly to regain their rhythm and work as a unit to keep the Denver pass rush at bay. Utilizing Todd Heap over the middle could keep the linebackers in a short zone and draw attention away from Derrick Mason. I worry about the passing game if Flacco can’t sling the ball to Derrick Mason on a regular basis. If Champ Bailey can shut him down and keep him to 4 or fewer catches, I don’t see how Joe Flacco will get going. If need be he will find other targets, like Rice out of the backfield (or how about swing Rice into the slot receiver spot after the team lines up and get him matched up on a linebacker?) or Mark Clayton. The key here will be Flacco using all of his weapons and getting the ball out of his hands quickly. Of course, in order to do that his receivers need to get in position and catch the ball. I am still not sold that they can do that.

Special Teams
Okay, so I have never considered this before in the preview (because they were too long already), but I found an interesting statistic that I wanted to pass along. Despite being roughly tied with the Ravens in punting distance, Denver ranks second to last in the league in punt coverage, allowing 14.6 yards per return. Baltimore comes in at 7.7 yards per return. That could wind up being a difference of 7 yards of field position each time the teams trade possessions. This is why Lardarius Webb is so important. Not only will he be called upon to take a greater role in the secondary, he will have the opportunity to put the Ravens in great field position if he can break one. With the way the offense has been performing at times, this could be critically important.

The Rundown

Baltimore can score, but how consistently? The offense went into hibernation two weeks ago for 2 ½ quarters after falling asleep at the wheel for a whole game against the Bengals. Was that an aberration? The defense has shown that its flaws are not cosmetic, but are fundamental shortfalls that will haunt this team throughout the season. Will it hold together long enough to contain Marshall, Royal, and running back Knowshon Moreno? I just don’t think so. People keep saying the Bronco’s aren’t that good, yet they keep winning. The offense will once again have to put up big numbers for this team to win. This game was a really tough one to call, and against my better judgment, here's the pick:

The nod goes to the Ravens, 31-28.

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