Thursday, October 1, 2009

Ravens-Patriots Preview: Taking Their Place Among the Elite

This is a huge game for both teams. The Patriots must avoid falling another game behind the New York Jets for the division lead, and the Ravens are looking to get a bit of a cushion in the division with Cincinnati coming up on the schedule. The Ravens have not fared well against the Patriots in recent years, though they came closer than any other team to breaking New England’s run towards their undefeated regular season in 2007. Baltimore has always been a step behind the AFC’s elite teams in Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and New England, and while prognosticators are saying all the right things, the team has yet to prove that they belong there. The Patriots were hearing doubts all week about whether they are slipping from their perch atop the conference, and went a long way towards answering those critics with a convincing win over Atlanta. This preview is more detailed than most due to the magnitude of this game, so soak it in.

What I’m Wondering:

Are the Ravens really the best team in the NFL?
No. I know Power Rankings and their blowout wins against two inferior opponents indicate that this team has leapfrogged the Steelers, Chargers, and Patriots (at least, not to mention Colts), I think it is fair to say that this team hasn’t done anything all that unexpected in terms of wins and losses. If you said before the season that the Ravens would beat the Browns and Chiefs I would have no problem with that; and if you said they would barely beat the Chargers I would be able to see that too (I thought it was a toss-up game before the season). Yes, their offense has gone wild, but I think it is too soon to call it a juggernaut. Win this game and you can start drinking the Kool Aid, but not yet.

Are the Patriots on their way down?
No, and don’t buy into any of the hype that followed the Jets game where New England was beaten by a worked up New York team playing at home. It happens- Tom Brady is still getting back into a groove, and he seems to be advancing more and more towards playing at a high level for a whole game every week. He is getting back in sync with his receivers, and the defense is taking time to gel while it works in so many new pieces. This team may take until midseason to fully get back to at or near the top of the AFC, but they will be there.

Is Joe Flacco really becoming a top tier quarterback?
Not yet. I keep seeing Joe Flacco’s name floating about on a number of MVP watch lists, and there is no denying that he is performing light-years beyond where he was last season. However, until I see him do it against top tier defenses with a bit of regularity, I can’t say that he belongs on those lists (also that he keep sailing his intermediate throws, but I harp on that every week). A strong performance this weekend could help change my mind, though.

My Mildly Informed Analysis:

Ravens Defense vs. New England Offense

Don’t confuse this team with the spread out, 4 wide passing attack that we have seen out of New England in the past few years. While it seemed like a minor move in the offseason, the Patriots’ acquisition of Fred Taylor has helped this team turn to a smashmouth running attack that we haven’t seen in quite some time. Over the last 3 or 4 years I have seen an effective, if finesse running attack from the Patriots in the form of draws, or misdirections, with the running backs being larger threats as pass catchers out of the backfield than up the middle. Not since Corey Dillon has New England had a running back capable of striking fear in the defense. But Fred Taylor may be changing all that. His 105 yards last week against a stout Falcons front 7 surprised me, even though I knew Taylor still had some years left in him after his long career in Jacksonville. Mind you, the team is only averaging 108 yards on the ground per game this season compared to 142 last season, but they may be just getting started. I don’t expect Taylor or any of the Patriot’s backs to truly establish themselves against the Ravens defensive line, but if they can get a few yards here and there up the middle it will open things up for Tom Brady.

Of course what we all worry about is New England’s passing attack. If Vincent Jackson was a challenge for the Ravens cornerbacks, Randy Moss will be a menace. There is no question that either Foxworth or Washington are more than capable of keeping up with the big-play receiver, but when he goes up for the ball I have visions of the undersized corners futilely swatting at the ball as Moss comes down with it. Not to mention the lack of a true nickelback to respond to Wes Welker if he lines up in the slot- is Frank Walker going to slow him down? I doubt it. I am not yet convinced that Fabian Washington is a sure enough tackler to take down the slippery Welker if he gets the ball with any space in front of him. Benjamin Watson is a sure-handed tight end capable of making plays in the passing game, and if Tom Brady is on target this team will be able to pile on at least 24 points. I just don’t see how our secondary can stop these receivers if Brady has time to throw.

And that is where the defensive line comes in. In order for Baltimore to win this game, the Ravens must get pressure on Tom Brady- it has been said many times before to little success, but I point it out here because this may be the best time in the season to do it. The Patriots offensive line has not been as solid as in seasons past, and Brady is still looking a little gun-shy in protecting that reconstructed knee of his. He hasn’t been sacked since Week 1, but he has been hurried, harried, and forced into bad throws, resulting in a dismal 23-47 for 216 yards and an interception against the Jets in Week 2. Brady will drop back to pass at least 45 times on Sunday. If the Ravens knock him down enough and make him feel the pressure, he should have a similar line as he did against New York.

Ravens Offense vs. Patriots Defense

As far as the Pats defense is concerned, it is an odd mix of solid veteran players- cornerbacks Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden included- and a collection of undrafted young players with no track record of success. With the departures of Junior Seau, Teddy Bruschi, and Mike Vrabel, Bill Belichick has incorporated a brand new crop of linebackers. Aside from dominant outside linebacker Adalius Thomas (who Ravens fans are all too familiar with), the starting linebackers are all undrafted players in Pierre Woods, Eric Alexander, and Gary Guyton. They come from solid defensive schools (Michigan, LSU, and Georgia Tech, respectively), but apart from that very little is known about these former special teamers. Now I won’t criticize Belichick’s history of developing players, but I will bet not all of these guys are ready for prime time. Add in the possibility of Vince Wilfork playing on a gimpy left ankle and you have the right environment for Ravens offensive success.

Run away from Adalius Thomas and let Ray Rice and Willis McGahee twist their way through the inexperienced Patriots linebackers. The Patriots are the 10th ranked team against the run in terms of yards per game, but are in the middle of the pack when yards per rush is taken into account. If New England gives up 4 yards per carry against the Ravens like they have this season, Baltimore will have their entire arsenal ready to use. The Ravens are averaging 4.7 yards per carry- I am betting the Pats interior line gives in before the Ravens’ does. If Wilfork can’t play, send McClain up the middle and force the Pats to bring up help to stop the run. If they do, Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden won’t be able to stop the deep ball on their own. But this is a smart defense and they are coached well. Running the ball will be a matter of out-executing the Patriots and beating them at the point of attack. Throw schemes out the window, this is Bo Schembechler football.

As far as the passing game is concerned, a healthy Todd Heap will give Baltimore a dimension they haven’t very often in recent years. Provided Joe Flacco doesn’t overthrow his 6’5” receiver (which he has been prone to do), Heap will be available over the middle and even deep. When I saw Dallas Clark get behind his defender for that 80 yard touchdown against the Dolphins a couple weeks ago, I couldn’t help but see Todd Heap making that same move. Given the environment in Foxboro and the experience of the New England cornerbacks, I don’t think we can expect another 300 yard day out of Joe. However, I do think that he will complete at least one bomb and avoid the interceptions that have hurt him in big games so far this year. The Ravens have opened up the playbook this year, and Cam Cameron would be smart to throw out all the stops for this one.

The Rundown

This one is tough to pick. One must remember that the Ravens barely won at San Diego, and New England is a better team and is at home in a very tough place to play. However, the Patriots haven’t looked like the Patriots yet this season and aren’t winning like we expect them to. But each week this team seems to look closer and closer to that 2007 team that terrified opponents so much. But in the 4th quarter of a close game, who do you trust to make a play?

The nod goes to the Patriots, 28-24.

Boy do I ever want to be wrong on this one...

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