Saturday, September 19, 2009

Ravens Week 2 Preview

(please forgive the lack of player profile links today, I am trying to get this done before dinner and have a limited amount of time)

Here we are at Week 2 of the NFL season, and already we have Game of the Year potential here. The Ravens are travelling to San Diego to face the Chargers, and both teams are considered legitimate Super Bowl contenders, and if it comes down to it, this game could help decide home field advantage in a playoff game.

The Chargers have a good defense. But it is hurting right now. Not only did they lose Defensive Tackle Jamal Williams, they also lost Defensive End Travis Johnson. Add to that the fact that they gave up 366 yards to the Oakland Raiders last week (and it is a safe bet to say that the Ravens' offense is at least as potent if not more potent that the Raiders' offense). Among those 366 yards were 148 rushing yards, and when you look at the Ravens' backfield of Willis McGahee, Ray Rice, and LeRon McClain, it is easy to see the same kind of numbers (or more, since the Ravens' offensive line is young and lie most young lines is more adept at run blocking than pass blocking. When run blocking you make a hole and then move down the field to find someone else to block, while in pass blocking you are usually more responsible for a zone block and have to stay within a certain area until after the ball is thrown or else you are called for a penalty for being ineligible man down field, since lineman cannot catch a pass unless they declare themselves eligible to the referee before the play - if you are confused, look HERE for a more detailed explanation). It is easier to run block because you can just get nasty and bull rush someone to the turf. Run blocking takes a bit of a nasty streak in you to do it right, and the young bucks on the Ravens' line have that in spades. Speaking as a former offensive lineman, run blocking is fun. Pass blocking is boring. Look for the Ravens to give the Chargers a heavy dose of running the ball, mostly between the tackles, with a good bit of play action in order to keep the defense from putting 8 men in the box every play.

On the other side, the Chargers have a good quarterback in Phillip Rivers, and usually have one of the best running backs (if not of all time, at least of the last 20-25 years) in LaDanian Tomlinson. However, Tomlinson is out after he rolled / sprained his ankle against the Raiders last week. The Chargers will respond by using Darren Sproles and Michael Bennett. Sproles is the kind of small, shifty RB that can give the Ravens fits, but the Ravens' defense is a lot quicker (especially in the secondary) than in the past, and the Chargers are probably going to be loathe to expose him to too much, especially with how much they rely on him in the return game. Bennett is probably not going to give the Ravens too much trouble. But once again you also have to look at the line play. The Ravens defensive line did not get too much pressure on the Chiefs, and that is going to have to change this week, because Phillip Rivers is no Brodie Croyle (and for Rivers, that is a good thing). But the Chargers are also going to be without Center Nick Hardwick and Guard Louis Vasquez (I do not know if he plays on the left or right side of the line). Having to potentially replace 40% of your line is difficult. Having two players right next to each other out at the same time is problematic. Having to replace the center is difficult, because the QB / C relationship is vital. It starts every offensive play. I am expecting the Ravens to try to blow up the A gaps and get penetration in the middle, forcing the Chargers to have to run the ball to the outside, extending the play laterally and allowing the quickness of the Ravens' defense to make plays in space. Also, Phillip Rivers is a good quarterback, but he is not the most mobile quarterback. If the Ravens can collapse the pocket and force him to roll out he becomes more of a liablilty. The big question is if the Ravens can stop Tight End Antonio Gates and Wide Receiver Vincent Jackson. Gates is one of the top tight ends in the game today. One of those players who is too big for a cornerback to cover him, and too fast for a linebacker to cover him (although the Ravens linebackers might just be up to the task, as they are one of the fastest linebacker corps in the league).

Special teams are going to be a concern, with the aforementioned Darren Sproles being one of the better return guys in the league right now and the Ravens' return games not being all that impressive last week. I do expect better blocking on punts, since I cannot imagine John Harbaugh (and his special teams coaching background) allowing that kind of sloppy play to stand.

But even with that, I think the Ravens come out of San Diego 2-0 and ready to host Cleveland for Week 3. Final score...

Ravens 24
Chargers 20

Thursday, September 17, 2009

I know, I know. One week and I am already running late. Well, my anniversary is tomorrow, and I have had to finagle my schedule a bit in order to get a couple days off from both jobs. But I am here now with my "Better Late Than Never" analysis of Week 1. And in a word, my analysis, is the following...

That is for all the people who think that the sky is falling because of the final score of

Chiefs 24
Ravens 38

I am not one to say "the game wasn't as close as the final score indicates", because in the end it doesn't matter what the final score indicates other than the winner and the loser. And after a loss no one takes solace in how close the game was from a statistics perspective. Besides, the Chiefs, even when they had the lead, were never really in control of the game.

They got 7 points off of a blocked punt. That happens maybe 2 times in a year if the stars align for a team (or against a team if they are the ones getting scored on that way). They got 7 points off of an interception that the Chiefs defense returned to the 6 (and then got a mulligan when there was a penalty called on the Ravens that otherwise would have left them at 3rd and goal from the 4 or 5, with the very real possibility of them having to settle for a field goal. Interceptions are not THAT uncommon, but they don't happen every game, and most times they don't get returned 70 yards. And they got a field goal after Mark Bradley made what can only be called a highlight reel, circus catch against very solid coverage. You cannot defend against the improbable. All you can do is recover and hold from there, and that is exactly what the Ravens did. All in all, they gave up only 11 first downs and 188 total yards of offense. Those are numbers that ANY team would gladly accept and take their chances as to what the final outcome would be.

The offense was a surprise, mainly because they threw the ball 43 times (and since their offensive strength is the running game, it led to some raised eyebrows). Flacco looked pretty good, but it is obvious that the middle third of the field is still a work in progress as far as his comfort level in throwing the ball. He threw it high over the middle more than a few times (most noticeable when he was trying to dump off the ball to Ray Rice, who is not exactly at Manute Bol levels). A good defense (like the Steelers) would have had 2 or 3 interceptions on some of those passes. Todd Heap was able to make some nice plays when he wasn't staying in for max protect, but he should have held on to the ball down in the red zone (inside the opponent's 20 yard line) in (I think) the 3rd quarter. McGahee is playing like a man who will be looking for a job next year (which is in all likelihood a fact). And as a point of interest, the 1st touchdown (the one where Flacco ran around in the pocket and eventually rolled to the left and then hit McGahee for a 1 yard TD pass was not nearly as improvised as it may have seemed. To wit, check out THIS link.

I do think a lot of things were kept in Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron's back pocket as far as plays we will see a lot of this year. This is a team that ran the Statue of Liberty play in the PRESEASON, so expect lots of wrinkles as Cameron continues to see what his players are doing best, and how it matches up against what the defense they are facing and THEIR strengths. Add to that the fact that the Ravens are playing the San Diego Chargers (IN San Diego), a team with a much better defense (the one that I have on my fantasy team, TYVM), and you can put two and two together and get Cam not wanting to show his hand just yet.

Tomorrow I have a 50/50 chance of getting to the computer with enough time to give Week 2 a thorough once over, so look for my article on Saturday.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Ravens Week 1 Preview

Okay, here is the plan for this year...either Friday or Saturday I will do up a preview of the upcoming game. Monday or Tuesday will be a game recap (if the Ravens are playing a Monday night game, or if there are extenuating circumstances that are going to force me to TIVO the game and watch it Monday - like this week - the recap will be Tuesday or Wednesday). So without further ado...Week 1.

Kansas City Chiefs at Ravens

The Chiefs come to town with a new, rookie coach and a new quarterback. Todd Haley is the new coach, who until last year was the Offensive Coordinator for the Arizona Cardinals. The quarterback is Matt Cassel, a career backup on the Patriots who stepped into the starting job after Tom Brady went down with an injury in Week 1 last year and guided one of the most potent offenses in history (in 2007 they set records for most TD passes in a season by a QB and most TD receptions by a wide receiver in a season) to an 11-5 record. They were just the 2nd 11 win team in the history of the NFL to not make the playoffs. The big question is how he will do without Randy Moss and Wes Welker to throw to. I am thinking the Scott Mitchell Principle will come into play (Mitchell was the backup to Dan Marino in Miami and when he stepped in for him for a few games he played EXTREMELY well. Right about then Free Agency hit the NFL and Mitchell parlayed a few games of success into a couple of big NFL contracts, including with the Lions and the Ravens). They also come in with a running back who has something to prove (but has spent the last couple of years not proving it) in Larry Johnson and a receiving corps that has lost their best player after the trade to the Atlanta Falcons of Tony Gonzalez. The team is a bit of an enigma with all of the changes, with the only constant being WR Dwayne Bowe (but he was in Haley's doghouse for a while during training camp, even being put on the 2nd team squad under since released from the team Amani Toomer, so take from that what you will). The Chiefs are not known for their defensive prowess, and their offense is a question mark (even their "franchise QB" Cassel is questionable with a knee injury). So where does that leave the Ravens?

The defense is as deep as any, and deeper than most. The front line has Pro Bowl caliber players in Haloti Ngata, Kelly Gregg, and Trevor Pryce (and they are 2-3 deep with backups that could start on a lot of other teams, so the line stays fresh). The linebackers are again anchored by Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs, with rookie Paul Kruger moving from Defensive End to Outside Linebacker depending on if the team is showing itself as a 4-3 or a 3-4 defense. The secondary has All-Pro Ed Reed, and it is also deep (an Achilles Heel of the team in recent years). The first team offense looked good in the preseason, especially QB Joe Flacco, who seems to be progressing nicely in his 2nd year in the league. It looks like the game is really slowing down for him, and he is making better decisions. The running game is solid, and 2nd year RB Ray Rice is primed for a breakout campaign.

Those are the positives.

Now for the areas of concern. The secondary is deep, but it currently lacks a true "shutdown" cornerback. Dominique Foxworth (a University of MD alum) signed a big contract in the offseason, and the Ravens are known for their astute observations of defensive talent in both the draft and free agency, but in his career with the Denver Broncos and the Atlanta Falcons Foxworth has not been the #1 guy. He is now. The hope is that his speed will make up for his lack of size. Frank Walker was getting burned on a regular basis, and was making a lot of mistakes and penalties (a lot of which weren't called since the referees were also working themselves back into regular season shape). The receiving corps is thin, and they are one significant injury away from being a severe liability (that injury would be anything that befalls Derrick Mason). The offensive line is young (except for Center Matt Birk), and they are relying on a rookie that is making one of the hardest changes to make (Left Tackle to Right Tackle) to solidify the line and allow the RB and the TE to get out into the passing routes. And they also are relying on an untested kicker, and when you have a defense like the Ravens have, 3 points might just make a huge difference in more than a few games.

So with all of that being said, what is going to happen? I believe wholeheartedly that this Ravens team is a driven team. They made it to the AFC Championship game with a rookie QB and a rookie Head Coach. They are returning 18 out of 22 starters (and one of the 4 is now backing up someone else who passed them on the depth chart). The defense is out to show they are more than Rex Ryan's scheming and exotic blitz packages, and that they are still a top 5 defense without him. Ray Lewis knows he only has a couple of years left, and Ed Reed is dealing with a chronic neck injury that might shorten his career by a few years. The team has a top 10 rusing offense and a QB who is maturing into a leader. They have hungry players on both sides of the ball that want a Super Bowl ring before they shuffle off into TV Color Commentator land. They play with a lot more discipline under John Harbaugh then they did under Brian Billick, and they believe that they can win it all. The team made moves in the offseason specifically in order to surpass the Steelers (bringing in Birk and Oher to shore up the line and give Flacco more passing options, make the secondary deeper and faster in order to keep up with the Steelers WR corps when QB Ben Roethlisberger breaks contain in the pocket and starts to scramble to buy time - which is when the Steelers are at their most dangerous as far as big plays go - they can catch up to the WR that break off their routes and give guys who are gassed a breather, and most importantly use the front four to get pressure on the QB with minimal all out blitzes so that there are more defenders in space to clog up passing lanes and hopefully cause turnovers), and the moves make sense. This team can win it all, and anything less will be a disappointment to them, let alone to us as fans.

I am not one who enjoys giving predictions with scores, and Vegas spreads are all about who is betting money, not about who is going to win (apparently the Ravens went from 15-1 odds to win it all to 25-1 odds to win it all, and this got some local radio commentators and listeners in an uproar. All that means is that too many people were putting money on the Ravens to win the Super Bowl at 15-1 odds, so Vegas backed it up to 25-1 odds in order to spread the money around to other teams from the rubes who spend a weekend in Vegas and decide to make a bet just for the hell of it). So with all that being said, this game should not be a difficult one for the Ravens to win, and so I am calling it for the Ravens (and what the hell, I'll give you a score, too)...

Chiefs 13
Ravens 34

See you on Tuesday or Wednesday!

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Well, I am only off by 3 preseason games. As always, I have no excuse other than I already have 3 jobs and a wife and a comedy troupe still in its infancy to nurture, so getting in here with enough time to dedicate to a post the way I think it needs to be done is not all that easy. But here I am and here we go, with 2 days until the final preseason game I think we have seen enough to make some tough calls...

  • Barring a fundamental collapse or someone being cut from another team that is head and shoulders above what we have, Steve Hauschka will be the Ravens kicker this year.

Hauschka has been better than Graham Gano this year, but that is kind of damning with faint praise when you look at it. Head Coach John Harbaugh spent almost a decade as a Special Teams coach in the NFL, and he has worked with the likes of Sean Landeta, Brian Mitchell, and David Akers, 3 of the better special teams players of the recent past. He can tell by listening if a kicker is getting good foot into a kick, and the fact that he has not anointed either kicker should tell you that it isn't settled. But Hauschka has been more consistent than Gano (except for his missing a **27** yard field goal last week - which is pretty much inexcusable), and Hauschka pretty much has the job to lose Thursday night at Atlanta.

Mattison is not going to have crazy, exotic blitzes like Ryan did. He is going to rely more on his front four (the Defensive Tackles and Ends) to get pressure on the Quarterbacks(along with some weak side attacks by the Outside Linebackers) and for the secondary to keep contain and coverage to allow the line to get to the QB. But he has the respect of the defense and the support of Ray Lewis (I really don't think he needs a wiki-link at this point) and Ed Reed to make sure that the team does what he wants them to do. The defense will be just fine.

  • The receiving corps is going to be unconventional but it will get the job done.

The team has yet to pick up another receiver to complement Derrick Mason and the Injury Reports (Mark Clayton dealing with his hamstring problem, Demetrius Williams having another problem with his ankle - or whatever it is this time. I have lost count - Marcus Smith - who was having a good camp and was expected to be a big contributor on special teams - down for the year...). Kelly Washington is a journeyman receiver who might have found a home by default, and Justin Harper is probably going to make the team because no one else is there to take the roster spot from him (but I will bet you that Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome is keeping an eye on the waiver wire and the cut lists to see if a kicker, wide receiver, or tight end pops up. And to a lesser degree some more wide bodies for the offensive line, especially tackle). But it is not all doom and gloom.

Mason still looks good, and when Harper holds on to the ball he makes some plays. Tight End Todd Heap has stayed pretty much injury free this preseason and has spent some extra time after practice working with Joe Flacco, getting comfortable with each other. Ray Rice has looked good both running the ball and as a receiver (he had 8 catches in the last preseason game, and he only played a little more than a half of the game). It goes back to what I said before, by allowing the running backs and the tight ends to be an option in the passing offense as opposed to a blocker for the passing game it opens the entire offense up for everybody, because more players have to be covered and accounted for in space.

To wrap up the preseason (and yes, there is another game in a couple of days as I have previously mentioned, but the starters will probably only play a series or two), it is more about seeing how they are going to cut the roster down to 53 players, which players are going to be kept for those final positions (most of the spots on the 53 man roster are pretty much set for this team, there are going to be a lot of big decisions to make for a few positions, and watch as a number of players cut by the team are on other team's rosters or at least their practice squads before they are finished cleaning out their lockers in Westminster).

So I put it to you...what about this team or this sport do you want to know about? Help me help you.