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)...
See you on Tuesday or Wednesday!