This is the second of four prediction posts for the 2012 Ravens season, each one previewing a different quarter of the team’s schedule. The next slate of games features the Chiefs, Cowboys, Texans and Browns.
The ‘D’ Ain’t So Bad, And Flacco’s In The Running For MVP
These are strange days for Ravens fans. Gone are the Sundays spent hooting and hollering for bone-crunching plays made on defense, followed by much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth as the offense takes the field. Now we’re cheering our passing attack, bemoaning our secondary, and watching our (T.) Sizzle-less pass rush give opposing QBs enough time to send Tweets to the receivers they plan on targeting. “@ajgreen_18 Comebak route, back sholder! Incomng, bro! #1stDown #MoveDaChains” Yes, the Ravens defense is unusual this year. It’s not terrible, though it feels that way for Baltimoreans who have been spoiled by Ray Lewis and Ed Reed for a decade. But it’s not good. Baltimore ranks 24th in the NFL in pass completions surrendered per game and 29th in passing yards. The silver lining, though: That same defense also allows the 10th-lowest percentage of completed passes and has held opposing QBs to the 10th-worst passer rating. And here’s another kicker: Our defense is tied for first in passing touchdowns allowed, with only two through four games! What in the world, right?
The statistics are trying to tell us—and that includes me; perhaps primarily me, as a hyperventilating, over-invested fan—that reports of the death of the Ravens defense have been greatly exaggerated. Quarterbacks are throwing a lot on the Ravens, hence the high raw number of passes completed. But quarterbacks are having to throw a lot to do substantial damage, and those many, many attempts have yielded a lot of incompletions, a few turnovers, and hardly any touchdowns. In short, while the Ravens defense is being targeted through the air, it is counterpunching just enough, coming up with plays when it needs them most. We can see this trend with our own eyes. Both the Patriots and Browns games, for example, were close, hard-fought contests that the opposition almost won by passing the ball a lot, until someone on the Ravens stepped up and made a big play at a critical moment. In the Patriots game, the defense held Tom Brady to three points in the fourth quarter, enabling the Ravens offense to erase a two-score deficit and eke out a one-point win. Against the Browns, much-maligned corner Cary Williams—picked on by opponents and Ravens fans for the past month—stepped in front of a Brandon Weeden pass to the flat, intercepted it and ran it back for a touchdown in a game that was decided by those seven points.
Thankfully, the offense has manned up. Speedsters Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones have blown the lid off defenses, softening up the middle of the field for Dennis Pitta (an emerging star) and Anquan Boldin. Ray Rice is having a characteristic year, on pace for over 1200 yards rushing and 700 receiving. And Mr. Flacco, still longing for “elite” consideration, is making a statement: He’s on track for over 5000 yards through the air, sits near the top of the league in quarterback rating (above the likes of Rodgers, Brees and Roethlisberger), and, as ESPN Insider has noted, is in the MVP hunt with Matt Ryan and Tom Brady, “throwing the ball deeper and more accurately than any other quarterback [and] doing it with less time in the pocket.” It’s doubtful I’d have been 4-0 in my picks, and that the Ravens would be 3-1 right now, if not for the offense. Not since Steve McNair signed in 2006 have Ravens fans pinned so much hope on a unit that didn’t focus on tackling and kicking.
Predicted Record For This Stretch: 3-1
Predicted Regular Season Record By The End Of It: 6-2
CHIEFS AWAY: WIN
There’s a reason why when journalists discuss the Kansas City Chiefs, their stories revolve around how loud Arrowhead Stadium is: Aside from one good year under Lil Wayne aficionado and overall d-bag Todd Haley, the Chiefs are not very good, and they haven’t been for a long time. The last time the Ravens visited the Chiefs it was for a playoff game in 2008, and we overcame an impassioned start from their young stars to get five turnovers and win 30-7. (Three of those turnovers came from the hand of Matt Cassel, whom I have never believed to be as good as he was for that one season in New England.) In Todd Heap’s penultimate game in purple, Joe Flacco had (then) the best playoff game of his career, throwing two touchdowns and abusing the secondary with passes to Heap all over the place. (Pitta might fill this role now.) Even with dynamic RB Jamaal Charles, the Chiefs’ offense was held to 25 yards the entire second half. By the time the Ravens were done, Arrowhead Stadium, which literally can be as loud as some planes on takeoff (I did the decibel research; it’s true), was about as raucous as a toy plane on a summer’s day.
Since this last meeting, not much has changed for the Chiefs offensively: It still flows through the running backs. In 2010 the Chiefs were first in the league in rushing yardage per game (164). This year, still led by Charles and now bolstered by former Madden cover boy Peyton Hillis, they are second (174). But while the Ravens defense is nowhere near its old self, this is primarily because it has faced four teams in a row that like to pass. Against the run the Ravens have been stout, giving up 94.5 yards per game, which is 13th-best in the NFL and above average, and 3.2 yards per attempt, which is third-best and elite. If the Chiefs get away from pounding the rock, either by choice against a dubious Ravens secondary or by force if Flacco & Co. get a lead, they’re in trouble: This season Cassel is completing only 58% of his passes, has thrown seven interceptions to five touchdowns, and has a quarterback rating of 70.4. What’s more, he’s put up these subpar numbers against the Falcons, Bills, Saints and Chargers, four teams whose defenses averaged a ranking of 20th last season, with none in the top 10. To put this in perspective, Flacco has so far completed 63.5% of his passes, posted seven touchdowns to three interceptions, and sports a quarterback rating of 95.8, which is third-best in the league—and these numbers came against teams that ranked an average 14th on defense last season, with three of them finishing in the top 10.
Charles and Hillis, at first, might have success running. A Browns castoff like his head coach Romeo Crennel, Hillis saves his best for the Ravens, bruising our egos and probably a few bodies with power runs. But unless this game becomes a defensive struggle with the Ravens offense settling for field goals, running won’t get it done for the Chiefs. Flacco will be facing a secondary ripped to shreds by Matt Ryan and Philip Rivers, so he theoretically should be able to do the same. A large lead would force the Chiefs to get away from their halfbacks, and while that’s not great news for the Ravens’ lackluster pass rush and weirdly off-playing corners, this team has seen Cassel before and stolen his lunch money. Oh, and about Cassel: If the rumors are true, he might be getting benched for Brady Quinn, a guy whose greatest football achievement is having once starred in a commercial for Gillette razors. ROMEO CRENNEL, YOU MUST START BRADY QUINN!!! START HIM AT ONCE!!!
COWBOYS AT HOME: WIN
In 2008, when last the Ravens played the Cowboys, Jerry Jones had the distinct pleasure of watching his team get depantsed before a national audience. In the final game at Texas Stadium—the one that people (sometimes breathlessly, sometimes sarcastically) quipped had a hole in the roof so god could watch his favorite team play football—the Ravens smothered the Cowboys for three quarters before Big Blue turned on the jets in the fourth, storming back on offense and pulling within two points on the arm of Tony Romo. It had seemed, at that point, that the script was finally going to be performed as originally intended: The high-flying ‘Boys would quit their historic stadium with style, and the Ravens, perennially plucky but underachieving, would fade away, another valiant effort squandered. But then the unthinkable happened: The Ravens ripped two impossible, Marshawn Lynch-like runs for touchdowns, each one following a Dallas score that had seemed destined to change momentum, and Jerry Jones was sent back to his hermit hole with a scowl on his face. Rumors spread shortly thereafter that Jones had hand-picked the Ravens to be the closing opponent for the Cowboys at their mythic venue. If true, and knowing him it probably was, the plan backfired.
Will the Ravens beat the Cowboys again? Don’t know. Not to flagellate a dead horse, but the problem, as always this year, is defense. Can our secondary, drastically worse off than it was four years ago, hold up against that ferocious and exciting Dallas offense? “Ferocious and exciting?” you say, smirking, eyebrows raised. Yes, I too saw the Cowboys play the Bears on Monday night, and I too saw them look less like a football team than like the putrid leavings of some South American mammal, with Romo out-Romoing himself with five picks and Dez Bryant having an anti-field day with 27 drops (an estimate). But, two things. One, this game will occur after a bye week for the Cowboys. They will have had plenty of time to lick their wounds and to watch tape on how to abuse Cary Williams, i.e., the cornerback who isn’t all-star Lardarius Webb, and on how to rattle Flacco, whose offensive line will have its hands full with sack maestro DeMarcus Ware. (Expect no fewer than two Ravens drives to be derailed by holding calls.) Two, the Cowboys are ranked 16th on offense, which is exactly average—i.e., not the horrific thing people are making it out to be—and 30th in rushing; so, they will throw us to death, pseudo-literally, because they will need to and can. If this defense can make Brandon Weeden look serviceable (more on that later), Tony Romo is going to end up looking actually capable of leading a team to a Super Bowl.
I look forward to a high-scoring affair, with the Ravens prevailing because we are playing at home, where we have not lost since December 2010. I also predict the Ravens to win because I will be there, per a ticket-purchasing gaffe by my dad who meant to buy Browns seats, and neither the Ravens nor the Orioles have lost a game in my presence. I am magic.
TEXANS AWAY: LOSSAll right: The Texans scare me. I don’t mean that in the here’s-a-bone sense; in the I’m-a-homer-but-look-I’m-logical-because-I-give-credit-to-other-teams sense, which has been perfected by famous ESPN writer/hack and Patriot fan Billy Simmons. Houston, from top to bottom, is loaded. The fact that Matt Schaub got his ear lobe ripped off is the most interesting thing about the Texans, because there is nothing terribly interesting (to people who aren’t Texans fans, anyway) about four unequivocal wins in succession. Another reason why the Texans scare me? I know they are ready, willing and able to disembowel the Ravens, who have beaten them three times in a row. (We are to the Texans what the Patriots are to the Ravens: They continually find ways to lose to us despite their passion and talent, which only makes them more bitter every time we meet.) Only one of those three Ravens wins took place at Reliant Stadium, and that was a thriller that ended 34-28 in overtime with a walk-off pick-six. I do not remember this game for what a great victory it was. I remember it for the fact that, if the Texans offense then could put up four touchdowns on the Ravens defense then, it should make us Chesapeake natives cringe to think what Schaub and Arian Foster might do to it now. While playing at home. While wanting to avenge a playoff loss. While seeing ex-teammate Jacoby Jones—the guy responsible for that loss—grinning on our sideline.
Historically, Baltimore has held Andre Johnson in check, as it has most big-name, big-body receivers on most teams (recall, for example, that Rob Gronkowski is all but invisible whenever the Ravens and Patriots clash.) Johnson’s mere presence, however, might open up things for TE Owen Daniels, who could have the career day Eagles TE Brent Celek did when we focused (failingly) on DeSean Jackson, planting in soft spots between the linebackers in light of an anemic Ravens pass rush. And then there’s Foster, who obliterated the Ravens’ franchise record of never having allowed a 100-yard rusher in the postseason. Nine months ago, Foster racked up 132 yards on the ground against us, most of them before halftime—and that was when we were expecting him to be the workhorse with Schaub out for the season! The Texans may only be a hair above average in total yards per game (14th), but they are a whopping second in points scored. That means that when they do put drives together, they excel at getting touchdowns.
I say this is the first game that the Ravens offense can’t salvage. A prediction: Flacco will be bottled up by a Texans defense ranked first in points allowed, first in total yards allowed and second in passing yards allowed. Another prediction: This will make Cam Cameron turn, uncreatively, to Ray Rice, which the Texans will expect and defend, which will in turn nullify the play-action we thrive on and will make Flacco and Cam stare like confused zombies into the distance as groans escape every bar in Baltimore. Final prediction: Flacco will then, perhaps not unjustifiably, think, “IT’S ALL UP TO ME TO WIN THIS GAME!” and will force throws into tiny/dumb windows in the face of mounting pocket pressure (Houston has a great pass rush), at which point he will throw a crippling interception or four. In an ironic universe, at least one of those picks will go to ex-Bengal-now-Texan CB Johnathan Joseph , who has picked Flacco off three times in their six meetings (a Flacco defender high) and apparently just joins teams based on how often he gets to play Joe Flacco.
BROWNS AWAY: WIN
Aside from the fact I called the Browns having a good defense, the only thing I got right about my Ravens-Browns prognosis was that the Ravens won. I will be the first to admit it: I completely underestimated Cleveland. (The team, not the city. The city seems horrible.) Are the Browns still a star-less team aside from Josh Cribbs? Yes. Do they still have no hope of making the postseason in the next five years(, if one is being generous)? Yes. Is Cleveland still a place where Super Bowl dreams go to catch AIDS, spontaneously combust and die? Absolutely. But the Browns have fight. While I’m used to seeing AFC North rivals duke it out—blood and dust and all that—I’ve never legitimately found myself believing anytime in the last four years, anytime during the Harbaugh-Flacco Era, that the Browns had a real shot of winning a game on us. Thursday night changed that. Honestly: My heart was in my throat for those two Hail Marys that Weeden chucked into the sky. I felt fortunate to escape when, on the second attempt (gifted by Paul Kruger’s losing his cool and a Browns defender’s Manu Ginobili-esque flop), Weeden chose to remember what team he played for and didn’t even throw a catchable ball. The announcer was right to sound a little disappointed for him, too, because he had played a surprisingly decent game up to that point. Both Weeden, who completed fewer than 50% of his passes, and Trent Richardson, who rushed for 47 yards on 14 carries, played better than their stat lines.
That said (ha ha!), I still don’t see the Browns beating the Ravens, against whom they are 0-8 in the Harbaugh-Flacco Era (HarFlack? FlackBaugh?); by whom they have been outscored by a combined 129 points to 60 in Baltimore and by 97 to 47 in Cleveland. These tallies are deceiving, since it has actually been three years since a Ravens-Browns game was not decided by two scores or fewer; not just because, as divisional foes, the Browns and Ravens know each other so well that talent disparities are moot, but also because the Browns play us with the looseness and feist of a team that wants to win simply because winning is fun and they hate us (two powerful motivators). But I put great stock in the fact that, for Round One, the Ravens were playing their fourth game in 17 days. Moreover, the game prior had been an emotional win over the Patriots, one of our greatest rivals. For this rematch in Cleveland, the Ravens will be playing after a much-deserved bye week, meaning psychological and physical fatigue won’t factor in. Thirdly, if I’m right about us losing (perhaps horribly) to the Texans, we will have a lot of incentive to spit out the two-week-old taste of defeat. And while the last three games in Baltimore have been decided by a touchdown or less, the last three games in Cleveland have been won by more than two scores. We get up for road trips to the Dawg Pound! So, this one won’t be as close as the near-debacle downtown. It’ll be another two-score victory for the birds, who by this point will be flying high and looking to the postseason.