Cowboys vs. Ravens: Drawing Up a Game Plan for Baltimore

Andrea HangstFeatured Columnist IVOctober 12, 2012

It's been four long years since the Ravens and Cowboys have met.
It's been four long years since the Ravens and Cowboys have met.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Baltimore Ravens have a wild card coming to town this week—the 2-2 Dallas Cowboys, who are about as unpredictable a team that there is in the NFL right now. 

The Cowboys are often as responsible for losing games as other teams are for beating them, and it's hard to tell which iteration of the team will be taking the field. As such, the Ravens must be prepared for everything—the good Cowboys, the bad Cowboys, the great ones and the worst ones.

That's a lot of preparation, but it can be distilled into a simpler game plan. Here are three steps the Ravens should take if they want to get the better of Dallas on Sunday afternoon.


Get Physical

The Dallas Cowboys have the top pass defense in the league this year, giving up an average of 169.5 passing yards per game. This has much to do with their two new cornerback additions, rookie Morris Claiborne and free agent Brandon Carr.

Carr and Claiborne aren't top-10 cornerbacks, allowing a combined 17 receptions on 28 total targets and two touchdowns, but their physical style of play has made them quite successful at manhandling receivers and throwing them off their routes.

This is a good opportunity for the Ravens' receivers to fight fire with fire—especially veteran Anquan Boldin, who is no stranger to man corners trying to mess with his routes. The key to defeating Carr and Claiborne is to keep them from getting their hands on the receivers in the first five yards, where contact is allowed. 

The two corners have been particularly successful against smaller and less-physical receivers, but were completely thrown off last week against the Chicago Bears and receivers Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall—two larger players with no fear of contact.

As long as the Ravens' attempts in practices this week to mimic the press coverage of Claiborne and Carr took hold among Baltimore's younger, less-experienced players like Torrey Smith and tight end Dennis Pitta, they should have little trouble getting into a passing rhythm.

When facing physical cornerback play this season, the Ravens' offense has struggled. Preparation for this game should have given them ample reason to tighten their skills against press coverage.


Romo's Mistakes

Dallas quarterback Tony Romo is like the living embodiment of that old nursery rhyme: When he's good, he's very, very good, but when he's bad, he's horrid. And sometimes, it doesn't matter much what opposing defenses do to force him into making mistakes—he can mess things up all on his own.

But Baltimore's defense has a reputation for making error-prone quarterbacks look worse, and it should certainly approach Romo with this in mind on Sunday.

The Ravens, without Terrell Suggs, have relied more on blitzes than a traditional pass rush to get to quarterbacks, which could hurt them against Romo. He and his offensive line are smart about blitz pickups, and there are clearly first downs to be had when they can take advantage.

However, if the Ravens pressure him often enough, the errant throws will come. And players like safety Ed Reed will be there to capitalize on those off-target passes, ready to pick him off and kill whatever momentum Dallas' offense has managed to build.

With eight interceptions, Romo has thrown the third-most picks in the league thus far. And he doesn't have many receiving options—Dez Bryant is his biggest target, but Bryant has problems with dropped passes this year and often just completely disappears under the weight of coverage as games wear on.

Regardless, Dallas' offense, and their chances to either win or lose games, rests almost solely on Romo's shoulders. If the Ravens can get in his head, the Cowboys likely won't leave Baltimore with a win.


Keep Flacco Protected

Joe Flacco is the ninth-most-sacked quarterback in the league at the moment, having been brought down 13 times.

The Ravens' offensive line has been in constant flux this year, as the team has been trying to find the best combination of run blockers and pass protectors from its relatively thin depth chart; this week it looks like Bobbie Williams will be the Ravens' starter at left guard over Ramon Harewood, after Harewood gave up one sack and 12 quarterback hurries over the last five games.

At tackle, the Ravens haven't fared much better. Just last week alone, offensive tackles Michael Oher and Kelechi Osemele gave up four sacks and eight hurries. Now they'll all be tasked with keeping Cowboys outside linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer from getting to Flacco.

Through the first four games of the season, Ware and Spencer have combined for seven sacks and 16 hurries, against quarterbacks oftentimes better protected than Flacco. Clearly the offensive line, and the tackles in particular, have a major test on their hands.

With the Ravens at home, they'll have more opportunities to run the hurry-up, no-huddle offense they've been fine-tuning; it didn't work out so well last week in the loud Arrowhead Stadium, but this week in the comfort of their home stadium, it may be Flacco's golden ticket out of repeatedly ending up on the turf.

If Baltimore's defense cannot get to Romo and force him into making mistakes, the Ravens will likely need a heavy dose of scoring—and thus passing—to keep pace with what can often be an extremely high-octane offense when it gets going. They'll need to keep Flacco upright, contain the two linebackers and move the ball quickly in order to do so.