Dallas Cowboys vs. Baltimore Ravens: 10 Keys to the Game for Baltimore
The Dallas Cowboys are coming to Baltimore for a crucial inter-conference game on Sunday.
Both the Baltimore Ravens and the Cowboys need this game if they want to keep pace in their respective divisions (the Cowboys are a half game behind in their division, the Ravens have a one game lead in theirs).
While the Cowboys are coming off a bye week following an embarrassing blowout loss to the Chicago Bears, the Ravens have problems of their own. Their offense was nonexistent last week in Kansas City, and it was by the narrowest of margins that the Ravens escaped with a win over what looks to be one of the worst teams in the entire NFL.
Needless to say, Dallas is not nearly that bad.
The Cowboys are always one of those teams that underachieve year after year despite having immense talent. Their 2-2 record shows a team that could go either way in 2012, but the Ravens would be wise to be prepared for the Cowboys best on Sunday.
Let's take a look at what the Ravens will need to do to make this Sunday's game their fourth win in a row.
1. Make Sure to Feed the Ball to Ray Rice
The Ravens have put so much emphasis on becoming a fast-speed, no-huddle pass attack that it's arguably been a bit detrimental to the offense as a whole. While the wins over Cincinnati and New England showed impressive offensive prowess, the last two weeks the offense has disappeared at times and nearly cost the team the game.
Ray Rice has still done a lot when he's gotten the ball.
He ranks ninth in the NFL with 419 rushing yards, good for an average of 83.8 yards a game. He's also added 190 receiving yards through five games.
Not surprisingly, one of Rice's worst games was the loss to the Philadelphia Eagles where he only had 99 yards on 16 attempts. He's topped the 16-carry mark in the three games afterwards and it's gotten the Ravens to a 3-0 record in that time span.
Both of those games were extreme examples as Rice failed to top 10 carries in both of them. The run-pass balance has been better this season so far, and if the Ravens keep giving Rice 17-20 carries a game, that should help them get a victory.
2. Force Tony Romo to Make Mistakes
Tony Romo has developed a reputation throughout his career for being a guy that will make mistakes which will single-handedly lose games for his team.
Last week he was in classic bad Romo form when he threw five interceptions in the team's 34-18 loss to the Chicago Bears. This game marked Romo's third consecutive game where he played awfully, and he's now tossed five touchdowns to eight interceptions in 2012.
Romo is definitely in a bad slump right now but the Ravens should not expect that to continue on Sunday. He's got great weapons in the passing game like Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, should the latter ever figure out his dropping issues.
For all the flack he takes, Romo has at times shown himself capable of leading his team to victory and his arm can still be very dangerous.
The key for the Ravens defense is to pressure him enough and force the errant throws to come. If Romo's frequently getting hit by blitzes, he could start making mistakes and forcing passes. With players like Ed Reed and Lardarius Webb in the Ravens secondary, this could again be a very long day for Romo where he again throws multiple interceptions.
3. Do a Better Job Protecting Joe Flacco
One of the Cowboys' greatest strengths is their ability to rush the quarterback.
After four games of play, DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer have combined for seven sacks and 16 hurries.
Ware in particular is a beast as he's proven himself to be one of the best pass rushers in football for the last several years. The last time he played the Ravens was in 2008, which has been his best season so far as he recorded 20 sacks.. The Ravens held him to one sack in that game, which was a big part of the reason why they won that game.
It's going to be harder this time to stop Ware and Spencer. Bobbie Williams will likely replace Ramon Harewood as the starter at left tackle after Harewood's disappointing performances over the last couple weeks.
This change could be good for the Ravens but the offensive line is still clearly vulnerable. Kelechi Osemele and Michael Oher will still be playing and both men gave up four sacks and eight hurries just last week. If they don't improve, Flacco could be seeing a lot of M&T Bank's turf this week.
4. Keep the Home Domination Going
M&T Bank Stadium has been very kind to the Ravens during the last two years.
The Ravens are an astounding 19-1 at home since December 2010. The total home record under John Harbaugh is 30-5, which is the best home record in the league since 2010.
Just recently, ESPN finally provided recognition for how difficult it is to play in Baltimore as they ranked the Ravens as having the best homefield advantage in the NFL. It's a fitting time for the Ravens to receive this recognition as they are currently in the midst of a 14 game winning streak at home.
So just looking at these numbers, it would seem like an easy assumption that the Ravens should win this game. Especially since the Cowboys were 2-6 on the road last year and already suffered a blowout road loss to the Seattle Seahawks this season.
Still anything's possible in the NFL. Ravens fans will continue to be loud as the team feeds off the intensity of the environment. The Ravens home-field advantage is a powerful one and the Cowboys will have pulled off an enormous upset should they win this week.
5. Linebackers Must Prevent Jason Witten from Getting Open in the Middle
Most of Tony Romo's interceptions seem to come on deep plays where he forces the ball into coverage. That's not the case when he targets Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten in the middle of the field.
Witten has suffered from injuries this season which is reflected in his down numbers so far. He only has 21 catches for 188 yards and one touchdown. He also hasn't been targeted nearly as much this season as he has four or less receptions in three out of the four games he's played in.
With Witten growing healthier, Romo will likely target him more this week. For the last three weeks the Ravens have contained opposing tight ends, but it's not too hard to remember Brent Celek's monster game in Week 2 where he had 157 receiving yards.
It is crucial that the Ravens contain Witten and prevent from building on the momentum from his big game last week.
6. Beware of Letdown Games Against Opponents That Are .500 or Below
Three of the Ravens four regular season losses last season came to teams that finished 8-8 or worse.
Even the Tennessee Titans, the only winning team to beat them, failed to make the playoffs.
That trend has yet to continue in 2012, with the Ravens only loss coming to the NFC East leader Philadelphia Eagles. Something else that's notable is that all four of the Ravens losses last season came on the road, so it has truly been a very rare thing for the Ravens to drop a home game they should win against an inferior opponent.
The Cleveland Browns did come very close two weeks ago, and the Houston Texans nearly pulled off an upset at M&T Bank in the 2011 playoffs. So despite the Ravens home-field dominance, they should be wary of playing down to a lesser team for what would now be the third week in a row.
The Cowboys are 2-2 so they fit the bill of being .500 or lower.
They're also enigmatic in that they often win games they should lose and lose games they should win. The Ravens have to assert their dominance and refuse to play down to the level of the Cowboys.
7. Wide Receivers Need to Stop Dropping so Many Balls
Part of the reason the Ravens passing game has been struggling is the number of dropped balls they've had. Last week, Ravens receivers accounted for five dropped passes and they were also unable to gain separation from defenders.
Some of the culprits have been usual sure-handed players like Anquan Boldin, who dropped several catchable passes against the Kansas City Chiefs. Ray Rice has also gotten in on the dropping and Jacoby Jones has unfortunately gotten back his dropper reputation that he earned during his Houston days.
Joe Flacco can't do it all and it's only going to be harder if his players keep dropping the ball.
Just focusing on fundamentals like getting open and completing the process of the catch should help Boldin and Jones to return to making catches and becoming reliable threats in the passing game.
8. Find a Way to Get Pitta and Dickson Involved
After starting the season as Joe Flacco's most targeted receiver, Dennis Pitta has now pulled off a disappearing act over the last two weeks. He had zero catches in Week 4. He wasn't much better in Week 5 as he only had three catches for 22 yards.
Former starter Ed Dickson has been even worse in 2012.
The Ravens originally planned to spread out the ball equally between both tight ends. However, it's now become clear that Pitta is far and away the starter. Dickson has six catches for 61 yards this year and he hasn't had more than two catches in any games.
The Ravens passing game is at it's best when multiple players are getting open and catching balls. Looking for Pitta across the middle and in the redzone would utilize his talents better than keeping him back to block. And even though he isn't starting anymore, Dickson is far too talented to have less than two receptions every game.
9. Tighten Up the Run Defense Against DeMarco Murray
DeMarco Murray has cooled off considerably in recent weeks since his huge game in Week 1. He only had 24 rushing yards on 11 attempts against the Chicago Bears, which has to be considered rock bottom for the talented second-year player.
The Ravens rush defense might actually provide an opportunity for a bounce-back game for Murray. Jamaal Charles had a huge game against them in Week 5 and Trent Richardson wasn't too bad in Week 4.
Thanks largely to the Chiefs game, the Ravens have dropped to 20th in rush defense with 118.4 rushing yards allowed a game. It's a steep fall for their proud run defense and hopefully it will stop at least temporarily this week. Stuff Murray on some early carries this week and the Cowboys could panic and abandon the running game too early.
10. Don't Make Too Many Mistakes Against the NFL's Top Pass Defense
Much has been made about Tony Romo's difficult task going against the Ravens tough pass defense. On the other side of the ball though, Joe Flacco has a tough job going against the Cowboys pass defense which is allowing a league-best 169.5 passing yards a game.
It's definitely a surprising stat given that the Cowboys have had two losses of more than 15 points this season. New acquisitions Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne have played a large role in turning that pass defense around, although both players struggled last week. This week they will facing off one-on-one against Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin, two receivers that can be challenging to cover.
Flacco will have his work cut out for him against this impressive unit.
He can do his part though by not making mistakes and keeping up his average of 291.2 passing yards a game. He also needs to minimize turnovers as he's already thrown four interceptions this year.