- They each finished 11-5 last season, both making the playoffs just a year after having a losing record. For that matter, these clubs' win totals have basically been on a yo-yo in recent years.
- Both start a sophomore quarterback who plays beyond his years. Each is predicted by many to "hit the wall" in 2009.
- Both mark 2009 as the second season of their head coach's reign.
Then again, there are some key differences:
- The Falcons are all about scoring and are hoping their defense steps up this year, whereas the Ravens have a dominant D and pray their offense holds steady at last year's surprising level.
- The Falcons attack with one running back—he goes by the name of Michael Turner—while the Ravens have the three-headed monster of Willis McGahee, Ray Rice, and Le'Ron McClain.
And most importantly:
- The Falcons' bird is black. The Ravens'? Purple.
You know I like to start these preseason game previews off silly. First-stringers are going to be resting in this Week Four, but then again, one team is fighting for a winning record in exhibition, and the other for a perfect preseason mark.
Perhaps their battle will more resemble a late-season skirmish between two teams desperate for playoff spots in tight races?
Probably a little much to hope for. Anyway, to the meat:
Baltimore Rush Offense v. Atlanta Rush Defense
The Ravens' ground game has yet to be called upon this preseason, and the Falcons' ground defense has yet to be tested. There's not a whole lot of reason for either club to blow the dust off their unit, but just in case it happens...
Baltimore finished fourth in the NFL in rushing last year, and they look to be just as good again. Actually, Rice and McClain can only be better for having another year under their belts, especially the dynamic former Mountaineer; thing is, he doesn't need to be risked even at the level of 10 carries (his current preseason high).
Instead, we'll probably see some more Matt Lawrence and Jalen Parmele, who, in limited opportunities, have actually looked quite good. Both are mid-size guys who could puzzle the unprepared.
And so we come to it: Will the Dirty Birds take them and this contest seriously enough to figure it out? The runstoppers looked a lot better last week, even Peria Jerry, who I probably expect far too much from at this point. But Preseason Week Four is for the second- and third-stringers moreso than any other exhibition game, so I expect more Lawrence Sidbury, Thomas Johnson, and (pending cuts) Vance Walker.
In short: If the Ravens choose to go the ground route, they could trounce us. But they haven't yet, and little indicates they will, so we'll probably just counter with some more experimentation and youth.
Atlanta Rush Offense v. Baltimore Rush Defense
Once again, I have questions about just who will be utilized here, but it's a definite that the Falcons will not rely on the pass game quite as much as the Ravens have in their three contests.
This much is clear: Michael Turner will have his way in the first quarter, then he'll sit, and I'll be able to breathe again and not fear some freak injury. Jerious Norwood is questionable after a tweak on Saturday, so after the Burner might come a hefty dose of Jason Snelling and Thomas Brown. I like seeing these guys play, but if either is facing a first-team D, we might just have to go to Matt Ryan's arm full-time.
The line is not the strength of the Ravens' defense (I think you know what position I'll reserve that designation for), but it sure ain't bad. Haloti Ngata looked good last year and has clearly improved over the summer, and Paul Kruger and Justin Bannan have both impressed upon rotating in. They're going to make for some excellent backups.
And then there's those 'backers, who are going to get mentioned in another section of this article because of their all-around skill, but must get a nod here if only for the way Terrell Suggs and Tavares Gooden play the run. I'm sure you've also noticed what Jameel McClain has done, especially in that Jets game, though he's mainly seen as a pass rusher.
Baltimore Pass Offense v. Atlanta Pass Defense
Here we have a matchup of the predicted-to-be-feeble yet apparently strong Ravens air game versus the predicted-to-be-feeble and apparently inept Falcons secondary. I already wrote on what I think is wrong and what should be done (see Sunday's column), so I won't go into it here, suffice it to say this is the perfect game to tool around some with the lineup.
The Falcons can't bank on the backups being worse than the starters in this area, because it's been all backups so far for Baltimore. Sure, Derrick Mason's had solid games and Ray Rice isn't exactly a "surprise" target, but the somewhat sudden emergence of Kelley Washington, Justin Harper, and Demetrius Williams give us a whole bunch of things to think about. And worse yet, all three fit the mold of "tall, long wideout" that has been giving our compact corners so much trouble.
Like I said Sunday, I say we counter with the experienced guys, but I'm also starting to side more and more with the camp who believes we need to pull in a veteran CB (word to B/R member Demondre Wiley). Brent Grimes and Chris Owens have the talent, they just need to be taught how to compensate for their size.
Joe Flacco's been a boomer of a signalcaller (though I do question how much he's been playing), and Troy Smith has been suitable. The real trouble is how hard they've been to get to, as evidenced by the Redskins and Panthers combining for 2 sacks on them. The Jets somehow broke the trend, but I'm not sure Atlanta playing John Abraham at lower than capacity is going to put much pressure on an underrated Ravens line.
Last week we had the pleasant surprise of Grimes' out-of-the-defensive-backfield sack, and something similar could happen here. Once again, I'm going to pray William Moore gets a chance to work his way in.
Atlanta Pass Offense v. Baltimore Pass Defense
This would be the critical one, but not because either side is a wild card. We largely know what to expect from both: Matty will hit a variety of targets and Chris Redman will make the rest of the second-team offense around him better, while the Ravens will throw vicious hitter after vicious hitter at our passcatchers.
Baltimore is not great in coverage, but their lack of a lockdown corner is a big source of undeserved criticism. Very good play has come from the men behind starters Domonique Foxworth and Fabian Washington: Lardarius Webb had an eight-tackle game against Carolina, and Chris Carr, Frank Walker, Evan Oglesby, and Derrick Martin have all shown up here and there. Come to think of it, they look kind of like our secondary (lots of able bodies), except they've been successful.
Of course, the safeties are where it's at for these guys, as besides Ed Reed there's Dawan Landry and...Tom Zbikowski, denizen of the preseason, executor of exhibition? How had I not heard of this guy before?
For the millionth time, ain't nobody gonna stop Tony Gonzalez, but if our previous tilts are any indication, we're not going to abuse that privilege. Therefore, I'm going to look to Brian Finneran (who had a sweet red zone catch last week, in case you missed it) and my old standby, Eric Weems, to use their size (Finn) and speed (Weems) to create problems.
In terms of countering the rush, well, I'm not terribly optimistic with the Ravens having registered six already without really trying and Suggs, McClain, and Jarret Johnson being who they are. What we need here is some two-tight end sets to provide big, extra blockers for guys coming off the edge.
Hello again, Gonzo, and welcome back to the party, Justin Peelle.
Prediction: Falcons 27, Ravens 21
"What?!" you're asking yourself. I did, after all, just spend a couple pages being pessimistic only to predict a Dirty Bird W.
One more time: This is preseason football, and what's more, this is Week Four of exhibition. Because Baltimore isn't a particularly deep team, I have a feeling we're going to see starters playing at less than full speed (so as to prevent injuries) even more than we're going to see substitutions.
Thirty minutes of half of Ray Lewis is not facing the real Ravens D (which, now that I think about it, is more what I analyzed). And if Redman plays like that dude from last week, there's nothing even Ray could do about it.
Prepare for garbage time, to be followed by games that matter!