Saints Vs. Ravens: 5 Keys to a Baltimore Victory
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It was a long week in Baltimore following Monday night's second half collapse and against the Texans. Sports talk shows were flooded with disgruntled fans. Columnist in the local paper were writing the obituary for this season. This came following a 24-28 WIN. The 4-9 Ravens will take on the 10-3 defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints on Sunday in Baltimore.
Oh, wait a minute, the Ravens are 9-4 and most likely headed for a playoff berth. It didn't sound or read that way in the Charm City this week. Granted, the Ravens are a disappointing 9-4, if that’s possible, but expectations were higher for an offense that continues to struggle. Defensively, the Ravens were always a question mark in the secondary, and blowing eight fourth-quarter leads this season shows us that Ray Lewis while doing his best can no longer will this defense as he once could.
With that said, a victory against the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints on Sunday will make for a great Christmas week in Baltimore, and if the Ravens can get to 10-4, no matter how they get there, fans should feel a lot better about this team’s prospects in January.
The Ravens may have a little karma on their side, and while karma doesn't win football games, it can't hurt.
Longtime Ravens head coach and now Fox NFL analyst Brian Billick will be in the booth calling the game. This is the second time Billick has called a game for Fox involving the Ravens. Last season Billick was in the booth when the Ravens thumped the Chicago Bears 31-7.
The karma Billick brings is his record at M&T Bank Stadium in December. The Ravens were 16-8 at home in December with Billick and 24-14 overall in the month. Billick was 85-67 with one Super Bowl victory in his nine seasons with the Ravens.
By the way, that Bears game Billick called last season involving the Ravens, yeah, that was also in December.
Billick always took criticism from media because he ran soft training camps in August. Billick’s camps were informally known as "Camp Billick", run like a summer camp for kids. The Ravens record under Billick in December would indicate the Ravens were fresher and had better legs under them for the late-season run.
On the flip side, Harbaugh is known for tougher camps where pads are worn constantly in the western Maryland heat. The Ravens do not look very fresh right now and were clearly dragging last Monday night. The Ravens are 6-4 under Harbaugh in December.
Whatever karma or good luck Billick brings, the Ravens will need to execute these five keys if they are to move past Drew Brees and the Saints.
5. Ravens Must Be Able To Run the Football
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There's no other way to keep QBs like Payton Manning, Tom Brady and Sunday's opposing quarterback Drew Brees limited in their production, unless your offense can keep them on the bench. The Ravens running game has been a tremendous disappointment this season, and its lack of success in Monday night's game is ultimately what was responsible for the second-half collapse.
The Ravens continued to play the game of musical offensive lineman vs. Houston on Monday night. Oneil Cousins made his first start at right tackle while Chris Chester lined up at tight end. Before any flow can take place behind Flacco it must start up front. Michael Oher is playing well, but he continues to make costly false start penalties.
The new-look offensive line didn't help much Monday night. The Ravens rushed for just 63 yards on 24 attempts.
The Ravens, after having the fourth best rushing attack in the NFL in 2008 and fifth best in 2009, have dropped all the way to 21st this season. The Ravens are averaging 105 yards per game on the ground, compared to 137.5 in '09 and 148.5 in '08.
The Ravens ran the ball a league-high 592 times in Flacco's rookie season of '08, dropping down to 468 attempts last season, or 29 times per game. They are on pace to match that total from last season, but the yards are not there.
The Ravens rank in the bottom of the league in average yards per carry.
If nobody else is going to say it, I will. Ray Rice doesn't look like the same back this season. He is not displaying the cut-back ability from last season. I counted five times Monday Night when Rice ran into a pile instead of cutting back for extra yards. Rice took a beating last season, as he touched the ball a combined 332 times, something his 5'8", 212-pound frame may not be designed to withstand.
Rice's rushing yards per game are down this year. He averaged almost 85 rushing yards per game last season, compared to just 69 so far this season. Rice has shown last year’s ability at times, but nothing consistently.
His touches are down significantly this season, and while Rice will break the 1,000 rushing yard plateau this year, it will not be done with the same big-play ability he showed last season. Rice averaged almost 85 yards per game last year and looked amazing doing it at times.
The Ravens must get Le'Ron McClain involved more. Yes, McClain can have trouble holding onto the ball, but he did rush for 902 yards just two seasons ago.
If the Ravens are going to win this game it must be with a ball-control offense. Rice must get off of his blocks better, and McClain must be used more. The Ravens can run against the Saints. New Orleans is ranked 16th vs. the run.
A repeat rushing performance like the one from last Monday, 64 yards between Rice, McClain and McGahee on Sunday will mean the Ravens were beaten soundly at home. This trio of backs must keep Drew Brees on the sideline.
4. Joe Flacco Must Play Smart
Joe Flacco must play smart
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Joe Flacco must play smart, and I'm not just talking about protecting the football. Many fans and media alike want to crucify the Ravens offensive line and coordinator Cameron for not making adjustments on these safety blitzes in the last few games. These blitzes have caused Flacco to make mistakes at critical times in the game. I can still see No. 43 coming off of the edge in my sleep.
Guess what, the majority of these safeties coming off of the edge are Flacco's responsibility. Flacco is struggling with blitz recognition. Flacco, while improving his game, must get better at recognizing the blitz. Defenses will continue to bring their safties until he adjusts to them. If the defense is sending seven or eight to the quarterback, it's obvious that one of them will probably just get chipped by a running back or even go unblocked.
The Ravens do a good job of hiding deficiencies like Flacco's lack of blitz recognition. There is a lot of talent on this team, and talent can sometimes hide deficiencies.
Flacco must recognize this, site adjust and get rid of the football quickly. Cam Cameron must allow Flacco more time and needs to put him in the shotgun a little more on passing situations on long second and third-down plays.
If the Texans, one of the worst pass defenses in the league, were willing to constantly send a safety after Flacco, sacrificing their already shaky secondary, what do you think a blitz-happy defensive coordinator like the Saint's Greg Williams is going to do?
The Saints have the sixth ranked defense in the league, and with a run defense that ranks 16th, it's the Saints pass defense that pulls this ranking up. They are ranked fifth vs. the pass, and Greg Williams will send his defensive backfield after Flacco.
Williams-led defenses are notoriously aggressive. He was the defensive coordinator in Tennessee when the Titans went to the Super Bowl, and he was briefly the head coach in Buffalo.
The Saints defense will give up points and big plays. They have given up 25 or more points five times this season. They don't play as well on the road as they do at home, even though Cleveland beat them in the Dome earlier this season.
Saints free safety Malcolm Jenkins is hot. Jenkins has a pretty good mentor in Saints DB Darren Sharper, who will also be lining up against Flacco. Jenkins has two interceptions and a forced fumble in the last three weeks. If Flacco picks these blitzes up, the Ravens QB could have a big day. If he doesn't, then you don't have to look too far back to see what can happen.
3. Ravens Must Cover the Short Middle of the Field
Ravens Linebackers will have to cover better
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Greg Mattison, the Ravens defensive coordinator, said the loss of Tom Zbikowski last Monday altered the game plan vs. the Texans. What, Huh? Zbikowski is pure football player, but he was being used as the dime back in Monday night’s game. Mattison attributed Texans TE Owen Daniels' good performance, five catches for 91 yards, to the loss of Zbikowski.
Zbikowski remains out this week, so what are the Ravens going to do now? No disrespect intended towards Tom Zbikowski, but if a dime back is your defensive game plan, did you really have one to start with?
News flash Greg Mattison, this defense has not covered the tight end area of the field all season. Ray Lewis can no longer cover consistently, and Jameel McClain is lost when covering anybody. Teams short passing games get well against the Ravens, and while the Ravens can still cover the screen pass as good as any team in the league, they cannot cover the short middle of the field.
Monday night may not have even needed overtime if the Texans could have held onto the football. Owen Daniels had many drops, and Jacoby Jones seemed to match Daniels drop for drop, except on that two-point conversion to tie the game.
The Saints bring the threat of Reggie Bush, who's getting healthier, and TE Jeremy Shockey, who is still a viable pass-catching tight end to Baltimore. Both could pick up chunks of yardage through that short middle area. If that happens, Brees will exploit other areas of the Ravens secondary very quickly.
Ed Reed looked as though he played the worst game of his career on Monday night vs. Houston and he will need to be better on Sunday.
The Ravens linebackers will have to cover better if they are to get off of the field. Watching the Ravens defend this area of the field this season on 3rd-and-short, one gets the feeling a first down is automatic. That must end Sunday.
2. The Ravens Must Figure Out How To Pressure Drew Brees
Brees can be rattled, Cleveland forced four Brees INT's
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This will not be easy. Brees is quick and accurate with his throws. Considering the dilemmas the Ravens have with the lack of pass coverage in the short middle of the field, this could be the hardest task of all. With that said, it must be done.
Terrell Suggs must play lights out, and Jarrett Johnson must continue to improve on the pass rush. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison must not even consider rushing three at any time on Sunday.
Earlier this season the Arizona Cardinals—yes, the Cardinals—pressured Drew Brees into throwing three interceptions. The Cardinals would score three defensive touchdowns that day beating the Saints. One of Brees’s interceptions was returned for a touchdown.
Eric Mangini would also use an attacking style of defense when his Browns beat up on Drew Brees in the Superdome. Brees would throw four interceptions. Two were run back for touchdowns, and the Browns dismantled the Saints in New Orleans, 30-17.
The Ravens can pressure Brees. The question is, will they?
Brees has thrown 18 interceptions this season, tying his career high for a season. Brees can be rattled. Do you remember a one-armed DeMarcus Ware last season sacking Brees three times and propelling the Cowboys to victory in New Orleans, ending the Saints unbeaten season? That was also the 14th game of the season. If the Ravens can get to Brees consistently, they can make life hard for him, and a convincing win like the Browns and Cardinals had against him is not out of the question.
This also depends on Mattison, who went from calling his best game of the season vs. Pittsburgh two weeks ago to his worst on Monday night in Houston.
1. Coaching Staff Must Be Prepared To Call a Good Game
John Harbaugh, Cam Cameron and Greg Mattison must be ready to step up
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Sounds crazy to say, especially with the game being played on the field, but this coaching staff must do a better job of calling the game. They must not continue to handcuff their quarterback and wear down their defense unnecessarily.
Offensively, what else can be said? The Ravens do not start fast and certainly do not finish games. They have been outscored 105-74 in the fourth quarter this season.
Protecting the lead with less than five minutes to play has been a very serious issue. Cam Cameron must run the ball with a lead in the fourth quarter. No questions asked, it's plain arrogant not to, even if it does not bring the desired result. Running the ball kills the clock and forces teams to use timeouts.
If I told you the QB with the best passer rating and the better touchdown-to-interception ratio was lining up under center for the Ravens, would you be shocked? I am, but not for the reason you may think.
The fact that Flacco has been as effective as he has with the lack of a running game makes him and his 94.0 passer rating look more impressive. Cameron must stick with the run on Sunday, allow Flacco to play more out of the shotgun, use more play-action when throwing the ball and make better decisions late in the game.
The bend-but-don't-break defense the Ravens have been executing is starting to break. Establishing the run and allowing Ray Lewis and company to stay on the bench would be huge.
Blowing eight fourth-quarter leads is not a recipe for a Super Bowl team, it's a recipe for being one and done in January. Mattison must pressure Brees and take his chances in hopes that Josh Wilson and Lardarius Webb will make plays. Ed Reed was simply awfully last Monday, and Dwan Landry must also play better over the top. The Ravens would have been wise to watch the game film from when Cleveland beat the Saints.
The game plan executed by Cleveland was simple: pressure the QB and allow your corners to make plays. Even with a top 10 pick in the secondary Cleveland does not boast a better pass defense than Baltimore.
In asking the offense not to abandon the run, the defense must not stop going after Brees. Sitting back and rushing three late in the game has not worked and will not again on Sunday.
If the Saints convert a couple of third downs early in the game by completing short passes across the middle, Mattison and the Ravens must adjust. If he does not, it will be a long day.
The special teams were the best part of the Ravens on Monday night, and they must continue to play well. Sam Koch is punting the ball inside the 20-yard line as good as any punter in the league, and Billy Cundiff continues to deliver touchbacks on half of his kickoffs. Those are both valuable weapons, and backing the Saints up inside the 20 in Baltimore could pay off with a pick six. Brees has thrown quite a few this season, not to mention the same philosophy paid off on the road Monday night.
The Ravens are 1-3 under Harbaugh following Monday Night games, not a good sign. However their December good luck charm will be in the house announcing for Fox. I look for the Ravens to win a hard-fought, nail-biting affair. The defense holds, Cam runs the ball and the Ravens win 24-20