The Ravens are on a roll as they head into New York for an important game against the Giants. The Ravens have won their last four games, including three on the road, as they face the team with the NFC's best record.
For the Giants, the game could all but secure their playoff spot in the NFC East. For the Ravens, the game will determine whether their playoff hopes deserve to stay alive.
Both teams bring strong defenses and young quarterbacks into the game. Here are two key matchups that may just decide the outcome on Sunday.
Giants Offense vs. Ravens Defense: QB Eli Manning vs. Ravens LBs
Quarterbacks against linebackers sounds like an odd matchup. It is. But read on to find out why this matchup might just be so important to the Ravens' defensive effort against the Giants.
Entering this week, the Giants have the league's best rushing attack. They average 169 yards per game on the ground, 10 more per game than the second-ranked Atlanta Falcons.
They use Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward to bulldoze over their opponents. And the constant threat of the run is what gives Eli Manning and his receiving crew room to work.
Luckily for the Ravens, they bring in the games best rushing defense, allowing just 64 yards per game on the ground. But the unstoppable force against the immovable object cliché is not the story in this game. In fact, I think the Ravens will be able to lock-up Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward pretty handily.
The story is what happens after the Ravens defense closes up on the Giants rushing attack? How do the Giants respond? And how do the Ravens react to that response?
Let's start with this: The Giants will respond by going to the air. But They are not a pass-happy team, and they don't want to be (Eli has not reached 200 yards passing in his last five games). But if they have to start throwing the ball, they will.
And then? Well, unfortunately for the Ravens, the "and then" is that their defensive backs will find themselves facing one of the best trios of receivers in the leagues: Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer, and Steve Smith. Three guys that know how to run, know how to catch, and know how to run after they catch.
Trust me, the Ravens won't be blessed by any Braylon Edwards moments with this trio.
So, when the Ravens realize they can't stop the Giants' receiving corps (hopefully they have already realized that), they will find they are left with just one option: stop Eli Manning.
The Giants still treat Manning like a bit of a baby in quarterback world. He is protected by their running game, a strong offensive line, spread formations, good receivers, and (most importantly) a scheme that focuses on play-action passes. The threat of the run is what gives Eli room to work in the passing game.
And so it will come down to the Ravens' linebackers, not the defensive line nor the backs, to rein in Eli Manning. Ray Lewis and Co. are fully capable of out-smarting Eli Manning (maybe not Peyton, though), and they will have to.
Here's your gameplan, Ravens: Let the defensive line contain the run. It can. It will. Put your backs in coverage and leave them there. And tell your linebackers to control Eli Manning.
Put Ray Lewis and Jarrett Johnson in his passing lanes all day. Send Terrell Suggs, Bart Scott and Antwaan Barnes to blitz, blitz and blitz again. And most importantly, on every single down: Ignore the play-action.
Ravens Offense vs. Giants Defense: Coordinator Cam Cameron vs. Giants LBs
Linebackers are featuring pretty prominently in the matchups this week.
The Giants defense is stout, through and through. That's why they rank third in the league in overall defense, directly behind your Baltimore Ravens. They are strong against the run. They are strong against the pass. They are just plain strong.
Go look through their game logs this year. You'll see. You won't find one opponent with an outstanding offensive performance to build on. In fact, the Giants' only loss (to the Cleveland Browns five weeks ago) was more due to a great offensive failure than any defensive problems.
If you had to pick a weakness in the unit, though, it would be at linebacker. Again, this is not to say the Giants' linebackers are weak, simply that they are the weakest part of the unit.
The unit features two respected veterans in Antonio Pierce and Danny Clark. Both are good at stepping up, filling gaps and making tackles, but they are not game-changers. In their 17 years combined in the league, Pierce and Clark have just 13 sacks and nine interceptions.
The third member of the Giants LB crew has been in-flux ever since Gerris Wilkinson injured his ankle four weeks ago. Original replacement Bryan Kehl, a rookie from Brigham Young, has since been spelled by veteran Chase Blackburn. Neither option is particularly heart-stopping, if you ask Giants fans.
For the Ravens to have success on Sunday, they are going to have exploit the Giants shortcomings at linebacker. There may be no way to stop their defensive line from punishing our front five, and there may be no way to teach our receivers to beat their secondary.
But we can get past their linebackers.
Cam Cameron has excelled this season in finding and exploiting weaknesses in opposing defenses. His playbook is a wonderful mix of simple, hard-nosed football and head-spinning misdirection.
Like with Manning, Cameron protects his young quarterback with a multitude of play-fakes. But Cameron has also been a master at using deception to create plays for all of his weapons.
In the last few weeks we have seen not only the emergence of the passing game behind Joe Flacco, but also Troy Smith, Mark Clayton, Yamon Figurs, and Todd Heap.
In order to be successful on Sunday, the Ravens will have to continue to use all their weapons. In the running game, Cameron will have to find ways to draw the Giants linebackers out of position, opening up gaps and the outside run.
In the passing game, the Ravens need to work over the middle and continue to use TE Todd Heap to draw the linebackers out of position.
In simplest terms: Todd Heap, Willis McGahee, Ray Rice, Le'Ron McClain. They can all beat the Giants' linebackers. But the trick is for Cam Cameron to get them around the defensive line to really exploit that matchup.
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