The Ravens are looking to rebound from a devastating loss last week to the Giants. Their playoff hopes are still alive, but the outcome of Sunday's game against the 5-4-1 Eagles could determine whether those playoff hopes remain realistic.
The Eagles, like the Ravens, have had many ups and downs this season. And of course, let's not forget where John Harbaugh established himself as a premier special teams coach.
Here are two key match-ups to keep an eye on as the Eagles come to town.
Eagles Offense vs. Ravens Defense: RB Brian Westbrook vs. Ravens Front Seven
It is not often the Ravens worry about an opponent's running game. Over the last 30 games, nearly two full seasons, the Ravens defense has yet to allow a 100-yard rusher. The pride this unit takes in its ability to stop the run is almost mythical at this point.
But last week things changed. The Ravens may not have allowed a 100-yard rusher against the Giants, but they almost allowed two. Giants starter Brandon Jacobs left the game at the half, having already totaled more than 70 yards. And in the second half, the Ravens gave up more than 90 yards to third-stringer Ahmad Bradshaw. And that does not include the 41 yards they allowed to Derrick Ward. The trio of New York running backs steamrolled the Ravens - almost literally at points, putting lineman and linebackers on the ground on every play.
That pounding is certainly changing the way we look at upcoming games.
This week, the unit faces one of the most versatile and established running backs in the game today: Brian Westbrook. Along side LaDainian Tomlinson and Reggie Bush, Westbrook is one of only three running backs that can really claim to be a threat to the defense. He can run and catch the ball, can run between the tackles, around the tackles, and past any linebacker you put in front of him.
This is another daunting task for the Ravens defense. And most weeks it would be easy to say that the Ravens would shut a player like Westbrook down. They excel at stopping all kinds of backs - even the most versatile of them.
But again, this is not just any week for the Ravens. This is the week after they got handled by the best team in the league. Maybe the revenge theme will play to the Ravens advantage, but maybe not. This team is beat up.
Luckily, for the Ravens, Westbrook is pretty beat up as well. Nagging injuries have kept Westbrook out of two games and limited in most of his others. He is going to play on Sunday, but he has already missed practices this week to make sure he is ready to go.
Even in limited time, however, Westbrook has raked up more than 700 yards from scrimmage, averaging 4.1 yard per rush and 6.8 per reception. And he has found the endzone eight times already.
The first thing the Ravens need to do on Sunday is shut down Brian Westbrook. They need to reassert their dominance in the running game. They need to be so physical, so overpowering, that there is no doubt who is going to win the battle on the ground. If they do it well enough, Westbrook might just be pulled off the field early (it has happened before this season for the Eagles).
The importance of shutting down the run game early cannot be understated. Not only will it give life to this defense, but it will certainly define the rest of the match-up between the Eagles offense and Ravens defense. Without the threat of Westbrook's wild ways, the Ravens will be able to put more pressure on Donovan McNabb (who is now as much of a pocket passer as Peyton Manning) and drop more men into coverage against the Eagles receivers.
What else is new? Putting pressure on the running game forces an opponent to throw the ball. Who knew, right? Well, the Eagles passing game might not be bad (McNabb is fourth in the league with 2700 yards passing), but it is not amazing. And without having to worry about star running backs, the Eagles passing game is more than manageable.
Ravens Offense vs. Eagles Defense: Ravens OL vs. Eagles DL
In a sentence: This one might get ugly.
The Ravens offensive line, young as it may be, has done a fantastic job so far this year. The Ravens running game has been impressive - succeeding with any combination of Le'Ron McClain, Ray Rice and Willis McGahee getting the carries. And in the passing game, Joe Flacco has been sacked just 18 times this year, and just six times in his last four games.
Last week, the Ravens faced one of the league's top defensive fronts. The Giants were top-five - not only in rush defense, but also in pressuring opponents quarterbacks. While the Ravens failed to establish their running game, they did a fine job of keeping pressure off Joe Flacco more times than not. In fact, the Giants, now fourth in the league in sacks, managed just one on Flacco.
If the Giants pass rush looked scary, the Eagles are going to be downright terrifying. The Eagles are tied for the league-lead with the Pittsburgh Steelers with 36 sacks. And a trio of Eagles defensive lineman (Darren Howard, Trent Cole and Jugua Parker) have nearly as many sacks (19) as the entire Ravens defense (20).
Those numbers will not make any offense feel good. But, the Ravens have to be especially worried.
The Ravens offensive line came into the season labeled young, inexperienced, and downright weak. They enter Sunday having changed most of that perception, but injuries to multiple starters are creating questions again.
Tackles Willie Anderson and Adam Terry have taken turns on the right side of the line, both showing up on the injury report multiple times this season. Similarly, guard Marshal Yanda has struggled with leg issues. Now, it appears that starting left tackle Jared Gaither will be unavailable on Sunday. That leaves only two of the Ravens offensive lineman uninjured so far this year: center Jason Brown and guard Ben Grubbs.
The starting line we see Sunday is likely to be a mix-mash of new signees and back-ups. But do not expect the Eagles to feel bad for the Ravens and let up. They feast defensively on weak lines and hurried quarterbacks.
To avoid disaster, the Ravens are going to have to establish their running game early and keep the Eagles defense on their heels on passing plays. Obvious passing downs are going to mean big trouble for Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense.
The Eagles rush defense is not weak (they rank in the league's top ten), but they still allow nearly 100 yards per game on the ground. That is the Ravens best hope and has to their first line of attack. Use the Eagles own game-plan against them: run straight past the rushing lineman, and use quick screens and flats to avoid the pass rush.
Bottom line: If the Ravens let the Eagles pass rush become a factor, there is little hope. If they can succeed on the ground and limit the slow the Eagles pass rush before it gets started, the Ravens will find themselves not only on top of the scoreboard, but also owning the game clock.
[Bonus observation that just did not fit anywhere else: the Ravens line has struggled with penalties this year. New faces and new names do not bode well for stopping false starts, but finally coming home does. Joe Flacco has to help his line and keep them organized. The Ravens cannot afford to be set back by false starts and illegal line formations.]
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