It is hard to judge the Ravens defense based on their performance against the Dolphins last weekend. Regardless of what the statistics say about the Dolphins offense, they have not performed well against anything resembling a quality defense. For me, the best comparison with the Dolphins is with the NY Jets teams of Chad Pennington, with short, conservative passing and running behind bruising backs. Nothing you are terrified of, but just efficient enough to score 20 a game. The difference is that Chad Henne is capable of throwing it deep, and they have actual playmakers in the receiving game. Unfortunately Henne hasn’t played aggressively enough to use his big arm and turnovers have doomed an offense that is ranked in the middle of the league in yardage to be 28th in scoring. The Falcons will be an entirely different story, and on such a short week, things will not be as rosy for the Ravens defense. Why? More after the jump…
In a football game, the defense takes a much larger physical toll than the offense does, particularly the defensive line. Against a team that has a great deal of power and speed at the running back position, this could be a tough matchup for a Ravens team that has not been stellar against the run. Against Miami the run defense was solid, but they had the luxury of playing against a quarterback who was hardly a threat that day. The Falcons have a fantastically balanced attack, ranking 6th in the league in rushing despite early-season health and conditioning concerns regarding Michael Turner. Turner will be more of a threat than any running back the Ravens have faced this season, as Baltimore has not played a team that possesses a home run threat like Turner combined with a quarterback like Ryan who is capable of making you pay for keeping 8 men in the box. Jason Snelling is also a capable runner, so keying in on Turner may be out of the question.
The running game may very well come down to conditioning, and in Baltimore returning to form along the defensive line. Haloti Ngata is playing out of his mind this season, but the rush defense is an appalling 13th in the NFL. Ordinarily that isn’t appalling, but lets take a history lesson. Currently the Ravens are allowing 4.2 yards per carry. If that rate continues for the rest of the season, it will be the most yard per carry allowed by a Ravens team… ever. The next worst was 4.1 yards per carry, in 1999. We are waiting for things to start coming around, but halfway through the season it has to be a concern. With just three days off to recover and gear up for the Atlanta offense, the front seven could be gashed several times Thursday night in a very un-Raven-like performance.
Matt Ryan is having a career year, aided in no small part to the presence of the aforementioned Turner and future hall of famer Tony Gonzalez. The idea of having one of Baltimore’s linebackers try to cover Gonzalez is terrifying, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they slide different defenders over to cover Gonzalez one on one just to give Ryan a different look. Roddy White has also developed into a Pro Bowl receiver, but is nursing a knee injury and could be slowed, though I am almost certain they will find a way to get him on the field.
The good news for the Ravens is the emergence of Josh Wilson, who I believe was given the starting nod for this week less due to any poor play on Fabian Washington’s part but because he has excelled as a nickelback. Frankly, Wilson is a starting cornerback who the Ravens were able to acquire for next to nothing. I worry a bit about Washington moving to nickelback, where it could require him to make more open field tackles, as we know that isn’t exactly his strong suit. However, the pass defense has played admirably all season long, bolstered by the return of Ed Reed.
Anyone who wondered whether Reed would be at full strength when he came off the Physically Unable to Perform list was wasting their energy, as Reed has re-taken his spot as the best ball-hawking safety in the NFL. In just two weeks of action, Reed has already taken over the team lead in interceptions with 3, and he will have to come up big for the Ravens to contain Ryan for all 60 minutes.
My overall analysis? The Falcons will frustrate Ravens fans with some long, run heavy drives and convert in short yardage situations, but the secondary will force underneath throws and limit big plays by Matt Ryan. The lack of rest could help Atlanta have success on the ground, and I see them scoring somewhere around 26 points, with a lot of field goals.