Despite appearances, Tampa Bay has earned its 7-3 record. Their losses to Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and New Orleans are not much worse from a resume standpoint than Baltimore’s losses to Cincinnati (remind me again how that happened?), New England, and the same Atlanta team. In fact, the Atlanta games are quite similar, as both times the game was decided in the waning seconds, and by remarkably close 27-21 and 26-21 scores. However, like any team that sports the 23rd ranked total offense and 22nd ranked passing offense, they can be had. How can the Ravens exploit this young team? Will they?
Early in the season, Tampa won games on the arm of Josh Freeman to rookie receiver Mike Williams and a whole lot of nothing from Cadillac Williams running the football. As the season has wore on however, LeGarrette Blount has emerged as the primarily ball-carrier for this team, a straight-ahead power runner who has little flash but is very effective… unless you count goal-line stands. Four times the Bucs tried to pound it in from the one yard line against the Falcons to win it, and four times they were rejected. However, aside from that shortcoming, Blount has become the go-to back and will be one the Ravens have to account for. His pass blocking and receiving are still works in progress, so when he is in the game the Ravens more or less know what they are going to get. His legs have given Tampa the 12th ranked rush offense in the NFL, despite spending their first few weeks desperate for some kind of rushing threat.
Once again the challenge will be keeping a bruising back from pushing around the Ravens front seven. Despite being able to key in on Mike Goodson and daring Brian St. Pierre to throw the ball, Goodson racked up a gaudy 120 yards on the ground. Somehow, the Ravens still sport the 9th ranked rush defense. The priority here will be to load up in the box and somehow keep Blount from breaking to the secondary. What Blount does he does very well, but there will be little misdirection in his runs. If the Ravens keep their assignments and win their blocks, they will contain Blount. However, I don’t expect that to happen on a consistent basis. Blount goes for 80 yards, Cadillac Williams adds another 40, and Tampa gets a touchdown on the ground.
Don’t let that 22nd ranked pass offense fool you, Josh Freeman has weapons and has matured by leaps and bounds in his second year in the league. Freeman has just 5 interceptions to 14 touchdowns on the season, a far cry from his 10/18 TD/INT ratio of his rookie season. Mike Williams is an exceptional physical specimen, a player out of Syracuse who dropped due to character concerns (he was said to have quit the Syracuse team last season) but has fulfilled all hopes as to production. His 43 catches for 681 yards and 6 TD are all team highs. Oft-overlooked however, is the impact of Kellen Winslow Jr., acquired in 2009 for a second and fifth round pick from Cleveland, has retained his promise as a dynamic receiving threat, and has managed to stay out of the headlines for the boneheaded statements and actions that made keeping him so unappealing for the Browns.
After those two however, the cupboard gets rather bare for the Buccaneers. They are getting small contributions for rookie Arrelious Benn, who may be a deep threat in the future, and cast-offs Michael Spurlock and Sammie Stroughter, but all in all it is an underwhelming group. In this case, Baltimore would be wise to focus on bracketing Williams and playing close coverage on Winslow and forcing the other receivers to try to beat the Ravens’ cornerbacks one on one.
The Tampa Bay offense is a classic case of a young team with a lot of talent but not a lot of depth. Their offensive line is a patchwork group, and behind their top playmakers there is a lot of also-rans and future UFL players. They can be explosive, but they won’t blow out anyone. However, I don’t expect the Ravens to be able to shut down their bread-and-butter of LeGarrette Blount up the middle, unfortunately. Tampa will come into this game overlooked and underrated, and they will put up a few long drives. I’m predicting 20 points out of this outfit, with a TD from the running backs and another to Mike Williams when the Ravens choose to play cover two and Ed Reed goes roving instead of sticking to his assignment.