Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

Ravens (6-2) @ Falcons (6-2)

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Just four days after dispatching of “the other” other quarterback taken in the first two rounds of the 2008 Draft, Chad Henne (to the point that he was benched), Joe Flacco has the chance to take on the guy with which his fortunes will be forever linked and compared, fellow 2008 first round draft pick Matt Ryan.

While Ryan is in no danger of suffering a Henne-like benching no matter how bad the Ravens may (hopefully) make him look Thursday night, it would no doubt mean a lot to Joe to take a 1-0 series lead over the Atlanta franchise savior.

Like Flacco, Ryan has started since day one, making those formerly sad-sack Falcons fans forget all about Mike Vick and his endless string of “Bad Newz.” Those old stories about the Ravens wanting Ryan, and nearly trading up to take him, in the 2008 draft have resurfaced again this week. Regardless of how much truth there is in these “war room legends,” the fact remains that both Baltimore and Atlanta are extremely satisfied with their young signal callers.

The two have nearly identical stats through their first two-plus years in the league…eerily similar, some would say:

Flacco: 8501 yards, 47 TD, 30 INT, 85.8 QB Rating, 26-14 Regular Season, 3-2 Playoffs
Ryan: 8305, 51, 30, 85.7, 26-12, 0-1

Ridiculously similar production, both in stats and in wins. The two also both became the first rookie quarterbacks to start all 16 games for their teams during a season in which they qualified for the post-season.

Enough history, though.

While “Flacco vs. Ryan” is the main event headliner that the NFL is using to drum up interest in this game, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that the guys who are truly going to decide the outcome of this match up are the guys on the undercard. Namely….

Ray Rice/Willis McGahee vs. Michael Turner/Jason Snelling

While both quarterbacks are taking greater control of their respective offenses here in their third years, the ground games are still the straws that stir the drink in both B’More and Hotlanta.

For the Ravens, Ray Rice and Willis McGahee have combined for 1121 yards from scrimmage (837 rushing, 284 receiving) and seven touchdowns (6 rushing, 1 receiving.) Throw in Le’Ron “Spit Train” McClain and you can tack on another 146 total yards.

For the Falcons, Michael Turner and Jason Snelling have put up 1172 yards from scrimmage (974 rushing, 198 receiving) and eight touchdowns (7 rushing, 1 receiving.)

That’s some impressive productions out of the backfields for both squads.

While the Ravens inched back into the upper half of the NFL in run defense on the heels of holding the Miami Dolphins to just 73 yards, we’re not quite convinced that they’ve gotten things totally straightened out. Perhaps the Dolphins’ opening drive, during which Ronnie Brown completely gashed the Ravens’ defense, was really just a result of them knocking the rust off after the bye week, but there’s no way to really know, since Miami inexplicably had abandoned the running game by the second quarter.

Turner stands 5’10″ and weighs in at 244 lbs. Think Peyton Hillis of the Browns…but faster. I’ll wait while you go get a drink…

Back with me? Alright then.

Coming out of the bye, the Ravens paid lip service to the fact that they addressed their run gap coverage and tackling issues during the extra week. Then they came out and were immediately dressed in a clown suit by Ronnie Brown. They’ll have to prove that they really did patch up those gaping holes in the ground game on Thursday, because the Falcons won’t be nearly as quick to stop feeding Turner the rock as Miami was with Brown.

Not that things get any easier once Turner is slowed down. The Falcons have one of the best wide receivers in the NFL in Roddy White. Even though he was banged up last week against Tampa and missed practice this week, White is expected to play. White at even 70 or 80% is a formidable challenge for this Ravens secondary. Josh Wilson is expected to start in place of Fabian Washington, who has found his way to the bench in each of the last two games. Wilson played strongly against Buffalo and Miami. Lardarius Webb has been uneven so far in 2010, getting beat for a long pass along the sideline by Brian Hartline last week.

The Falcons also have All-World tight end Tony Gonzalez. Although he’s getting a bit long in the tooth, Gonzalez is still a big part of what the Falcons do offensively, especially if White isn’t playing at full strength. The hope here is that Ryan is unprepared for the master ballhawk that is Ed Reed, and that Reed is able to bait him into a bad throw or two.

Just in case I have to completely spell it out for you after all that – I’m not at all convinced that the Ravens can stifle the Atlanta attack. I think holding them in the lower 20s for the game should be considered a minor victory. Now, whether or not that minor victory can translate into a true victory in the standings will rest on the shoulders of the offense.

We’ve heard since summer that this was supposed to be the year that the Ravens’ offense can step up and bail the defense out. Thursday night in Atlanta should be a prime opportunity for the O to put up or shut up.

The Falcons defense is tough to figure out. They’re small and fast on the defensive line and in the linebacking corps, leading Sun columnist Mike Preston to predict that the Ravens will have no problem pushing them around and controlling the ball, clock, and game. However, as fellow Sun writer Jamison Hensley points out, the Falcons have gone from the 26th ranked defense against the run to the 6th over their past six games. Unlike the Ravens, who so far just SAY they’ve figured out this run defense thing, with the Falcons, the numbers back up that claim.

The secondary is equally schizophrenic. They are ranked 26th, giving up over 250 yards per game. Despite that, they are tied for 3rd in the NFL with 13 interceptions. Flacco hasn’t thrown a pick in 129 passes, the longest streak of his career; however, those who watched the Bills and Dolphins games know that there were certainly a few during those 129 that could have easily been picked off. The Falcons don’t drop interceptions, so Flacco will have to earn it if he wishes that streak to continue.

This was a game that, at the start of the season, many Ravens fans had circled as a loss.  Nothing that either team has done through the first eight games can justifiably alter that prediction.  A short week, going on the road, playing against a fellow Super Bowl hopeful, with a quarterback who is 17-1 all-time in his home stadium, in an environment (dome) where they are historically dismal (2-9 all time).  If the Ravens are to win this game, they’ll have to overcome a lot of things that aren’t working in their favor.

Which will make it all the sweeter when they do.

Ravens 27 Falcons 24

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