I attended the now infamous Ravens-Cowboys game. In addition to almost losing my lunch over the last 60-seconds of the contest, I was anxious to get an update on the injuries to Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb. Within the next few hours I received the unwelcome news that both injuries were serious and both would likely be sidelined for the remainder of the year. Those diagnoses have been validated for the most part, and some even question whether Ray will ever play the game again.
Let me be the first to say that I sincerely hope I did not watch Ray Lewis compete for the last time last weekend at M&T Bank Stadium against the Cowboys. The blogosphere, twittersphere, and every-other-sphere are awash with theories on the future of Lewis’ football career. I’ve read everything from “he’ll be back in two-weeks” to “he’ll come back as a Ravens coach” to “he’ll retire and sell cars in Miami”. (OK, I made that last one up, but you get the idea of how much speculation exists on the subject.)
The only thing we know for sure is that the Ravens placed Lewis on the injured reserve list and have the ability to bring him back this year if conditions warrant. I don’t want to add more speculation to the seriousness of Lewis’ injury, but I like this call from the Ravens’ front office. It keeps the door open for a possible return and keeps Lewis on the Ravens sideline where he can still contribute as a leader and mentor.
Don’t get me wrong. Lewis’ injury will directly impact the Ravens for the duration of his absence, but his true contributions extend far beyond the 100×40-yard patch of turf known as the gridiron. Additionally the Ravens’ mentality of “next man up” has built a solid bench of linebackers who, under the tutelage of the master himself, can fill the, hopefully temporary, breach.
Webb’s injury at cornerback, however, is a different problem altogether. Losing his pro-bowl caliber talents will have an immediate impact on the defense. While Cary Williams has improved significantly since the season’s beginning, it remains to be seen whether or not Jimmy Smith is ready for the starting job. Both players have demonstrated moments of brilliance, but we will soon find out if they are ready for the full 60-minute test. On a positive note, the CB corps is still supported by Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard.
So, with these high-profile injuries, how do the Ravens still have a chance against the Texans? One word: tenacity. That’s right, you can say what you want about the lackluster outings the Ravens put together over the last four games, but in the end, they fought hard enough for long enough to win. Previous Ravens squads I’ve watched have not always done this. And for all the ballyhoo about the number of rushing yards the defense has allowed, the defense has for the most part successfully employed the “bend but don’t break” philosophy. For evidence, just look at the opponents’ points per game where the Ravens still rank 11th in the league.
The Ravens must first demonstrate this tenacity on the offensive line. While the Texans are nursing their own injury problems with the loss of Brian Cushing, J.J. Watt will be the Ravens’ chief concern. If the line can keep him hemmed up and out of the backfield, the balanced attack the Ravens have long sought can be brought to bear. I liked how the Packers attacked this problem. They started by repeatedly running, relatively effectively, right at him. This, coupled with an up-tempo, no-huddle game plan held Watt’s defensive production to his season average (5 tackles, 1 assist and 2 sacks) while allowing the Pack to put 99 rushing yards and 328 passing yards on the board.
If the Ravens can effectively control the line of scrimmage, they have the personnel to put up similar – if not better – numbers. Flacco, for instance, is averaging more yards per game and per attempt (282 and 8.1) than Aaron Rodgers (273 and 7.3). Ray Rice is also in the top-10 RB list with over 80 yards per game on the ground with another 38 per game in receiving. Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith have posted better numbers this year (72-yards per game and 66-yards per game with 5 TDs between them) than Houston’s leader receiver Andre Johnson (60-yards per game and 2 TDs). And, last but not least, we have the Pitta/Dickson combo and Vonta Leach.
On the defensive side of the ball we will definitely have our hands full. In addition to the injuries noted above, the Texans offense can be formidable. Currently ranked 5th in the league for points per game at 28.8 (the Ravens are 9th with 26.8), Arian Foster leads a monster rushing attack that the Ravens absolutely must blunt. As proven by the Packers, however, this is not an impossible feat. If the Ravens’ defense can summon some élan for Lewis and Webb, penetrate, and execute sound tackling fundamentals they can accomplish the same task and put the game on the arm of Matt Schaub.
Schaub’s numbers are nothing to scoff at. He’s currently throwing for 232-yards per game and has a TD/INT stat line identical to Flacco’s. On a positive note for the Ravens’ banged up secondary, Schaub’s choice of targets is relatively limited. While Johnson is certainly still capable of making the big play and the TE Owen Daniels is on his way to a Pro-Bowl year, the fact that the Texans focus most of their air efforts on the two should offer the Ravens DBs some ability to concentrate their coverage. Key, however, will be the Ravens’ ability to generate pressure. I’ve heard the rumors that T-Sizzle may make the Texans game his season opener, but Kruger, McPhee, Upshaw and company better come prepared to put the pressure on Schaub.
I’m well aware that statistics are a lagging indicator and do not guarantee future performance, but my point is that the Ravens are not outclassed by the Texans as many sportswriters would have you believe. The Ravens can, and in my view, will win this football game on Sunday. Therefore, my first pick of the week – and also the upset of the week – is Baltimore over Houston in a high scoring close one. Ravens 38, Texans 34.
Here are my predictions for the rest of the AFC North. Last week I was 2 for 4 (I missed the Cincy and Pittsburgh losses, but I’ll take that kind of failure…). For the season, I am 14 for 18 (.778).
Cleveland at Indianapolis (Sun, 1:00pm EDT, CBS)
What Vegas says: Indy by 2.
What I think: Even though the Browns made the win column last week against the Bengals, I’m not convinced that they can walk into Indy and walk out with the “W”.
Colts win 24 – 17.
Pittsburg at Cincinnati (Sun, 8:20pm EDT, NBC)
What Vegas says: Pittsburgh by 1.
What I think: On paper the Steelers’ record and their injury situation make this a close one. In the real world Big Ben and the Steelers make a statement after their loss to the Titans.
Steelers win 31 – 20.