The Baltimore Ravens Offense
The Ravens are flying high at 4-1, and so far in 2012 a more high-octane offense has been covering for some uncharacteristic defensive shortcomings. Does Dallas have the matchups to shut down the Ravens' attack?
The Ravens' offense is led by Joe Flacco - that led was a ‘led' in quotes in my preseason writeup, but the Ravens' move to more of a hurry-up quick passing attack has suited Flacco well so far. He's been more than a bus driver and substantially less than a star to this point in his career, but his 8.1 YPA mark through five games speaks to a QB who's stepping up his game.
He may have a star in the making in second-year wideout Torrey Smith, who is showing signs of developing into a big-league deep threat after a seven-TD rookie campaign. He's getting the chance to prove that he's more than a one-trick pony in his sophomore season, and is looking to take over the number one wideout mantle in Baltimore. Anquan Boldin still seems to be going strong, though, and his 14.4 yards per catch average in 2012 shows that he's not yet on the T.J. Houshmandzadeh Possession Receiver Glide Path in his tenth season. AFC Championship Game goat Lee Evans was sent packing to be replaced by former Houston Texans' slot guy Jacoby Jones. Maybe that signing was a thank you from the Ravens, who benefitted from Jones' fumbled-punt gaffe to put away a game Texans' squad in the Divisional round. It's also possible that Jones was a cursed gift from the Texans, like the fabled monkey's paw - to be sure, a primate's lopped-off hand could probably show more consistency hanging on to the football than Jones has in his career to date. He's actually made a couple of big catches for the Ravens thusfar and Dallas will need to keep him from flying deep, but he's far from consistent.
Dennis Pitta has become a dependable target over the middle for Flacco, and through five weeks of the season he's tied for 9th among tight ends with 21 grabs. His emergence has pushed fellow tight end Ed Dickson into more of a blocking role, despite Dickson's lack of discernible blocking skills.
Of course, the real engine of the Ravens' offense is star tailback Ray Rice, who is off to another fine season. Rice has some "I wouldn't call him poor exactly, but he does take his dates to Golden Corral" man's Emmitt Smith in his game as a somewhat undersized runner with great vision, patience and the ability to bounce off tacklers and make them miss in the hole. Rice is also a tremendous receiving weapon as he's a consistent target for everything from screens and wheel routes to panicked Flacco dump-offs. Rice's work in the passing game should be a good test for Sean Lee and Bruce Carter and reason to be thankful that we won't watch a decrepit Keith Brooking attempt to keep up with him.
Rice enjoyed solid blocking from the Ravens' offensive line last season. Blind Side protagonist Michael Oher finds back on the blind side this season in his latest LT/RT flip-flop. He's been an OK pass protector and more of a force in the run game so far this season. DeMarcus Ware can win more than his share of matchups against Oher, but will any other Dallas pass rusher feel like helping him this week after laying down against a shoddy Bears' OL in Week Four? Opportunities will exist on the right side, where rookie RT Kelechi Osemele has been busy tongue-tying TV color analysts and serving up steady pressure on Flacco. If Spencer is able to go, he should hold an advantage here.
The interior of the Ravens' offensive line has keyed Baltimore's rushing attack so far this year. With steady guard Ben Grubbs off to New Orleans to replace the departed Carl Nicks, the Ravens finished third in the game of Guard Musical Chairs and settled for 36-year old ex-Bengal Bobbie Williams. Williams saw a mere 12 snaps this year before losing out to road-grading youngster Ramon Harewood. Harewood has been strong in the run game, but has been beaten for a lot of pressure so far. After taking the Bears' game completely and totally off with a bye week after, let's hope Jason Hatcher is sufficiently rested to get after Harewood. Opposite Harewood, RG Marshal Yanda is one of the game's best and is off to another strong start this year. Getting in behind Yanda and apparently ageless center Matt Birk has been Ray Rice's favorite alley, and hopefully Jay Ratliff's return can help Dallas at least fight their way to a draw here.
The Ravens have a good, solid offense, but if you're able to keep Torrey Smith from cooking you deep and Rice from consistently converting third downs through the air then they aren't tremendously scary. The Chiefs had a lot of defensive success against Baltimore's pass game by pressing and beating up the Ravens' wideouts at the line, and the Cowboys' corners certainly have the physicality to try the same tactic. There's no reason Dallas' defense can't keep them in the game and give Romo and company a chance to get over on a Ravens D that's not up to prior years' standards - more on them shortly in the defense piece.