For well over a decade, facing the Ravens' defense has meant taking on a swarm of black and purple destroyers who shut down your run game, stole the ball and left you black and blue the next day to boot. The loss of some defensive stalwarts may have knocked this defense down a peg, however - can Romo and the Cowboys' offense out-punch Baltimore and steal a win on the road?
The biggest headline in Baltimore this offseason was the loss of reigning Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs, who tore an Achilles in the offseason. Suggs wasn't the only front seven defender the Ravens lost this offseason, as both DE/DT Cory Redding (Colts) and outside linebacker Jarrett Johnson (Chargers) found new homes in free agency. Despite a spate of ‘next man up' rhetoric from defensive leader Ray Lewis, the next men up have struggled somewhat to fill the void. The Ravens' D hasn't been bad by any means, but it's been...average?
The impact has been most strongly felt in the pass rush department, which isn't too surprising when you're trying to replace the DPOY. Outside ‘backers Albert McClellan, Paul Kruger and Alabama rookie Courtney Upshaw are all skilled guys and all have played the run pretty well, but none have come close to matching Sugg's pass-rush ferocity. Dallas' tackles have faced a run of tough edge rushers so far in 2012, and this week could actually be a bit of a respite - unless they feel like turning in another "Let's make an average Michael Bennett look like Reggie White" performance.
The interior of Baltimore's defensive front has also struggled at times, despite the continually stalwart presence of 3-4 end Haloti Ngata. At nose tackle, Terrence ‘Mount' Cody has struggled to do a whole lot more than just lean on opposing centers while Pernell McPhee has been thoroughly average in the end slot opposite Ngata. Of course, thoroughly average is still an aspiration for the interior of Dallas' offensive line - sheer mass may short-circuit Dallas' interior run game, but if Dallas is giving up pressure to this bunch it will be a real shame.
At inside linebacker, Ray Lewis just keeps on keepin' on. He's racking tackles at about as strong a rate as ever, but he's starting to slow down noticeably in pass coverage and could provide some opportunities for Witten and DeMarco Murray to do some damage through the air. Dannell Ellerbee has handled run downs in the other ILB spot while giving way to Jameel McClain in passing situations - they're both competent players, but neither brings the all-around excellence that Jarrett Johnson displayed during his time in Baltimore.
The Ravens' pass defense was the best in the league last season, and while Ed Reed remains the unit's household name it was actually cornerback Lardarius Webb who turned in the best work in the Ravens' secondary last year. While he's not an imposing physical specimen, Webb combines smooth hips with aggression and plus speed to get into a receiver's hip pocket and stay there throughout the route. Webb is getting it done again in 2012, allowing less than 40% of the balls thrown his way to turn into catches. Baltimore's average pass rush has been putting a burden on their other corners, however, and they've struggled under its weight. Cary Williams and nickel back Jimmy Smith are both allowing about 11 yards per pass attempt in their direction, and while they've kept guys out of the end zone they've allowed Baltimore's opponents to move the chains with relative ease. Whichever Dallas receivers draw this pair will need to win consistently to keep the offense rolling.
At safety, Ed Reed remains a bigtime ballhawk who can punish poor decisions like few other safeties in league history. He's not too eager in run support these days, but he's already picked off two passes through five games and he'll have to be a strong fixture on Tony Romo's radar during every passing play. Fellow safety Bernard Pollard has been a force against the run since coming over from the Texans and allowing Reed to basically do all the heavy lifting in coverage. He can be had when he's matched up on a receiving threat, and a lot of signs are pointing to Jason Witten getting heavily featured by Dallas in this one. DeMarco Murray could struggle as is, and if Pollard is able to play downhill with abandon then the Dallas run game could be DOA.
Losses in the front seven and Father Time's impact on Hall of Famers Lewis and Reed have knocked this defense down a notch, but they're still likely to give the Cowboys' offense all they want and then some. If the Cowboys' OL plays to potential, they can let us at least keep Baltimore honest with the run while giving Romo time to get after the Ravens' weaker coverage players. A patient Tony Romo can enjoy a good deal of success, but this is still a defense that can punish mistakes like few others.
Dallas has the talent to win this game, and coming out of a bye there's no excuse for them not to put their best foot forward. But with a defensive front that's too willing to stand around and watch DeMarcus Ware work and an interior OL that's seldom able to stand at all, it's tough to put Dallas past one of the AFC's best on the road.