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Cowboys vs. Ravens -- The Makeup Exam

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Dallas is certainly smarting over the 20-13 loss to Pittsburgh two weeks ago.  The fans certainly are.  Dallas took control of the game in the 3rd quarter and relinquished control in the 4th.  Big plays by Pittsburgh and equally big mistakes by the Cowboys, most notably Tony Romo, sealed the defeat.

Tonight game represents a do over, in that the Ravens are as close a carbon copy to the Steelers, in terms of personnel and strategy, as you will find.  Wonder how Dallas might have played the Steelers on a weather neutral field, where the cold and, most importantly, the wind was no factor?  You'll get your answer tonight.

 

 

The Ravens, like the Steelers, play a pressure 3-4.  Like Pittsburgh, they have a large, athletic nose tackle in Haloti Ngata, thought Ngata lines up a lot at DE -- more on this later.  They also have a big time edge rusher in OLB Terrell Suggs and they have a top notch secondary led by blue-chip safety Ed Reed. 

Their DC Rex Ryan, is Buddy Ryan's son, and like his dad, Rex loves to blitz, though he's not the bombs-away blitzer that Dick LeBeau and Steve Spangnuolo are.  Baltimore does not have the raw totals the Steelers and Giants have -- they have just 31 sacks and don't have a double digit sacker. 

They are every bit as effective as those other units;  they don't produce as many sacks but they have more interceptions.  They lead the NFL with 22, almost two per game.  They create confusion with their pressure and their coverage packages and harvest the mistakes.

In character, they are more like the Giants like the Steelers.  Like Spagnulo, Ryan calls a lot of corner and safety blitzes and plays a lot of zone packages behind them.  Romo was awful at finding and hitting open receivers -- and he had plently -- in the Pittsburgh cold.  He was much better last week.  He didn't always complete the pass, but his reads were sound.

Another game from the take-what's-there Romo should see Dallas move the ball and get points, though the Cowboys may rely on Nick Folk's foot more today than they have this year.  Here are some likely game keys:

When Dallas Has the Ball

-- Throw first, run later:  This is Jason Garrett's M.O.  Has been since he took over the offense.  He wants to attack downfield, get an early lead, wear out an opponents big runt DL with lots of early rushes and then hammer at them in the second half when they become winded. 

The Ravens are very, very good at stopping the run, so don't be surprised to see Dallas run only 8-10 rushes in the first half. That doesn't mean that Tashard Choice will be dormant.  He'll simply be used in different ways. 

-- Use the backs as receivers.  Zone blitzing means you rush five or six men and play a zone behind it.  Most four man rush packages play four across deep and three in the deep zone.  Zone blitzing coverages deploy in a 3-3 set.  There's a lot more space than normal in the short zones and the Cowboys have been very effective at throwing to Choice and Barber in these sets. 

If the Ravens play man-to-man, Choice will have opportunities for big plays.  He burned the Pittsburgh ILBs on simple circle routes.  He made some big catches last week cutting through New York's short zone.  Look for him to catch first and run late.

-- Attack Ray Lewis in zone coverage:  Ray Lewis is still performing at a high level against the run, and he has three interceptions this year.  But he's the weak link in Baltimore's zone schemes.  Romo passed up a lot of easy tosses to Jason Witten and expecially to Martellus Bennett in Pittsburgh.  He should have opportunities to both of them against Lewis tonight.

-- Go after Fabian Washington:  Washington replaced the injured Chris McAlister at LCB and has played at a mediocre level.  His YPA, according to KC Joyner is in the mid 9.0s.  Consider that Jacques Reeves, for all the abuse he took from fans last year, had a 7.9 YPA last year. 

Washington had a 9.2 YPA last year for Oakland and lost his Raiders job in August.  He's not playing any better for Baltimore, but he's got better people around him so the Ravens can tolerate his play.  With McAlister out, they have no choice. 

Baltimore doesn't give Washington that much safety help, so look for Dallas to attack him short, with comebacks and slants, and try to set him up for big plays later.  See if they match T.O. on him early, to learn if the Ravens will double him, as many other teams have. 

The more intriguing matchup for me will be Miles Austin against Washington.  Austin returned last week and made some big plays on deeper routes.  He seems a lot healthier than Roy Williams, who looks like a giant decoy right now with his injured heel. 

When Baltimore Has the Ball

-- Bend but don't break:  The Cowboys have been very, very good as stopping opponents in the red zone since the bye.  In fact, the Cowboys D has surrendered only three TDs since the Redskins scored on their opening drive of the rematch.  And two of those were garbage scores by the 49ers when the game was decided and the scrubs were in.

They'll need to do the same to a Ravens team that is averaging roughly the same points as Dallas.  There are three keys to the defense -- and to watching at home:

A.  Don't pull your hair out when the Ravens run.  They like to keep things simple for rookie QB Joe Flacco.  They will start in two TE sets and hammer RB Willis McGahee.  They also have the ageless FB Lorenzo Neal to lead him.  They are very capable of getting into a running rhythm and rolling 30 or 40 yards down the field. As long as Dallas can keep them from rolling into the end zone, the game will be there for the taking.

B.  Keep TE Todd Heap under control:  The Cowboys passing defensive strategy has been to take away the opponents wide receivers and concede plays to the tight ends.  The Ravens don't throw to TE Todd Heap much -- he has only 30 receptions this year -- but he will have a matchup edge against dinged up SS Keith Davis.  When the Ravens move inside the Dallas 35, look for seam routes to Davis, in an attempt for a quick score.

C.  Keep Terence Newman on WR Derrick Mason.  Mark Clayton has a larger YPR, but Mason is the team's big play guy.  Flacco looks for him on deep fades, comebacks and outs.  And he's been destroying teams for 18-20 yard chunks.  Newman has been his shutdown self when he's healthy.  He locked down Santana Moss in November and made Domenik Hixon look ordinary last week.  Wade Phillips says he needs to "challenge" Newman to get his best.  Matching him on the Ravens best will likely be this week's challenge.

Prediction:  Two good defenses, but the Cowboys have been hotter.  Only Pittsburgh can claim better stats down the stretch.  The defense played better than the Steelers' D when the two teams met and they outplayed New York last week.

This score might seem extreme, but I think this is the week the defense wins the game outright.  I see a tight game for much of the afternoon, but I also think its time for the D to score.  I don't know if Ware forces a fumble for a score or Newman or one of his mates gets a pick six, but the defense is overdue a score or two of their own.

Dallas 27, Baltimore 10.