Friday, December 5, 2008

Ravens present challenges for Redskins

It pains me to say this, but to be honest, at 8-4, the Baltimore Ravens are probably not talked about as much as they should be.

On defense, the Ravens are third in the NFL in points allowed (15.8) and second in total yardage allowed per game (253.3). But that's not really shocking because the Ravens usually have one of the best defenses in the league. What is surprising, though, is that the offense, with rookie quarterback Joe Flacco leading the way, has played well. Overall, the offense ranks 19th in total yardage per game (323.5) but is tied for 11th (with Denver) in total points per game (24.3). Obviously, the Ravens' defense has helped the offense out by scoring five touchdowns off of interception returns and recording three safeties, but the offense still takes advantage of red zone opportunities and is relatively balanced -- 14 rushing touchdowns and 14 receiving touchdowns.

The Ravens also take care of business by soundly defeating weaker opponents. This season, the Ravens have beaten the Bengals (twice), Browns (twice), Dolphins, Raiders, Texans, and Eagles. Of those six teams, only the Dolphins (7-5) and the Eagles (6-5-1) have winning records. Against better competition, the Ravens have struggled a bit, with four losses coming to the Steelers (9-3), Titans (11-1), Colts (8-4), and the Giants (11-1). All four of those teams have been discussed as possible Super Bowl contenders, so even though two of the games were close, the losses were not particularly surprising.

The Redskins, on the other hand, have not been as efficient as the Ravens -- especially on offense. While the Ravens manage to score more points with fewer yards gained, the Redskins gain more yards -- 13th in the NFL (339.1) -- and score fewer points (17.3, 28th). The Redskins have nine rushing touchdowns and 11 receiving touchdowns, but the offense has not been balanced. Simply put, when the Redskins can't run the ball, they struggle mightily.

There's no question that the defense has been what keeps the Redskins in games. The defense is sixth in yardage allowed (283.0) and sixth in points allowed (18.5) while failing to consistently put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The leading pass rusher on the Redskins is Demetric Evans with 3.5 sacks; Andre Carter is right behind him with 3.0 sacks. Highly-paid and injury-plagued Jason Taylor has registered only one sack.

Is playing in the NFC East tougher than the AFC North? Yes. But the Redskins have not scored enough points to win against good defenses.

The Redskins' wins this season have come against the Saints, Cardinals, Cowboys, Eagles, Browns, Lions, and Seahawks. Of those teams, the Cardinals (7-5), Cowboys (8-4), and Eagles (6-5-1) are above .500. The Saints are currently 6-6. The one loss that really hurts right now is the one to the 2-10 St. Louis Rams. The offense failed the defense that day by scoring only 17 points against one of the worst defenses in the league, which may have been a sign of concern for how the next several weeks were going to play out.

But no matter how bad the offense has been, the Redskins are still 7-5 and have a chance to make the playoffs. What makes this such a huge game is not just the fact that the Redskins need a win, but that the Ravens need one as well to keep pace with other AFC rivals. The Redskins finish the season against the Ravens, Bengals, Eagles, and 49ers; the Ravens face the Redskins, Steelers, Cowboys, and Jaguars. If the Redskins were to lose this game, they would still be considered at least moderate favorites in the rest of their games. Unfortunately, finishing 10-6 may not guarantee the Redskins a playoff spot.

The Ravens would have to take on the Steelers at home and then travel to Dallas to face the rejuvenated Cowboys. Needless to say, a win in this game would be enormous for both teams.

To me, the key to the game is pretty simple: The Redskins' offensive line has to protect Jason Campbell and give him time to throw, and receivers, veterans and rookies alike, have to get open.

(Note: Campbell has been the focal point of way too much undeserved criticism lately. His numbers aren't spectacular -- 10 TDs, 4 INTs, 63.8 completion percentage, 87.8 QB rating -- but he's taken care of the ball and given the team a chance to win. A few more catches down the field on long throws and things may have turned out differently in various key situations.)

Anyway, back to this matchup. Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts are both banged up, and it's almost impossible to run the ball effectively against the Ravens' front seven (unless you're the Giants). If the Redskins don't move the ball through the air, convert on third downs, score some points, and take advantage of some opportunities, it won't matter how well the defense can hold the Ravens' offense because at some point they will break.

It would be easy to say that if the Redskins' defense can get some pressure on Flacco that some turnovers may follow, but that's the same old story every week. The Ravens have allowed 23 sacks and have 26, while the Redskins have given up 32 sacks while accumulating only 19. The defense isn't likely to add many more this week, but the offensive line has the talent to hold it together.

If Campbell gets time, the Redskins have a chance. If not, it could be a long game.

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