Nick and I are going to do something a little bit different this week, and each write our own game preview. Those of you who know us might have a little bit of an idea as to why we’re doing this. (Here’s a little hint: before Steve McNair became a Raven, I might have been the only person in Nashville with a Ravens jersey). I’m originally from Baltimore, and still show love to the “local” teams, no matter how much that has made close friends hate me for some short periods of time. 2002′s division realignment seemed like the perfect “in” to root for both of my “local” teams, without too much contradiction (in case you forgot, the Ravens and Titans were both in the now defunct AFC Central-trying to root for both would have put me in the same boat as those few assholes that like the Yankees and the Red Sox (I’m talking to you Dane Cook). It’s worked pretty well so far, but here’s the one week every few seasons that I cease to be a Titan’s fan. Let the hate commence:
Titans Rushing Offense vs. Ravens Defense:
Those who doubted Chris Johnson as the 24th Overall pick in this summer’s draft (you can count me as one of the initially puzzled) have easily been silenced by now. The speedster out of East Carolina, just named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Month for September, is second in the AFC in rushing yards (337) and yards from scrimmage (402). Coupled with last year’s 1,000 rusher LenDale White, the Titans bring the NFL’s 8th ranked rushing attack into Baltimore this weekend, coming in at 137 ypg. So far, Baltimore has given up an average of 69.7 yards a game on the ground, good for 2nd in the NFL, without allowing a rushing touchdown in any of their three games. As they say, something’s got to give. With DT Haloti Ngata clogging up the middle like Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams used to, the very good Baltimore linebacking corps of Ray Lewis and co. is usually able to roam free to do their damage. The Ravens will load the box, and show a variety of blitzes, making the Titans prove they can pass before Baltimore will let them run. It will be a very tough task for a young Titan’s running game that hasn’t yet seen a Ravens D this focused.
Titans Passing Offense vs. Ravens Defense:
Kerry Collins has done a great job in doing exactly what he’s been asked to do this season. The Titans are 4-0 so far, with Collins showing a veteran presence in huddle and the pocket that had been somewhat lacking for a while. With Tennessee’s defensive and running strengths, Collins hasn’t been asked to win games, he’s been asked to manage them effectively and minimize mistakes. Sunday will be a little bit different for a few reasons. Early in the game, I think that Baltimore is able to control Tennessee’s rushing game for the first series, forcing Collins to pass, not just to change things up, but as a necessity (look for a deep shot in the first few plays of the game as well). For Tennessee to effectively move the ball they will need more from Collins than he’s been asked to do, against a Ravens defense that is giving up 117 passing ypg (1st overall). Baltimore’s blitzing won’t give Collins nearly the time to operate that he’s had so far, and the opportunity for mistakes will be more prevalent than at any point in the season. With Chris McCalister on Justin McCareins (Justin Gage is doubtful for Sunday), and Ed Reed ball hawking in the background, Titan receivers will need to get open in a hurry, and Collins will need enough time to find them. I don’t see it happening. In the last game Collins saw a defense like this, Ray Lewis was holding up the Lombardi Trophy in the end (sorry, had to go there).
Ravens Rushing Offense vs. Titans Defense:
With the health of RB Willis McGahee being an issue all season, Baltimore has resorted to a three-headed monster approach featuring McGahee, Le’Ron McClain, and Ray Rice. So far in the season, the Ravens have run the ball on over 60% of their plays from scrimmage, with new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron getting very creative with where the runs are coming from, and who is carrying the ball. The Ravens are 3rd in the NFL, averaging 161 yards a game, Tennessee is 8th against the run, holding opposing offenses to 86.8 ypg on the ground. Don’t let that stat be too misleading, though. The running backs that have given Tennessee the most trouble so far this season (Steve Slaton and Adrian Peterson) have been quicker, elusive backs able to get to the outside. McGahee at his best can be that kind of back, but he is questionable, and if he does play expect him to be limited and less than 100 percent. If that is the case, expect McClain, a bruiser, to get the bulk of the carries. With Albert Haynesworth, Tony Brown and KVB waiting for him, that will play into Tennessee’s strength.
Ravens Passing Offense vs. Titans Defense:
Coming into training camp, rookie Joe Flacco was fighting to be the number two quarterback on the Ravens depth chart. A season ending shoulder injury to Kyle Boller, and a freaky tonsil issue with Troy Smith (making him lose over twenty pounds), thrust Flacco into the starting role. Flacco has been a pleasant surprise in his first three starts, showing poise in the huddle, and quickly gaining the respect of his teammates early in his tenure (perhaps, other than Steve McNair, the only starting QB in Baltimore to do so since Trent Dilfer). In Monday night’s prime time showdown against the Steelers, Flacco showed impressive composure, making some great throws, while hooking up with Derrick Mason to the tune of 8 receptions for 137 yards. Now for Sunday’s reality check. While Mason and Flacco have seemed to find some rhythm together, there is no other player on the Ravens roster with more than six receptions on the season. Standout TE Todd Heap, has done next to nothing so far, perhaps being the biggest disappointment in the Ravens offense. Tennessee is going to force the Ravens to pass the ball more than they have so far this season, which could result in another big step for Joe Flacco or… it could result in some ugly turnovers. Cortland Finnegan and Michael Griffin are first and second respectively in interceptions in the NFL with 4 and 3. The Titans are first in the NFL in turnover differential (+6), and second in sacks (15). Flacco will continue to get better this year, but don’t expect for Sunday to be his best outing of the season.
This might be the critical area of the game. Rob Bironas is one of the better kickers in the league, with a range that few kickers can equal. Bironas hasn’t had too many field goal opportunities this season, because the Titan’s have been so good at getting the ball into the end zone. Matt Stover is one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history, who has happened to lose much of his range. If the game comes down to a long field goal, then Tennessee has the obvious advantage-but I’m not so sure that will be what stands out. Tennessee’s achilles heel so far this season has been their abysmal kick coverage. Yamon Figurs is one of the better young returners in football, and should be able to get Baltimore noticeably better field position than Chris Carr for Tennessee. Baltimore is giving up 5.3 yards per punt return as opposed to 13.7 for Tennessee. In a game with perhaps the two most dominating defenses in football, field position will be crucial, and I think this is where the Titans special teams woes catch up with them.
The Ravens are returning to M&T Bank Stadium thinking that they let a golden opportunity to have a significant, and surprising, lead in their division slip away last week. It’s going to be loud. Really loud. Not only are the Titans going to see defensive looks they haven’t seen all season-but with the stadium noise, communication and audibles at the line are going to be as difficult as they are necessary. Tennessee would love nothing more than to reach 5-0 by beating the Ravens on the road, but Baltimore needs this one more than the Titans, and they have the defense to do something about it.
Sunday will be another showdown between two teams that have played integral roles in each other’s relatively brief histories. While the majority of the cast has changed, the superior defense and running abilities of the Titans and Ravens make this game seem oddly familiar. This will be the best that the Titans and Ravens have been at the same time playing each other since Tennessee’s 20-17 victory in Baltimore during the 2003 playoffs, when Eddie George ran over Ray Lewis in his last hurrah as a Titan (I tried to return the favor a little bit). There isn’t much doubt that the Titans are the better team this year, but they’re not going to win them all, and this is the toughest challenge they’ve had this season. They are due for a little bit of a letdown. At least Billick’s gone.
Prediction: Ravens 17-13
P.S. Go Commodores!
Topics: Add New Tag, Albert Haynesworth, Baltimore Ravens, Cam Cameron, Chris Carr, Chris Johnson, Chris McAlister, Cortland Finnegan, Derrick Mason, Ed Reed, Eddie George, Haloti Ngata, Joe Flacco, Justin Gage, Justin McCareins, Kerry Collins, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Le'Ron McClain, LenDale White, Matt Stover, Michael Griffin, Ray Lewis, Ray Rice, Rob Bironas, Sam Adams, Steve McNair, Tennessee Titans, Todd Heap, Tony Brown, Tony Siragusa, Willis McGahee, Yamon Figurs