Stillers vs. Ravens Preview (Game #7)
The first-place Stillers, coming off a resounding rout over Tennessee this past Monday nite and owners of a 5-game winning streak, face the defending champion Baltimore Ravens in a heavyweight bout that could very well determine the winner of the AFC Central. Both teams bring ferocious, hard-hitting defenses, led by linebacking corps that are generally unparalleled around the rest of the NFL. Aficionados of great defenses and great defensive players will be in football heaven watching this tilt on Sunday.
* When the Ravens have the ball, they�ll bring a maligned offense into this game. At QB, the Ravens will turn to either injured Elvis Grbac or greybeard Randall Cunningham, neither of whom is any more palatable as a starting QB than, say, Elvis Presley. And at RB, instead of last year's rookie sensation Jamal Lewis, the Ravens are now having to make do with relative-unknown Jason Brookins. But despite these problems at QB and RB, the Ravens offense has survived, especially with Brookins, who has been a pleasant surprise with a 4.4 YPC average. The Ravens passing game has, as can be expected under Billick, been fairly productive, averaging a respectable 236 yards/game. Stiller-killer Quadry Ismail mans one starting WR spot, while Travis Taylor lines up opposite. Capable backups Brandon Stokley and Pat Johnson give the Ravens four receivers who can chip in to their passing game. Of course, the primary threat of the Ravens passing game is TE Shannon Sharpe, still generally regarded as one of the league's premier TEs. Sharpe already has a team-leading 38 grabs, although he has yet to find the end zone. Up front, the Ravens possess an above-average O-line, led by the superb LT Jon Ogden. The rest of the line is unheralded and reasonably so, as this line does not possess the brawn, skill, nor experience to put them among the league's elite. The key matchup will be the Stillers Blitzburgh Defense against the Ravens passing offense. While Brookins and greybeard Terry Allen have given the Ravens some form of a running game, they won't pound the ball with any continued success this Sunday. The Ravens will therefore have to rely on Grbac or Cunningham to stand in the face of the Blitzburgh pass rush, and hit receivers on-the-move; backs out of the backfield; and of course Sharpe. Because the Raven O-line isn't overly strong, they'll probably have to keep a RB or FB in the game to help out on pass protection. Sharpe, as did Wycheck last week and Gonzalez 3 weeks ago, presents a tough challenge because of his speed, athleticism, and skill. (And also his tremendous knack for holding on running plays without getting penalized.) Tim Lewis seems content to let his deep, strong secondary clamp down on receivers while he sends the dogs after opposing QBs, and with both of these QBs being slow, gimpy targets, Lewis should have his front 7 frothing over the chance to pound on the QB. Heat and harassment generated on Grbac/Cunningham could easily result in a few turnovers, giving the Stillers free points or golden field position, which will be critical to achieve victory against a tough Raven defense.
* When the Stillers have the ball, they'll face the best defense they have faced -- or will face -- this season. The Raven front 7, as most folks know, can physically dominate the ground game. Ex-Pitt star Tony Siragusa and former Seahawk Sam Adams are blubbery but immovable objects in the middle, and McCrary and Burnett give the Ravens outstanding quickness and toughness at DE. Webster and Dalton provide good line depth. The 3 LBs comprise what many believe is the best LB corps in all of pro football -- Lewis, Sharper, and Boulware. (Although, they're arguably no better than the Steeler trio of Holmes, Porter, and Bell.) Since the season opener in 1998, the Ravens have ravaged and destroyed the Stiller running game, using constant run-blitzing in which their ultra-quick LBs shoot the gaps created by pulling linemen. Nobody in the NFL has come close to perfecting the anti-Stiller defense, as have the Ravens. It remains to be seen if the Stillers will insist on pounding head-against-wall with a plethora of Bettis runs early on, or if they'll mix things up. While it's a macho thing to go mano-o-mano and attempt to smash the ball down the opponent's throat, it's also foolish bravado to commit suicide in getting little accomplished against a defense like Balt's. Added to my concerns with the ground game are Amos Zereoue's injury and Dan Kreider's being out of the starting lineup. Amoz has given the Stiller offense the quickness and explosion that has been severely lacking, but his shoulder injury could limit his work. Kreider is unquestionably the best blocking FB on the team, but Cowher has been all too mulestubborn to insist on keeping the inferior-blocking Jon Witman in the starting lineup. Kreider stepped in last year as a young, un-tested rookie and slammed Ray Lewis in the mouth with several bone-jarring blocks that helped pave the way to the 9-6 Stiller victory. In fact, in reviewing last week's game tape, I was far too lenient in my grade of Witman; he should have been issued a D+, not a B-. And the Raven front 7 is exponentially better than that of the Titans, so this personnel decision looms large. Given what OC Mike Mularkey has shown me since the fiasco in Jacksonville on opening day, I think Mularkey has enough brains to avoid aimlessly plunging the ball into the heart of the Raven defense time and time again. Look for Mularkey to take some chances downfield, where the Ravens secondary has been scorched in their 3 losses. Once Mularkey gets Baltimore off-balance with some Slash plays, and getting Stew on the move, and getting some passes completed to Plex and Ward, then he can pound the ball some against that Raven front 7. Of course, Baltimore is wise and experienced in dealing with Stewart's running, and combining their savvy with world-class speed and clever spying, the Ravens typically do a fine job in bottling Stewart's running. The key matchup will be the Stillers passing offense against the Raven pass defense. Starks and McAllister -- both former #1 draft choices -- are solid CBs, but certainly beatable. Moreover, safeties Corey Harris and ex-Stiller great Rod Woodson are hardly showstoppers. The Stillers must take advantage of Plex's size mismatch against the 5-10" Starks, as well as Ward being able to get some RAC yardage. Furthermore, Shaw and Troy are more than capable of abusing the nickel backs (including ex-Stiller Carnell Lake) employed by Baltimore, so the Stillers must take advantage of these mismatches in their 4-WR formations.
* Spec Teams: The ever-so-dangerous Jermaine Lewis does the bulk of the Raven's return chores, and he's capable of busting one on any given touch. Pat Johnson chips in on KO returns. The Stover/Richardson kicking duo is experienced and competent. The Stiller special teams have been covering well, and their punting and FG kicking have been decent. Given the tough task for either team to score points this Sunday, all nuances of the special teams will be extremely magnified, and could very well be the difference in the ballgame.
* Synopsis: I've seen the Ravens play a few games this season, and I've studied the Ravens in-depth. This Ravens team is solid, but hardly a world-beater. The NFL has spent the past 7 months looking for chinks in their armor, and the chinks have been found. This is a home game that is ripe for the taking. Too ripe. The Stillers are coming off a short week from their MNF game. Combined with that is the long-standing trend of Cowher-coached teams -- a trend that has been a total inability to handle (read: squander) prosperity in much the same way as a coke addict handles loose cash. Because of that, the Ravens will steal a hard-fought, hard-hitting 16-13 win over the Stillers.