Previewing Week 11: Baltimore Ravens at Dallas Cowboys
After back to back wins over division rivals Pittsburgh and Cleveland, the Ravens are now 5-4 and sit alone atop the AFC North. While it is certainly nice to be in first place, the upcoming schedule is tough starting with a road game against the 8-1 Dallas Cowboys who just beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh in a very close game. Will the Ravens be able to go on the road and beat the team with the best record in the NFL? It will certainly be a tough match-up, but there are a couple reasons why the Ravens will have a decent opportunity to upset the ‘Boys.
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The headline going into Sunday’s tilt is likely going to be the Cowboys #1 rushing attack headlined by super-rookie RB Ezekiel Elliott versus the Ravens #1 ranked run defense. The Cowboys lean heavily on Elliott and their running game, and if the Ravens can win in the trenches it will give them a leg up in this game, but before we take a closer look at this match-up I want to take a moment to discuss just how impressive Elliott’s rookie season has been. “Zeke” has racked up 1,005 yards on the ground at 5.1 YPC, compiling 10 total TDs and an additional 250 yards in the passing game. Only Eric Dickerson and Adrian Peterson have rushed for over 1,000 yards through their first 9 games as a rookie. These are historical numbers and Elliott has a strong case to be considered the MVP of the league at this juncture. He is a phenomenal player and he is playing behind the best offensive line in the NFL. Bill Barnwell recently wrote an article decrying the Cowboys OL as the “real MVP” of the league, and he makes a very strong argument taking a close look at all of Elliott’s TD runs and correctly pointing out how the OL is creating massive holes. On the flip side, it’s fair to argue that Elliott’s excellent vision, patience, explosiveness and power through initial contact have a lot to do with his success. The reality is that we are witnessing a perfect marriage of excellent run blocking for an elite talent. Which brings us to next week’s match-up: how can the Ravens possibly hope to stop this juggernaut?
On paper, the Ravens defense will be the toughest front 7 that the Cowboys have played this season. We all know that DT Brandon Williams is one of the best run-stuffers in the NFL. He regularly occupies double teams without losing ground and is adept at shedding blockers and splitting doubles to make stops. Timmy Jernigan is better known for his pass-rushing prowess, but he is also a very formidable run stopper for the Ravens. He has the strength to hold up at the point of attack and quickness to beat blocks and make plays in the backfield. Michael Pierce and Lawrence Guy round out the Ravens DL unit and are both quality run defenders as well.
I mention these players because the Ravens are going to want to keep 3 of their big DT/DEs on the field as often as possible. The Ravens are a good run defense unit all around but are at their best in their base D. The Cowboys like to use 11 personnel (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB) and it will be interesting to see how the Ravens line up against this personnel grouping. Will they keep their base D on the field and try to take the ball out of Elliott’s hands, or will Dean Pees trust his sub package to stop the run? I think a player like Lardarius Webb will be of critical importance this week as he has the ability to come down and cover the slot in base D giving the defense some flexibility.
Linebackers C.J. Mosley and Zachary Orr will also be tasked with a lot of responsibility as they will need to make plays against the run where both have been excellent this season, in addition to dropping in coverage to check future HoF TE Jason Witten and slot WR Cole Beasley over the middle of the field. I haven’t even mentioned the Cowboys other rookie, QB Dak Prescott, who is also having a great start to the season. It will be imperative for the Ravens to get pressure on him in 3rd and long situations and try to force the Dallas QB into some rookie mistakes. Jimmy Smith will once again have a tough task in marking All-Pro WR Dez Bryant, but Smith has been up to the challenge so far this season. The Ravens defense can’t let Bryant get loose for any big plays as they focus on taking away Elliott.
On offense, the Ravens will be facing a good but not great defense in Dallas. The Cowboys strength is in taking away the run, and the Ravens offense has had problems this season when they play strong run defenses. While the Cowboys are 3rd in the NFL in rushing yards per game, it is important to note they are letting up 4.1 YPC which is still good but they are not impossible to run on. Will Marty Mornhinweg commit to running the ball or will he try to attack the Cowboys where they are weaker in defending the pass? Ben Roethlisberger threw for over 400 yards last week, and while I don’t expect Joe Flacco to put up those kind of numbers, the Ravens WR corps is a talented group that if utilized properly can make plays down the field.
Whether the Ravens stick to the ground game or go pass-heavy, the key for this game might be time of possession. It may be surprising to some that both the Ravens and Cowboys are among the best in the NFL in possessing the ball, ranking 4th and 2nd respectively. Obviously, running the ball should help the Ravens here to an extent, but what helps even more than running the ball is converting 3rd downs. It will be of critical importance for the Ravens to convert on 3rd down and keep drives going.
It sounds like a cliché, but this match-up for the Ravens is likely going to be won or lost in the trenches. Can the Ravens keep drives alive by running the ball and protecting Joe Flacco? Can the defense get off the field by shutting down Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott? I have a feeling that it is going to be a very close game, and could very well come down to the foot of one of the two best kickers in the NFL, Justin Tucker and Dan Bailey. The Cowboys opened as a TD favorite to win at home this Sunday, and while I think the Ravens will likely come up just short I am definitely taking the points.
Ravens 23 – Cowboys 24