For the second time in 3 seasons, the Ravens travel out to sunny whale’s vagina San Diego (is that joke old yet? It was probably old 2 years ago, huh? Ok, I’ll stop) to take on the pewter blue Chargers. The two teams, who each saw their 2008 seasons end in Pittsburgh in the playoffs, also both struggled a bit against “lesser” squads in their respective openers. We all remember sweating a bit in the second half of the Ravens-Chiefs game, and San Diego needed a last-drive touchdown to put away the Oakland Raiders on the road. Ravens fans may be making a bit too much out of that Monday Night game, though, in thinking that somehow it exposed the Chargers as being “not that good.” We’re gonna go ahead and disagree with that assertion – remember, it was a divisional game, on the road, AND they put together a game-winning TD drive. Sounds like a good team to me.
What does make our ears perk up a bit going into this one though is a glance at the Chargers’ injury report.
LaDainian Tomlinson: DID NOT PRACTICE
Nick Hardwick: DID NOT PRACTICE
Louis Vasquez: DID NOT PRACTICE
Tomlinson will probably be able to go Sunday, albeit in a reduced role. However, the two starting offensive linemen, Hardwick (2006 Pro Bowl) and Vasquez (2009 3rd Round Draft Pick), are less likely to suit up for the game. Missing your starting Pro Bowl center is no small loss (see: Kevin Mawae, Tennessee Titans, 2008 AFC Divisional Playoff). San Diego signed former Jacksonville Jaguar Dennis Norman this week, who will likely start in place of Hardwick. The Ravens, with arguably the deepest defensive line in the NFL, should be able to exploit the offensive line issues and play defense in the backfield.
On the other hand, neither Hardwick nor Vasquez was on the field for San Diego on their game-winning drive in Oakland…and it didn’t seem to matter much. So there’s that.
If Tomlinson can’t go, 9th-year vet Michael Bennett will be splitting carries with Darren Sproles. Itty-bitty Sproles has the Ravens losing some sleep this week, with Trevor Pryce saying that watching Sproles run, “is like watching a Madden game.” Sproles was huge for the Chargers in their post-season win over the Colts last year, when he gained 105 yards and 2 TDs on 22 carries, and added 5 receptions for 45 yards. Pittsburgh was able to render him ineffective running the ball (11 carries, 15 yards), but he still managed 91 yards and a score on 5 catches, including a 62-yard score. Against Oakland last week, Sproles had just 66 yards on 14 touches from scrimmage – however, the Raiders felt the wrath of Tiny Darren in the return game, as he averaged 34 yards on 5 kickoff returns, including 66 and 59-yarders.
Basically….Sproles is good. He’s gonna get the ball, and he’s gonna make a play. The key will be limiting the number of plays he makes.
How about the Ravens on offense? Will we see another 500-yard day? More of Joe Flacco throwing caution to the wind and footballs all over the field?
Not likely, although San Diego was even worse in pass defense than Kansas City in 2008, finishing 31st in the league. Shawne Merriman is back this year, and how Ravens’ tackles Jared Gaither and Michael Oher (Merriman will switch sides during the game) are able to neutralize him will be a big factor. The Raiders were able to hold him without a sack (they allowed only 1 to San Diego all game), and they actually finished with 366 total yards of offense to San Deigo’s 317. Of that total, 148 came on the ground, as Oakland gained 4.6 yards per rushing play. Expect the Ravens to come out more like they did in the second half against Kansas City, using the memory of Joe Flacco’s 300-yard game to keep the Chargers honest, by pounding Rice, McGahee, and McClain right at the Chargers from the start.
Ravens’ tight ends could also play a big part in the outcome of this game, as Todd Heap looks rejuvinated after one week, and L.J. Smith has been back at practice and is eyeing Sunday for his purple debut. Tight end Zach Miller led all Raiders’ recievers last week, hauling in 6 passes for 96 yards.
Of course, the Chargers have a stud tight end of their own, Antonio Gates. Gates, who is fully healthy for the first time in quite a while, torched the Ravens for 105 yards and 2 scores the last time these teams met.
Yes, Greg Mattison and the Ravens’ D will have their hands full. Even with no Tomlinson, the Chargers still have Sproles and Gates – and we haven’t even mentioned wide receievers Vincent Jackson and Chris Chambers. Big, physical guys on the outside who could give the Ravens’ corners, who are heavy on speed but light in stature, some issues.
And so, it all comes back to the Chargers’ O-line. We saw last year here in Baltimore what can happen when your offensive line can’t get the job done by themselves, and you have to keep tight ends and backs in to block. If Sproles and Gates are stuck blocking, they can’t be out catching passes. Kelly Gregg, Haloti Ngata, Trevor Pryce, and Terrell Suggs need to get in QB Phillip Rivers’ face early and often. When he sits in the pocket, Rivers can be one of the most accurate passers in the league, but he is far from mobile, and will heave up some disgusting floaters when flushed (if you’re reading this while eating lunch, I apologize for all the toilet imagery).
Earlier in the week, I was ready to predict 50+ points to be scored between the two teams in this one. However, I’m a firm believer that football games are won in the trenches, and the Ravens should be able to take advantage of San Diego’s line injuries and render all their fancy offensive toys pretty much useless. If they can do that, they won’t need another video game-like stat sheet to come home with a win.
Ravens 20 Chargers 17