Three weeks into the season, I’m still trying to figure out just how good the Ravens really are — or will be — in 2011.
A seven-turnover blowout win over their bitter rival, an embarrassing loss in Tennessee, and a 30-point victory over the hapless Rams don’t exactly allow you to draw a definitive conclusion, but that’s why they play the games.
On the other hand, the Jets’ two wins over Dallas and Jacksonville before being shredded by the Oakland Raiders leave you scratching your head even more.
The storylines don’t need to be rehashed again. These coaches and players know each other very well, making for a highly-competitive matchup at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday night. It’s a conference game with possible playoff implications down the road, so don’t let the early Week 4 billing fool you in its significance.
Here’s what to expect when Rex Ryan’s Jets visit John Harbaugh’s Ravens on Sunday night …
1. The Jets will spread out the Baltimore defense with three- and four-receiver sets to exploit a thin secondary. A tenuous situation at cornerback grew even worse on Friday with the news that veteran Chris Carr is questionable for Sunday after re-aggravating the hamstring injury he’s fought since the preseason. Couple that with the decision to place Domonique Foxworth on injured reserve, and the Ravens may be looking at former practice-squad player Danny Gorrer and rookie Chykie Brown as their only reserve cornerbacks behind Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams. If the Ravens are unable to pressure Mark Sanchez, they will be eaten alive by the receiving trio of Raven killer Santonio Holmes, the 6-foot-5 Plaxico Burress, and the old veteran Derrick Mason, who will have extra motivation to show up his former team.
2. Tight end Dustin Keller and running back LaDainian Tomlinson will exploit the Ravens linebackers in coverage. As mentioned in the previous point, the Ravens will need to send heat to make Sanchez uncomfortable and help an undermanned secondary. That will leave the defense vulnerable underneath as Sanchez loves to throw the ball to his favorite target Keller (16 catches for 249 yards). It’s no secret the Baltimore linebackers are often exposed in coverage by talented tight ends and running backs releasing out of the backfield. Baltimore may be able to bring enough heat on Sanchez to curtail Holmes from burning the Ravens again, but Keller and Tomlinson (12 catches, 196 yards) are going to have productive days as receivers.
3. Torrey Smith will not follow up his record day in St. Louis with a productive night — statistically speaking. The rookie will likely never have another first quarter like he did against the Rams last week, but the performance serves a bigger purpose for the rest of the season, especially not knowing the status of Lee Evans’ injured ankle moving forward. Smith is likely to struggle with the physicality and overall talent of Antonio Cromartie, who will likely match up with the former Maryland standout. However, the Ravens will still send Smith on vertical patterns to keep the Jets defense honest and, more importantly, create space for Anquan Boldin, Ray Rice, and the Ravens tight ends to work underneath. Predicting a productive day for Boldin is tough with Darrelle Revis locked on him, but the veteran will find some room to help move the chains. Smith may not log more than a reception or two, but his work in St. Louis could pay dividends in keeping opposing defenses cognizant of where he is on the field at all times.
4. Ray Rice will have 130 total yards and a touchdown against a Jets defense desperate to stop the run. Much has been said about New York’s 31st-ranked run defense after Raiders running back Darren McFadden ran for 171 yards against the Jets a week ago, but the Ravens aren’t buying the Jets’ early struggles. Ryan and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will be desperate to shut down the Baltimore running game, so Rice may not see as much running room. However, Joe Flacco’s ability to get Rice the ball in space will pay off in the passing game with Revis and Cromartie looming in the secondary. He won’t go for 100 on the ground, but Rice will more than make up for it catching passes out of the backfield and will score a touchdown against the New York defense.
5. The Ravens will win a 24-20 nail-biter with more points than you’d expect because of turnovers from both sides. Considering last year’s 10-9 final between these teams in their regular-season opener, it’s almost unthinkable to expect 44 points to be scored on Sunday night. However, both quarterbacks will see a variety of different looks in potential blitz packages and coverages, which will lead to confusion for Flacco and Sanchez. A few turnovers will lead to short fields and, potentially, a defensive score or two. The Ravens, however, are the more complete football team at the beginning of October and will improve to 3-1 before using a much-needed bye to rest several injured players.