Ted Marchibroda was their head coach, Eric Zeier their quarterback, and Bill Clinton was the president of the United States the last time the Ravens played a game without any of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, or Terrell Suggs on the field.
Sunday will mark the first game since Oct. 11, 1998 that the Ravens will compete without any of the three greatest defensive players in franchise history, signaling a new era for a Baltimore defense that still possesses much talent. More importantly, Baltimore is trying to avoid its first 0-2 start since 2005 after a disappointing showing in Denver last week. Since 1990, only 24 of 205 teams to begin a season 0-2 have made the playoffs.
It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens play Oakland for the eighth time in the all-time regular-season series as they own a 6-1 record. Baltimore carries a 1-1 regular-season record in Oakland, but the Ravens won their only playoff game at O.co Coliseum in topping the Raiders in the 2000 AFC championship game. The Ravens have won four straight over the Raiders with their only loss coming in 2003.
Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to improve to 29-10 in games immediately following a loss under John Harbaugh, the second best mark in the NFL since 2008 …
1. Steve Smith and Crockett Gillmore will catch touchdown passes against a banged-up Oakland secondary that won’t be up to the task. The Raiders pass defense isn’t very good anyway, but the unit will be without safety Nate Allen and fellow safety Charles Woodson’s status is in question with a shoulder injury. Oakland cornerbacks won’t be able to hang with Smith, who will use a double move to catch a long touchdown. Gillmore will split the safeties down the seam to catch a touchdown on the same route we saw in the third preseason game before the score was negated by a penalty. It won’t be a record-setting day for the passing game, but Joe Flacco and his pass-catchers will make progress.
2. The Baltimore offensive line will provide more room in the running game, but pass protection will remain a concern. This unit can’t be any worse than it was last week, and they’ll pave the way for 100-plus rushing yards. But the absence of left tackle Eugene Monroe will still present a problem as James Hurst will be overmatched against the likes of Justin Tuck, Khalil Mack, and Aldon Smith coming off the edge. Unlike last week, Marc Trestman will use more max protect to help Hurst — or right tackle Rick Wagner — and to avoid Flacco being pressured on every two of three snaps like last week. However, the Raiders will still harass Flacco too often and will sack him three times.
3. Jason Babin will collect a sack in his debut with the Ravens. It will be fascinating to see how Dean Pees goes about replacing Suggs’ snaps and production, but the 35-year-old Babin is in good shape and will get on the board early with a quarterback takedown in the first half. The biggest overall concern will be how an increased workload impacts Elvis Dumervil, who has been terrific as a situational player but isn’t as effective against the run as Suggs. The front seven is too good against the run to allow the Raiders to exploit the transition on Sunday, but creativity will be a must to maintain an effective pass rush and to set the edge, the latter being an underrated part of Suggs’ weekly contributions.
4. Derek Carr will find Michael Crabtree for a touchdown pass, but the Raiders quarterback will struggle to consistently move the ball. The Baltimore secondary was quite impressive a week ago, but I’m not convinced that their problems from 2014 are long gone either and Oakland will find some gaps in the pass defense from time to time despite little room to run. Rookie Amari Cooper has all the tools to be an impact receiver, but Crabtree also has something to prove this year after lukewarm interest from teams in free agency. He’ll slip by veteran cornerback Lardarius Webb in the red zone for Oakland’s only touchdown of the afternoon.
5. The Ravens will make more plays to maintain control in a 24-16 win over the Raiders. Oakland has more talent at the top end of its roster than it’s had in quite a while, but Baltimore is a much better football team. That being said, the Ravens rarely dominate on the road and own a total of three wins by more than one possession away from M&T Bank Stadium over the previous three seasons. The Ravens offense will be better, but they have a lot of work to do to become the kind of unit that can dominate a team on the road. The Ravens will lead the entire way, but the offense will lack the consistency to pull away as some fans will grumble about an underwhelming win.