It was very clear to me early in my film study of the Ravens that this wasn't the offense or defense that captured a Super Bowl victory in 2000. This is a much different team from what we generally think of when we talk about the Baltimore Ravens. There still is that hardnosed, tough style of play, but what is clearly different is that the defense isn't carrying this team.
Early in Joe Flacco's career, there were times where offensive coordinator Cam Cameron did everything in his power to make sure his quarterback didn't lose football games, and so he didn't ask him to do too much. That has changed. You now see Flacco taking chances down the field with the ball, although there is a reason for that.
Flacco has more experience, but he also has better weapons. To me, Baltimore's offense really starts with running back Ray Rice and his ability to hurt defenses by not only rushing the ball, but also by catching passes out of the backfield. The Ravens are a big play-action team and the reason they have so much success with it is because of Rice. When you have a back with his talent, pressure is taken off the quarterback to make plays down after down.
Rice has an interesting running style in that I would not call him explosive or a home-run back. Vision is really one of his greatest strengths, and when the line is able to get a push, he knows exactly where he needs to fit in the scheme. Rice is built so low to the ground that it's difficult for defenders to get a solid shot on him. He is one of those backs that just keeps coming at you, rarely wearing down.
Where the Baltimore offense has also made great improvements is at wide receiver and tight end. There have been years when the Ravens have had steady players at receiver, but they have never featured a game breaker like they have now in Torrey Smith. When you study Smith, you see Cameron trying to create opportunities to get the ball in Smith's hands, whether that's on vertical routes or reverses. I would not call him a great route runner overall, but he did have a nice catch for a touchdown on a skinny post against Cleveland.
On the other side, veteran wideout Anquan Boldin doesn't run all that well, but his ability to use his size to catch contested passes all over the field makes him a player that defenders have to account for. Doing a nice job coming off the bench as the third guy has been free-agent pickup Jacoby Jones, who has been good running those tough inside routes, similar to what he did during his days with the Texans.
For years, Baltimore had Todd Heap at the tight end spot and he was a difficult player to match up against. In this current Ravens offense, their new Heap is third-year man Dennis Pitta. I had seen Pitta play with my own eyes live when he was at BYU and was impressed then, but his development has far outreached what I observed that night in Provo. This is a big, athletic tight end that has receiver skills. The Ravens like to create opportunities by moving him all over the formation. I have seen him play inline, flexed and even outside as a receiver running a slant. When Flacco needs a sure catch, Boldin and Pitta are the guys he tries to find. Don't be surprised if the Cowboys treat Pitta like a receiver in the way they cover him.
This is the best offensive line that the Cowboys have faced this season. Last week against the Chiefs there were some struggles on the edges with tackles Michael Oher and rookie Kelechi Osemele, but for the most part, this line really does a nice job of run blocking by taking their big bodies and getting on defenders and carrying them out of the play. This group can get some impressive push off the ball, which, coupled with the running style of Rice breaking tackles, makes for a difficult offense to contain when they want to run the ball.
The key for this matchup will not only be how the Cowboys control the running game with their front seven, but also if they can get enough pressure on Flacco to move him off his spot. It's very similar to how you have to play against the Giants' Eli Manning, where if you get him moving, you could get that mistake.
Defensively, the Ravens are still good, but I use the word "good" and not "great," because without Terrell Suggs, this unit has struggled to get pressure on the quarterback. Coordinator Dean Pees has had to bring pressure in other ways to effect the pocket. You now see linebackers and safeties having to fill the void that was left by Suggs' injury.
There are three spots where I feel the Ravens are outstanding: Haloti Ngata at tackle, Lardarius Webb at corner and Ed Reed at safety.
Ngata is a load inside and his ability to play from tackle to tackle is quite impressive. You are not going to be able to move him in the running game, but where teams have had some success is getting him in motion and then screening him from the play. You have to account for him as well when passing the ball because of the straight-ahead push that he can get. When Suggs was in the lineup, this really caused problems for the offense because of the way he was able to collapse the pocket.
On the outside, I really do like Webb and what he brings to the game. He is not the biggest corner height-wise, but he is very competitive. He plays with outstanding quickness and speed, and is a hard guy to run away from. If he does have a weakness, it's that he will guess on routes and jump them to try and make plays. One of the best double-move route runners the Cowboys have is Miles Austin so we might see head coach Jason Garrett take a shot here if they get the opportunity.
Webb will also line up in the slot as the nickel corner, and they'll use him on outside blitzes from that position as well. If the Cowboys want to take their chances on the outside against cornerbacks Cary Williams and Jimmy Smith, Garrett might take his best receiver, Austin, out of the slot and line him up wide to work against those two instead of Webb.
For 11 seasons, Reed has been the glue that has held this Ravens secondary together. He still shows the ability to make plays with range in the passing game, but you'll also see him in the box on a delayed blitz or defending the run. Whether it's a receiver or tight end, Reed is more than comfortable enough in coverage, which is why I think you will see him on Jason Witten. Still playing with that ball-hawking style that will surely land him in the Hall of Fame one day, he can read and react with outstanding quickness. There is no hesitation in his game. Once Reed sees it, he is gone.
And, speaking of Hall of Fame players, Lewis has been the heart and soul of this Ravens defense for 17 seasons. You can still see the desire and effort, but he just doesn't make the plays that he once did. He is getting blocked more than he has at any point in his career. You never saw linemen get out on him and have a chance to control him; now, you do. There are also plays where you see Lewis not being able to fill the holes like he used to, and there have been times when he has missed tackles there, which once again, was something you never saw.