8:05 PM EST, FOX – Line: Ravens -8.5, Over/Under: 45
Though they’ve been two of the most disappointing teams in the league this season, all is not lost as the Baltimore Ravens play host to the Dallas Cowboys on a rare Tuesday Night affair from M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland. This particular matchup was initially supposed to be contested this past Thursday, though due to the host’s repeated postponement of last week’s battle with the Pittsburgh Steelers, it has thus been moved to the following Tuesday, which makes for a well-rested Cowboys (3-8, 4th in NFC East) team, who haven’t taken the field since Thanksgiving Day. Then again, that’s probably for the best for Dallas, who was embarrassed in their annual holiday showcase, this time by the Washington Football Team no less, in a 41-16 thrashing that everyone would rather forget (though we’ll get into it in a bit). That defeat plunged Mike McCarthy’s charges into last place in what has clearly been the worst division in the National Football League, where none of it’s residents currently own a winning record, with the four teams that comprise it’s number posting a combined ledger of 15-30-1 (.326). However, as remarkable as it may sound, there is still room for optimism in Arlington, for even at five games under .500, they remain two out of first place, which would of course grant them a Home Playoff Game in spite of their record. And that is what McCarthy and his Coaching Staff must be conveying to their troops, for no matter how poorly 2020 has been for them, they close out the campaign with dates with the Philadelphia Eagles and division-leading New York Giants, which means that they still have a shot, even with just five games left on the schedule.
Of course, this is NOT how this season was supposed to unfold for the Cowboys, who finally parted ways with (Head Coach) Jason Garrett after too many late-season collapses and premature Postseason exits, eventually tabbing former Packers’ skipper, the aforementioned McCarthy, to get them over the proverbial hump. Say what you will about the 57-year old and the inglorious manner that his tenure in Green Bay ended, but the man was nothing short of successful, earning a 125-77-2 record (.618) over thirteen seasons, including six division titles and a Super Bowl Championship (XLV). However, his first campaign with Dallas after spending a year out of coaching has been nothing short of a disaster thus far, with a once-rich roster full of star power utterly decimated by injuries, and a Coaching Staff (particularly on the defensive side of the football) struggling to acclimate their vision and tactics to the pieces on hand. The latter of these two issues has been the most puzzling, with Dallas absolutely imploding on Defense in 2020 under the stewardship of (Defensive Coordinator) Mike Nolan. Simply put, this has been a major problem from the jump, with this unit yielding an NFL-worst 32.6 points per game on 382.4 total yards (23rd Overall). Furthermore, they’ve been absolutely dreadful on third down (49.7%, 30th Overall) and in the red zone (67.5%, 27th Overall), while logging just ten takeaways (31st Overall). Sure, this group lost Linebacker, Leighton Vander Esch (45 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FF), for four games early on with a collarbone injury, but the problem here has been more tactical than anything else; Nolan has sought to implement his traditional, aggressive 3/4 defensive front despite having personnel that has long been suited to run zone-based Cover-2/Cover-3 schemes, and as a result there has been plenty of miscommunication and lapses in coverage. With that said, this has been no more apparent than in the trenches where they’ve been manhandled against the run, getting gashed for league-worsts in both rushing yards (156.4) and yards per carry (4.9). Eleven games into the campaign and it’s become painfully evident that this is a case of Coaching Staff and personnel being very poor fits for one another. In regards to the rash of injuries that have beset them, it’s been some of the biggest names that have suffered the most, none bigger than Dak Prescott (68.0%, 1,856 YDS, 7.72 NY/A, 9 TD, 4 INT, 79.3 QBR), who saw his season come to a gruesome end after just five games due to a broken leg. Of course, the 27-year old’s ongoing contractual saga dominated the headlines during the Offseason, with the two sides eventually settling on the Franchise Tender, which only makes his injury all the more disappointing, particularly for a former 4th Round Pick who had long outperformed his deal. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the mighty Offensive Line, which had long been the team’s greatest strength, lost nearly all of it’s muscle with four different starters missing extensive time; (Tackles) Tyron Smith (neck) and La’el Collins (hip) were lost for the season early on, followed by (Interior Linemen) Zack Martin (calf) and Cameron Erving (knee), who both left the Thanksgiving debacle and will miss at least a few weeks. Smith and Martin have earned thirteen Pro-Bowl and six All-Pro selections between them, and that doesn’t even include former Center, Travis Frederick, who was forced to abruptly retire during the Offseason due to illness. Replacing Prescott is Andy Dalton (65.1%, 870 YDS, 4.82 NY/A, 5 TD, 5 INT, 47.9 QBR), whom the club acquired as an insurance policy during his predecessor’s ongoing contractual negotiations. Again, say what you will about the 33-year old, but you could do A LOT worse than having this guy as your Backup Quarterback; the Texas native is a three-time Pro-Bowler and in nine seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals went 70-61-2, managing to take the franchise to five consecutive Playoff births from 2011 to 2015. While he certainly hasn’t set the world on fire in relief of Prescott, winning just one of his four starts and sidelined three weeks with a concussion, he’s still been more stable than the likes of Ben DiNucci and Garrett Gilbert, who quite frankly shouldn’t even be carrying a clipboard in today’s NFL. Tonight’s contest will serve as a reunion of sorts with an old foe, for Dalton is no stranger to the Ravens, whom he has shared a plethora of battles with during his career in the AFC North; the veteran signal-caller is 8-8 in sixteen career meetings, scoring twenty-six touchdowns in comparison to committing twenty-four turnovers, his most against any single opponent.
When we last saw the Cowboys, they were getting embarrassed on Thanksgiving by their bitter rivals, the Washington Football Team, in a 41-16 thumping that spiraled out of control in the Second Half. Believe it or not, this affair was a lot closer than the final score would lead you to believe, with Dallas trailing 20-16 entering the Fourth Quarter. However, this is where everything fell apart for the hosts, and it happened so quickly, we would forgive you for missing a key play or two while enjoying your turkey. After (Linebacker) Jaylon Smith (100 TKL, 5 TFL, 2 QBH, 1.5 SK, 1 INT, 4 PD) intercepted Alex Smith to set up Greg Zuerlein’s 28-yard field goal to cut the lead to four points, McCarthy’s charges quickly got the football back, but couldn’t do much with it as they stalled at their own 24-yard line. Curiously, McCarthy called for a fake punt, which went absolutely nowhere, and one play later the visitors scampered twenty-three yards into the end zone. After actually punting on their next possession, the run defense was gashed yet again, as Washington’s Antonio Gibson, author of the previous score, ripped off a 37-yard score to push the lead to 33-16. But that wouldn’t be the end of it, for on their very first play of the ensuing drive, Dalton would see his short pass to (Tailback) Ezekiel Elliott (181 CAR, 707 YDS, 3.9 Y/A, 5 TD) intercepted by Montez Sweat, who promptly took it fifteen yards to the house. In the end, it was about as listless a performance from the Cowboys as seen in the annual holiday showcase, amassing a scant 247 total yards on thirteen first downs, including just sixty rushing yards on eighteen carries, converting a miserable 5-of-17 on third and fourth down combined, while possessing the football for only 24:04. Dalton struggled immensely, completing 25-of-35 passes for 215 yards, a touchdown and an interception, sacked three times for a loss of twenty-four yards and hit a total of six times on the afternoon, while the aforementioned Elliott was little more than an afterthought with a season-low thirty-two yards on ten attempts. Once again, the run defense was abysmal, relinquishing 182 yards and three scores on thirty-six carries.
Meanwhile, we’ve said it over and over again but my, oh my, what a difference has made for the Ravens (6-5, 3rd in AFC North). This time last year, they were running roughshod over the league en route to a franchise-best 14-2 finish on the strength of a relentless rushing attack that had left the rest of the NFL helpless to stop them, led by MVP-winner Lamar Jackson (63.4%, 1,948 YDS, 6.03 NY/A, 15 TD, 6 INT, 61.7 QBR). This season though, they’ve seen the rest of the league catch up to their schemes, with Jackson taking a step backwards, which has left them fighting for their Playoff lives at just one game over .500. Oh, and did we fail to mention what has become arguably the most highly-publicized COVID-19 outbreak in the league thus far? It all started following their 30-24 overtime loss at home to the Tennessee Titans back on November 22nd, with a number of players testing positive for the virus the next day, raising alarms within league offices in regards to their looming Thanksgiving Night showdown with the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers. After two more days of successive positive tests ranging from players to coaches to even the team’s nutritionist (23 in total), the league stepped in and initially moved the affair to Sunday, though that wouldn’t last thanks to even more positive cases, eventually moving the contest to midday on Wednesday. Of course, this proverbial game of Musical Chairs is why tonight’s game is being played on a Tuesday, with Baltimore looking to break out of this malaise and avoid falling further out of the Playoff picture within the AFC. But how did they arrive to this point?
Well before COVID-19 ravaged their roster in lieu of their rematch with the Steelers (more on that soon), this was a team that was struggling to regain the momentum and consistency of play that they enjoyed throughout 2019. John Harbaugh’s charges started the campaign reasonably enough, winning all but one of their first six games before heading into their Bye Week. However, since that point they simply haven’t looked right on either side of the football for a variety of reasons, losing four of their last five outings and falling out of the Playoff field in the AFC altogether. There have been a number of hurdles in their way apart from the influence of the virus, with a much tougher schedule coupled with a far more competitive division making their trek through 2020 all the more arduous; remember, the Ravens were the only team to finish above .500 in the AFC North last season, and this year they’ve been leapfrogged by the unbeaten Steelers and the surprising Cleveland Browns, whom together have amassed a glittering record of 21-3. With that said, the biggest issue continues to be the regression of the Offense and the aforementioned Jackson, who hasn’t been nearly as effective as he was last season in which the Sophomore Signal-Caller accounted for a whopping FORTY-TWO touchdowns, while rushing for 1,026 yards, an NFL record for his position. (Offensive Coordinator) Greg Roman crafted the attack to his unique skillset, with Baltimore evolving into a bonafide juggernaut on this side of the football, leading the league in scoring (33.2), first downs (386), rushing yards (206.0), and yards per carry (5.5). Apparently, the rest of the league has caught up to Roman and his schemes, for they have employed a variety of tactics in slowing Jackson; opposing Defenses have steadfastly taken away the middle of the field for the young passer, forcing him to attempt to stretch the field outside the hashmarks, where he hasn’t been nearly as accurate and a young Receiving Corps has yet to find much traction at all. Opponents have also gone out of their way to set the edge in an attempt to confine him to the pocket, and limit the outside runs that he had exploited so frequently in the past. They’ve also blitzed the 23-year old with far more success, disrupting the time it takes for the longer vertical routes to form. In this case, the numbers don’t lie, folks, for Jackson has experienced steep decline in a slew of categories, including completion percentage (66.1% to 63.1%), yards per attempt (7.8 to 7.1), touchdown percentage (9.0% to 5.4%), sack percentage (5.4% to 8.0%), net yards per attempt (7.13 to 6.03), and QBR (82.3 to 61.7). Furthermore, he’s been pressured much more (16.2% to 22.1%), leading to more sacks through ten games (24) than he had suffered in fifteen outings last year (23), while finding far less success when scrambling to escape the rush, averaging just 6.5 yards per scramble in comparison to a robust 11.0 a year ago. However, it hasn’t all been on his shoulders though, for the supporting cast around him hasn’t been the best either; the Offensive Line saw All-Pro Guard, Marshal Yanda, retire in the Offseason, while (Left Tackle) Ronnie Stanley has been languishing on Injured Reserve with a fractured/dislocated ankle since Week Eight. And then there is the aforementioned Receiving Corps, which (General Manager) Eric DeCosta failed to bolster in the Offseason; the Ravens have just seen just 1,299 yards attributed to Wide Receivers thus far, which translates to a mere 66.9% of their passing offense, by far the lowest such figure in the NFL. So is it any wonder that they rank next-to-last in passing this season? Through eleven games they’ve attempted the fewest passes in the league (297), rank next-to-last in yards (189.3), and twenty-fourth in net yards per attempt (5.94). Sure they’ve continued to rush the football with success (157.6 Y/G, 2nd Overall), but when you compare that to last year’s showing, they’re churning out 48.4 fewer yards, which is a rather sizable difference. Despite these lingering issues, there is still time to right the ship for Harbaugh & Co, who in addition to regaining many key members of their roster (including Jackson) from the COVID List, will face just one winning team over their final five games to close out the schedule, including a date with the aforementioned Browns, which could prove to be crucial in the race for a Wild Card, particularly after hammering them 38-6 in the Season Opener.
When we last saw the Ravens, they dropped their third game in a row and fourth in five outings overall in a 19-14 loss at the Steelers. This one was a bit of a mess, folks, even after it was postponed on three separate occasions due to COVID-19. Baltimore arrived late to Western Pennsylvania due to snow in the area, and proceeded to go to battle without ten starters including the likes of the aforementioned Jackson, (Tailbacks) Mark Ingram (57 CAR, 232 YDS, 4.1 Y/A, 2 TD) and J.K. Dobbins (72 CAR, 380 YDS, 5.3 Y/A, 3 TD), (Fullback) Patrick Ricard, (Tight End) Mark Andrews (38 REC, 454 YDS, 11.9 Y/R, 6 TD), (Offensive Linemen) Matt Skura and Patrick Merkari, and (Receiver) Willie Snead (28 REC, 379 YDS, 13.5 Y/R, 3 TD), along with (Defensive Linemen) Calais Campbell (24 TKL, 5 TFL, 10 QBH, 4.0 SK, 6 PD) and Brandon Williams ((20 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 QBH), (Edge-Rusher) Matt Judon ((34 TKL, 6 TFL, 17 QBH, 4.0 SK, 2 PD), and (Linebacker) Pernell McPhee (25 TKL, 2 TFL 11 QBH, 2.0 SK, 1 PD). Once the affair finally kicked off it quickly became clear that this was going to be an uneven performance from both sides, as the first three possessions between them ended in turnovers. Veteran Backup Quarterback, Robert Griffin (57.1%, 42 YDS, 1.29 NY/A, 0 TD, 2 INT, 27.4 QBR), struggled greatly in just his second start in three years with the club, completing just 7-of-12 passes for thirty-three yards, three sacks, a lost fumble, and an interception which was returned for the opening score, finally giving way to Trace McSorley in the Second Half after suffering a hamstring strain. The youngster had a hard time too, but eventually found (Sophomore Receiver) Marquise Brown (36 REC, 516 YDS, 14.3 Y/R, 3 TD) for a 70-yard bomb with just under 3:00 left to play, cutting the lead to 19-14. However, it was too little too late as the hosts managed to run out the clock on the ensuing possession, bringing an end to a contest that league would no doubt prefer to sweep under the rug. As expected it was a hard game to watch for both teams, particularly the visitors who could muster just 219 total yards on ten first downs, 129 of which came via the run, committing a pair of turnovers, drawing seven penalties for a loss of eighty-six yards, converting a combined 4-of-14 on third and fourth down, and possessing the football for a scant 26:21, en route to being swept in the season series for the first time since 2017.