Ever since Rex Ryan left Baltimore to become New York’s head coach, we’ve viewed these two teams as mirror images of one another – and understandably so. Both have young quarterbacks. Both have running backs entering their primes who are backed up by a sage veteran. Both feature an aggressive and deceptive 3-4 defensive scheme. And both talk abundant trash even though their respective rivals – the Patriots and Steelers – have all the rings.
Let’s take a closer look at these teams’ similarities.
1. Young quarterbacks
Something that stood out in Week 3 was how the Ravens and Jets heavily utilized play-action early on, but for different reasons.
The Ravens referred to it to allow time for downfield routes to unfold. They wanted to take advantage of a depleted Rams secondary that was starting undrafted second-year nobody Darian Stewart at safety and disintegrating Al Harris at nickel corner outside. (They succeeded, by the way).
The Jets referred to play action because they wanted to prolong the time that Raiders’ defensive backs had to hold up in man coverage. They also wanted to coax the Raider linebackers into running out of position. (They succeeded, but only in the first half.)
Same offensive tactic, but with vastly different inspirations. The Ravens were trying to showcase their young quarterback, while the Jets were trying to simply make life easier for theirs (nothing wrong with that). This makes sense. Flacco has been around a year longer than Sanchez and is clearly a year ahead of him development-wise. He has a stronger arm and, as of late, more refined tools. He has really improved his pocket movement, becoming more consistent in resetting his feet before he throws.
The Jets are working with Sanchez in this realm. Entering this season, the USC star had a habit of bringing the ball down while eluding rushers in the pocket. This compelled him to reset both his feet AND throwing mechanics, which is too slow of a motion for the NFL.
For what it’s worth, don’t expect such a heavy dose of play-action in this game. Both defenses have savvy linebackers and are too likely to blitz. Instead, the key will be which young quarterback does the best job at diagnosing coverages and pass-rushing attacks prior to the snap.
2. The running backs
Let’s get one thing clear: Ray Rice is a better football player than Shonn Greene. It’s not even close. If Rice were a Friday night, Greene would be, at best, a Wednesday afternoon. Rice runs with superb balance and strength, and his lateral agility is second to none (especially when he gets to the second level). What’s more, he’s a demon in the passing game, both as a receiver and blocker.
Greene, on the other hand, has been somewhat disappointing. He sits out most passing downs and has 1,440 yards rushing…in 32 career games. One issue is Greene’s more of a momentum runner than explosive runner. He excels on sweeps because those runs naturally allow him to hit the line of scrimmage going downhill. But sweeps don’t work against elite outside linebackers (like, say, Terrell Suggs).
Between the tackles, Greene’s vision and timing are very average. That’s why the Jets made LaDainian Tomlinson a prominent part of their offense last season. Tomlinson is off to a fantastic start as a receiving back this season (12 catches for 196 yards and a touchdown), but that’s in part because he knows how to outwit pass defending linebackers. On film, it’s clear L.T. has lost a lot of his speed and quickness. If the Jets are to go anywhere in 2011, they’ll have to ride Greene.
Same goes for the Ravens and Rice. Rice’s production is not a problem, though the Ravens were wise to bring in a supporting No. 2 back like Ricky Williams.
3. The receivers
Derrick Mason is the X-factor. He was Baltimore’s possession target last year and is now filling that role from the slot in New York. The crafty 15-year veteran is one of the few players in the league who does not need to get separation in order to be open.
Plaxico Burress is another one of those players. He’s been, for the most part, his same old self this season (which is remarkable when you really think about it). His matchup Sunday night against Carry Williams will be worth watching. If you asked God to make a cornerback specifically for defending Burress, you might get Williams. He’s only 6’1”, 185, but long and upright, he plays much bigger than that. He has an intriguing combination of physicality and change-of-direction ability, and if asked to play man coverage, he won’t be shy about using trail position technique (which will compel Burress to use his “speed” more than his strength).
It will be interesting to see what the Jets do with Darrelle Revis. The likely assignment will be Anquan Boldin, though last week, rookie Torrey Smith turned in a jaw-dropping three-touchdown first quarter that had the Rams redirecting their safety help concepts. Smith gets faster at the end of his routes, which is something all great deep threats do. Antonio Cromartie has the speed to run with him, so expect the Jets to trust that matchup. But expect the Ravens to readily go after it.
The weak link of both cornerbacking groups happens to be an ex-Boise State Bronco: Chris Carr for the Ravens and Kyle Wilson for the Jets. If it comes down to these ancillary matchups, the Jets have the overall advantage. Mason, their No. 3, is as reliable as they come. For the Ravens, newcomer Lee Evans (who now figures to be the No. 3 receiver) has not established any sort of a rhythm with Flacco.
4. The defensive lines
The Jets have a unique run-stopping approach with their three-man defensive line. Instead of asking their downlinemen to occupy blockers and fill two gaps, the Jets ask them to focus on physically manhandling the guy in front of them. The idea is this creates congestion through penetration and also defines the inside linebackers’ path to the ball (David Harris and Bart Scott are tasked with reading the defensive linemen’s action and attacking in the opposite direction that it’s drifting. More on that in the next section.)
The Jets are the only 3-4 team in the NFL that plays the run this way.
This unique approach is why general manager Mike Tannenbaum drafted a fist-fighter like Muhammad Wilkerson in the first round. Tannenbaum would probably give his right eye for a chance to have a guy like Haloti Ngata. The Ravens 335-pound defensive end/nose tackle is the most destructive front line force in the NFL today.
Ngata has the power of a tug boat and mobility of a clipper. Truly, he moves like a linebacker. Expect him to spend most of his time at defensive end this season, as last year’s second-round pick, Terrence Cody, has looked great at nose tackle.
5. The inside linebackers
These are the entertainers – the guys NBC cameras will fixate on Sunday night. The sagacious Ray Lewis and loquacious Bart Scott. Both back up their personas. Lewis no longer has elite sideline-to-sideline speed, but he compensates with instincts, ferocity and fundamentals.
He was a demon attacking Rams lead-blockers last week. The Ravens’ defensive style will always allow Lewis to be productive, as so much of their run approach is predicated on his teammates occupying blockers.
Scott, who is as aggressive downhill as any linebacker in the league, has both an easier and tougher job than Lewis. It’s easier in that he has a stellar running mate in David Harris. It’s tougher in that, as mentioned earlier, he must read the defensive linemen’s battles in front of him and pursue the ball accordingly.
The reason other 3-4 defenses don’t take this type of approach is it requires great intelligence and pursuit skills from both inside linebackers. Most defenses don’t have an inside combination like Scott and Harris.
So who will win? Check our expert picks for all Week 4 games.
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