The Dallas Cowboys face their most complete opponent yet
By Matthew Postins
The Dallas Cowboys (2-2) head to BB&T Stadium in Baltimore to face the Baltimore Ravens (4-1). Here’s a look at the Ravens entering the contest.
On Offense: The Ravens, after years of just making do, are an upper echelon offensive team. Through five games the Ravens are in the Top 10 in the NFL in points per game (26.0) and total offense (398.8 yards per game). Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome has meticulously built this offense since drafting quarterback Joe Flacco in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft. Flacco stands tall in the pocket, has an arm that can throw every NFL-caliber pass with accuracy and has enough mobility to slide out of pressure. Flacco also has positive playoff experience to draw upon in tough situations. He has reliable targets, such as veteran Anquan Boldin and young speedster Torrey Smith. The Ravens did a great job replacing stalwart tight end Todd Heap with Dennis Pitta, who has emerged as a reliable target on third downs and in short-yardage situations. Plus, there’s running back Ray Rice. One of the few combo backs left that plays all three downs in the NFL, Rice leads the team in rushing with 419 yards and is tied for the team lead in receptions with 23. Dallas head coach Jason Garrett is wary of the versatile back, saying Wednesday that while Rice isn’t tall (he’s just 5-foot-8), he’s thick and that makes him durable. He hits holes quickly, has speed to avoid contact and has great balance to bounce off tacklers. Veteran center Matt Birk and left tackle Michael Oher, who has emerged as an above-average player at the position, anchor the offensive line. The Ravens are successful because their talent across the entire offense forces teams to pick their poison, which allows offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to exploit matchups whether rushing or passing the football.
On Defense: The Ravens have long been one of the best defensive teams in the NFL, and the most vital cogs that made that unit so intimidating remain in the form of linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed, both future Hall of Famers. It’s a tribute to whatever fountain of youth the pair pool from, as players their age don’t typically perform at their level. Lewis, at 37, is again the team’s leading tackler. Reed, 34, already has two interceptions. But this unit has some flaws, especially against the run, where the unit is ranked No. 20 in the NFL. It allowed a 140-yard performance against Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles last week. Overall, the Ravens are ranked No. 24 in total defense. The Ravens don’t appear to be getting the push up front they’re used to, as nose tackle Maake Kemoeatu has just six total tackles in five games. Defensive end Haloti Ngata has been banged up. Plus top pass rusher Terrell Suggs is injured and the pass rush is hurting as a result, as the Ravens have just nine sacks so far. But where it matters most this unit is still formidable. The Ravens are averaging allowing 17.8 points per game, good for seventh in the NFL. They limited the Chiefs to just six points last week. The Ravens are a bend-but-don’t-break defense these days, with just enough dominating players to keep opposing offenses honest.
On Special Teams: Placekicker Justin Tucker beat out Billy Cundiff during preseason for the job and he’s only missed one field goal in five games, with a long of 56 yards. If the weather is favorable Tucker’s a near-lock from inside 50 yards. Punter Sam Koch has a big foot. He averages nearly 47 yards per punt and he’s put nearly half of his punts inside the 20-yard line. Rookie Deonte Thompson is proving to be an interesting play at kick returner, where he’s averaging nearly 26 yards per return. Jacoby Jones, a free-agent signing for the Ravens, hasn’t really broken one as punt returner but he’s capable. Overall it’s a quality unit.
Overall: The Ravens were a Super Bowl contender in the AFC entering the season and the Ravens have done nothing to discredit that standing. Their one loss was a one-point game against Philadelphia, and the offense outscored New England in a wild contest in Week 3, 31-30. The Cowboys last played the Ravens four years ago and Baltimore won the game, 33-24. All the talk was about rushing and defense, and the Ravens racked up 265 rushing yards on Dallas. That was Flacco’s rookie season. Now Flacco is a quarterback in full, Rice is one of the league’s most formidable individual weapons and the defense is a little long in the tooth. Last week the Ravens proved they can still win games the way they used to, with great defense and little offense. But thanks to the work of Newsome and the development of Flacco, the Ravens defense doesn’t have to do as much heavy lifting as it used to. This is the most complete team the Cowboys have faced so far this season.