Background/Storylines: Eagles (1-0) and Ravens (1-0)
The Eagles, unlike last year, came out flat to start the season and almost fell to the awful Cleveland Browns in Week 1. With Vick’s struggles—four interceptions aren’t overshadowed by a game-winning drive, no matter how long it is—Reid’s continued lack of commitment to one of the best backs in the league and Alex Henery’s continued inability to hit field goals when they matter, the only really positives to take away from Week 1 were on the defensive side, where DRC, Kurt Coleman and DeMeco Ryans all put in concerted efforts to allow only three field goals—the TD was a defensive one. In addition, the Eagles are 1-5 in Week 1 match-ups in the last six seasons, so Reid will have to try and reverse his team’s trend of winning in Week 1 and then coasting to a loss seven days later.
The Ravens, on the other hand, are one of the hottest teams in the league after steamrolling division rival Cincinnati 44-13 in their opening Monday Night Football matchup. With QB Joe Flacco looking as good as ever with a 128.4 passer rating and 299 yards, running back Ray Rice once again making the case for best in the league and Ed Reed looking like the Ed Reed of 2008, this Ravens will definitely require much more from the Eagles than was needed to beat the lowly Browns. Even without Terrell Suggs, one of the team’s leaders on defense, the Ravens still managed to sack Andy Dalton four times and pick him off once. They allowed only 4.7 yards per play while getting 7.4 themselves, out-gaining the Bengals by a lot and simply coasting to the blowout. With a strong offense and a somewhat shaky but still adequate defense, it will be a battle of strengths when they face the Birds.
Fantasy Watch: LeSean McCoy (PHI) and Joe Flacco (BAL)
LeSean McCoy may have underperformed fantasy-wise last week—he only had 11.6 points—but that was for two reasons: First, Andy Reid passed the ball 72% of the time, and second, all the goal line touches went to tight ends or wideouts. With both set to change against a secondary featuring pick-happy safety Ed Reed and depth at cornerback—not to mention Vick’s four interceptions last week—expect Shady’s numbers to rise accordingly. While I think Reid understands that he’ll need more faith in Dion Lewis and Bryce Brown to keep Shady healthy going forward, taking a player like him off the field seems like it’s akin to shooting yourself in the foot; he’ll get his touches and he’ll average close to 5 yards per rush, so expect a stat line along 120 yards and a touchdown on Sunday against Baltimore.
Even though the Eagles defense devoured Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden, I expect a much better performance this week from Joe Flacco. Not only is he coming off of one his best performances as a professional, but he’s coming off of a strong 2011 overall where lead his team to within 1 play of the Super Bowl. When DeMeco Ryans and the entire front seven loaded up to stop the run last week, the Browns’ run game was almost nonexistent. With another fantastic running back suiting up against the Birds, there is no doubt that defensive coordinator Juan Castillo will look to stop the run first and force Flacco to go to the air early and often. While he won’t necessarily be extremely efficient against an elite secondary, Flacco will rack up the yards to make him worthy of a fantasy start. My projected stats for Flacco: 260 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception.
Key Matchup: Eagles’ CBs vs Ravens’ WRs
Going with the theme of “loading up against the run”, whether Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha can go man-to-man against the Ravens wide receivers will be critical. Last week, both showed that they are ready to turn the page in their Eagles’ careers and become the elite starters that they were acquired to become, so Week 2 will be a chance for them to prove that the Cleveland game wasn’t a fluke; they allowed only 118 yards, forced four interceptions and allowed Weeden to average only 3.4 yards per pass. DRC, in particular, looked great, picking off two passes and playing tight coverage all game long on Josh Gordon and Travis Benjamin.
On the flip side, with Ryans and the entire linebacking corps playing up to neutralize Ray Rice, the Ravens will only go as far as their passing takes them. While Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones and Laquan Williams are by no means elite, they certainly are a nice group of wideouts who got the job done against Cincinnati along with tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson. With the Ravens playing more 2-TE sets than 3-WR ones, I expect nickel corner Brandon Boykin to get more snaps this week against tight ends, especially Pitta, but the most important matchups will come down to Asomugha vs Boldin and Rodgers-Cromartie vs Smith.
Smith, who beat Leon Hall for a 52-yard reception last week, has a lot of talent but can struggle with consistency. If DRC can use his athleticism to stay with Smith, he could take the youngster out of it mentally by the second half. Covering Boldin is a tougher assignment, which is why Reid should be happy he has a guy like Asomugha. Sure, Nnamdi isn’t Darrelle Revis anymore, but if Boldin can’t free himself from Asomugha in key situations, the Ravens will have a long day. If he and Smith can, however, get consistently open routes, the Eagles will be forced to back off the run game and Rice will run all over them.
X-Factor: Andy Reid (PHI) and Ray Lewis (BAL)
It may be corky to call the head coach an ‘X-Factor’, but in my opinion, it was his play-calling that got the Birds in trouble last Sunday. If it seemed counter-intuitive that Reid would throw 72% of the time against a bad run defense with Shady at his disposal, it’s because it was. There is a reason Vick got in trouble against Cleveland, and only part of it was his fault: He consistently was forced to throw to a Browns secondary that knew what was coming, in particular Joe Haden, who picked him off once and made countless other deflections. Until Reid starts trusting his backup running backs more, the Eagles offense will not break out of its metaphorical shell and become the powerhouse it has the potential to be.
Ray Lewis will be one of Baltimore’s most important players as long as he’s still around the league, but against the Eagles he becomes the team’s most vital defensive piece. Shutting down the run game early is of vital importance to head coach John Harbaugh; Reid has a tendency to abandon the run if it isn’t successful early, like he did last week after several holding penalties brought back long runs. If that happens, the Eagles offense will play right into the hands of Ed Reed and the entire Baltimore defense; not only will the pick-happy secondary force Vick into a couple turnovers, but Harbaugh will turn his defensive linemen—especially Haloti Ngata, who’ll make Vick look like a pancake by the end of the afternoon.
Prediction: Ravens 23, Eagles 20
It pains me to pick against my beloved Birds, but I don’t see a way they’ll be able to squeak one out even at home; if they’d lost against Cleveland, I’d have them winning this game by a lot just because of the huge chip on their shoulders, but Andy Reid has shown that losses that almost were don’t affect his game plan. Since they won, he has an excuse to keep using the same losing formula that nearly cost them in Week 1. Even if he does make a concerted effort to change, however, I don’t see the Eagles scoring many points against a Ravens defense that prides itself on goal-line efficiency. It’ll be close, but the Eagles leave the Linc as a 1-1 football team.