Marcus Hayes: Ravens offer Eagles an imposing challenge

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco will be a big challenge for the Eagles' defense.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco will be a big challenge for the Eagles' defense. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: September 14, 2012

WELL, THIS IS a treat.

A referendum game the second week of an NFL season? A game that can gauge the development of several positions and units?

Delicious.

By the time America hears that ticking stopwatch that begins "60 Minutes" every Sunday night, anyone who cares about the Eagles will know if time is running out on the Andy Reid era.

If, coming off an 8-8 hiccup in 2011, his 2012 edition can compete with the elite.

Why?

Because the Baltimore Ravens are for real.

They are complete.

After a one-point win in the opener at Cleveland, the Eagles clearly are not.

Five turnovers.

Twelve penalties.

Seventeen points.

"We need to focus probably more on what we're doing and make sure that we take care of our business," Reid said Wednesday.

Focus might not be enough. Not against this Ravens team.

It begins, for a change, with quarterback Joe Flacco, taken 18th overall out of Delaware in 2008, who finally caught up with draftmate Matt Ryan, taken third by the Falcons.

By the end of this season, Flacco might even pass Matty Ice as the best Philadelphia-area product calling NFL signals.

By the end of the weekend, even.

Some would contend that Flacco, with five playoff wins, always has been better than Ryan, who is 0-3 in the postseason. Flacco's coach, John Harbaugh, says that Flacco is the best that Harbaugh has been around.

That would include Donovan McNabb. Ouch.

Such a talent as Flacco should be a fine test for Juan Castillo's emerging defense, no?

Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, the costliest jewel in the Eagles' diadem of defensive talent acquired last season, said on Sunday that he could not recall a single defensive mistake in execution against the Browns. Indeed, the Browns scored off Eagles turnovers.

The test will be tougher this weekend, thanks largely to Flacco's progress.

Flacco finished 2011 with six wins in seven games, during which his passer rating was 91.5. He was better in the two Ravens playoff games after flailing in his first three postseason trips.

Flacco is eager to throw away balls and he is stingy with interceptions, so there might not be a lot of plays to be made by the defensive backfield, which shined brightest in Cleveland with four interceptions.

Flacco won't throw four picks. After years of abuse in the pocket, the offense has been tailored to keep him clean; a no-huddle attack that relies heavily on his conservative bent.

Still, he is lead-footed, at 6-6 and 232 pounds. He is just the sort of quarterback the Eagles' defensive line should feast upon, huddle or no.

Will they?

After tying for the NFL lead with 50 sacks in 2011, the Birds got to Browns rookie Brandon Weeden just twice, for 7 lost yards. The Eagles have managed just six sacks in their last three regular-season games.

Another such performance against the Ravens certainly will call into question the abilities of the modified Wide Nine attack as opponents adjust to it.

Tick-tick-tick-tick . . .

Of course, the Wide Nine doesn't work without three viable linebackers. Last season, the Eagles were lucky to have one on the field at any given time.

The linebackers Sunday in Cleveland looked like the Bears of 1986. Featured back Trent Richardson managed 39 rushing yards on 19 attempts, but Richardson is a rookie who missed training camp after knee surgery.

Was Sunday's performance by newcomers DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks a mirage?

Ray Rice will answer that question by dinnertime. The Ravens' running attack ranked fourth in the AFC last season.

Tick-tick-tick-tick . . .

As badly as Flacco sought validation as a passer, LeSean McCoy craved recognition as a runner. He received it last season, when he led the league and set the franchise record with 20 touchdowns. The price of accomplishment was precious. Teams geared to stop him, and did.

He averaged just 58 rushing yards per game over the last five games of the season.

The Ravens' entire game plan begins with stopping the run. They have been in the NFL's top five against the run in each of the last six seasons.

Focus might not be enough.

Running behind an offensive line that no longer includes left tackle Jason Peters, McCoy gained 110 yards in Cleveland . . . against one of the worst rushing defenses in the league a year ago.

Rest assured, facing Ray Lewis and Co., the degree to which he is the real McCoy will be plumbed.

Tick-tick-tick-tick . . .

As for that crucial left tackle position, as closely as King Dunlap was watched in Cleveland, he will be more minutely scrutinized Sunday.

Even without Terrell Suggs (Achilles'), whose 14 sacks helped the Ravens lead the AFC with 48, the Ravens managed four sacks against the Bengals.

Michael Vick went down just twice in Cleveland, but he was generally harassed. He threw four interceptions, often with pressure bearing down on him.

Not all of the pressure came from Dunlap's side . . . which is disturbing, since the other four linemen appeared to jell nicely at the end of 2011. They clearly were the most improved unit during the Eagles' four-win push that lent such promise to 2012.

They clearly were the least impressive unit in the one-point, comeback win in Cleveland that lent so much doubt to this team's immediate future.

And now they face a confusing, 3-4 scheme, with a head coach in Harbaugh who, as the Eagles' special-teams coach, spent a decade watching Reid formulate attacks.

Tick-tick-tick-tick . . .

But, as always, the real question lies in how Vick will play, and how much the Eagles will lean on him.

Expect this: The Ravens will be fearless in their pursuit of Vick. A fast, agile and, at certain positions, a brilliant defense, will focus on Vick's diminishing ability to break and run and his diminishing tendency to break and run.

It will see those floater passes Vick threw in Cleveland and know his left thumb is not fully recovered from hitting a helmet in the first preseason game.

It will see Vick throwing passes to the sideline, see him diving and covering, instead of scratching for every single yard, and it will know that, under the world's finest Kevlar protection, Vick's ribs are still tender from Game 2 of the preseason.

It will see top receiver Jeremy Maclin (hip flexor) in street clothes and it will salivate at the chance to beat up deep threat DeSean Jackson, who himself will be nursing a hamstring injury.

It will see these things, and it will feast.

The Birds have "much more to clean up after the first game than I certainly ever expected," said offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg.

Tick-tick-tick-tick . . .

Boom.


Contact Marcus Hayes at hayesm@phillynews.com.

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