NFL Preview - Baltimore (0-0) at N.Y. Jets (0-0)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Take two teams with sky-high 2010 expectations, add in a heavy dose of personal familiarity, and spice it up with a little back-and- forth trash talk in the days preceding the game, and you have the makings of a highly intriguing NFL contest.
When the New York Jets make their formal debut at New Meadowlands Stadium against the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night, all of those potential tension- inducing elements will be in place.
The quality of the teams, both of which made significant noise in the AFC portion of the playoffs last year, is the first thing that stands out about the matchup.
The Jets scratched and clawed their way to 9-7 in their first year under head coach Rex Ryan a year ago, benefiting from a weak AFC field and the Colts' and Bengals' decisions not to play to win in the regular season's final weeks in order to reach the postseason. But, any doubts about whether New York belonged in the playoffs were extinguished when Ryan and company went on the road to beat the Bengals (24-14) and Chargers (17-14), earning the organization's first berth in the AFC Championship since 1998. The Colts got the better of the Jets (30-17) in that contest, but New York's run set the bar for 2010.
The organization has not shied away from reinforcing those expectations, going out in the offseason and acquiring the high-profile likes of running back LaDainian Tomlinson, wide receiver Santonio Holmes, pass rusher Jason Taylor and cornerback Antonio Cromartie. The Jets also agreed to be a part of HBO's venerable "Hard Knocks" documentary series, in which Ryan's stated belief that the team was headed to its first Super Bowl title since Joe Namath raised an index finger was laid bare for five weeks.
The Ravens may not have made the Nielsen Ratings for their work during the preseason, but they did little to derail the widespread belief that they are the team to beat in the AFC North.
After going 9-7 and destroying the Patriots (33-14) in the wild card round before falling at the Colts a year ago, Baltimore fortified its roster with the likes of wideouts Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Donte' Stallworth, defensive backs Josh Wilson and Ken Hamlin, and d-lineman Cory Redding. Those headline-grabbing enhancements offered a signal that a team that has gone 23-14 with a pair of playoff appearances in two years under head coach John Harbaugh has designs on finishing the job in 2010.
For this week, the Jets and Ravens will try to prevent each other from reaching the launching pad, and their familiarity with each other should help ratchet up that intent.
Ryan spent 10 seasons as an assistant with the Ravens (1999-2008), including the final four years as defensive coordinator, and was passed over for the head coaching job when Harbaugh got it. When arriving in New York in 2009, Ryan plucked several Ravens assistants (current defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, d-line coach Mark Carrier, d-backs coach Dennis Thurman) for his new staff, and signed away linebacker Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard in free agency.
Clearly, Baltimore noticed both the moves and the confident rhetoric that has come out of Jets camp of late, with none other than Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis offering a counterpoint to that optimism.
"We're talking about the Jets like we're talking about the Saints," Lewis said earlier this week. "That's the defending Super Bowl champs, and until they play [Thursday night], that's the only people that can be dethroned - Drew Brees and the Saints, not Mark Sanchez and the Jets. You know, all this, 'We're the Miami Heat of football.' If you're all the Miami Heat, we've got to be the Lakers because we're looking for multiple rings. You know what I'm saying? But you listen to all this yap, yap, yap ... The bottom line is you've got to buckle up your chinstraps. So Rex can say what he wants to say."
Lewis continued, "My name should not come out of Rex's mouth unless you're telling somebody to come block me, which is going to be a very hard damn task come Monday night ... So all this pressure he wants to put on his team, I hope they can cash the check that he writes."
When briefed on Lewis' comments, Ryan replied, "I'm laughing. I think it's great. That's good. I don't care one way or the other. We don't have to sneak up on people to tell them what we think. We expect to have a great football team, we expect to win, we go into every football game expecting to win, and if that's 'cashing a check' and all that other kind of stuff, then so be it."
The Ravens lead the all-time series with the Jets, 5-1, including five straight wins since dropping a 19-16 overtime decision at the Meadowlands in 1997. Baltimore was a 20-13 home winner when the teams last met, at M&T Bank Stadium in Week 2 of the 2007 season, and took a 20-17 decision when the clubs last met in East Rutherford, in 2004. Baltimore's most recent trip to North Jersey resulted in a 30-10 loss to the New York Giants in 2008.
Ryan, who as mentioned served as an assistant coach with the Ravens from 1999 through 2008 including the final four years as defensive coordinator, will be meeting his former employer for the first time as a head coach. Baltimore's Harbaugh, who was Ryan's boss for one year (2008), will be facing both his ex-underling and the Jets for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
A Ravens team that has long been known for stifling defense and hit-or-miss offense (at best) sought to blow up that identity in the offseason. An attack that finished a respectable 13th in NFL total offense a year ago will expect to creep closer to the top this year via the acquisition of Boldin (84 receptions, 5 TD with the Cardinals) and Houshmandzadeh (79 receptions, 3 TD with the Seahawks), both of whom will make their formal debuts with the Ravens on Monday night. Also back in the fold for third-year quarterback Joe Flacco (3613 passing yards, 21 TD, 12 INT) are trusty veterans Derrick Mason (73 receptions, 7 TD) and Todd Heap (53 receptions, 6 TD), with rookie tight ends Ed Dickson (Oregon) and Dennis Pitta (BYU) offering yet another pass-catching element to the fray. That all of those names are listed before the discussion begins about the team's top offensive weapon, Ray Rice (1339 rushing yards, 78 receptions, 8 TD), offers some perspective on just how talented this unit is. Rice was a Pro Bowler in 2009 and ranked second in NFL yards from scrimmage behind only the Titans' Chris Johnson. If there is a question mark for Baltimore it lies with an o-line in which Michael Oher is being asked to switch from right to left tackle and the team's starting RT for Monday is unknown due to injuries to Jared Gaither (back) and Oniel Cousins (head).
The Jets were dominant at times defensively in 2009, finishing the year atop the NFL in total defense, scoring defense and pass defense when all was said and done. Frighteningly, the unit looks even better on paper this year, as Pro Bowl nose tackle Kris Jenkins (13 tackles) is back from the knee injury that ended his '09 season prematurely, and Taylor, Cromartie (33 tackles, 3 INT with San Diego) and first-round cornerback Kyle Wilson (Boise State) were all brought into the fold during the offseason. And that's before you get to All- Pro corner Darrelle Revis (54 tackles, 6 INT), who will be on the field for the first time after sitting out the entire preseason in a since-resolved contract dispute. Looking to limit Rice's effectiveness along with Jenkins will be inside linebackers David Harris (127 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 2 INT) and Bart Scott (92 tackles, 1 sack). Scott played seven seasons with Baltimore (2002-08), making a Pro Bowl appearance as a Raven in 2006. Taylor (42 tackles, 7 sacks with Miami), who played 12 of his 13 years as a member of the hated Dolphins, should play a big role on Monday in the absence of Calvin Pace, who will miss at least the first week with a foot problem.
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL
There is a school of thought that says, even with the Jets' significant defensive strength, the team will only go as far in 2010 as quarterback Mark Sanchez (2444 passing yards) can take it. Sanchez had his moments as a rookie, making big throws in each of the team's two playoff wins, but will have to distance himself further from a regular season that saw him throw 20 interceptions and just 12 touchdown passes. The receiving corps will be better than its 2009 incarnation in the long run, but for now the team will have to live without Holmes, who is serving a four-game suspension for a violation of the NFL's personal conduct policy. Braylon Edwards (35 receptions, 4 TD) and Jerricho Cotchery (57 receptions, 3 TD) will be Sanchez's top options against on the outside, with tight end Dustin Keller (45 receptions, 2 TD) another viable target over the middle. To be clear, the Jets figure to be a run-first team early in 2009, with holdover Shonn Greene (540 rushing yards, 2 TD) and the newcomer Tomlinson (730 rushing yards, 12 TD with the Chargers) looking to establish the "ground and pound" style that saw the team top the league in rushing offense a year ago. The accomplishment of that directive could hinge on the work of an offensive line which sees the inexperienced Matt Slauson trying to replace perennial Pro Bowler Alan Faneca at left guard.
The Ravens will enter this contest saddled with the rare perception of being the second-best defense on the field. Some of that is down to the strength of the Jets, and some is because the team will be without esteemed safety Ed Reed for the first six games due to a hip injury. The secondary is viewed as a trouble spot overall for Baltimore, with cornerbacks Fabian Washington (36 tackles) and Lardarius Webb (32 tackles, 1 sack) both coming off of knee injuries. Safeties Dawan Landry (85 tackles, 4 INT) and Tom Zbikowski (19 tackles, 2 INT) will be an important component in holding down the Jets passing attack, as will top pass rushers Jarret Johnson (50 tackles, 6 sacks, 2 INT) and Terrell Suggs (59 tackles, 4.5 sacks). Baltimore should be more sure of itself against the run, where the still-solid Lewis is back for a 15th season at inside linebacker and linemen Haloti Ngata (36 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Kelly Gregg (64 tackles, 3 sacks) are two of the best in the business. The newcomer up front is Redding, the ex-Lion and Seahawk who has 79 starts and 18 sacks on his NFL resume'.
A number of Week 1 fantasy results should hinge on the outcome of this game, even if it doesn't figure to be particularly high-scoring.
For the Ravens, Rice was a first-round pick and will be expected to produce, while wideouts Boldin and Mason will be in many starting lineups in Week 1. It is difficult to say who will get a preponderance of the touches on a team with so many weapons, but the presence of the above figures makes using Houshmandzadeh and Heap problematic for Week 1. Might be better to wait and see who Flacco has the best chemistry with, and also might be prudent to wait until Baltimore is playing a lower-quality defense. Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff and the defense are both quality plays, however.
On the Jets side, you have to use a defense that allowed the fewest points in the league last year, but there aren't a lot of other lead-pipe-cinch starters here. Greene is going to be hard-pressed to approach 100 yards against the Ravens defense, and Edwards, Cotchery and kicker Nick Folk are too inconsistent to count on. Keller, who will serve as Sanchez's safety valve, looks like an OK play.
The atmosphere at the new Meadowlands facility should be electric on Monday night, and that type of aura has not often brought out the best in the Ravens. Baltimore was just 4-6 on the road last season, including a number of close losses, and must tap into some of that same magic that helped them earn a surprise win at New England this past January. If they can withstand the crowd and avoid the big mistake, the Ravens really ought to win this game. Though the Jets have a slight edge defensively, the Ravens are much further ahead offensively at this stage of the game, and should be able to move the ball a little more consistently than Sanchez and New York. Look for this game to be settled on the final couple of drives, and look for the Ravens and Ray Lewis to have the final word.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 17, Jets 16
09/10 12:54:29 ET