NFL Preview - Baltimore (6-3) at Carolina (1-8)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - It didn't seem as if things could get any worse for the Carolina Panthers, but the NFL's current bottom-feeders may be about to reach their lowest point.
Not only will the Panthers have to deal with a Baltimore Ravens team that's had a few extra days to stew over a frustrating last-second loss in its last game, they'll be doing so with a quarterback who was out of football just over a week ago.
With top signal-caller Matt Moore already out for the season with a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, Carolina lost another quarterback to injury when highly-touted rookie Jimmy Clausen sustained a concussion during the latter stages of last week's 31-16 loss at Tampa Bay. The former Notre Dame standout has been ruled out of Sunday's test at Bank of America Stadium as a result.
A desperate Panthers head coach John Fox will now be putting his club's anemic offense in the hands of Brian St. Pierre, a career third-stringer who wasn't on an NFL roster during training camp and has thrown all of five passes in an uneventful seven-year tenure with three other teams.
St. Pierre, who'll turn 31 on Nov. 28 and had a cup of coffee with the Ravens in 2005, was signed to Carolina's practice squad on Nov. 12 and promoted to the active roster on Tuesday. He'll be making a long-awaited first career start after the Panthers' staff deemed that raw rookie Tony Pike wasn't ready for the assignment.
The veteran journeyman will be directing an offense that was plenty bad to begin with, as the Panthers enter this week's play last in the NFL in both total yards and passing yards in addition to having averaged a league-low 11.6 points during their 1-8 start. Carolina quarterbacks have combined for an obscenely-poor 54.9 passer rating over the course of the year.
The already short-handed offense will also be without standout running back DeAngelo Williams for the remainder of the season after he was placed on injured reserve Wednesday with a lingering foot sprain, while valued understudy Jonathan Stewart is likely to miss a second straight week with a concussion. Second-year pro Mike Goodson, who totaled 100 yards on 23 attempts against the Buccaneers last Sunday, is in line to carry the load once again.
Baltimore heads to Charlotte in far better shape health-wise, and probably a bit angry as well after failing to complete a near-stirring comeback in a Thursday night showdown at NFC South leader Atlanta during Week 10. The Ravens scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to erase a 13-point deficit at the start of the period, but were dealt a stinging 26-21 loss when the Falcons marched 80 yards in less that a minute during the game's final stages.
The Ravens had taken a brief 21-20 lead on quarterback Joe Flacco's nine-yard touchdown pass to tight end Todd Heap with 1:05 left to play, but Atlanta answered just 40 seconds later on a 33-yard connection from Matt Ryan to big- play receiver Roddy White.
Baltimore remained tied with Pittsburgh for the top spot in the AFC North despite the painful setback, with the Steelers losing to New England this past Sunday.
Carolina has won all three of its all-time meetings with Baltimore, winning home games in 1996 (27-16) and 2002 (10-7) and taking a 23-21 decision when the teams last met, at M&T Bank Stadium in 2006.
Fox is 2-0 against the Ravens as head coach, though he was the New York Giants' defensive coordinator when Baltimore scored a 34-7 victory in Super Bowl XXXV from Tampa. Ravens head man John Harbaugh will be meeting both Fox and the Panthers for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
Though the final outcome didn't turn out as hoped, the Atlanta game provided another illustration of Flacco's (2132 passing yards, 15 TD, 7 INT) towards becoming a top-flight quarterback. The 25-year-old threw for 215 yards and three touchdowns in leading the Ravens' rally, and has been intercepted just once over his last five outings. In Baltimore's past four games, Flacco has produced an NFL-best 114.2 passer rating and 10 touchdowns while completing just under 67 percent of his attempts. The former first-round pick is aided by a strong receiving corps that contains three proven performers in wideouts Anquan Boldin (45 receptions, 596 yards, 6 TD) and Derrick Mason (34 receptions, 3 TD) and tight end Heap (30 receptions, 4 TD), all of whom caught touchdown passes in the Week 10 loss, while running back Ray Rice (665 rushing yards, 2 TD, 34 receptions) is an outstanding receiver out of the backfield as well. The versatile Rice also serves as one half of an accomplished rushing duo, with short-yardage specialist Willis McGahee (239 rushing yards, 8 receptions, 5 total TD) utilized in a complementary role. The Ravens will go to the ground often if given a chance, having attempted the seventh-most run attempts in the league.
Look for Baltimore to take to the run early and often against a weary Carolina defense that was gashed for 186 rushing yards by the Bucs last Sunday, one week after surrendering 165 yards on the ground in a 34-3 loss to New Orleans. Injuries have taken a toll on this side of the ball as well, as weakside linebacker Thomas Davis has yet to play this season after tearing his ACL in camp and replacement Dan Connor went on injured reserve with a fractured hip last month. The Panthers also appear as if they'll be without end and leading sacker Charles Johnson (33 tackles, 3.5 sacks) after he hurt his hip last week, while All-Pro middle linebacker Jon Beason's (69 tackles) status is in question due to a sore knee. Johnson's been the best of a pedestrian lot of pass rushers that have generated just 13 sacks on the year, but a secondary headed up by cornerback Chris Gamble (34 tackles, 8 PD) has actually held up pretty well even without much help up front. The Panthers are allowing only 195.2 passing yards per game (5th overall), while strong safety Charles Godfrey (47 tackles) stands near the league leaders with four interceptions.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
With St. Pierre undergoing a crash course in a new offense and coming off a very long layoff, expect the Panthers to dip into their depleted backfield as much as possible come Sunday. Goodson (150 rushing yards, 20 receptions) was pretty effective in his first career start last week has some good open-field skills, and he'll likely be the focal point of a game plan that'll see plenty of alterations due to the extensive injuries. In addition to Clausen and Stewart, there's a good chance Carolina will be without a couple more key players in left guard Travelle Wharton (turf toe) and rookie receiver Brandon LaFell (20 receptions, 1 TD), who suffered a concussion in last Sunday's loss. When St. Pierre does drop back to pass, he'll be looking primarily in the direction of veteran wide receiver Steve Smith (30 receptions, 2 TD), the team's lone remaining healthy playmaker, with promising rookie David Gettis (23 receptions, 2 TD) and tight end Dante Rosario (21 receptions) the main secondary options. Running back Josh Vaughan, a recent practice-squad promotee who scored his first career touchdown against Tampa Bay, is slated to work as Goodson's backup for a second straight week.
If St. Pierre can shake off all the rust, he may be able to find some opportunities against a Baltimore defense that's permitted a concerning 294.8 passing yards per game over the team's past five matchups and couldn't slow down Atlanta's aerial attack last week, with Ryan putting up 316 yards and three touchdowns and White hauling in 12 throws for 138 yards and two scores. Cornerbacks Fabian Washington (28 tackles, 8 PD) and Lardarius Webb (25 tackles, 1 INT) have both been pulled from games by Harbaugh during that struggling stretch, while perennial All-Pro safety Ed Reed (14 tackles, 3 PD) is still making his way back from offseason hip surgery that cost him the first six games, though he's come up with three interceptions in the three he's played in. Two Ravens that did come to play in the Atlanta loss were outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (38 tackles, 6.5 sacks), who garnered both of the team's sacks of Ryan, and lineman Haloti Ngata (46 tackles, 5 sacks), who keyed a run-stopping effort that limited Falcons back Michael Turner to a harmless 39 yards on 17 carries. Eleven-time Pro Bowler Ray Lewis (73 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) had a hand in that strong showing as well and once again tops the Ravens in tackles from his customary inside linebacker spot.
If you've got the Baltimore defense, play it without any questions asked. If it's available on your league's waiver wire, pick it up, as it'll be hard to find a situation more conducive to success than this one. The injury-ravaged Panthers have no desirable choices other than the possible exception of Goodson, as Smith's plummeting value is now completely shot with the quarterback dilemma. On the other hand, Rice looks like an excellent play as the centerpiece of the Baltimore offense, and McGahee offers some intrigue as a flex option as the team's preferred goal-line back. The Ravens may not have to throw much to win here, making Flacco only a so-so alternative, but Boldin should still be a solid start at wide receiver and Heap has some value at the tight end spot. Ageless Panthers kicker John Kasay is in the midst of another good season, but the 41-year-old is hard to recommend due to his team's scoring woes.
Only a major letdown could prevent Baltimore from coming out on top of this game, and the bitter loss in Atlanta plus the team's collection of locker-room leaders will ensure that doesn't happen. The Panthers would have been hard- pressed to adequately match up with the talented Ravens even at full strength, and they'll really be up against it when factoring in all the injuries. Look for Baltimore to soundly and methodically dominate their inferior opponent in a contest that will provide few thrilling moments.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 24, Panthers 6
11/19 10:59:39 ET