Joe Flacco’s week to week performance is like something out of a nursery rhyme. When he’s good, as in his 389-yard, 3-touchdown demolition of the Rams, he’s very very good. But when he’s bad, like his 137-yard stinker in a 12-7 loss to the Jaguars… he’s horrid. And the difference between the two Flaccos could be enough to spell the difference between winning and moving on to the AFC Championship game, or losing their third game this year to the AFC South.
We reached out to Thomas Jackson of Ravens Football Machine on the Bloguin NFL network, to give us perspective on what kind of performance we can expect, and whether it will be enough to beat the Houston Texans.
TGS: Clearly, this game is going to largely depend on whether the good Joe Flacco or the bad Joe Flacco shows up. What is behind his maddening inconsistency, and do you think the good Flacco plays this week?
Jackson: “Good Joe” and “Bad Joe” are really the same guy… by that I mean Joe Flacco tends to play up or down to the quality of the competition and the overall meaning of a game. People seem to forget Flacco has been in the league for four years and has more career wins than any other QB in NFL history over their first four years. Also, Flacco has won numerous times in the playoffs, including beating Tom Brady and the Patriots at Foxboro.
Flacco’s passing numbers are down this year mostly due to a lack of experienced receivers. Losing Derrick Mason and Todd Heap to free agency took away Flacco’s best intermediate route-runners. It was thought Lee Evans would step up and fill that vacuum, but due to a foot injury Evans never really got on track. And when Anquan Boldin went down with a torn meniscus in his knee, Flacco was left with three rookies, including Torrey Smith, and two 2nd-year tight ends (Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson) as his primary targets.
The result: you see a lot more throwaways and checkdowns as the young receivers are still learning the “art of separation,” and more importantly the skill of coming back to Flacco and the ball when coverage is tight and Flacco’s pocket is breaking down.
It is thought the Ravens will have Anquan Boldin ready to play against the Texans after his arthroscopic surgery. If true, then having Boldin running routes should help Flacco’s passing game a great deal.
TGS: Ray Lewis appears to be finally losing a step after sixteen years in the league, but the Ravens defense has not. Who is stepping up as the new defensive leadership of this team?
Jackson: Ray Lewis has lost a step from sideline-to-sideline, but he is still masterful at lining up his guys in the right place and reading offensive formations before the snap. Defensive players who have really stepped up to set the tone of leadership by example are OLB Terrell Suggs, DT Haloti Ngata, DT Arthur Jones, DE’s Cory Redding, Paul Kruger, and rookie Pernel McPhee, and hybrid DE/LB Jarret Johnson. Helping out Ray Lewis at linebacker on the inside have been Dannell Ellerbe and Jameel McClain.
TGS: The Houston Texans’ defense is quite formidable in its own right, and was able to prevent the Bengals from establishing much of a ground game early. How might that be different for Ray Rice and the Ravens?
The Ravens will respect the Texans’ front seven, so I don’t see them trying to out-slug Houston at the line of scrimmage. Instead, I’m guessing Ravens OC Cam Cameron will come up with a lot of play-action stuff and mix in some draws and screens to keep the Texans off balance, which would also prevent Houston’s great pass rushers from teeing off on Flacco.
Cameron has given Flacco full authority to change plays at the line of scrimmage for the first time in his career. Here’s where you may see the “Good Joe” at his best… Flacco has the ability and the cool composure to read defenses, and it is in these moments when Joe audibles that he has picked teams apart with deep sideline or post patterns to Torrey Smith.
So I don’t think establishing a ground game with Ray Rice will be the Ravens’ top priority. They’ll use Rice in a lot of play-action and screens as I mentioned above. I think the great majority of any yardage Ray Rice gains in this game will be made after the catch on a screen or checkdown pass.
TGS: What’s your gameplan for victory against the Texans?
I think the Ravens game plan will be simple: Try to wear down the great Arian Foster and the Texans’ zone-blockers by rotating fresh down-linemen throughout the entire game, and keeping eight defensive players in the box except for obvious passing downs. If the Ravens can stop or severely limit the Texans’ running game, then they can apply Phase 2 of their game plan, which will be to bring the full strength of their pass rush down on T.J. Yates, and possibly try to rattle him into some mistakes under pressure. This will of course involve a combination of linebacker and safety blitzes.
TGS: Do you have a game prediction?
Both teams are evenly matched in a variety of offsetting skill sets. Yet for the sake of home field advantage alone, where the Ravens are undefeated this season, I’ll go with the Ravens, 24-17.