1. Will the Baltimore Ravens be able to protect quarterback Joe Flacco?
As the Ravens (6-4) take on the Philadelphia Eagles (5-4-1) today at M&T Bank Stadium, they’ll send out an injury-riddled offensive line to protect their prize rookie against a vaunted pass rush. The Eagles are tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the NFL lead with 36 sacks. Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson has earned a reputation as an innovative, aggressive blitz maven. He has the swift defensive ends in Trent Cole and Darren Howard to penetrate the backfield. And he has steady cornerbacks in Asante Samuel and Sheldon Brown to give his front seven enough time to get the quarterback on the ground. That allows Johnson to take risks and bring pressure from all over the field. Because left tackle Jared Gaither (right shoulder) is regarded as a long shot to play and his potential replacement, Adam Terry, is slightly hobbled with a sprained ankle and right tackle Willie Anderson is coming off his own sprained ankle, it could be an extremely challenging task to keep Flacco standing.
2. Will the Ravens be able to exploit Donovan McNabb?
The Eagles’ star quarterback is a formidable passer, leading the NFL’s fourth-ranked passing offense that’s averaging 268.5 yards per game. He has passed for 2,711 yards, 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions for an 84.7 quarterback rating. And Philadelphia ranks third in the NFL with 36 pass plays of 20 yards or more. However, McNabb has thrown five interceptions over the past three games after uncorking just three in the first seven games. The Ravens would love to continue McNabb’s downward spiral and heap more misery on an embattled player who’s feeling the heat in Philadelphia after his admission about not knowing the NFL rules regarding regular-season ties.
3. Will the running game get cranked up again?
The Ravens have lost all four games this season when they’ve rushed for less than 140 total yards. They’ve averaged over 180 rushing yards against non-winning teams and rank third in the NFL in rushing with a 146.8 average. The running game disappeared against the Giants except for Flacco’s scrambling.
4. Will kicker Matt Stover’s struggles continue?
Stover is usually reliable, and is one of the most accurate kickers in league history. However, he has already missed five field goal tries for as many errant kicks as he had all of last season. Stover had an attempt blocked against the New York Giants last week in a 30-10 loss, continuing the theme of his rocky season.
5. Will the Ravens shut down Brian Westbrook?
The Eagles’ multi-dimensional running back has been slowed by knee and ankle injuries and hasn’t gained over 100 all-purpose yards or a touchdown in the past three games. The Ravens allowed a season-high 207 rushing yards against the Giants, but rank third against the run for the season with a 79.6 average. The Eagles aren’t very physical and struggle in short yardage situations, ranking 26th in rushing offense with a 95.3 average.
Ravens WR Derrick Mason vs. Eagles CB Asante Samuel
Mason’s dislocated left shoulder is still aching, but he remains the Ravens’ most viable downfield threat. He’s still quick enough to create separation and tough enough to deal with the pain of this debilitating injury. Mason is a master of selling his route, breaking into the clear and catching the football. He caught seven passes for 82 yards against the Giants despite the shoulder problem. Samuel combines speed, instincts and a penchant for knowing when to gamble. He leads the Eagles with three interceptions even though opposing quarterbacks have been avoiding the former New England Patriots star lately because of his obvious prowess in coverage. Samuel has been shutting down his half of the field for the majority of the season.
Ravens FS Ed Reed vs. Eagles QB Donovan McNabb
THREE DOWNS WITH …
Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis
First down…On Brian Westbrook: “Really, it doesn’t get any better than him because of the type of person he is on and off the field. He’s probably one of the greatest competitors that you would ever find yourself around. But you’re talking about being able to do anything out of the backfield: running, catching, pass block – whatever it is. He has the ability to do all those things.
“Ray Rice has the same type of abilities, real low to the ground, can make a lot of nice, sharp cuts. Westbrook is kind of the master of it right now, and he’s just a great player when you’re sitting there watching him on film.”
Second down…On the long road stretch: “When you miss your bye week and you’ve got five out of six on the road, it’s just long. It’s just long, man, and you dread through it. You fight, you fight, you fight. You go from plane to plane, this and that. But it just feels good to not have to go get on a plane this week and get to stay at my home.
“I think the guys kind of feel it, too. Not just in here, but the city is kind of feeling it, you know? You never want to go through that rough of a schedule, to have to do that. But I think to come out the way we did, I don’t think you can ask for anything else.”
Third down…On rebounding from the Giants loss: “You don’t really try to hit anybody. You just try to go out and play your game. That’s all you try to do, just get back on track. Same thing I told the guys when we were on that winning streak, ‘Take it and move on.’
“You can’t stay stuck in anything. When you’ve been in this business as long as I’ve been in, you understand there’s a win column and there’s a loss column. After it’s over, it’s over.”
THREE DOWNS WITH …
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb
First down…On his style as a quarterback: “I think when you get a little bit more experience in this league and begin to have been a part of different types of schemes that they throw your way. You’ve seen the blitz packages from different teams, you know what you may be faced with due to your personnel.
“You begin to register a little faster in the pocket and know=2 0where you want to go with the ball. And that’s just normal. I’m still using my legs if I have to, but just giving these guys an opportunity to make plays for me.”
Second down…On John Harbaugh: “I’m excited for coach Harbaugh. John is a guy who worked extremely hard while he was here and a guy that I talked to constantly while he was here working with the special teams and then moving over to the secondary. The guy is knowledgeable about the game, comes from a family background of obviously athletes and coaches, and I’m just excited with the success that he’s had over there in Baltimore.”
Third down…On not knowing the NFL tie rule: “It’s blown way out of proportion. That’s something that happens, when the story is brought out dealing with me out here in the Pennsylvania area, it happens. As you can see, more and more people are starting to come out and be honest. When people ask a question, you be honest with them.
“I’m not the only one that didn’t know it. It’s funny, when people begin to make remarks and comments like they knew about it, well you’ll know it after the fact. Now, you’ll see that everyone in the NFL will know that there’s only one overtime now because of what I’ve been through.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.