Sports

Brian Billick, others weigh in on Ravens-Giants matchup and more

SportsFootballBaltimore RavensNew York GiantsJoe FlaccoRay LewisRay Rice

Desperate for a victory, the reeling defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants come to town today having lost four of their past six games.

Defeating the Ravens is paramount for a Giants squad that was blown out by the Atlanta Falcons a week ago.

"Obviously, it's an interesting matchup," FOX analyst and former Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Both teams have interesting styles. The Giants have always prided themselves on putting pressure on the quarterback. They've been challenged of late. If the Giants can't put pressure on Joe Flacco with a four-man rush, it could be tough for them out there."

A year ago, the Giants were 7-7 at this stage of the season.

Then, they caught fire by winning their final two games to win the NFC East crown and won four games in the playoffs as coach Tom Coughlin won another Super Bowl.

A week ago, though, the Falcons routed New York, 34-0.

And quarterback Eli Manning has been up and down with five touchdowns on the roadand six interceptions.

"Eli's inconsistent, he's all over the place as far as performance," said former Jacksonville Jaguars All-Pro offensive tackle Tony Boselli, a national radio analyst for Dial Global. "It's feast or famine. It's a little bit surprising. He's one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Typically, you don't see that from that level of player."

Manning registered a 38.9 quarterback rating at the Georgia Dome, but was outstanding in tough games against the San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints.

"His supporting cast hasn't been as good on third down and they haven't generated as many big plays," Billick said. "Last year, they got hot at the right time and won the Super Bowl. Now, they're a little over .500 team that's battling. The Giants haven't had a lot of success against the Ravens, so it will be interesting to see that mindset."

Former Washington Redskins safety Matt Bowen said teams are trying to take away wide receiver Victor Cruz, Manning's favorite target.

"That's how you stop Eli," said Bowen, an analyst for National Football Post. "Victor Cruz is great with elite lateral ability to change direction on an option route. You have to bracket him in the red zone and walk the safety down with a slice call to take away inside breaking routes."

The Ravens have yet to activate middle linebacker Ray Lewis from the injured reserve-designated to return list as he continues to try to strengthen his surgically repaired right triceps and return for the playoffs.

"You'll go broke betting against Ray Lewis," Billick said. "If it's at all humanly possible, he's going to be back. If you can just be in the playoffs, maybe you can be rejuvenated and get on a roll. This is capable of that, and Ray recognizes that and wants to a part of it."

Mired in a three-game losing streak, the Ravens are searching for answers to their late-season freefall.

Billick said it's important that the Ravens tweak things, but mostly stay the course.

"You're going to identify the reasons you lost, but you don't throw the baby out with the bathwater," Billick said. "The firing of Cam Cameron was certainly an indicator that they obviously felt they had to do something and make a big change."

The firing of Cameron and replacing him with quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell has thrust more pressure on quarterback Joe Flacco, who has six turnovers in the past three games.

The Ravens have a big decision to make with Flacco after the season when his original rookie contract expires.

Billick predicted the Ravens will get him signed.

"They're going to get that done," Billick said. "They've already made that decision. It's just a
matter of what level it pays out. They know what it is to be without a quarterback, Ozzie Newsome has been through that before. They'll get that done.

"They're transitioning from being a defensive dominated team to an offensive dominated team. That puts the responsibility squarely on Joe Flacco. He's capable. He's played brilliantly in New England in the AFC championship game. He's got the ability to do it again."

NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly, a former Redskins and Houston Texans general manager, said it's not an easy decision for the Ravens, but it will come down to yearly average salary for Flacco.

"I think it's a tough call on exactly how to handle the contract situation," he said. "It's not whether you keep him. You definitely keep him. If you had asked me early in the season, I would say they're in that $15 million per year market. Now, I think it will wind up where Matt Schaub is or where Tony Romo will wind up, in that range."

Flacco has struggled at times with his accuracy on deep balls and seems to be pressing. He threw an interception that was returned 98 yards for a touchdown, amounting to a 14-point swing against the Denver Broncos last week. He also lost a fumble that led to a field goal.

"Yeah, that's a tough situation," Casserly said. "I think last week their plan was to run Ray Rice a lot.

Flacco seemed to be off his game. The offensive line got outplayed upfront by a pretty good defensive line. A lot of things didn't go right. I thought Joe got better as the game went on. He got into a rhythm, but he had a couple of bad plays in the first half with the interception. He threw the ball late and it was a bad route by Anquan Boldin.

"I think Joe has played well early, but lately he's had a couple of tough outings. Overall, it's more positive than negative with Joe. He played a heck of a game at San Diego. Against Pittsburgh, though, he was kind of average."

Why haven't the Ravens involved Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice more?

"It has to do with the rhythm of the game," Billick said. "There are so many repetitive three-and-outs. When that happens, you can't get anything going. You know they want him to get the football. They're committed to it. I'm not as big on whether he runs or catches it, as long as he gets his touches."

Added Casserly: "I didn't think Ray played particularly well against Denver. He had some drops. He's not the best pass protector. He makes his money out of the backfield making plays. They've got to develop the play-action game with him. That might help everybody out there. They're trying to find out exactly who they are offensively. Is it pound it with Ray Rice and take shots deep? You want to get him involved, but what's the best way to do that?"

Meanwhile, Boselli said the Ravens need to keep Michael Oher at either left offensive tackle or shift him to the right side.

"I think Michael would be best if they leave him at one spot where he could get comfortable there," Boselli said. "You move guys all around the place and it's hard to work on technique and footwork. Michael is a guy with a lot of talent who needs a lot of reps at one position."

Defensively, Bowen thinks the Ravens need to stay within themselves as they mix and match personnel.

"Robert Griffin III, everybody is scared of that guy," Bowen said. "Defensive backs play a little scared against him and they want to make a play and they try to do too much. I think that's what happened against the Redskins in that loss."

Bowen praised defensive coordinator Dean Pees for holding together an injury-riddled defense.

"Think about the loss of Ray Lewis, a guy like Ray runs the defense," Bowen said. "You know that guy will make a play. You can watch as much tape as possible, but it's tough to get everything lined up as a new defensive coordinator without Ray Lewis."

What kind of tenor will this game take on with Baltimore trying to win the AFC North title for the second consecutive year and the Giants fighting for their lives?

"I think it will have a playoff feel," Boselli said. "The Giants can't afford to lose. And the Ravens are a team that's got to get off a losing streak and change this direction. Both teams should be very focused and very energized."

awilson@baltsun.com

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