Welcome to “The Dossier” a weekly look across the aisle at the Ravens’ opponents, and how they stack up on paper. This Week 13 edition features a rare interconference matchup between the Ravens, and the NFL’s most premier franchise.
The Setting: M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore, Maryland
The Forecast: Partly cloudy early with increasing clouds overnight. Low 32F. Winds W at 5 to 10 mph. (via The Weather Channel).
The Stakes: The Ravens are in a dogfight from here on out - lose more than one game and you can likely kiss the playoffs goodbye. The Cowboys hope to play the spoiler in that sense.
The Spread: The Ravens are currently a 8.5-point home favorite.
The NFL’s decidedly strangest season marches on into Week 13, and the Ravens (in the midst of the strangest season of their own) do the same. Thursday Night Football has been rescheduled to a Tuesday, and Baltimore enters it licking their wounds after a previously re-scheduled game resulted in a loss at Pittsburgh.
It was an understandable loss, though, as nearly half the Ravens roster was on the COVID-19 list and they had to scrape together what they could to try and field a competitive team against the undefeated Steelers. It was of course a loss, but the Ravens can at least take some solace in the fact that they showed a little bit of fight on national TV in a game no one expected to be close.
Regardless of all the good will that may engender, it’s time to start turning silver linings into something tangible. The Ravens welcome the Cowboys to town to play a game that they should very much be expected to take care of business.
This game will start a run of mostly winnable ones for Baltimore, and getting it done in this one may just set the tone for how that stretch will go. Considering almost all of them including this one will be in the must win category, it’s imperative that they make that statement.
With that? Let’s get into it:
So, our old friend Andy Dalton returns to town at long last. Despite this guys’ status as a punchline across the league, he’s been the harbinger of many bad times in this stadium, and he arrives at a critical juncture in the Ravens season. While that may spell a bad omen, it’s going to take a colossal effort from the rest of his team (and likely some other weirdness) for him to be able to author another Ravens fans’ nightmare come to life here.
It’s not necessarily for a lack of weapons. Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and CeeDee Lamb may well be the best trio of talent at the wide receiver position has to offer, while Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard are some of the best runners in the NFL as well. Cooper in particular is one of the most underrated weapons on offer in the league right now:
The problem comes down to the Cowboys typically strong offensive line not being where it needs to be. At their best, they’re clearly one of the best in the league. That’s the problem though; they’ve seen maybe the worst spate of injuries in the league at a single position group there, including the loss of one of their best players there on Monday to the IR:
Ten O-linemen were on Cowboys' initial 53-man roster.— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) December 7, 2020
Seven have gone on injured reserve: Tyron Smith, La'el Collins, Zack Martin, Joe Looney, Tyler Biadasz, Cam Erving and Brandon Knight.
Three haven't: Connor Williams, Terence Steele, Connor McGovern. https://t.co/hji0G84Abn
Zack Martin, one of their best players and one of three lineman to play over 600 snaps this year, was placed on IR on Monday. He was also their only lineman to achieve a PFF grade over 70, with a stellar 91.3. That doesn’t bode well for Dalton or their rushing game, which has struggled recently as well.
The Cowboys offense is 26th in the league in DVOA, (25th passing, 21st rushing), and have struggled mightily in recent weeks. If this isn’t a big game for the Ravens 7th-ranked defense by DVOA (9th against the pass, 4th against the rush), there’s likely some cause for concern. This is even the case with Matthew Judon likely to miss this game on the COVID list; Calais Campbell, Jihad Ward, Pernell McPhee, Brandon Williams, and Anthony Averett all may make their return in this game, which would be massive reinforcements at the exact right time.
Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore have come together to create a meld of modern concepts with traditional west coast schemes, something that sets up well for a Ravens defense who’s disciplined and blitzes a good amount.
Campbell and Williams returning to the lineup should prevent Zeke from having the breakout week that he’s looking for, and further backup tot eh secondary in the form of Averett would be huge, especially if Jimmy Smith and Tramon Williams can’t go (as it sounds like they may not). This matchup seems to come down to taking advantage of Dallas’ weakness along the line, and forcing Andy Dalton to make throw. It’s likely he’ll be able to make some with top tier receiving talent going against the Ravens somewhat thin secondary, after the top options, but enough pressure on him should eventually prove to be the difference.
If things look bad for the Cowboys on the offensive side of the ball, the picture is not much prettier on the defensive side. The biggest story of the year for them is two guys up front, in DeMarcus Lawrence and Aldon Smith. Lawrence has been one of the top dogs for the Big D for several years and is again playing exceptionally well with 4.5 sacks and an exceptional 90.2 grade from PFF.
Smith, on the other hand, is an incredible story for other reasons. This is first year back in the league since 2015 due to issues with substance abuse and he was signed to the Cowboys as a bit of an afterthought to many. He’s gone on to log five sacks so far, good for a 67.6 PFF grade, and been one of the few bright spots on a defense that’s struggled.
And when I say struggled, it’s definitely been a tough go. The Cowboys defense is 24th in DVOA, good for 21st against the pass and 29th against the run. For a Ravens offense that’s looking to hit the reset button and get things humming in both phases again, this game could be a good spot to start.
As far as how the two teams matchup efficiency wise, it looks somewhat even when looking at overall DVOA, as the Ravens net out to 24th in the league on offense. That’s a bit misleading though as Baltimore’s rushing attack is the 11th most efficient compared to their passing game which is 22nd. Those numbers of course also incorporate the most recent game against Pittsburgh, in which half of their starters (including their quarterback) were missing.
With Lamar Jackson coming off of the COVID list on Monday and most of Baltimore’s starters projecting to be available on this side of the ball, they should at the very least be able to run the rock against Dallas. This will be especially crucial with Mark Andrews and Willie Snead still likely on the shelf. Look for Greg Roman to scheme up some concepts in the running game to take advantage of the return of J.K. Dobbins and get Lamar on the move if he’s up to it.
This is a tougher game to call than it should be, not because of anything football related. In almost every category, Baltimore is the statistically superior team, but there are so many unknowns with the Ravens right now that calling any game a sure thing feels like a strange thing to do. If everyone is able to come back from COVID to full strength, they should handle their business easily, but that’s of course an “if”.
Regardless, I do think that they finally get off the schneid after a difficult run in November. A sensible, run-centric game plan from Roman will be more than enough to do the trick if “Wink” Martindale’s re-stocked defense can hold up their end of the bargain — which I do expect.
I don’t think it will be pretty, but in the Ravens first (and hopefully only) Tuesday Night Football effort, I’m expecting a win for Baltimore.
Jake’s Official Prediction: Ravens 23, Cowboys 16