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Battle of the birds: Cardinals/Ravens preview

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The Cardinals travel east to take on the team that was perhaps the most impressive in the league in Week 1. Is there any way they can pull off the upset?

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Miami Dolphins
Lamar Jackson had one of the best QB games in recent memory last week against the Dolphins. Can the Cardinals contain him on Sunday?
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Although they didn’t quite get the win against the Lions, Week 1 nonetheless felt like a moral victory for the Cardinals. The Lions were favored, after all, and the furious comeback by Kyler and the gang was a national talking point on Monday. And even after settling for the tie, Cardinals fans are feeling more optimistic about the team than they were a week ago.

Unfortunately, Sunday’s game in Baltimore could douse that optimism with a bucket of ice water. The Ravens, who absolutely demolished Josh Rosen and the Dolphins, are 13-point favorites against the Redbirds, and every single ESPN expert picks them to win. Almost no one is giving Kliff and Kyler much of a chance in this battle of the birds.

But the Cardinals beat the odds last week—is there any chance they can do it again this week on the road? Let’s take a look at each phase of the game to find out.

Cardinals Offense vs. Ravens Defense

Analyzing the Cardinals offense is tough. Which team will show up on Sunday? The three-and-out machine we saw for three quarters last week, or the relentless tempo aerial attack we saw in the 4th quarter and overtime? That will depend a lot on the Ravens defense, of course, which completely stymied the Dolphins last week. Although the Ravens defense did force two turnovers (the third was on special teams), they mostly just refused to give up yards and forced the Dolphins to punt. Miami had six drives of six or fewer plays that ended in a punt. The Cardinals actually had SEVEN such drives against the Lions before their offense got going—which doesn’t bode well. To have any kind of a chance on Sunday, the Redbirds have to get the offense going early and make the well-rested Ravens defense work.

Our running game might be the key to this: DJ ran well out of 4-wide sets last week, and Kingsbury still hasn’t unleashed Kyler’s running ability. If we can spread the Ravens defense out horizontally and create running lanes that way, we can keep them on the field and chain together long drives. In the passing game, Kyler will have to be much more accurate than he was for most of the Lions game—and he’ll need to be wary of the still-dangerous Earl Thomas (who picked off Ryan Fitzpatrick last week) in the middle of the field. Any bad turnover like his 1st quarter interception last week would be a killer. And even though our O-line graded relatively well last week, I think that had to do more with the Lions’ D-line tiring out—so, again, sustaining drives will be critical. Can the line give Kyler time early on?

All in all, I think the offense gained a lot of confidence after the comeback last week and will be able to move the ball in Baltimore. I like us to get at least 20 points on Sunday.

Ravens Offense vs. Cardinals Defense

While the Ravens defense dominated the Dolphins offense last week, their offense absolutely throttled the Fins defense. And they didn’t necessarily do it with a lot of short fields either—the Ravens had FIVE touchdown drives of at least 70 yards, a 68-yard drive that ended in a field goal, and a 73-yard drive to drain the clock that ended with a kneeldown on the Miami 6. The run game was clearly working—46 carries for 265(!) yards and 2 TDs—which is a concern even though the Redbirds largely contained the Lions’ run game last week. Mark Ingram was especially impressive, going 14/107 (7.6 YPC) and those 2 TDs. I have a feeling John Harbaugh is going to want to run it frequently to try to keep Kyler off the field. Can out front seven hold up again?

But all this talk about the run game is burying the lede—Lamar Jackson had an all-time performance against the Dolphins. He went 17//20 for 324 yards and 5 TDs, good for a perfect passer rating (158.3) and a near-perfect QBR (99.4). He ROASTED the Miami secondary on play-action all day and had long TD passes of 33, 47, and 83 yards. Obviously, that’s not going to happen again. But the Redbirds secondary was VERY leaky against the Lions (remember that Danny Amendola touchdown?), so it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Marquise Brown or someone else got loose for another long TD. But what concerns me more is that, like Kyler, Jackson has yet to show off his running ability. The Dolphins plainly dared Jackson to beat them with his arm, and he obliged. I don’t think Kingsbury and Vance Joseph will make the same mistake—but could Harbaugh pivot and have Jackson rush it 15+ times like he did last season? And can we stop him if that happens? I have my doubts.

Whatever the Ravens’ gameplan is, we’re probably going to have a hard time stopping it. I have a hard time seeing our defense hold the Ravens to fewer than 30 points.

Special Teams

Both of these teams played outstanding special teams in Week 1—in fact, they are two of the top three in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric after one game. To have any chance in Baltimore, the Cardinals special teamers will have to be close to perfect once again, as you can bet the Ravens will be perfect as usual at home. That means no missed kicks from Zane Gonzalez, more game-changing plays from Trent Sherfield and Dennis Gardeck, and continued excellence from Andy Lee. A big play in the return game from Christian Kirk or Andy Isabella would help as well. I have confidence in our guys, but the kind of splash plays we’ll need are impossible to predict.

Final Thoughts

Can the Redbirds shock the NFL in Baltimore on Sunday? An upset is possible, but a lot of things would have to go right:

  • Offense: The Cardinals offense needs to be able to put together sustained scoring drives from the jump—we’re not going to be able to come back from down three scores against this team. Kyler will need to make some plays with his feet and avoid any turnovers.
  • Defense: Our front seven will need to contain the run—both their RBs and Lamar Jackson, who I think will be more active in the running game. Our safeties can’t bite on play-action and get burned deep.
  • Special Teams: We need to avoid any gaffes and hope for a splash play or two (turnover, big return, etc.).

In short, we’ll need to play a perfect game to pull off the upset. Possible? Sure. But not at all likely in just the second-ever game for Kingsbury and Murray, especially on the road. I think we’ll put up a fight and cover the Vegas spread, but we’ll still lose by double digits. Prediction: Ravens win the battle of the birds, 33-23.

Your turn, Bird Gang. Do you think we have a chance in this game? Any predictions on the final score? Give us your prognostications in the comments.