Battle Plan: Ravens vs. Raiders
ESPN The Magazine
You remember Ken Stabler, right? How about Jim Plunkett? Okay, it's been a while since Oakland had a legit QB. Well, Rich Gannon is a legit QB-and with him in charge, the Raiders are looking mean again. Give the 35-year-old time and he finds an open man. Try to chase him down and he throws on the run or takes off upfield. Uncanny at escaping the blitz and dissecting coverages in the secondary, he was quietly efficient in the Raiders' 27-0 gaffing of the Dolphins, which put Oakland in the AFC championship game: 12-for-18, 143 yards, 1 TD-plus four first downs in five carries.
Eddie George couldn't do it. Curtis Martin got worn out. Fred Taylor came up short. Corey Dillon, Jerome Bettis and Mike Anderson had no chance. These 1,000-yard rushers all failed to crack 100 yards against the Ravens. Why? Because Baltimore's front seven work together better than pancake and syrup.
"The one thing your defense must have is speed," says Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt. "If you don't have four guys who can run him down, you're in trouble." And sometimes even that doesn't help -- right, Dave?
Ray Lewis is the NFL's defensive MVP, but DTs Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams are another big (670 pounds big) reason the Ravens are the first NFL team in a 16-game season to allow fewer than 1,000 rushing yards, giving up just 970. Says Ravens DE Rob Burnett: "I don't envy running backs who have to face us."
Mix up your zone coverages. Gannon loves man-to-man D because the LBs often turn their backs to the line of scrimmage and run with receivers. That's an invitation for Gannon to run. But in a zone, the LBs usually face the line of scrimmage and have a better shot at keeping track of a darter like Gannon. In Denver's two wins over Oakland this season, Bill Romanowski hawked Gannon everywhere he went, enabling the Broncos to hold him to 26 yards rushing.
Think of Siragusa and Adams as Lewis' offensive linemen-their job is to clear a path so Ray can destroy everything in his way. Oakland must keep those two out of its backfield or on their butts. But how? Raiders C Barrett Robbins and G's Steve Wisniewski and Mo Collins must-must-control their territory, which is about as easy as plugging an avalanche. So think pass first and run last. The Jets did that out of a no-huddle in Week 17 and had the Ravens on their heels, before turnovers killed them. If you come with a bread-and-butter running game, the Ravens will rip out your heart and stomp on it.
The Pick: Oakland