As the Green Bay Packers prepare to meet the Baltimore Ravens on Monday Night, I felt the need to get the inside scoop on the Ravens from someone in the know.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to interview John Eisenberg, a long-time Baltimore sportswriter and author of seven sports books. John is currently employed by the Ravens organization, writing a regular column for the official team web site.
Also of great interest to Packers fans is John's latest book, "That First Season", about the 1959 Green Bay Packers. Based on new interviews with people who were there, the book recounts how Vince Lombardi came to Green Bay and transformed a downtrodden organization into one of the NFL's greatest dynasties. More about the book later, but first lets get to my question and answer session with John Eisenberg.
Al: Thinking about this Packers - Ravens matchup, I have this uneasy feeling that the Ravens are a team ready to break out with a big game. Looking at the Ravens' record, one thing stands out. The Ravens' 5 losses have come to teams with a combined record of 44-10. The average margin of loss in those games was 4.6 points. Are the Ravens a very good team ready to explode on the unsuspecting Packers?
John: The Ravens are indeed a dangerous team. I don't think anyone relishes playing them. They hit hard and play close games. A couple of late-game gaffes, including a missed field goal by a kicker no longer with them, have kept them from being 8-3 or even better. Having said that, they're also one of the most penalized teams in the league, they've been prone to make key mistakes, and most importantly, their defense, long one of the game's best, is not playing at the same level this year -- still solid but more yielding against both the run and pass. I don't think they will explode on the Packers. And I don't think the Packers are unsuspecting -- they have seen the films of all these brutal games the Ravens play in their division with Pittsburgh and Cincy. I would expect a close, hard-nosed game.
Al: Joe Flacco can expect to see plenty of blitzing from the Packers defense. How would you say he has handled teams that try to rattle him in that way?
John: The Vikings had a lot of luck early in their game with the Ravens by blitzing Flacco. And Pittsburgh had some success last week. Flacco is just in his second year and is still learning about reading defenses and coverages -- sometimes his youth shows. But he is a big guy and not afraid to take a hit. A warning, he gets up and comes back at you. The Vikings had him on the ropes and he directed a huge rally in the fourth quarter and had the game won until Steve Hauschka missed the 44-yard kick -- in a dome, unforgivable. Flacco's biggest problem right now is a sore ankle that is hampering his mobility and also his throwing mechanics.
Al: The Ravens brought in kicker Billy Cundiff two weeks ago. He has made an immediate impact, making 5 out of 6 field goals against Indianapolis and then kicked a game winner in OT against the Steelers. How much were the Ravens affected by missed field goals in their five losses?
John: Cundiff has provided stability, which the Ravens needed. They took a big gamble and failed by not bringing back Matt Stover, a superb kicker who was getting old but still had it. They thought Hauschka could step in with a huge leg, but he was a kid (24) and he crumbled under the pressure. The miss in Minnesota was devastating, and he missed a couple of other key kicks before the Ravens cut him. It is not impossible that Cundiff could eventually struggle, too, but he looks good so far.
Al: Ravens fans have been very critical of head coach John Harbaugh, much like Packer fans were of Mike McCarthy earlier this season. Do you feel he's being out coached during games and is the criticism warranted?
John: The fans are rightfully upset with all the penalties, which indicate a lack of discipline that falls on the shoulders of the head coach. And he has had problems with time management, timeouts and challenges. But he isn't really taking that much heat. Cam Cameron runs the offense and Greg Mattison runs the defense. Mattison is taking more heat than Harbaugh because the defense has had some problems. Mattison was a longtime college coordinator and some fans don't like his more conservative approach. They long for the days of Rex Ryan, the mad scientist, who brought all kinds of blitzes.
Al: Having followed Ray Rice at Rutgers, I was very high on him coming into the NFL draft. The Ravens grabbed Rice in the second round, one pick before the Packers made their ill-fated selection of Brian Brohm. I have often wondered if the Packers would have taken Rice if the Ravens didn't. I consider Rice a future Pro Bowler. Do you agree and what problems do you think he presents for the Packer defense?
John: The Ravens drafted Rice, but like every team, had no idea he would be this good, especially so soon. They thought they were set at running back with Willis McGahee but Rice has made Willis expendable. He can run and catch, and makes a ton of yards after the first hit. He has been a huge playmaker. I wouldn't be surprised if he makes the Pro Bowl this year -- he deserves it. He will present the Packers the same problem he has presented every opponent -- with his strength and low center of gravity, he is elusive in traffic, has a knack for getting through scrums.
Al: How did the Ravens come out of the Pittsburgh game injury-wise? Will any starters be out for the Packers game? Is Terrell Suggs expected back?
John: The Ravens are banged up. I realize that is true for every team this time of year, but the Ravens have issues. Flacco is playing on a sore ankle that is having an impact. Their best defense defensive player, Haloti Ngata, is also playing on a sore ankle that has made him less effective. Suggs is questionable, and if he plays, won't be 100 percent. Starting cornerback Fabian Washington is out for the season, but the rookie who replaced him, Lardarius Webb, had a great game against the Steelers. Webb is a classic Raven, a third-round pick from a little school who plays tough.
Al: In your opinion, what are the three main things the Packers will have to do to beat the Ravens?
1. Run the ball. It can be done against the Ravens this year, as opposed to years past, and it throws the defense off.
2. Pass the ball down field. The Ravens are susceptible to big plays in the secondary.
3. Don't make mistakes. The Ravens tend to make their share -- penalties and turnovers. If you don't give the game away, you're halfway there.
That concluded my interview with John Eisenberg. I find it interesting that the three things John mentioned as keys for beating the Ravens are all things the Packers have had issues with. Running the ball successfully has been a problem until just recently. Being able to throw down field, of course, depends on the offensive line's ability to protect Aaron Rodgers. Excessive penalties have been a recurring problem for the last three seasons.
Personally, I think the performance of the offensive line will be the key for this game. Can they open some holes for Ryan Grant to keep the Ravens defense honest? Can Rodgers be given enough time to pick apart the Raven's struggling secondary or will he spend the evening fearing for his life? The answers to those questions will most likely determine the outcome.
Getting back to John's book, the full title is "That First Season: How Vince Lombardi Took the Worst Team in the NFL and Set It on the Path to Glory". It is interesting to note that John grew up in Dallas and was a Cowboys fan during the 50's. He jokingly says that the Green Bay Packers "ruined his childhood." But you would never know that from reading his book.
I am personally about halfway through the book and have found it both entertaining and informative. I rate it a "must-read" for anyone interested in the Green Bay Packers or NFL history, in general.
Thank you, John, for the interview and enjoy the game!
You can find more of Jersey Al Bracco's articles on several sports websites: Jersey Al's Blog, Packers Lounge, NFL Touchdown and Bleacher Report. Jersey Al is the Green Bay Packers Draft Correspondent for Drafttek.com.
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