NFL Analysis: Baltimore Ravens vs. Atlanta Falcons

Thursday night football returns with an intriguing matchup between two teams who are legitimate playoff contenders but still have yet to live up to their potential. The Falcons are propelled by the smart and accurate Matt Ryan, who has to be hoping that Roddy White (questionable with a knee injury) is able to play at full speed. The Falcons come into this game without promising rookie linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who is still recovering from a knee injury.

While the combination of Ryan, White, tight end Tony Gonzalez, and running back Michael Turner has the potential to light up the scoreboard, Ravens’ quarterback Joe Flacco has a four-deep arsenal of starting-caliber wide receivers to throw to and a three-deep rotation of starting-caliber running backs, to hand off to.  Although Ryan is the better of the two quarterbacks, Flacco has the offensive firepower to allow the Ravens to match the Falcons’ pace on offense.

For this reason, the game will likely hinge on the performance of the two teams' defenses. The Ravens' pass defense has become a major weakness, and inside linebacker Ray Lewis has become an enormous liability in coverage. However, their pass rush is usually able to compensate for that. This will force the Falcons to put a tight end or running back on the left side most of the time when they have to pass, because the left side of their line, especially tackle Sam Baker, is their biggest weakness on offense. Although the Falcons are pretty good at stuffing the run, they've struggled in pass defense. Joe Flacco doesn't do too well against a ferocious pass rush, and if the Falcons can pressure him consistently, it will cause him to make poor throws in crucial passing situations. If the Falcons want to establish a rush against Flacco, they should Try This!

Trends and Tidbits

Possibly the biggest and most disturbing trend of this season is head injuries. Colts receiver Austin Collie was the latest player to be on the receiving end of a cringe-inducing hit to the head this week. While being tackled by Eagles safety Quintin Mikell, Collie's head was knocked into the helmet of safety Kurt Coleman. Collie was briefly knocked unconscious, and had to be taken off of the field in a stretcher. It was scary to watch live, and was a sobering reminder of the way that this game we all love can impact people's lives off the field as well. Changing the rules (or the enforcement of the rules) isn't good enough, as accidental head-to-head hits, such as the one Collie took, cannot be avoided. This is 21st-century America: it seems as if someone should be capable of designing a helmet that protects the head from concussions more than it aids in delivering concussions when used as a battering ram. Padding on the outside of the helmets won't do the job on its own – a doctor I spoke to explained that external padding creates a lot of friction, which means small hits that should be quick, glancing blows would last as full-on contact.

Another trend observed in the Eagles-Colts game is that Michael Vick seems to take a large amount of late hits that go unflagged. He and Vince Young are each getting beaten up out of bounds and well after plays are over, and Tom Brady or Peyton Manning would never have taken so many hits without flags being thrown. While it's easy to say the difference is due to star power or race, the real explanation probably has to do with style of play, as both Young and Vick are scramblers.

The Cowboys' firing of Wade Phillips was necessary. Phillips' leadership as a coach never kept him employed; his defensive schemes did. However, when the Cowboys allowed 131 points in their last three games, owner Jerry Jones finally decided it was time to cut Phillips loose. While no top-tier coaching candidates would likely be interested in coming until the end of the season, it makes sense to see if Jason Garrett is head coaching material. - strong>Hank Koebler, IV

Hank is a sports journalist attending the University of Missouri's school of journalism.

Email Hank at hankk.mc3sportsmedia@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at HankKoebler

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