Opposition Beat: Talking Eagles-Ravens with CSN Baltimore

Opposition Beat: Talking Eagles-Ravens with CSN Baltimore

Every week during the 2012 season we're going to hit up some of the most knowledgeable people on the Internet when it comes to the team the Philadelphia Eagles are playing that particular Sunday. This week, we have J. Michael, Ravens Insider for CSN Baltimore.

Kulp: There was a surprising amount of noise about Joe Flacco in the offseason. It's a contract year for the Audubon, NJ native, and cynics jumped on Flacco's assertion that he is not only a top-five quarterback in the NFL, he's number one. Flacco responded on Monday against Cincinnati by posting one of the best games of his career (21/29, 299 Yds, 3 TD). Is there reason to believe we are going to watch him develop into an elite quarterback in year five?

J. Michael: Flacco has a quiet, understated confidence. But he’ll tell you, he’s already there as a top five guy. He’s just not paid like one -- yet. The main thing you’ll see different this season is that now he has the weapons, particularly with Torrey Smith to stretch the field, his statistics will show it, too. He’s passing on first downs, including on first down in the red zone. That’s never happened before. They’re passing to set up the run, making the offense less predictable. Quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell has a lot to do with that. Flacco has a greater voice in the offense and Caldwell, who worked for years with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, has given him more confidence to meet that high bar Flacco has set for himself.

The Ravens used a third-round pick on Bernard Pierce out of Temple in April's draft. He was in for 12 snaps on Monday, spelling Ray Rice at times, and finishing the game with four carries for 19 yards. Baltimore's offense traditionally calls for 100 carries or so for whoever is behind Rice, so what can we expect out of the local product this season?

About 100 carries is on target. Coach John Harbaugh really likes Pierce. He likes his ability to run tough inside and bounce outside to get around the edge. Pierce was slowed by a hamstring injury in training camp and has yet to hit his full stride. I think he’s a few games away from showing his best form. Based on the way this offense is developing, if the Ravens can continually get early leads that’ll mean more rushing opportunities in the second half when they’re trying to just move the sticks and kill the clock. That’s where Pierce would come in.

2011 Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs ruptured his Achilles during the offseason. He is perhaps best known for his pass rushing prowess, racking up 14 sacks a season ago, but Suggs is a demon in run support and coverage as well. How did the Ravens counter his absence against Cincinnati?

The run defense was the most shaky area of the Ravens’ performance in the opener. BenJarvus Green-Ellis got 91 yards on 18 carries for Cincinnati, and if it weren’t for that huge deficit he would’ve gotten more touches and easily rushed for 125 or more.  They have replaced Suggs and Jarret Johnson, who left as a free agent to San Diego, with first-time starters Paul Kruger and Albert McClellan. Harbaugh seems convinced the problem isn’t a talent dropoff but communication and technique. If they’re able to solve tighten up the run defense – because the secondary is among the best in football – this defense can be every bit as good as last season. But that’s a big if. The run defense is going to take time to evolve. It might be too much to ask for all of those problems to be solved by Week 2.

The Eagles barely escaped rookie-laden Cleveland with a week 1 win. Meanwhile, a very well balanced Ravens team took it to the Bengals so badly they were able to get their backup QB some work in the fourth quarter. This leaves some in Philadelphia more than a little worried heading into the home opener this Sunday. Still, this is the NFL, and a lot can change in one week. If you were the Eagles, what would be the Achilles' Heel you would target on Sunday?

I’m a firm believer that what happened in the past stays there and has little to do with the future. Different teams. Different location. Different stage. Different motivation. The secondary is the strength of this defense. But given the uneven performance of the Ravens’ defense against the run I’d ground and pound them there until they prove they can stop LeSean McCoy. The Ravens’ offense wants to dictate the pace with the no-huddle and wear out Philly’s defense. Control the ball and wear them down instead. If they run the no-huddle and score quickly, the downside will be the Ravens’ defense has to return sooner than expected and face McCoy again. This will test just how much Ray Lewis, 37, has left after 14 tackles in the opener. Defensively, the Eagles must test this offensive line that has new faces in Ramon Harewood and Kelechi Osemele. They blew open holes for Rice to average 6.8 yards per carry, but the pass blocking wasn’t always as good. Flacco was sacked three times. He was almost picked off several times in part because of pressure, but the Bengals couldn’t cash in.

Over the last four years, the Ravens have in many ways resembled the early 2000s Eagles, with star-studded rosters that have successful regular seasons followed by deep playoff runs, but ultimately so far failing to get over the hump. Fans and local media soured on Donovan McNabb and Andy Reid over time. What's the vibe like in Baltimore these days, especially feelings toward Flacco and head coach John Harbaugh?

No such chance that’ll happen here. This city has a love affair with Harbaugh and Flacco. Even though he’s in a contract year, Flacco doesn’t moan or complain publicly about it. His demeanor is low profile and humble and fans realize the weapons he’s had to work with weren’t adequate over the last few years. Both of these guys are media savvy, which makes them beloved. Baltimore is a big city but has the mentality of a small market. I talked with Flacco’s agent, Joe Linta, on Tuesday night and he kept saying that Flacco’s silence – and his play on the field – is all the leverage he needs. The longer the Ravens wait, the bigger the pricetag if he keeps performing like he did in the opener. GM Ozzie Newsome has yet to pick up the phone and say ‘Let’s negotiate.’ But it’ll happen before the season is out. Flacco isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Neither is Harbaugh.

Today's lineup: Ryan Howard batting fifth again

Today's lineup: Ryan Howard batting fifth again

In his second-to-last game in a Phillies uniform, Ryan Howard will man first base and bat fifth against the Mets on Saturday afternoon (1:05/FOX).

Howard went 1 for 4 Friday night with a double. The first baseman has three home runs and five RBI in 44 at-bats against the Mets this season. 

Andres Blanco takes Freddy Galvis’ starting spot at shortstop and bats second. Galvis left Friday night's game with hamstring tightness. Blanco has not made a start since Sept. 16, but is batting .294 against the Mets this year.

Cameron Rupp catches and bats sixth for the second day in a row. Rupp went 2 for 3 on Friday night with an RBI. Jimmy Paredes and Aaron Altherr follow Rupp in the lineup and man the corners in the outfield.

Here's the Phillies' full lineup:

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Andres Blanco, SS
3. Odubel Herrera, CF
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Ryan Howard, 1B
6. Cameron Rupp, C
7. Jimmy Paredes, LF
8. Aaron Altherr, RF
9. Phil Klein, P

And the Mets lineup:
1. Jose Reyes, 3B
2. Asdrubal Cabrera, SS
3. Yoenis Cespedes, LF
4. Curtis Granderson, CF
5. Jay Bruce, RF
6. T.J. Rivera, 2B
7. James Loney, 1B
8. Travis d'Arnaud, C
9. Bartolo Colon, P

Love Isn't Always on Time: Approaching the Ben Simmons injury rationally

Love Isn't Always on Time: Approaching the Ben Simmons injury rationally

Does it hurt? Yeah, it hurts. 

You know when the last year the Sixers went into the preseason without a devastating injury to a frontcourt player hanging over their heads was? 2011. Back when LMFAO was big. Since then, it's been:

2012: Andrew Bynum
2013: Nerlens Noel
2014: Joel Embiid
2015: Joel Embiid
2016: Ben Simmons

Even the Blazers, heretofore the NBA franchise with the most cursed big-man luck, got years, decades in between the NBA tragedies of Bill Walton, Sam Bowie, and Greg Oden to grieve. The Sixers seem unprecedently determined to get their bad juju all out of the way at once. 

The last item on that list was, of course, announced last night - Simmons has a fractured fifth metatarsal in his right foot -- and is especially tough, mostly because it was so unforeseeable. Andrew Bynum had a long history of injury. Nerlens Noel was ruled out for the season before draft night, as was Joel Embiid. But as far as we knew, Ben Simmons had lived a long and healthy life that, failing a Shaun Livingston-type freak injury, was just going to continue in its elongated healthiness. Foot trouble was definitely not in the plan. 

It's also tough because it proves we're not out of the woods yet. Not like anyone thought Philly was gonna win 40 games and challenge for the playoffs this year, but certainly most of us allowed ourselves to believe that the worst was over, and that karma was gonna finally owe us for a little while. Turns out, we may be through with the past, but the past isn't through with us. Doug Collins musta really sold this team's soul to get us to that Game 7 against Boston in the conference semis four seasons ago. 

But we can deal. For better and worse, Sixers fans have developed a hard-earned resilience to news of such maladies, and this revelation isn't nearly as bad as some other casually-in-crisis press releases we've had to deal with in recent years (yet). So once we're done processing the initial sorrow that comes with hearing we're not going to get to see our No. 1 overall pick play meaningful basketball as soon as we deserve, let's make our parents proud by being good little Process Trusters, and approaching this situation rationally: 

This is only a two-month injury. 

This isn't yet, and shouldn't be, a season-ender. ESPN estimates Simmons will be out eight weeks; a wise bet would probably have him staying sidelined a little longer than that Just to Be Sure. Christmas seems like the reasonable mental goalpost for his return, which means -- barring setbacks -- at most he'd miss the team's first 30 games. 

That's a lot, but not really: Jahlil Okafor missed 29 games last season, and I don't think most of us even remember injuries as being a particularly notable part of his rookie year. By this point, the Sixers are used to going entire seasons without proof of life from our star rooks. Two months? We can do that standing on our heads. 

This doesn't necessarily mean anything for Simmons' long-term prospects. 

Feet-related injuries are rivaled only by head stuff as the scariest thing you can see on an NBA medical report — especially for big men, as memories of giants like Walton and Yao having their careers plagued by such maladies continue to reverberate. In Simmons' case, his injury is reminiscent of Nets center Brook Lopez, who lost the better part of several seasons to recurring problems stemming from an initial foot fracture. 

But as that above list shows, the great majority of NBA players to have suffered this injury -- presumed to be an avulsion fracture, not the ghastlier Jones fracture -- have bounced back from it pretty quickly, and not been subsequently effected. Pau Gasol and Mike Bibby both went on to have long, productive, mostly health-drama-free-careers -- hell, Pau just averaged 19 and 13 in 72 games as a 35-year-old. C.J. McCollum suffered the injury as a rookie just three years ago, and I'd already forgotten it was even part of his story. Our Once and Always Dark Lord-willing, it doesn't have to be part of Simmons', either. 

The Sixers — and Simmons — were gonna be bad anyway. 

Not like this much hurts the Sixers' playoff chances, which were basically 0 to begin with. As much excitement as we could have expected from the early parts of this season, "wins' was not gonna be part of the deal just yet — Vegas set our over-under at 27.5, and most of our local experts have logically taken the under. Hopefully we actually get at least one of our first 17 this year, but with a poorly balanced rotation consisting mostly of rookies and free agents, W's were always gonna be slow-coming. 

And I personally believed that Simmons was gonna take a while to blossom himself. We'd get some gorgeous passes and fun full-court shenanigans, sure, but we'd also get a lot of clanked jumpers, missed rotations, and soul-sucking isos that take up 18 seconds of the shot-clock and still finish where they started. He'll still have that rough adjustment period two months or so later, but at least with the season already underway and the rest of the squad maybe finding their footing a little, hopefully there'll be less pressure on him to do everything immediately. 

Simmons can still put in work while sidelined. 

Remember how horrific Nerlens Noel's shooting form was coming into the NBA? The upside of him missing a year with his torn ACL was that he was able to spend a good portion of his should've-been-rookie season rebuilding it. He's still not Kevin Garnett on offense and likely never will be, but he was able to reach Respectably Bad at the free-throw line, and that alone will make an enormous difference in the arc of his NBA career. 

Simmons' jumper isn't nearly so broken, but he could also use the work. Time spent perfecting his mechanics while he doesn't have any other aspects of the game to really worry about could be huge for Benny's early development, and hopefully will give him the confidence to take -- if not yet make -- those open jumpers when first presented to him. 

We still have the two other guys. 

Truth is, Simmons was only the rookie I was third-most-excited about on the Sixers this year, and the other two -- Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, who we've waited a combined four seasons for -- are still on track to play. Of course, putting all (or at least half) our eggs in Emiid's basket is never gonna be a particularly secure feeling, and the mind goes even catatonic considering the possibility of Embiid also getting hurt before season's start. But if (knock on lumber-yard) this as bad as the preseason news gets for the Sixers, and we enter with just the two mega-hyped rooks, with a third on the way shortly... that's still cupcakes and sprinkles as far as I'm concerned. 

So yeah, this is a bad weekend, and a rough development for a fanbase who'd finally begun to let their guard down the teensiest amount. That said, it's not the end of the world, the end of the season, or really the end of anything besides our foolishly unbridled optimism. A valuable lesson in hoping for the best and always fearing the worst, but just because we're not floating in the clouds anymore doesn't mean we're plummeting to the ground yet, either.