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Falcons vs. Ravens preview


When the Atlanta Falcons play at the Baltimore Ravens, it will mark only the second time that the two most accomplished Class of 2008 quarterbacks go head-to-head.

The Ravens' Joe Flacco has a Super Bowl ring and the most victories of any quarterback (75) since he entered the NFL. The Falcons' Matt Ryan has passed for over 4,000 yards and thrown at least 26 touchdowns in each of the last three seasons.

In their only meeting four years ago, Flacco put the Ravens ahead 21-20 with 1:05 remaining in Atlanta, only to watch Ryan throw a winning 33-yard touchdown to Roddy White with 20 seconds left.

Now, it's a matchup of two teams going in opposite directions. The Ravens (4-2) have won four of their last five games, while the Falcons (2-4) have lost three in a row.

ESPN Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley discuss a few key elements of Sunday's 1 p.m. ET game.

Hensley: With the main storyline being Ryan versus Flacco, let's take a closer look at the quarterbacks. How would you assess Ryan's season? In what areas has he stepped up? And what have been his shortcomings?

McClure: I think Ryan got off to a tremendous start in a season-opening overtime win against New Orleans, when he passed for 448 yards and threw three touchdowns without an interception. Then he set team single-game records for completion percentage (87.5) and passer rating (155.9) in a 56-14 blowout of Tampa Bay in Week 3. He showed mobility a lot of folks had never seen from him before, so most figured he was in for a career season. But the negative has been his play on the road. In three road losses, he has six of his seven interceptions and has yet to post a passer rating above 87.2. Not even Ryan himself can pinpoint his road woes, but he has to overcome them, with the next four games away from the Georgia Dome.

Many folks thought at the start of the season, when Ryan diced up the Saints, he had joined the truly elite quarterbacks. But even Ryan would say a Super Bowl is an important part of the equation. How does Flacco respond to the whole elite topic and has he taken his game to another level?

Hensley: Flacco's stance is every quarterback should think he's the best or he shouldn't be playing in this league. He showed the ability to play at an elite level in 2012, when he led the Ravens on that magical Super Bowl run. The biggest knock on Flacco is his consistency. He followed up an MVP performance by throwing the second-most interceptions in the NFL last season. His play is back on the upswing under new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. Flacco has produced the top two passer ratings of his career over the last three games. On Sunday, he became the fastest to throw five touchdowns, accomplishing the feat in 16 minutes, 3 seconds. Kubiak's emphasis on higher percentage throws and a quicker release has put Flacco on track for a career season.

Flacco and the Ravens haven't thrown the ball deep as often this season, but the Falcons have given up a lot of big plays in the passing game. Is this where the Falcons are the most vulnerable on defense?

McClure: They are vulnerable on defense everywhere, Jamison, as they yield a league-worst 6.22 yards per play. Yes, big pass plays have hurt the Falcons once again this season. In last week's loss to the Bears, they surrendered five explosive pass plays totaling 192 yards, including a 74-yarder. They gave up a 76-yard touchdown pass in a Week 2 loss at Cincinnati. In talking to defensive coordinator Mike Nolan on Tuesday, he said the blame has to be spread around and not just put on one person who happens to be the last one in coverage on that particular play. The biggest issue has been the Falcons' inability to generate pressure as they stand 28th in the league in sacks per pass play. It's putting even more pressure on an inexperienced secondary with three second-year players starting: Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, and Kemal Ishmael. Jonathan Massaquoi showed some positive signs rushing the passer last week, so maybe he can help the Falcons at least generate a respectable amount of pressure moving forward.

The Falcons' defense is very familiar with one Ravens player, wide receiver Steve Smith, from his days in the NFC South. Has he surpassed expectations since joining the Ravens and to what would you attribute his resurgence? Do you expect him to have some explosive plays against a suspect Falcons' defense?

Hensley: The Ravens had a good feeling they were going to get this type of season out of Smith because they've seen it before. This is a team that watched tight end Shannon Sharpe, safety Rod Woodson and wide receiver Anquan Boldin have strong seasons after getting dumped by the teams that originally drafted them. But no one has had a bigger chip on his shoulder than Smith. He plays like he has something to prove with each catch. Where Smith has surpassed expectations is his ability to get deep. The Ravens envisioned Smith to come up big on third downs and clutch situations. But the fact he has caught the three longest touchdown passes of the season from Flacco -- 80, 61 and 56 -- shows he has something left in those legs. If the Falcons don't give safety help on Smith, the Ravens won't hesitate to go deep to him.

Besides Smith and Flacco, the other part of the Ravens' team that's heating up is their pass rush. The Ravens recorded five sacks and 15 quarterback hits last Sunday. What are the chances they get to Ryan consistently on Sunday?

McClure: I think they'll get some pressure on Ryan, but I also think the Falcons know they have to run the ball more and give the offense more balance because the up-tempo attack hasn't been as effective as expected. The Falcons have a running back foursome in Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers, Antone Smith and rookie Devonta Freeman. Smith is the home-run hitter with a team-high five total touchdowns and an average of 51 yards per scoring play. So, in my opinion, utilizing the four-headed running back tandem will only help alleviate some of the pressure from Ryan, although the Falcons still are at their best when the passing game -- particularly Ryan to Julio Jones -- is firing on all cylinders.

I read somewhere that Terrell Suggs believes he should have a lot more sacks. Now he'll be up against the Falcons team that just surrendered four sacks against the Bears. Not to mention starting left tackle Jake Matthews is battling through an ankle injury and not playing up to his full potential due to the injury. Will Suggs and company take full advantage and get after Ryan?

Hensley: That's going to be the biggest key to the game for the Ravens, because their secondary is struggling so much. When opposing quarterbacks are hit or under duress from the Ravens, they are 18 of 47 (38.3 percent) for 230 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions. That passer rating of 27.8 is fifth-best in the NFL. When quarterbacks aren't pressured by the Ravens, they are 124 of 180 (68.9 percent) for 1,393 yards with six touchdowns and one interception. That 102.4 passer rating is 13th-worst in the league. That's why it's so critical for the Ravens to get in Ryan's face. They can't let him have time to pick apart this secondary.