The script for this weekend's game between the St. Louis Rams and the Baltimore Ravens has already been written.
Recap: The Rams hang tough early, fall behind at halftime, begin making mistakes they can't recover from and ultimately succumb to the Ravens, falling to oh-and-three hole to start the season. Analysis: At least they're in the NFC West.
That's what pretty much the entire football world expects. But can the Rams tear up this script and write their own? Here are three key matchups that will help determine the Rams' ability to pull off a stunning upset.
New Spagnuolo vs Old Spagnuolo
Coach Steve Spagnuolo placed a lot of emphasis on fundamentals, on the elimination of mistakes, and the elimination of risk as a means of re-centering the franchise. But without taking risks, rewards are few in this league. Now in his third year, with a core of players that he and GM Billy Devaney personally assembled, and with a firebrand offensive mind alongside him, Spagnuolo has been working to change that philosophy.
Well-coached athletes tend to repeat their coaches' words in interviews over and over, sometimes unconsciously. There's a subtle strain in what Spags, Laurinaitis, Steven and Sam are saying in their interviews: "Thinking less, reacting more." "Being more aggressive." "Playing with speed." And, during training camp but not very much recently, "Not worrying as much about mistakes."
So far, that aggressiveness has shown up, but so have mistakes. Like losing containment in an all-out quarterback rush on Michael Vick. Or drawing pass interference penalties on physical coverage. Or standing in the pocket that extra second waiting for a deep play to develop, and taking an unnecessary hit. We are seeing rewards as well, but not enough at this point to add up to a win.
As the Rams continue to face down this difficult schedule, game by game, they will need to take risks if they want to steal wins. But will the coach, perhaps feeling his seat get a little warm, revert to his old self? Does he re-exert control of the playbook? Will the offense pull back into its shell?
Or, does he stay true to the "New Spagnuolo" and give the players free rein to play through their mistakes, take the higher-risk approach, and see what happens?
The Rams' Offensive Tempo vs The Ravens' veteran defense.
Expanding on that last point, the Rams surprised a lot of people with their game speed on offense last week. The versatility of players like Lance Kendricks and Cadillac Williams in Josh McDaniels' offensive groupings helped them run a series of lightning quick plays that exploited multiple formations and attacked the Giants' defense on multiple fronts.
It was a profoundly effective strategy between the twenties, but the weakness of the Giants' back end of the defense has to be accounted for here as well. The Ravens' back seven are more veteran and better coached than that of the Giants, and will be harder to catch out of position.
One thing to keep an eye on, if the Rams go to the no-huddle: Sam Bradford's eyes.
The young quarterback does not do a good job of looking defenses off his primary read, and in a blitzkrieg offense, there's little time to think about anything other than where you're going to go with the ball. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are masters at reading quarterbacks. They may be older and slower now, but they know how to position themselves to interrupt even the quickest of passes, if they know where they're headed beforehand.
Battle of the ball-hawking safeties
Very few safeties in the NFL have made as many game-changing plays as Ed Reed over the span of his career. He has caused 66 turnovers (56 interceptions and 10 forced fumbles) and personally returned eight balls for touchdowns.
His counterpart in this matchup, Quintin Mikell, has developed into one of the better all-around safeties in the league before signing with St Louis, but his resume of game-changing plays pales by comparison. 11 interceptions, eight forced fumbles, zero touchdowns. However, both Reed and Mikell have forced two turnovers this season so far, and both will be tested in this game.
Bradford and Flacco have thrown an almost identical number of passes to the deep zones of the field (24 throws of 20 yards or more for Flacco, 25 for Bradford). Safety play by these two savvy veterans as much as receiver play will dictate whether either team finds success on those deep routes.
In a game against a formidable foe, big plays will win the day. Just as Matt Hasselbeck and Kenny Britt showed last week.