In the Baltimore Ravens first Monday Night Football appearance of the season, they will travel to the Motor City to take on the Detroit Lions. Entering the game, the Ravens are 7-6 and have won three straight games and four of their last five. The Lions are also 7-6, enter the game having lost three of their last four.
Both teams are in the midst of playoff races and being week 15, a loss by either team could be devastating to their playoff chances. Currently, the Ravens are the sixth seed in the AFC and they control their own destiny. If they win their final three games, they will make the playoffs. The Lions are the fourth seed in the NFC right now as they lead the NFC North division. This division looks like it will come down to the wire though as the Chicago Bears are also 7-6 and the Green Bay Packers are lurking just behind at 6-6-1.
1. Fourth Quarter
Last week against the Minnesota Vikings — the fourth team in NFC North — the Ravens played a game for the ages that had one of the craziest finishes in history. The Ravens and Vikings combined to score five touchdowns in the games final 2:07 after entering this point with a low score of 12-7 in favor of the Vikings.
This week the fourth quarter is going to be important yet again — though likely without the craziness. With two playoff contenders facing each other and both knowing that a loss would be devastating for their playoff hopes, there is going to be a playoff-like atmosphere at Ford Field tomorrow night. Games like this are usually close and are decided in the fourth quarter and this one should be no different.
Heading into this game, both teams are going in different directions in terms of fourth quarter performance. (Kind of).
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For the Ravens, their defense is reeling after allowing multiple touchdowns in the final few minutes of the game. This has actually been a common theme in Ravens games this season. Despite playing great football all game long, the defense will not be able to get a stop when it matters the most late in games.
My reasoning for this is that the defense gets too conservative in these situations. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will call an aggressive game, but then go conservative with three or four pass rushers and the rest of the defense back in soft zone coverage. The defense just hasn’t been effective while running this style of defense at all this season.
On offense for the Ravens, things are the exact opposite. While quarterback Joe Flacco already has set a career high in interceptions (17) and is having an inconsistent year, he has shown up in the fourth quarters of games.
Despite ranking 30th in the NFL in passer rating (77.0) and 20th in QBR (52.7), he has the third highest QBR (82.1) in the fourth quarter this season of quarterbacks who have at least seven starts.
Even more impressive, he has been the best since the start of October with a QBR of 96.9 and passer rating of 132.4 with less than five minutes left in the fourth quarter — situations that would be described as clutch. He also has thrown four touchdowns, zero interceptions and has completed 63.3 percent of his passes in these situations.
His performance against the Vikings last week is a perfect example of this as he led the Ravens down the field on two separate occasions to take the lead — including the game winner.
Moving on to the Lions, their entire team is struggling in the fourth quarter right now. Starting with the defense, they have allowed 112 points in the fourth quarter this season (8.6 per game) which is the second most in the league.
Last week against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Lions entered the fourth quarter up 14-6. By the time the game ended, the score was 34-20. The defense allowed four touchdowns in this time period. Against the Pittsburgh Steelers a few weeks ago, the Lions gave up two touchdowns in the final five minutes to go from up four to losing by 10.
While the performance of the defense hasn’t been pretty, the offense hasn’t provided any help. Over their last three losses the offense has run 48 plays for 95 yards (1.98 yards per play). Adding to this they have five turnovers — three fumbles and two interceptions. Lastly, they have scored just six points in the fourth quarter of these three games.
If this game plays out as expected, it will come down to the fourth quarter. Right now, the Ravens enter playing better in the fourth quarter and are coming off a win where they locked the game up with a touchdown with four seconds left. The Lions enter the game absolutely reeling on both offense and defense.
The Ravens were able to hold Peterson to 13 yards on seven carries before he left and never returned with a foot injury. This week though, don’t expect as much success.
Eighth in the league in catches (75), fourth in targets (138), second in yards (1,351), fourth in yards per catch (18.0), second in touchdowns (12), second in catches of more than 20 yards, third in yards per game (112.6), 10th in yards after the catch (464) and second in first downs (62), Johnson, nicknamed Megatron, is a force to be reckoned with. It is worth noting that he missed one game this season with a knee injury so his stats could be even higher.
How important is he to quarterback Matthew Stafford and the Lions’ offense? Combine the receiving yards and touchdowns from the seven other players who have played wide receiver for the Lions this season and they will come up 258 yards and seven touchdowns short of Johnson.
At times, Stafford will just throw the ball up to Johnson hoping he can make the catch and knowing that it is very likely. Standing 6’5″ and weighing 236 pounds, he is a physical specimen and is easily the best receiver of this generation.
Like every other team in the league, the Ravens will have trouble stopping him. Many teams have had their best cover cornerback shadow Johnson all over the field, but it is likely that the Ravens won’t do this. When going up against other top receivers this season, the Ravens haven’t moved their cornerbacks around.
Most of the time, Johnson lines up on the outside so he will see either Lardarius Webb or Jimmy Smith when the Ravens are in their base defense and either Smith or Corey Graham when the Ravens are in nickel.
If the Ravens had to choose a defender to go up against Johnson, they would want it to be Smith. At 6’2″, he is the tallest of the bunch and is the most physical. He is also having a breakout season that has seen him step up his game into becoming worthy of a number one cornerback and is living up to the hype that came with being the Ravens’ first round pick in 2011. Over the last 10 games, he has given up just 22 catches and for the season, he has allowed 39.
Smith has actually faced Johnson before, albeit in a preseason game back when Smith was a rookie. In the limited time they matched up against each other, Smith allowed an 18-yard touchdown catch and was called for holding.
This time, the matchup will be different as Smith now has experience and is playing the best football of his career.
Earlier in the week, Ravens’ free safety Matt Elam called Johnson “pretty old” in an interview. In the same interview, Elam described Johnson as “big, fast, athletic, unstoppable, freak.” However, the comment about his age stood out and rightfully so.
“He’s pretty old, so I don’t know how physical he’ll be,” Elam said. “He’s a big guy, but he’s older. I guess when they get older they’re not going to be as physical, you know what I’m saying? We’re going to have to be physical, make him uncomfortable.”
At 28-years old, Johnson is anything but old and is still going very strong in the NFL. He is also a very physical receiver so it is hard to see where Elam is coming from.
Just for reference, the last time a player said something like this about Johnson he had his best game of the season. Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant said he could do anything Johnson could do. In their game against each other, Bryant had three catches for 72 yards and two touchdowns. All Johnson did was catch 14 passes for 329 yards and one touchdown. This was just the fifth time a receiver had more than 300 yards in a game and was the second best all-time, just seven yards behind Flipper Anderson’s record of 336 set in 1989.
3. Ravens’ Offensive Line vs Lions’ Defensive Line
The strength of the Lions’ defense is their defensive line and the weakness of the the Ravens’ offense this season has been their offensive line. Therefore, this matchup is going to be very important this week.
The Lions’ defensive line is headed by three first round draft picks: defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and defensive end Ezekiel Ansah. Suh was drafted in 2010, Fairley in 2011 and Ansah was drafted this season. By drafting defensive linemen with three of their last four first round picks, the Lions have made a clear investment into their defensive line and want it to anchor their defense.
So far this season, Suh, the star of the group, has 42 tackles and 5.5 sacks, Fairley has 25 tackles and 3.5 sacks and Ansah has 27 tackles and seven sacks. At the other defensive end position is Willie Young who has 41 tackles and three sacks.
Ansah is questionable for the game with a shoulder injury and practiced on a limited basis on Friday.
Though improving over the recent weeks, the Ravens’ offensive line is still the weak point of the offense. The main improvements have come in the form of pass protection. For the season, the Ravens have allowed 41 sacks which is tied for 28th worst in the league. Recently though, these sacks have been coming in the form of coverage sacks, where the offensive line isn’t to blame as there is no open receiver for Flacco to throw to.
When the line has struggled the most in pass protection, it has come against teams that blitz often. The line hasn’t been able to pickup these incoming blitzes very well resulting in unblocked pressure on Flacco. The Lions like to rush just their four defensive lineman a lot and this is where the Ravens’ offensive line has had more success.
Run blocking has been an entirely different story for the Ravens’ line. They have provided very few holes for running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce to go through. When the line does provide good blocking, Rice and Pierce do well — as you would expect. The Lions have the sixth best run defense in terms of total yards and yards per game, so it is unlikely that the Ravens will have success running the ball.
Overall, the key for the Ravens’ offense is to neutralize the defensive line of the Lions if they are to win the game.
In close game, turnovers usually are a deciding factor. Since this is expected to be a close game, turnovers, like the fourth quarter, are going to be important.
Both the Ravens and the Lions have struggled with turnovers this season and the reason for both teams has been their quarterback.
The Ravens have turned the ball over 22 times (17 interceptions and five fumbles) while only forcing 17 (nine interceptions and eight fumbles). This puts them at a negative five turnover differential. Flacco has been the main player behind these turnovers as he has already thrown five more interceptions than he has in a season before and there are still three games left to play.
For the Lions, they have turned the ball over 28 times (14 interceptions and 14 fumbles) while forcing 18 (13 interceptions and five fumbles). Their turnover differential is even worse than the Ravens at negative 10, mainly due to the whopping 14 fumbles. Last week against the Eagles, the Lions played in heavy snow and fumbled seven times. They only lost three of these fumbles, but seven still a ton. Stafford alone had five of these fumbles (one lost).
With the game being played indoors in the comfort of Ford Field, the weather won’t be a factor tomorrow night which is a good thing for both teams. Along with the Lions, the Ravens also played in snowy weather last week and Flacco threw three interceptions.
However, there will still be turnovers as both teams have been prone to them throughout the season. Whichever team turns the ball over the least, should win this game.