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Playoff Spots On The Line: Ravens vs Bengals

December 27, 2013 in What to Look For

With playoff spots on the line for each team, the 8-7 Baltimore Ravens take on the 10-5 Cincinnati Bengals in Cincinnati where the Bengals are undefeated this season.

Having already clinched the AFC North, the Bengals are guaranteed a playoff spot, but their positioning is still up for grabs. If the playoffs started today, they would be the third-seed, but there is still a chance that they can earn the second-seed and the first-round bye that comes with that. This would happen is the Bengals beat the Ravens and if the New England Patriots lose to the Buffalo Bills. This would put the Bengals and the Patriots at 11-5 and since the Bengals won the head-to-head matchup, the second-seed would go to the Bengals.

Moving to the Ravens, they are in a four-way battle for the sixth and final seed in the AFC with the Miami Dolphins, San Diego Chargers and Pittsburgh Steelers. Between these four teams, there are 16 different playoff scenarios and seven of them belong to the Ravens. No team controls their own destiny as everyone needs and win plus help to get in.

In order to make the playoffs, the Ravens need to beat Cincinnati and have either the Dolphins (vs New York Jets) or the Chargers (vs Kansas City Chiefs) lose. Another way to make the playoffs would be if the Dolphins, Chargers and Steelers all lose.

The last time that the Ravens faced the Bengals was in week 10 when the Ravens played host. The Ravens jumped out to a 17-0 halftime lead and seemed to be in charge, but then the Bengals made a late comeback which was capped by a 51-yard Hail Mary pass which was caught by A.J. Green for a touchdown as time expired. This led to overtime and the Ravens won 20-17 on a 46-yard field goal from Justin Tucker.

1.  Joe Flacco
As always for the Ravens, the play of Flacco, the quarterback, will be important if they are to win the game.

Joe Flacco

Courtesy of ICON SMI

After winning the Super Bowl MVP in February and signing $120.6 million contract in March, he has underperformed this season. In fact, he set a new career-high in interceptions with 19 (his previous high was 12 which he had done three times). These 19 interceptions are tied for the most in a single-season in Ravens' franchise history. Vinny Testaverde also threw 19 interceptions in the Ravens' inaugural season in 1996.

Currently, Flacco his playing with a sprained MCL in his left knee. This injury was suffered two weeks ago in Detroit on Monday Night Football when he took a low hit just below his knee. Last week against the New England Patriots he wore a brace to protect the knee and the injury clearly bothered him as he went 22-of-38 for 260 yards, zero interceptions and two interceptions. His accuracy was off all night and he should have thrown more than three interceptions. He was especially unable to accurately throw deep passes as he under and overthrew these passes by significant margins.

He will wear the brace on his knee again this week and will take on the fifth-ranked defense in the NFL. Allowing 211.3 passing yards per game, the Bengals are the sixth-best in pass defense, but have suffered multiple injuries at cornerback this season.

In the week 10 matchup, he went 20-of-36 for 140 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions and had a quarterback rating of 60.0 while being sacked five times. This stat line perfectly sums up his season as there have been great moments and bad ones which is shown by the touchdowns and interceptions. He has also been under pressure a lot of the time as the offensive line has give up 46 sacks this season which is tied for fourth-worst in the league and the five sacks from the Bengals' game show this.

If the Ravens are to win this game and advance to the playoffs, then they are going to need a big game from him. With his bad knee, it is unknown how likely this will be. However, he wasn't listed on the injury report this week.

2.  Pressuring Andy Dalton
At quarterback for the Bengals will be Dalton who, like Flacco, has been very inconsistent this season. When Dalton is good, he is very good and when he is bad, he is very bad.

This was evident during the game against the Ravens earlier in the season as he went 24-of-51 for 274 yards, two touchdowns, three interceptions and a quarterback rating of 52.2 while being sacked five times. The Ravens were able to effectively put pressure on him and this caused him trouble.

Expect the Ravens to try and bring the pressure again this week with various looks and alignments to confuse him. The Ravens Defense has been at its best when running an aggressive defense. When they shift to a conservative zone defense, opponents have had success. This is what happened when playing the Bengals earlier in the season. In the first half, the defense was blitzing way more than in the second half. Dalton had much more success in the second half when the Ravens were running the conservative style defense.

Two players that have had success blitzing this year for the Ravens have been middle linebacker Daryl Smith and strong safety James Ihedigbo so expect them to come blitzing early in the game.

Getting the five sacks of Dalton in the week 10 matchup were defensive ends Arthur Jones and DeAngelo Tyson (one apiece) and outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil who had three. Jones is questionable with a concussion this week and hasn't practiced all week so it is up in the air if he will play of not. If Jones can't play, then Tyson would be trust into a bigger role and he has impressed this season and is beating out third-round pick Brandon Williams for playing time right now. Dumervil is second on the team with 9.5 sacks this season, but has gone three games without a sack.

Playing opposite of Dumervil is Terrell Suggs who leads the team with ten sacks. Recently though, he has struggled to put pressure on the quarterback as he has one sack in the last seven games. This one sack came last week against the Patriots.

Despite being able to sack him five times in their prior matchup, the Bengals actually have a good offensive line and they have allowed only 29 sacks this season which is tied for fourth-best in the league.

In order to stop the Bengals' offense, the Ravens will need to apply pressure on Dalton to force him to make quick decisions which can lead to turnovers.

3.  Torrey Smith and A.J. Green
The best receivers for their teams (Ravens and Bengals respectively) both Smith and Green could be looking at big games on Sunday to finish off the regular season.

Starting with Smith, he leads the Ravens in all receiving statistics except touchdowns. He has 62 catches for 1,101 yards and four touchdowns on 131 targets. Entering the season he was mainly used as a deep threat, but he has developed into a more rounded receiver this season.

After a hot start to the season where he went over 80 yards in the first five games (92, 85, 92,166 and 121 yards). Since then though, he has topped 80 yards once and that was against the Steelers in week 13. Against the Patriots last week, it took until the third quarter for him to record a catch.

When the Ravens faced the Bengals earlier in the season he had five catches for 46 yards and one touchdown.

With his 1,101 receiving yards, he is just 100 yards away from the franchise record for most receiving yards in a single season. Michael Jackson set this record of 1,201 in 1996 — like Testaverde. If Smith's recent production holds true, he will be held just short of this record. However, expect the Ravens to target Smith often during this game as he is their most explosive receiver.

Switching to Green, he leads the Bengals in all receiving categories and is near the top in these categories for the entire league. He is tied for fifth in catches (94), third in targets (170), fourth in yards (1,365) and tied for eight in touchdowns (10).

Against the Ravens in week 10 he had eight catches for 151 yards and one touchdown. This touchdown came on a Hail Mary as time expired in the fourth quarter and forced overtime. He was able to catch the ball after Ihedigbo tipped the ball up right to Green.

With 97 more targets than the next receiver on the Bengals, he is by far Dalton's favorite target this season. This isn't just a one season thing either as Green averages 9.78 targets per game in 46 career games (him and Dalton came into the league together in 2011) and had 70 more targets than other receivers last season and 12 more in his rookie year.

Covering him for the Ravens will be a combination of Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb. Smith has really improved this season and held Calvin Johnson — one of the few, if not the only, wide receiver better than Green — in check two weeks ago. Therefore, expect Smith to align over Green more than Webb. The Ravens don't usually rotate their cornerbacks based on receiver, they usually just keep them on a certain side, but they would be wise to keep Smith on Green.

4.  Ravens' Offensive Line
As mentioned a little earlier, the Ravens' offensive line has had trouble this year with pass protection, but they also have struggled to create holes in the run game.

Michael Oher

Courtesy of ICON SMI

There has been some change throughout the season on the line as starting left tackle Bryant McKinnie was traded away after the Ravens traded for Eugene Monore. Left guard Kelechi Osemele has missed most of the season with a back injury and has been replaced by A.Q. Shipley. Center Gino Gradkowski was the only new starter coming into the year, but the turnover on the left side has changed that. The right side of the line has stayed the same all season with Marshal Yanda at guard and Michael Oher at tackle.

Starting with pass protection, the line has allowed 46 tackles which is tied for fourth-worst in the NFL. The line has struggled the most with blitzes and the Bengals took advantage of this the last time these two played. Backup linebacker Vincent Rey had three of the sacks and defensive end Carlos Dunlap had two. These blitzes usually resulted in unblocked pressure on Flacco and there is not much that he can do when a defensive player has a free run at him.

With 41 sacks on the season (tied for 11th best in the league), the Bengals have a formidable pass rush which the Ravens' line will have their hands full with.

Last time against the Bengals the Ravens averaged 2.8 yards per carry and this falls to 2.25 yards per carry on rushes from running back Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce and fullback Vonta Leach. All game long, these backs had no holes to run though agains the now sixth-best run defense in the league (99.8 yards per game and four yards per carry).

These run game woes are likely to continue for the Ravens in this game as the run game hasn't improved since then. The pass protection has improved over the last few weeks so it will be interesting and very important to see how the Ravens' offensive line holds up — especially with an injured Flacco at the helm of the offense.

AFC Championship Rematch: Ravens vs Patriots

December 21, 2013 in What to Look For

In the last two seasons, the AFC Championship Game has consisted of the Baltimore Ravens and the New England Patriots. Both times the game has been played in New England and each game produced different results.

The first time around, in 2011, the Ravens suffered a heartbreaking defeat 23-20. With under one minute left in the game, wide receiver Lee Evans had the game-winning touchdown catch in his hands, but Patriots' defender Sterling Moore was able to knock it loose at the last second. Two plays later, the Ravens attempted a 32-yard field goal to tie the game and send it to overtime. However, kicker Billy Cundiff missed it wide left and the Patriots won the game. They would face the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI where the Giants won 21-17. This game against the Patriots is still a sore spot for Ravens fans.

Last year, the Ravens headed up to Foxboro looking for revenge. The Ravens had defeated the Patriots 31-30 in the regular season on a 27-yard field goal from new kicker Justin Tucker. Wide receiver Torrey Smith played the game of his life catching six passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns just hours after finding out about the death of his younger brother Tevin.

A regular season victory isn't the same though. For the Ravens to come full-circle on the Patriots, they needed to win a playoff game in Foxboro. At halftime in the 2012 AFC Championship Game, the Ravens were down 13-7 and weren't playing great. In the second half, quarterback Joe Flacco came out firing and three three touchdown passes. This spearheaded the Ravens comeback and led them to a 28-13 victory.

This victory sent the Ravens to Super Bowl XLVII where they faced the San Francisco 49ers in New Orleans where the Ravens hoisted the Lombardi Trophy after an eventful 34-31 victory.

1.  Joe Flacco
If the Ravens are to defeat the Patriots for a third straight time, they are going to need Flacco to play like he did in last season's two games.

In the regular season matchup, he went 28-of-39 for 382 yards, three touchdowns, one interception and a quarterback rating of 117.7. With the Ravens down 30-21 with 7:29 left in the game, they got the ball and he led them on a drive then ended in a touchdown pass to Smith with 4:01 left. After the defense forced a Patriots punt, Flacco and the offense got the ball back with 1:55 left. A few plays later, the Ravens had the ball on the Patriots' nine-yard line and sent in Tucker for the game-winning field goal. With the game on the line, Flacco led the Ravens on two scoring drives late in the game to win.

Joe Flacco

Courtesy of ICON SMI

In the playoff matchup, the Ravens came out with a conservative game plan, but changed it at halftime to let him throw more. This resulted in the Ravens scoring 21 unanswered points in the second half and a trip to New Orleans for the Super Bowl. For the game, he went 21-of-36 for 240 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions and a quarterback rating of 106.2.

The Patriots have been a team that he plays better against due to his familiarity with them. He has played them six times going 3-3 including 2-1 in the playoffs. In these games, he has thrown 12 touchdowns compared to four interceptions and has completed 63.5 percent of his passes.

This year, he seems to be having a down year after winning the Super Bowl. He has thrown for 3,460 yards, 18 touchdowns and completed 58.9 percent of his passes. Along with these stats, he has also thrown a career-high 17 interceptions and has a career-low quarterback rating (76.5). His previous high in interceptions was 12 which he has done three different times.

Part of the reason why he is having a down year is the struggles of the rest of the offense. Anquan Boldin, a key receiver from last year, was traded away and tight end Dennis Pitta dislocated and fractured his hip in training camp. He has only returned recently and the game this week will be his third of the season. The offensive line has struggled in pass protection and run blocking. The lack of an effective run game has pushed more onto the shoulders of Flacco.

One thing that he has done well this season is come through late in games. In the last two game, he has led two game-winning drives and in the first game, he led two touchdown drives in the final few minutes.

Playing in the clutch is one of the most important attributes that a quarterback can have in his arsenal and it is something that can't be taught. You either have it or you don't. And Flacco has it.

If the Ravens can get another good performance from Flacco, then they are going to be tough to beat.

2.  Tom Brady
Speaking of quarterbacks that perform in the clutch, the Patriots have a pretty good one themselves in Brady.

While Brady is a first-ballet Hall-of-Fame quarterback, the Ravens' defense has given him trouble in the past. Since 2008 — when Flacco entered the league — Brady has thrown six touchdowns and nine interceptions against the Ravens while completing 60.2 percent of his passes. In his eight career starts against the Ravens, he has completed only 57.7 percent of his passes and has thrown two more interceptions than touchdowns. These are his worst numbers against an opponent.

One reason that the Ravens have been able to find success against him has been because of the numerous blitzes that the Ravens run. The Ravens' defense has been able to confuse Brady at times with their blitzes.

Directing the Ravens' signals on defense every other year has been Ray Lewis, another first-ballet Hall-of-Fame player. However, he retired in the offseason and left a huge void in the middle of the Ravens' defense. Taking over Lewis' spot has been Daryl Smith, a veteran signed in free agency.

He has exceeded expectations for the Ravens as he has 107 tackles (tied for a career-high), 4.5 sacks (career-high), three interceptions (career-high) and 18 pass deflections (career-high and a Ravens' franchise record for a linebacker). He has also done a good job of calling the signals for the defense.

Brady will be missing many of his top targets in this game. All three of his favorite targets from last year won't play as tight end Rob Gronkowski is out with a torn ACL and MCL, tight end Aaron Hernandez is in jail awaiting trial for murder and wide receiver Wes Welker signed with the Denver Broncos in free agency. On top of that fourth-round pick wide receiver Josh Boyce is out with an injury, second-round pick wide receiver Aaron Dobson is questionable and undrafted free agent wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins is also questionable. His most targeted receiver this year is Julian Edelman who has 89 catches and his previous high was 37. Coming in second is Danny Amendola, a free agent signing to replace Welker, but he has missed four games with injury.

Despite all of these injuries and changes, Brady has still led the Patriots to a 10-4 record.

The Ravens will need to play physical with the receivers on the outside as both Edelman and Amendola are under six foot tall. The defense will also need to pressure Brady with various blitzes to force him to make quick decisions under pressure.

3.  Big Plays
This game has massive playoff implications so there will be a playoff-like atmosphere at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. In games like this, big plays will be the difference.

Big plays can be one of two things: a large gain or a turnover.

Starting with large gains, these can come in many different forms. There could be a big kickoff or punt return, a long pass or catch and run, or even a long run after a handoff.

In the return game, the Ravens have a clear advantage with Jacoby Jones returning for them. The first-team All-Pro kick returner from last season missed a few games at the beginning of the season with a knee injury and then struggled in his first few games back. Now though, he is in full stride and has been busting out big returns in recent games. Against the New York Jets four weeks ago, he returned a punt 37 yards and had 108 punt return yards on five returns. Three weeks ago against the Pittsburgh Steelers he returned a kickoff 73 yards and almost scored a touchdown. Against the Minnesota Vikings two weeks ago he did as he took a kickoff 77 yards with 1:16 left in the game to give the Ravens the lead. Last week against the Detroit Lions he returned a kickoff 36 yards to the Ravens' 33-yard line to set up the Ravens' game-winning drive.

In the passing and rushing game, the Ravens and Patriots are balanced as the Ravens have the advantage passing and the Patriots do rushing the ball.

Moving to the turnover battle, the Patriots have the advantage. They have a turnover differential of plus six compared to the Ravens one of negative two. The Patriots have forced 25 turnovers (14 interceptions and 11 fumbles) while only turning it over 19 times (10 interceptions and nine fumbles). The Ravens have forced 20 turnovers (12 interceptions and eight fumbles) while turning it over 22 times (17 interceptions and five fumbles).

Last week, the Patriots were even in turnover differential as they threw for one interception and forced a fumble. The Ravens were plus three as they intercepted three passes while not turning the ball over.

This game is going to come down to who can make a big play when is comes down to it. Both the Ravens and Patriots have shown this ability and are balanced in this aspect.

4.  Run Game
A battle of bad meets bad when the Ravens have the ball on offense as the Ravens' run game ranks worst in yards per attempt and the Patriots' run defense ranks second-worst in yards per game.

The struggles for the Ravens stem from an ineffective offensive line and running backs that can't break tackles. This is a killer combination (and not in a good way). This has led to 3.0 yards per carry which is worse than all teams in the league and the next worse is at 3.3.

The offensive line has failed to provide any holes to running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. They haven't played well either though as they have failed to break tackles and take advantage of a hole when there has been one.

Injuries have been the main fault behind the Patriots' bad run defense. Starting defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly are out for the season with injuries and the same goes for linebacker Jarod Mayo. These three (especially Wilfork and Mayo) were the better run defenders on the Patriots and their losses have really hurt the Patriots.

Rice has run up the middle a lot this season and with the Patriots hurting in that area, expect more of the same. One of the two units has to give way and have success for once. Right?

The Fourth Quarter Will Be The Key: Ravens vs Lions

December 15, 2013 in What to Look For

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).

Joe Flacco

Courtesy of ICON SMI

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.

2.  Containing Calvin Johnson
After facing the best running back in the league last week in Adrian Peterson, the Ravens now have to face the best wide receiver in the league.

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.

Bernard Pierce

Courtesy of ICON SMI

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.

4.  Turnovers
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.

Can The Ravens Stop Peterson: Ravens vs Vikings

December 7, 2013 in What to Look For

In a battle of the two purple teams in the NFL, the 6-6 Baltimore Ravens will host the 3-8-1 Minnesota Vikings. The Ravens enter the game having won three of their last four including two straight. The Vikings have won two of their last four and have also had a tie in this stretch.

Being from different conferences, the Ravens and Vikings only play once every four years. The last time they faced off was in 2009 back when Brett Favre was the Vikings quarterback. Favre and the Vikings won 33-31 at home when Steven Hauschka missed a 44-yard field goal as time expired for the Ravens.

With a win this week, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco he will set the record for most wins in the Super Bowl-era by a quarterback in their first six seasons. Currently, he has 60 wins which is tied with Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

1.  Containing Adrian Peterson
First off, there is no stopping Peterson, you have to contain him. As the best running back in the NFL, he is a force to be reckoned with and at times, he is the only weapon on the Vikings' offense.

Last year, he was coming off a torn ACL that he suffered in week 16 of the previous year. Despite this injury, he bounced back and had one of the best seasons ever for a running back. On 348 carries, he gained 2,097 yards (six yards per carry) and had 12 touchdowns. He was nine yards away from breaking the single-season rushing record which was set by Eric Dickerson in 1984 with the Los Angeles Rams when he ran for 2,105 yards.

This year, Peterson has fallen back to earth, but he is still the NFL's leading rusher. He also leads the league in attempts (261), touchdowns (10) and yards per game (100.7). Over the last few weeks he has been bothered by a groin injury which has him listed as questionable this week. (He will play despite this injury though.) With this nagging injury, he has rushed for 146 and 211 yards over the last two games so this injury clearly isn't effecting him that much.

A physical runner who possesses good speed, he has averaged 3.1 yards after contact this season. To put that in context, the Ravens as a team are averaging 2.9 yards per carry.

Trying to slow Peterson down will be the Ravens Defense who have a top-tier run defense this season after struggling last year. They ran sixth in total rushing yards (1,201), fifth in yards per attempt (3.7), first in rushing touchdowns allowed (two) and sixth in yards per game (100.1).

Despite having a good run defense, the Ravens are going to have their hands full trying to stop Peterson. He is the clear cut number one running back in the league, and despite their highly ranked defense, the Ravens have had some trouble stopping the run this season. They allowed 120 yards to Green Bay running back Eddie Lacy and 93 yards to Pittsburgh running back Le'Veon Bell.

All game long, the Ravens are going to stack the line-of-scrimmage with extra defenders to focus on stopping Peterson. The key to stopping him is to not miss tackles as yards-after-contact is where he excels, as shown by the 3.1 yards after contact this year.

In order to stop the Vikings offense, Peterson must be slowed down. He is their only major weapon on offense and can constantly make teams pay. Teams can strategize to stop him and he can still go off for 200 yards. If the Ravens can limit him to just over 100 yards, then the defense will be successful and the Ravens will likely win.

2.  The Return of Dennis Pitta
A key component of the Ravens' offense last year was Pitta, but he has yet to play in a game this season due to a hip injury suffered in training camp this season.

Early in camp, Pitta dislocated and fractured his hip after going up for a catch and falling on his hip. He was initially ruled out for the season, but the Ravens placed him on injured reserve with a designation to return right before the season started.

He has been practicing for a few weeks now as he gets ready for his return. It is likely that he will make his first appearance of the season against the Vikings. The Ravens will have until 4pm today to activate him.

Joe Flacco and Dennis Pitta

Courtesy of ICON SMI

While he will probably play tomorrow, he will most likely play on a limited basis in certain formations and be on a snap count. His surgically repaired hip can feel fine in practice where there is no contact, but practice doesn't simulate the hits that he will receive in game. It will be key to see how his hip responds after taking a hit right to it.

Since being drafted by the Ravens in 2010, he has developed into Flacco's favorite target and his best friend. He has become Flacco go-to-target and his security blanket. Without Pitta on the field this year, Flacco has struggled at times as he has been working with an inexperienced receiving corps.

The only good to come out of this has been Flacco's development with wide receiver Torrey Smith who has developed into a complete receiver this year and has been Flacco's main target all season.

With a healthy Pitta on the field along with Smith, Flacco would be more comfortable and see more success.

Temper your expectations for this week though as Pitta hasn't played in a game since the Super Bowl in February and will be a bit rusty.

3.  Deep Passes
When the Ravens' offense is at its best, they are completing deep pass for long gains and touchdowns. This was a key component of the offense last year and helped spark the Ravens' Super Bowl run.

This year however, the Ravens have struggled to complete deep passes. Flacco had 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions on deep passes last year and this year he only has one touchdown and five interceptions. This one touchdown came two weeks ago against the New York Jets on a 66-yard pass to Jacoby Jones. With just one touchdown pass on deep passes, Flacco is lat in the league in this category.

The main reason for Flacco's touchdown-interception ratio being completely flipped around this year is his accuracy on deep passes. His accuracy percentage on deep passes is 28.6 percent according to Pro Football Focus. This percentage ties him for 22nd in the league with Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers.

With two deep threats playing wide receiver, Smith and Jones, the Ravens should be throwing deep multiple times each game. Smith and Jones have elite speed at the receiver position which allows them to beat cornerbacks and get behind safeties.

One potential reason for the lack of a deep passing game is because of an injury to Jones. He sprained his MCL in week one and missed four games. In his next five games, he played but looked to lack some of his usual explosion that he has a receiver and as a punt and kickoff returner. Over the last two weeks he has had big games. Against the Jets he had four catches for 103 yards and one touchdown and added 108 yards on five punt returns. Against the Steelers he had four catches for 53 yards and returned two kickoffs for 104 yards including a 73-yard return.

Over the last two weeks, the Ravens have made deep passes a more important part of their offense just like it should be. One of Flacco's best attributes as a quarterback is his strong arm (one of the best in the league) and the Ravens have the receivers to take advantage of this. Expect the Ravens to attack a weak Vikings' secondary with deep passes.

4.  Pass Rush
A key part of the Ravens' defense is the pass rush and that pass rush has struggled over in two of the Ravens last three games.

Starting three weeks ago against the Chicago Bears, the Ravens were able to record two sacks, but they were for a total loss of one yard. Both of these sacks came when quarterback Josh McCown started to scramble and he was caught at the line. The field at Soldier Field was muddy due to bad weather and this neutralized the Ravens' pass rush. Against the Jets two weeks ago, the Ravens dialed up blitzes and were able to sack rookie quarterback Geno Smith three times. Last week against the Steelers weren't able to record a sack on Roethlisberger despite going up against a line full of backups.

One of the main reasons the Ravens have had trouble rushing the passer has been a lack of impact from their best pass rusher Terrell Suggs. During the first eight games of the season, he had nine sacks and looked to be on pace to compete for the Defensive Player of the Year award. However over the next four games he has totaled zero sacks. Not only that, he has been making less tackles as he has averaged two tackles over the last four games and was averaging 7.5 per game in the first eight games.

Rushing the passer with Suggs is usually Elvis Dumervil who has 9.5 sacks this season. This week though, he is doubtful with a sprained ankle so it is unlikely that he will play. This is a blow to the Ravens' pass rush, but since he is just used as a situational pass rusher, he was likely to see limited snaps this week due to the presence of Peterson.

Despite their recent struggles, the Ravens rank tied for fifth in the league in sacks with 37. On offense, Minnesota has allowed 34 sacks which is the 22nd best in the league. Going up against a line that is in the bottom half of the league in pass protection, the Ravens should call more blitzes to try and create pressure.

The Vikings will be starting Matt Cassel at quarterback as Christian Ponder is out with a concussion. Cassel is an experienced veteran, but the Ravens' defense has been at its best when being aggressive and blitzing, not when sitting back in zone and rushing three of four people.

Ravens vs Steelers: The Rematch

November 27, 2013 in What to Look For

Ravens-Steelers. There are few rivalries that can match the intensity and quality of games produced each time these two play. Proof? Ten of the last thirteen games played between the two (including two playoff games) have been decided by three points. Eight of the last nine regular season matchups have been decided by three points.

Earlier this season, these division rivals played in Pittsburgh to a final score of 19-16 with the Steelers victorious. It was a typical Ravens-Steelers game as each team only scored one touchdown, both teams where held under 20 points and the margin of victory was three points.

This week, the rivalry gets a Thanksgiving flavor — turkey to be exact. The Steelers head to Baltimore for the night game on Thanksgiving. Two years ago, the Ravens hosted the San Francisco 49ers on Thanksgiving night and won 16-6.

For the second time this season, the Ravens will wear their black jerseys — just like they did against the 49ers. The Ravens also wore these jerseys earlier in the season against the Green Bay Packers. This time around though, the Ravens will be wearing black pants as well, to go for the all-black look.

1.  Contain Ben Roethlisberger
At quarterback for the Steelers is Roethlisberger, a veteran who has been their starter since early in the 2004 season (his rookie year).

Against the Ravens in week seven, he went 17-of-23 for 160 yards with one touchdown, zero interceptions and a quarterback rating of 107.2. Nothing spectacular, but he led the Steelers to a victory — the most important thing.

The new breed of NFL quarterbacks are dual-threats. They can run the ball or pass the ball. Roethlisberger is not a running quarterback. Entering this season he was averaging 112 rushing yards per season, which is about average for a quarterback. What he can do however, is move around in the pocket and buy time for his receivers to get open down field.

Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata

Courtesy of ICON SMI

At 6'5", 241 lbs, he is a load to bring down. More often then not, he doesn't go down on first contact. When he is at his best, he is moving around in the pocket, avoiding pass rushers and extending the play. Of course, the Steelers would prefer it if this didn't have to happen, but the performance of their offensive line over his career has necessitated it.

At the beginning of the month, he had been sacked 406 times in his career — the most of any quarterback in the last 10 years. This season, the Steelers have allowed 37 sacks (over three per game) which is tied for the fifth most in the NFL.

The Ravens' pass rush is currently tied for first in the NFL for the most sacks (37) with four other teams. In week seven, the Ravens mustered three sacks — one apiece by Terrell Suggs and Brandon Williams and half-a-sack from Haloti Ngata and Elvis Dumervil.

Suggs, who is second on the team with nine sacks (Dumervil has 9.5), hasn't recorded a sack in the last three games. Playing the Steelers now is a probably a good thing for him as he has had success against them during his career. He has sacked Roethlisberger 15.5 times in his career which is one of, if not, the highest sack total by a single player on Roethlisberger.

Over the years, he has burned many teams with this ability to extend plays and the Ravens are no exception. It will be key for the Ravens to take him down right away. The less he is able to scramble around, the more likely a team is to beat the Steelers.

2.  Stop the Run
One of the main reasons that the Steelers were able to win a few weeks ago was because they successfully ran the ball against the Ravens.

As a team, they ran for 141 yards on 29 carries (4.9 yards per carry). Doing most of the carrying was second-round pick Le'Veon Bell. He took 19 handoffs for 93 yards (also 4.9 yards per carry). His longest rush of the game was only 11 yards, so his numbers aren't inflated by one big run. He was constantly gaining small chunks of yardage on the normally stout Ravens' defense.

These numbers from the last game are even worse from the Ravens perspective when the season-long numbers are looked at. The Steelers are one of the few teams that are just as bad as the Ravens this year at running the ball. The Steelers are 30th in the league in rushing yards (850), yards per game (77.3) and yards per carry (3.3). The Ravens' run defense is the 11th, 11th and 5th best is these categories respectively. They shouldn't be getting gashed by the Steelers' run game.

If the Ravens want to win their rematch against the Steelers, they can't let this happen to them again. Good run defenses shouldn't be giving up 141 yards against the third-worst rushing team in the league.

Stopping the Steelers' rushing attack, will make the Steelers' offense one-dimensional. When this occurs, the Ravens can fully commit to defending the pass — something the Steelers are much better at.

3.  Run the Ball
Like the Steelers, the Ravens' offense has struggled to run the ball all season long. However, the Steelers' run defense isn't exactly top-notch.

Normally strong against the run, they are having a down year. They are tied for 23rd in yards allowed (1,307) and yards per game (118.8) and rank 21st in yards per carry (4.2).

Their best defender is middle linebacker Lawrence Timmons who has 90 tackles on the year and had a whopping 17 against the Ravens in week seven. The next best Steeler had eight in week seven and the best Raven (Daryl Smith) had nine.

More from week seven, the Ravens ran the ball 26 times for 82 yards (3.2 yards per carry). Starting running back Ray Rice had 15 carries for 45 yards (3.0 yards per carry) and backup Bernard Pierce had six carries for 13 yards (2.2 yards per carry). The sad thing is that this was one of the more successful games for the Ravens this year running the ball.

An advantage that the Ravens will have this week that they didn't have last time they faced the Steelers will be Steelers' nose tackle Steve McLendon being out with an ankle injury. This is a key blow to the Steelers' run defense.

Last week, the Ravens brought in backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor who is one of the dual-threat quarterbacks talked about earlier. Taking snaps at quarterback and wide receiver, he ran the ball four times for seven yards, caught one pass for six yards and had his only pass attempt dropped. His longest run of the day was for 17 yards, but losses of six and seven brought down his total yards.

This set of plays for Taylor provided the run game with a little spark early, but the New York Jets' defense quickly caught on. Starting quarterback Joe Flacco has made it clear this week that he isn't a fan of the Wildcat formation that brings Taylor in at quarterback. Due to these comments, it will be interesting to see what offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell does. Will he listen to Flacco or not?

While the Ravens may not see success right away running the ball, they need to keep pounding the ball against he Steelers. Eventually, the Ravens will get bigger chunks of yards as the Steelers' defense gets tired.

4.  Turnovers
When games are decided by a few points, turnovers are usually a deciding factor. Especially when you have two historically good defenses facing off.

Naturally, there are exceptions to the rule as the week seven matchup saw the Steelers produce the only turnover (a Heath Miller turnover), yet they still won. However, you can't continually win close game while losing the turnover battle.

This year both the Ravens and the Steelers have negative turnover differentials.

At negative three, the Ravens are slightly above the Steelers who are at negative four. Neither of these numbers are something to be proud of though.

The Ravens have forced 16 turnovers (nine interceptions and seven fumbles) while turning it over 19 times (14 interceptions and five fumbles). Flacco is the cause of this as he has already set a new career-high in interceptions — not what the Ravens envisioned when the signed him to a record-breaking contract extension this offseason.

The Steelers have forced 14 turnovers (seven interceptions and fumbles) and have turned it over 18 times (10 interceptions and eight fumbles). These eight fumbles are the second-worst in the AFC. There isn't one player who has dropped the ball per say; it is a collective failing by the team.

In a what is expected to be a close game, turnovers are going to be one of the main deciding factors in who wins the game. Whoever wins the turnover battle will win this game.

The Return of Ed Reed (Part Two): Ravens vs Jets

November 23, 2013 in What to Look For

In week three, former Baltimore Ravens' safety Ed Reed, a Baltimore legend, returned to M&T Bank Stadium with the Houston Texans after signing with them in free agency. Fast-forward to week 12 and Reed is now with the New York Jets after the Texans released him. Reed gets to make his return to Baltimore again tomorrow as the Jets come to Baltimore.

Other than Reed's return, this game is going to be key because both the 4-6 Ravens and the 5-5 Jets are battling for the sixth and last playoff spot in the AFC (which only has five good teams this year).

Currently the Jets own this sixth seed, but their performance has been inconsistent all season. They have won every other game this season and their only win on the road came against a now 2-9 Atlanta team. This week pits those two trends against each other as the Jets lost to the Buffalo Bills last week and have to travel to Baltimore this week.

1.  Force Turnovers
When the Jets lose games, their main problem is turnovers. Rookie, second-round pick, quarterback Geno Smith has been as inconsistent as possible and when he succeeds, the Jets succeed.

For the season, Smith is second in the NFL with 16 interceptions. In comparison, he only has eight touchdown passes. Adding to this, he also has four fumbles — giving him a NFL-leading 20 total turnovers, and average of two per game. Of these 20 turnovers, five have been returned for touchdowns.

In Jets' losses, Smith has been particularly bad as 12 of his interceptions have come in these five games. Throughout the season, Smith has played well in wins and bad in losses.

Which Smith will show up against the Ravens? Good Geno or bad Geno?

The Ravens' defense can influence this with their schemes that they use for the game. Against the Cincinnati Bengals two weeks ago, the Ravens' defense had their best performance of the season as they intercepted Andy Dalton three times, sacked him five times and held him to a quarterback rating of 17.3. Last week, the Ravens faced Josh McCown, a backup quarterback, and lost forcing no turnovers and only sacking him two times for one yard. The pass rush was non-existent.

What was different in these two games? The type of defense the Ravens ran. Against the Bengals, the Ravens were blitz-happy, attacking and confusing Dalton. This forced him to rush his decisions and he made many bad ones. Against the Bears, the Ravens ran a conservative zone defense with little blitzing. With the weather being bad enough to cause an almost two hour delay, this could have factored in to the decision, but the conservative defense wasn't working.

Lardarius Webb

Courtesy of ICON SMI

Going up against a quarterback who is coming off of his worst game this season according to Pro Football Focus (Smith was benched late in the game) and who has only two games without a turnover, expect the Ravens to blitz often.

Smith has struggled against pressure all season and the Ravens' defense has been best when playing aggressive this season. When an aggressive form of defense is played, the cornerbacks are usually left by themselves in coverage. Over their last two games, the Ravens cornerbacks have played their best two games of the season. Lardarius Webb looks to have finally bounced back from his second torn ACL and Jimmy Smith seems to have taken the so called "next step."

The last time these two teams played, 2011, the Ravens won 34-17. The Ravens force four turnovers scored three defensive touchdowns including a Webb interception returned for a touchdown. The defense also didn't allow a touchdown as the Jets scored on a kickoff return and an interception return.

Forcing turnovers is the number one way to beat the Jets. At times, the Ravens' defense has struggled to do this season, but when they run an aggressive defense, they have had success. Expect them to come out and try to confuse Smith with some exotic blitzes, bringing back memories of Rex Ryan's (the current Jets head coach) Ravens defenses when they used "organized chaos."

2.  Stop The Run
In order to help protect Smith and following Ryan's brand of smash-mouth football, the Jets' offense is run-heavy.

Having a successful run game is the number one way to help a rookie or inexperienced quarterback. With a good run game, the defense will stack the box in order to stop the run. This then leaves easier reads and throws for a quarterback when he has to throw the ball.

The Jets did this a few years ago when they have Mark Sanchez at quarterback and, despite Sanchez's shortcomings, they were able to make it to the AFC Championship Game in back-to-back seasons (a dominant defense led the way though).

This season, the run game is working yet again. Averaging 129.5 yards per game, the eighth best in the league, the Jets are having success pounding defenses with a constant running game. The Jets are also eighth in the league in rushing attempts so they are not going to go away from their game plan if they fall behind. Even in last weeks blowout loss to the Bills, the Jets ran the ball 23 times while attempting 29 passes.

Spearheading the Jets run game recently has been Chris Ivory. Over the last four games, he has 350 yards — despite only gaining 11 in one of the games. Acquired in a draft-day trade, Ivory didn't handle the bulk of the workload at the start of the season as he struggled with injuries. Recently though, he has gotten healthy and showed why the Jets gave up a fourth-round pick for him.

While he was recovering from injuries, Bilal Powell took the reins of the Jets attack. In the first six games of the season, he had 360 rushing yards — enough to keep the offense going while waiting for Ivory.

For the season, Ivory has 467 yards and Powell has 441.

The Ravens' run defense has been up-and-down this season. Allowing 102.7 yards per game, they ran 11th best in the NFL and have allowed only one rushing touchdown this season — the best in the league by two. The Ravens also rank sixth in yards per attempt at 3.7.

Despite this success, the Ravens have been run on this season. The Bills ran for 203 yards, the Packers had 140 (with Eddie Lacy gaining 120 of these) and the Pittsburgh Steelers ran for 141. Lacy is the only 100-yard rusher allowed this season though.

With key run defender Haloti Ngata questionable (very questionable at that), expect the Jets' game-plan to include lots of run plays. Ngata missed last week against the Chicago Bears and the Bears ran for 104 yards, though they ran outside more than inside.

3.  Neutralize The Defensive Line
Moving to when the Ravens are on offense, the most important thing for them to do is to neutralize the Jets' defensive line.

The clear-cut star of the Jets' defense is defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson. With his performance this season, he has locked down the title of the best 3-4 defensive end not named J.J. Watt. Dominant all season and last year, Wilkerson has eight sacks this season and only has three games without a sack. Adding to this, he has 40 tackles, two forced fumbles and one interception. The best pass rusher of the Jets' line, he is also a great run defender. At only 24-years old, Wilkerson is set to disrupt offensive lines for years to come.

At the other defensive end is Sheldon Richardson — the 13th pick of this year's NFL Draft. Reaping the benefits of playing next to Wilkerson and in Ryan's defense, Richardson has 50 tackles, 2.5 sacks and one forced fumble in just 10 games. Already one of the best run defenders in the NFL, his pass rush has been slower developing. Despite this, he is one of the leading candidates for defensive rookie of the year.

Playing the all-important nose tackle in Ryan's 3-4 defense is Damon Harrison, an undrafted free agent from the 2012 draft. At 350 pounds, he is the perfect player to play nose tackle for Ryan. Commanding a double team, Harrison is very hard to move out of the way in the run game. Because of this, he has enjoyed great success in run defense, which is all the Jets ask of him. He has 41 tackles and one sack this season.

Because of these three great, young defensive lineman, the Jets have the number one run defense in the league. They are top of the league in total yards (732), yards per game (73.2) and yards per attempt (2.9). On the flip side, the Ravens' offense is 27th in total run yards (832), 27th in yards per game (83.2) and 31st in yards per carry (3.0).

The Ravens' offensive line is going to struggle to move the Jets' defensive line out of the way when they run. After having their best run game of the season — against one of the worst run defenses in the Bears — the Ravens will likely continue to struggle to run the ball this week.

On the other hand, the Jets' pass defense is a lot worse (22nd in the NFL). This means that the Ravens will game plan to pass the ball against this Jets team. Quarterback Joe Flacco is going to need to play a great game this week in what will likely to a low scoring affair. If any team can get to 20 points, they will more than likely win the game.

4.  Torrey Smith vs Antonio Cromartie
Flacco's number one target this year when passing the ball has been Smith and Cromartie is the Jets number one cornerback.

Ryan likes to leave his cornerbacks on an island in man coverage while he blitzes. He also has his best cornerback matchup with the opponents number one receiver. Darrelle Revis was the master at doing this, but he was traded this offseason which put Cromartie in the number one spot.

At the start of the season, Smith was at the top of most receiving categories, but over the last few weeks, his performance his dipped. Currently he is only in the top ten of two categories: yards per catch (eighth) and receptions over 20 yards (tied for third).

When you compare him to the other Ravens' receivers, he is miles above the others. He leads the team in catches by 10, has twice the amount of targets as the second highest (92 for him 46 for next best), yards by 474 and first downs by 15.

He is best at deep routes, though he has become a more complete receiver this season. This plays into the weakness of the Jets' defense: the big play.

Ryan has called big plays the "Achilles heel" of his defense this season and Cromartie has been beaten deep multiple times by speed receivers.

The easiest way to create a big play is to throw a deep pass. Last year, Flacco had much success throwing deep passes — especially during the Ravens' playoff run. However, this season has been a different story.

Expect the Ravens to use Smith to attack Cromartie and the Jets' defense deep throughout the game. Cromartie has struggled in coverage this season so there is a good chance that Smith can beat Cromartie deep.

Can The Run Game Get Going: Ravens vs Bears

November 16, 2013 in What to Look For

In their second game this season against an NFC North opponent, the 4-5 Baltimore Ravens travel to Soldier Field to take on the 5-4 Chicago Bears. The last time these two teams played was in week 15 of the 2009 season when the Ravens won 31-7 in Baltimore. Last time the Ravens played in Chicago, the Bears won 10-6 in 2005. Playing seven games in their history at NFC North stadiums, the Ravens have zero wins.

1.  Run Game
Throughout the season, the Ravens' run game has struggled and the Bears' run defense has been one of the worst in the league. In a battle between two struggling units, something has to give.

The Bears run defense allows 4.5 yards per carry (26th in the NFL), 129.4 yards per game (31st) and has given up 10 rushing touchdowns (tied 25th). Over the last three games, they have been even worse, allowing 184 yards per game on 5.6 yards per carry. Since Oct. 6, the Bears haven't held a running back under 95 rushing yards.

In their last four games, the Bears have faced Brandon JacobsAlfred MorrisEddie Lacy and Reggie Bush at running back. They had 106, 95, 150 and 105 yards rushing respectively and an average of six yards per carry. Jacobs hadn't started a game in two years, yet he was able to get over 100 yards.

One reason why the Bears have struggled to defend the run is because of injuries. They have lost starting defensive tackle Henry Melton to a season-ending ACL injury and starting outside linebacker Lance Briggs for multiple weeks with a shoulder injury. These are two of the Bears best defensive players who haven't played recently.

Ray Rice

Courtesy of ICON SMI

Moving to the Ravens, they average 2.8 yards per carry which is, unsurprisingly, worst in the league. When looking at yards per game, the Ravens improve to 30th in the league with 73.1 — hardly an improvement going from 32nd to 30th though.

Both of the Ravens' two talented running backs, Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, have struggled this season. While there hasn't been many holes to run through, Rice and Pierce are averaging 2.5 and 2.8 yards per carry this season — good for 48th and 46th out of the 48 players who have enough attempts to qualify. Both have struggled with injuries which have taken away from their explosiveness. Rice has missed time with a hip injury and Pierce has dealt with a hamstring injury.

The offensive line has done little to help Rice and Pierce out this season. Just watching a game, you can see the struggles in run blocking. When you look at advanced stats, it gets worse. Right guard Marshal Yanda is the only lineman with a positive run blocking grade according to Pro Football Focus. Even then, Yanda is only graded at +0.2, barely positive. For the season, the line has graded at a combined -59.3 in run blocking.

As the Ravens and the Bears face off tomorrow, something has to give in the run game. Either the Bears' run defense or the Ravens' run game will continue to struggle. The unit that makes a breakthrough, is likely to win the game.

2.  Pressure McCown
For the second time in three games, the Bears will start backup quarterback Josh McCown due to an injury to starter Jay Cutler — this time due to an ankle injury.

Filling in for Cutler against the Green Bay Packers, McCown led the Bears to a 27-20 victory at Lambeau Field (an Aaron Rodgers injury provided some help). In the game, McCown went 22-of-41 for 272 yards and two touchdowns. He also came in against the Washington Redskins and Detroit Lions in relief of an injured Cutler. Playing most of the game against the Redskins, McCown lost a shootout 45-41 and almost completed a comeback against the Lions, but the Bears' game-tying two-point conversion was stuffed with less than a minute left.

Usually, backups quarterbacks don't see this type of success when coming in and replacing the starter. However, Bears' head coach Marc Trestman has gotten the most out of McCown — keeping the Bears playoff hopes alive.

While playing, McCown has faced pressure on 27 of his drop-backs with a grade of +4.5 according to Pro Football Focus. However, McCown hasn't faced a defense with the pass rush of the Ravens.

The Ravens' pass rush is led by outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil who have nine and 8.5 sacks respectively. As a team, the Ravens are tied for third best in the league with 32 sacks. Last week, Dumervil had three sacks against the Bengals and this week, he will face Jordan Mills, the worst pass blocking right tackle in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus.

Despite Mills' performance, the Bears' offensive line is much improved from last season. Last year, the line gave up 44 sacks which was 25th in the NFL. This season, the are ranked third, allowing 14 sacks which equates to 25 sacks for the season.

McCown has played well against pressure so far, but the Ravens' defense is a step up from his previous opponents, especially in pass rushing. If the Ravens can get pressure on McCown and force him to throw before he wants to, then they have a good chance at getting their first win in a NFC North stadium.

3.  Attack the Cover Two
On defense, the Bears align in a 4-3 front and their main coverage is cover two. More specifically, they run a Tampa Two defense.

Tampa Two defense's are only 4-3 fronts in base and involve the two safeties playing deep and letting nothing get behind them. The cornerbacks and outside linebackers play underneath zones to take away the short pass.

The middle linebacker is the most important position in this type of defense. He must drop back and "run the pipe." This means that he is responsible for the the area between the two deep safeties, allowing them to play more to the sidelines. This position is tough to master as you have to diagnose run or pass right away otherwise the defense is in trouble. If he diagnoses run when it is a pass, there will be a hole in the middle of the defense. If he diagnoses pass when it is a run, then he is yards downfield and the blocker won't have to worry about him.

For years, the Bears had Brian Urlacher at their middle linebacker spot. In his prime, he masted this position in a Tampa Two scheme. Now with his retirement, the Bears turn to rookie second-round pick Jon Bostic who has struggled. Briggs had excelled in coverage at his weak-side linebacker spot. With his injury, this spot goes to another rookie, fourth-round pick Khaseem Greene. Also missing from the Bears Defense tomorrow will be star cornerback Charles Tillman who was placed on injured reserve with a designation to return with a triceps injury.

Missing these players will make it tougher for the Bears to defend the pass, especially with Melton out and defensive end Shea McClellin doubtful.

For the Ravens, expect them to attack the Bears Defense at the seams and deep. The seams (areas between zones) in this case, refer to the middle of the field behind the outside linebackers and between the middle linebacker and the safety. This is the best place to attack a cover two defense.

Last year, the Ravens had two perfect players to do this — wide receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Dennis Pitta. However, Boldin was traded this offseason and Pitta is yet to play this season with a hip injury. Instead, the Ravens will probably use wide receiver Marlon Brown (who is questionable with a knee injury) and tight ends Dallas Clark and Ed Dickson.

The Ravens are better suited to attack the Bears with simple deep routes due to the speed of receivers Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones. This season, the Ravens haven't thrown many passes deep after finding much success with this in the postseason. Expect them to test the Bears deep early and often.

4.  Cornerbacks
At wide receiver, the Bears have a top due with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Both have excellent size at 6'4" and 6'3" respectively. Marshall is regarded are one of the best in the league and Jeffery is a rising star.

Covering these two for the Ravens will be Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith (Corey Graham will likely see some time as well). Last week, Webb and Smith had their best games of season as they shut down the Bengals passing game.

When these two teams played in 2009, Webb was a rookie who was just starting to come into his own. However, he tore his ACL in the game, stunting his development. He came back from this and became one of the better cover cornerbacks in the league before tearing his other ACL last season. He had struggled early this season — like the first time he tore his ACL — but looks like he might have regained his form after last week.

Marshall has great respect for Webb after facing him once when Marshall was with the Denver Broncos.

"Oh my gosh, Webb when I was in my last year in Denver, I remember traveling to Baltimore and he really dominated me," Marshall said. "I wasn't prepared. Right before he got hurt, he was probably a top-five cornerback in the league, if not maybe even playing right behind Darrelle Revis, pushing Revis for the best corner."

Marshall also mentioned that Webb was starting to get back into form and with Smith playing next to Webb, the Bears will have their work cut out for themselves.

The Ravens' secondary will also have their work cut out for them as Marshall and Jeffery are on fire right now. Against the Lions last week, they combined for 16 catches for 253 yards and two touchdowns. They have combined for 600 yards in their last three games. McCown clearly likes to target his two stud receivers and they are making plays for him.

Marshall and Jeffery won't be able to be completely shut down, but the Ravens can limit them if two things happen. One is if Webb and Smith play like they did last week. Two is if the Ravens can get some pressure on McCown and force him to throw before he wants to.

Injured Players Are Key: Ravens vs Bengals

November 9, 2013 in What to Look For

In a key AFC North battle, the 3-5 Baltimore Ravens will host the 6-3 Cincinnati Bengals tomorrow. The Ravens are coming off a 24-18 loss to the Cleveland Browns last Sunday and the Bengals are coming off a 22-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins on Halloween. Currently, the Bengals sit in first place of the AFC North with a two-game lead over the second-place Browns and a 2.5 game lead over the Ravens. If the Ravens win this game, it could spark a second-half resurgence for the struggling team, but if they lose, it would make it very hard for them to bounce back and win the division.

1.  Injuries
This week's injury report features key players from both teams being out, doubtful, or questionable. Also, there are multiple players that have recently suffered season-ending injuries.

Jimmy Smith

Courtesy of ICON SMI

Starting with the Ravens, they have three starters listed as questionable (S James Ihedigbo, LB Daryl Smith and CB Jimmy Smith) and a key backup as well (nickel CB Corey Graham). Also, the Ravens placed starting left guard Kelechi Osemele on injured reserve this week with a back injury.

All four of these questionable players were limited at practice on Friday which is a good sign. However, they still could not be ready to play on Sunday. Losing any of these four players would be a significant blow to the Ravens' defense. Ihedigbo has had a great start to the season, Smith has been all over the field from his middle linebacker spot and the Ravens lack cornerback depth behind Smith and Graham. (Over the last few weeks, the Ravens have only had one other cornerback on the roster, Chykie Brown, but they activated Asa Jackson this week after he served his eight-week suspension.)

For the Bengals, starting middle linebacker Rey Maualuga is out with a knee injury, backup linebacker Michael Boley is doubtful, rookie sensation Giovani Bernard, a running back, is questionable and starting tight end Jermaine Gresham is also questionable. Out for the season are star defensive tackle Geno Atkins (torn ACL) and star cornerback Leon Hall (torn Achilles tendon).

The injuries to Maualuga and Boley at linebacker means that Vincent Rey will get the start at middle linebacker. This will be just his third start in his career (fourth season) and his second in as many weeks. Against the Dolphins last week, he had five tackles and he has 17 for the season.

Bernard will probably play though on a limited basis as the Bengals won't want to risk injuring his ribs even more. This means BenJarvus Green-Ellis will probably start and see most of the workload. The Ravens will need to be ready for the electric Bernard when he comes in though.

If Gresham can't play, it will be a big hit to the Bengals offense as they love to run two tight end sets with him and first-round pick Tyler Eifert.

Lastly, starting left tackle Andrew Whitworth missed last week's loss with a knee injury, but didn't show up on the injury report this week.

2.  Joe Flacco vs Andy Dalton
Or better known as the battle of inconsistent quarterbacks, Flacco and Dalton will face off tomorrow.

Flacco led the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory last season with a historic playoff performance. He tied Joe Montana's record of 11 passing touchdowns and zero interceptions in the a single postseason. Also in the playoffs, Flacco passed for 285 yards per game and had a quarterback rating of 117.2. In Super Bowl XLVII, he went 22-of-33 for 287 yards and three touchdowns, leading the Ravens to a 34-31 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.

This year though, has been a whole different story. Playing eight games, he has thrown for 2,167 yards (271 per game), 10 touchdowns, nine interceptions and has a quarterback rating of 79.3, a career worst. He is also on pace to thrown a career high in interceptions (18) which is well above his career high of 12, which he has done three times.

Dalton has led the Bengals to the playoff in his first two seasons in the NFL, but there has been talk that he isn't good enough to take a team all the way to a Super Bowl. This season was viewed as key for him to take the next step. So far this season, when he has played well, the Bengals have won; when he hasn't played well, they have lost. In their six wins, Dalton has thrown 14 touchdown passes and four interceptions. In their three losses, he has thrown two touchdown passes and six interceptions.

His inconsistency was on showcase in October. In the Bengals first four games (all wins) he threw for 311.5 yards per game, 11 touchdowns (including five in one game), one interception and had a passer rating of 112. After being named the AFC Offensive Player of the Month, Dalton went 32-of-53 for 338 yards, zero touchdowns, three interceptions and had a passer rating of 55.4 against the Dolphins on Halloween. He was off target all night long and one of his interceptions was returned for a touchdown. He was also sacked for a safety in overtime which won the game for the Dolphins.

Both of these quarterbacks have been inconsistent recently. Whoever plays the better game, will probably lead their team to victory.

3.  Fast Start
Other than their week one game against the Denver Broncos, the Ravens have struggled to score point in the first quarter and the first half of games this season.

In their last seven games, the Ravens haven't held a lead at the end of the first quarter. The reason? They have scored 16 first quarter points and average 55.7 yards in the first quarter according to ESPN.

As you would expect, the Ravens' opening drive of games are lacking as they have gone three-and-out five times and have not scored a touchdown. In fact, they have only scored one time on an opening drive — a field goal against the Dolphins in week five. Even worse, the Ravens' offense has only scored one touchdown in the first quarter, and that was in week one.

When the Ravens don't score first, they have trouble winning games. Under head coach John Harbaugh, the Ravens are 41-8 when they score first and 16-23 when they don't.

This season, the Bengals have scored first six times and have won five of them. In the games when they don't score first, they are 1-2.

Looking at these stats, it is fair to assume that the team who scores first will win this game. With the way the Ravens are playing this season, that will probably be the Bengals.

4.  Stopping A.J. Green
As the NFL's leading receiver, Green is one of the best receivers in the league and is backing that up with his performance this season.

His stats are near the top in the league in many receiving categories: 57 catches (tied third), 862 receiving yards (first), 104 targets (first), five touchdowns (tied 14th), 10 catches of 20 plus yards (tied eighth), 95.8 yards per game (fifth) and 38 first downs (third).

Since entering the NFL in 2011 as the fourth overall pick with Dalton (35th overall), Green has been Dalton's favorite target and has put up big numbers. Last season, he caught 97 passes for 1,350 yards and 11 touchdowns.

With an average of 9.6 targets per game in their 40 career games together, Green is clearly Dalton's favorite receiver. This season, Green is seeing 11.5 targets per game which is a full target more than last season, despite additional coverage from defenders and better secondary receivers for Dalton to throw.

When Green sees more than 10 targets this season, the Bengals are 2-3 — and one of those wins was in overtime. This shows that Dalton forces the ball to Green more when the Bengals are losing — which isn't a good thing. When Green sees less than 10 targets this season, the Bengals are 4-0, as the ball is getting spread around more.

If the Ravens are able to limit Green, they will likely see the bad Dalton, not the good one. With Smith and Graham, the number two and three cornerbacks, listed a questionable, this could be a tall task. Especially as Lardarius Webb, the number one cornerback, is having a rough season.

After The Bye Week: Ravens vs Browns

November 1, 2013 in What to Look For

For the second time this season, the 3-4 Baltimore Ravens will play their division rival, the 3-5 Cleveland Browns, this time in Cleveland. Last time these two faced was in week two when the Ravens won 14-6 after trailing 6-0 at halftime. Currently, the Ravens have an 11 game winning streak against the Browns — the longest active streak of regular-season wins by one team over another. The Ravens are coming off of their bye week and are 5-0 in games following their bye week under head coach John Harbaugh.

1.  Offensive Line
Today, news came out that starting left guard Kelechi Osemele is expected to be out for the season with a back injury. Previously, Osemele missed the game against the Miami Dolphins with the same back injury. After this game, Osemele said that he would need back surgery after the season. However, Osemele now needs that surgery now.

Taking his spot will be A.Q. Shipley, just like in Miami. Shipley is normally a center but can move over to guard if need be.

With Osemele out, the line will take a big hit as he has started every game since he was drafted in the second round last year. Making it even harder will be the fact that this occurred on a Friday. If he had been declared out earlier in the week, Shipley and the rest of the line would have had more time to prepare for the game together.

Also, the Browns have a defense that is in the top half of the league, and their strength is the front seven.

The offensive line will need to protect quarterback Joe Flacco well against this Browns Defense which racked up six sacks against the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs last week.

These sacks were achieved via various blitzes. Because the Browns like to blitz, communication along the offensive line is going to be important for the Ravens. This has been a problem for the Ravens at times this season as unblocked pressure has been allowed through quite often. With Osemele out, communication becomes even more critical as one of the starters won't have played much this season.

The potential problem point for the offensive line this week is the left side. Left tackle Eugene Monroe has only been with the Ravens for a few weeks and has never played with Shipley before. Also, center Gino Gradkowski has struggled this season and putting a new, less talented guard next to him could cause some problems. This is definitely something to look for during the game and something the Browns might try and exploit with blitzes.

Against the Browns last time, the Ravens line gave up two sacks for a combined loss of 14 yards.

2.  Torrey Smith vs Joe Haden
The last time that the Ravens and Browns faced off, I had this down as a key matchup. Yet again, this will prove to be an important matchup.

In week two, Smith had seven catches for 85 yards. Haden was covering Smith on eight of his 13 targets and allowed 46 yards.

Torrey Smith and Joe Haden

Courtesy of ICON SMI

When the Ravens entered their bye week, Smith led the NFL in receiving yards with 629 yards. Now that most of the league had a game to catch-up, Smith is 11th in the league. Many of Smith's stats put him near the top of the league. His 20.3 average yards per reception leads the league by 2,1 yards and has 14 catches of 20 plus catches is best by two catches. He is also ninth in the league for yards per game with 89.9 and is 13th in yards after the catch with 248 yards.

Over the last two seasons, Smith's first two in the NFL, he was mainly considered to be a deep threat. This season, this has changed as he has rounded his game out and is a much more polished receiver. Smith now runs a full route tree for the Ravens. They are also making a point to get him the ball in space to allow him to make plays after the catch with his speed. One way the Ravens like to do this is to run Smith on a short crossing route.

Haden is considered to be one of the top cornerbacks in the league with his great man-coverage skills. However, he has been struggling over the last two weeks. In these two games he has given up nine catches on 12 targets for 82 yards and two touchdowns according to Pro Football Focus. To put that in perspective, he had given up 21 catches on 44 targets for zero touchdowns in the first six games of the season.

This matchup will be one of the most important when the Ravens are on offense. If Haden can shutdown Smith, then the Ravens will struggle to pass the ball. Smith is the clear-cut number one receiver on the Ravens and it isn't even close. He is also Flacco's favorite receiver and his target numbers (23 more than the next highest, tight end Dallas Clark, and 28 more than the next best wide receiver, Marlon Brown) show this.

Expect the Ravens to try and test Haden early and see what form he is in. If he performs like he did at the start of the season, he will be avoided for the most part, but if he is playing like he has over the last two weeks, the Ravens will probably keep going after him.

3.  Run Game
Connected to the offensive line is the Ravens' run game, which has struggled to get going all season long.

The Ravens are the only team to average less than three yards per carry as the Ravens sit at 2.8 yards per game. They also average 74 yards per game which is 28th best in the league and have the third fewest rushing yards with 518.

Making matters worse this week is the Browns stout run defense which allows 3.7 yards per carry (tied for seventh best) and 103.6 yards per game (11th best). The one weakness of their run defense is rushing touchdowns as they have allowed nine which is tied for third worst in the NFL.

On the bright side for the Ravens is this: running back Ray Rice must love to play in Cleveland. Why? Well, in the last five seasons, he has had games of 154, 89, 92, 204 and 98 rushing yards, a total of 637 yards and an average of 127.4 rushing yards per game.

The 204-yard game came in week 13 of the 2011 season. Rice achieved this number on just 29 carries — a seven yard per carry average. In this game he ran for one touchdown and had long of 67 yards. Rice's numbers could have been way higher if backup Ricky Williams didn't also receive 16 carries (which he gained 78 yards and one touchdown on).

This week, the run game will be key as the Ravens don't want to become one-dimensional. While Rice isn't likely to repeat his 204-yard performance, if the Ravens can get 70 yards from him, it would be a big boast to the offense. (In the week two matchup, Rice was held to 36 yards on 13 carries and left in the second half with a hip injury).

4.  Stopping Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron
The two biggest playmakers on the Browns offense, stopping Gordon and Cameron is going to be key for the Ravens Defense if they want to have the same success the last time they faced the Browns offense (six points allowed, 259 total yards and five sacks).

Cameron is a 6'5" tight end who is in the midst of a breakout season under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner. A former basketball player, the 25-year old is quickly becoming one of the better tight ends in the league. Through eight games he has 49 catches for 596 yards and six touchdowns (first, second and fourth best for tight ends). Against the Ravens in week two Cameron five catches for 95 yards on seven targets. On the Browns first offensive play, Cameron caught a 53-yard pass which put the ball on the Ravens' seven-yard line.

Gordon, like Smith, is a great deep threat, and at 22-years old, he is still learning the nuances of the position. Playing in six games this season, he has 32 catches for 582 yards and three touchdowns. His average of 18.2 yards per catch is second in the league behind Smith. With the NFL trade deadline passing Tuesday, there were numerous rumors of Gordon being traded, but no deal was worked out. There are some off-the-field concerns about him and he is one positive test away from a year-long suspension. He missed the Ravens matchup earlier this season as he was suspended for he first two games of the season.

The Ravens secondary will have trouble containing these two, but the one thing they have going for them is that at quarterback is Jason Campbell. While Campbell played well last week against the Chiefs, he is no franchise quarterback and has been inconsistent his entire career. Brandon Weeden played quarterback the last time these two played and Campbell is an improvement over him but he still has questions about his play.

At cornerback the Ravens have Lardarius Webb, Jimmy Smith and Corey Graham who all could line up against these two as they move around the formation. All three have struggled in coverage though this season and Webb hasn't looked like himself as he comes off a torn ACL. The Ravens play a lot of zone so, for the most part, the cornerbacks won't have to go one-on-one with Gordon or Cameron.

If the Ravens can shutdown Gordon and Cameron then they will stunt the Browns offense and make it very hard for them to move the ball.

Stopping Rodgers Is The Key: Ravens vs Packers

October 11, 2013 in What to Look For

Last week, the 3-2 Baltimore Ravens were on the road against the Miami Dolphins and were able to eek out a 26-23 victory on a Justin Tucker field goal with under two minutes left in the game. This week, the Ravens will wear their black alternate jerseys and host the 2-2 Green Bay Packers who are coming off a 22-9 victory over the Detroit Lions.

1.  Stopping Aaron Rodgers
Going up against the Ravens Defense this week will be one of the best quarterbacks in the league: Aaron Rodgers.

Through four games, Rodgers ranks third in the league in passing yards per game (333), fifth in passer rating (105.5), seventh in completion percentage (66.4), third in yards per attempt (8.76), and has the longest completed pass (83 yards). He also has the Packers offense averaging 29.5 points per game which is third best in the league.

Short, quick passes are a staple of the Packers offense as it allows Rodgers to get the ball out fast behind a young, improving offensive line. Another thing that the Packers like to do on offense are play-action passes which is usually where they will take their shots deep.

A division rival of the Ravens, the Cincinnati Bengals, set a blueprint for how the stop the Packers offense. The Bengals, knowing the Packers like quick passes, got pressure fast and had their defensive linemen ready to bat down passes at the line-of-scrimmage. Their defensive linemen were able to knock down three passes at the line and had eight quarterbacks hits and four sacks. This pressure held Rodgers to 244 yards going 26-of-43 with one touchdown and two interceptions.

Another thing that they will have to look out for is Rodgers tucking the ball and running. His running ability isn't talked about much due to the duel-threat quarterbacks in league, but if you give Rodgers room to run, he will take it and make you pay.

If the Ravens are to win this game, they will need to follow this blueprint on how to stop Rodgers getting quick pressure and having defensive linemen ready to knock passes down at the line.

2.  Early Points
For the entire season, the Ravens offense has struggled putting up points in the first half of games as the offense is averaging a putrid 6.6 first half points so far this season. If you take away week one, where the offense scored 17 points, the offense is averaging four first half points.

In the second half of games, the offense has come together and scored 14 points per game including a season best 20 last week against the Dolphins.

When you look at these stats, it is no surprise that the Ravens are only 3-2 at this point in the season. No team can survive averaging 6.6 points in the first half.

Joe Flacco

Courtesy of ICON SMI

One way to fix this problem is not settle for field goals. This has been a problem for the Ravens for years, once they get in field goal range, their play calling becomes less aggressive and more conservative. Play calling shouldn't change much once you get in field goal range. Yes, some plays leave the playbook but nothing major should change.

In the Packers' two losses, their opponent has scored first both times and has scored 14 points in the first half. In the Packers' two victories, their opponent hasn't scored first and has only scored three points in the first half.

Whichever team can come out scoring first on Sunday will probably win the game, so the Ravens offense will need to step up if they want to win.

3.  Secondary
Not only is Rodgers one of the best quarterbacks in the league, but he has one of the best receiver groups in the league. At wide receiver the Packers have Jordy Nelson, James Jones, and Randall Cobb and at tight end they have Jermichael Finley.

An easy way to slow down the Packers offense is to be able to cover all four of these players, but coving all four at the same time can be very challenging.

For the season, Nelson has 23 catches for 371 yards, Jones has 19 catches for 339 yards, Cobb has 25 catches for 325 yards, and Finley has 17 catches for 153 yards.

Normally, Nelson and Jones will line up as the outside receivers and Cobb will be in the slot. Finley can line up virtually anywhere on the field for the Packers.

The Ravens' secondary will have its work cut out for themselves this week trying to guard this group. Expect the Ravens to be in a nickel formation for most of the game so they will have an extra defensive back on the field. When the Ravens go to nickel, linebacker Arthur Brown and cornerback Corey Graham come into the game and linebacker Josh Bynes and a defensive lineman will leave (the Ravens rotate their defensive lineman often so this player changes all the time).

Since the Ravens play a lot of zone defense, the defenders won't have to go one-on-one with the Packers' receivers for the most part. Safeties Matt Elam and James Ihedigbo will be responsible for the deep zones and the linebackers and cornerbacks will be responsible for the underneath zones.

The key will be to not let the receivers get behind the last defender as when that happens, Rodgers will not miss. Make him take the underneath routes and force him out of his rhythm with his receivers.

4.  Joe Flacco
With the Packers Defense hurting and the Packers offense in top form, this game has the makings of a high-scoring affair. In order for that to happen, Flacco will need to play a good game.

The Packers Defense will be missing starting linebackers Clay Matthews and Brad Jones along with starting cornerback Casey Hayward and another cornerback, Jarrett Bush, is questionable.

Having Matthews not playing will be huge for the Ravens as he is one of the best pass rushers in the league. This will give Flacco more time to throw the ball and find an open receiver. Also, Eugene Monroe is expected to make his Ravens debut this week which will give a boost to the offensive line which Pro Football Focus rated as the worst so far this season.

So far this season, Flacco hasn't had a game similar to how he played in the playoffs last season where he showed he can be one of the best quarterbacks in the league. In the playoffs, he had a passer rating of 117.2, but his current passer rating is 70.1 and he has thrown five touchdowns and eight interceptions compared to 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions. Flacco put up those postseason numbers in four games and he has already played in five games this season and hasn't come close to them.

For the Ravens to win this game, Flacco will need to go toe-for-toe with Rodgers and match him score-for-score.