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.
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.