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 Jacobs, Alfred Morris, Eddie 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.
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.
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.
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.