The Baltimore Ravens are 3-1 and hold a share of the AFC North's top spot with the Cincinnati Bengals. On Sunday, the Ravens travel to Kansas City, a 1-3 team that nonetheless presents a difficult test.
Good teams can have bad days, and bad teams can often be not as terrible as their records might indicate, so the Ravens need to stay sharp if they want to come away with a win. Here's a two-step plan for how they can do so on Sunday.
Stopping Jamaal Charles
The Chiefs have struggled with passing so far this season, with quarterback Matt Cassel throwing seven interceptions to five touchdowns and being sacked 13 times in four games. As such, they've had to rely more on the running game, and that means giving a heavy dose of carries to Jamaal Charles.
Charles has rushed 72 times for 411 yards and two touchdowns so far this season and is averaging 102.8 yards per game. He's the kind of shifty, quick runner who could give the Ravens defense fits if they don't find ways to shut him down. Without Charles, the Chiefs don't have much of an offense to speak of, so it's important that the Ravens are able to handle the run this week.
The Ravens defense started the season with considerable issues stopping the run, giving up 127 rushing yards to the Cincinnati Bengals in their opener and 129 the following week to the Philadelphia Eagles. However, since that time, the Ravens have been giving up fewer and fewer yards to opposing backs—just 77 to the New England Patriots and 43 to the Cleveland Browns.
Baltimore has played a more disciplined game against the run in the weeks since being burned by the Eagles and Bengals, and that discipline will be heavily tested on Sunday by Charles. He's had quite a few breakout runs this season, including a 91-yard touchdown run against the New Orleans Saints in Week 3.
The Ravens clearly cannot afford to give up that kind of play this week and hope to win. The front seven will have to be careful to not over-pursue Charles; a single missed tackle could make the difference between a small gain and a score.
Baltimore's run defense has been quite different this year after losing Jarret Johnson and Cory Redding in free agency and Terrell Suggs to an Achilles tendon tear. Paul Kruger has been tasked with more run-stopping assignments, and they're relying most heavily on linebacker Ray Lewis to lead their efforts at shutting down opposing running backs.
Baltimore must take an all-hands approach this Sunday in their attempt to stop Charles. It will require more than just Lewis to keep him contained; they'll need the entirety of their front seven as well as safety Bernard Pollard to close off both the middle of the field and the edges.
There's also the very real possibility that the Ravens could shut down Charles simply by putting up points of their own. The larger the lead, the more likely it is an opponent has to give up on the run in hopes that they can play catch-up via the pass. However, it must be noted that the Chiefs have played from behind in every game this season and haven't deviated from their Charles-heavy offensive plan.
No matter what, Charles is the No. 1 enemy for the Ravens this week, and he must be neutralized if Baltimore is going to notch their fourth win of the year.
We've all seen the success that Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has had when employing the quick-passing no-huddle approach—he's averaging 302.8 passing yards per game this year and has thrown seven touchdowns to three interceptions.
However, it might be difficult for Flacco to make calls at the line instead of huddling up this Sunday. Arrowhead Stadium, home of the Chiefs, is notoriously loud. In fact, it was specifically designed to be, which obviously will make things difficult for the Ravens offense when they're trying to keep the pace quick.
According to Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com, the offense has been practicing with crowd noise this week to simulate what they'll experience on Sunday. But, if it's anything like what happened when facing the Eagles earlier this season, chances are they'll have to cast the no-huddle aside.
The Ravens offense looks wholly different when not operating out of the no-huddle—it looks, well, like it did last year, and the year before that. There's less deep passing and more check downs to running back Ray Rice, and middle-of-the-field passes to the likes of tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson and receiver Anquan Boldin dominate the offensive play.
It's a conservative approach that many Ravens fans hope would stay in the past, but it could easily be an effective way for Baltimore to win on Sunday. The Chiefs are currently 11th in passing yards allowed per game, even though they've faced four rather pass-heavy offenses thus far.
So the Ravens may not have as much an opportunity to successfully go deep on Sunday, but considering that they do have a pretty solid shorter passing game, it may not matter all that much.
Further, Kansas City ranks just 21st against the run, so if the Ravens cannot get their no-huddle humming, they can certainly pick up significant yards by handing the ball off to Rice and Bernard Pierce.
It would be nice if the no-huddle can be a productive approach, no matter the week, opponent or venue, but taking it on the road in noisy situations is one of its drawbacks, and a back-up plan is necessary.
Baltimore, with the offense they've built, can certainly put up yards and points regardless of how the plays are called and communicated, and this week that may mean the no-huddle has to take a back seat to the traditional Cam Cameron offense of years past.