Oakland Raiders vs. Baltimore Ravens: 10 Keys to the Game for Baltimore

James Reagan@@James__ReaganCorrespondent IIMarch 22, 2017

Oakland Raiders vs. Baltimore Ravens: 10 Keys to the Game for Baltimore

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    The Baltimore Ravens will return home for the first time in almost a month on Sunday. Here, they get a welcome opponent in the Oakland Raiders, a struggling 3-5 team that doesn't play well on the road.

    That is not the case for the Ravens at home. They haven't lost in Baltimore since December 2010 and they will be looking for their 14th consecutive win there.

    Given their dominance at home and the Raiders' disappointing season, the Ravens should be easy favorites. It's even possible the Ravens could win in convincing style, something they haven't done since Week 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals.

    Still the Ravens can't overlook the Raiders, a troubled team that has shown talent in spurts. Carson Palmer, a former Ravens killer, has quietly been putting up good numbers in Oakland. Their offense does also have some explosive players like receivers Denarius Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey.

    Here are the keys for a Ravens victory against the Raiders.

1. Show They've Figured out Carson Palmer

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    Formerly the starting quarterback of the Cincinnati Bengals, Carson Palmer is very familiar with the Ravens. He's also enjoyed a lot of success against them with a 9-4 record in his matchups against the Ravens. In these games, he's thrown for a staggering 3,202 yards.

    Palmer has had many games with the Bengals where he almost willed them to victory against the Ravens with a last-minute drive. He's also had his bad games, though, and even as an older veteran in Oakland, that trend has continued.

    Last week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Palmer threw for 414 yards and four touchdowns. Usually that would have won the game for him but he also threw three interceptions. It's not surprising, though, as Palmer has thrown 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions, which is a close ratio.

    A big reason Palmer threw so much was because of injuries to running backs Darren McFadden and Mike Goodson. Both players are still hurt so Palmer may have to throw again. 

    The Ravens can stop him by intercepting passes, like Ed Reed did when he scored an interception touchdown against Palmer and the Bengals in 2009. They can also bring pressure on him and shut down whoever's lining up in the backfield so Palmer feels like he has to throw the ball.

2. Get Better at Converting on Third Downs

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    Amidst the Ravens offensive struggles, one that really stands out is their difficulty converting on third downs. Right now, they rank 22nd in third down conversions with a conversion percentage of 35.4, having only converted on 34 of 96 opportunities.

    That is a really disappointing number and it could get worse if recent trends continue. In both of the last two games, the Ravens have gone four-for-15 on third down. It's no coincidence that both games saw the Ravens repeatedly go three-and-out on offense.

    There's no easy answer on how to fix third down woes. One thing the Ravens could try to fix is their tendency to get in third-and-long situations. In these situations, they often have to pass which makes the offense predictable and also exposes the Ravens' somewhat weak pass protection.

    Thankfully, that problem hasn't been present as much at home. Home conditions are usually easier for these third-down instances so the Ravens should post a better third down conversion rate this week, which could help their offense get into a rhythm.  

3. Take Advantage of the Raiders' Awful Run Defense

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    I know it's starting to become redundant to say the Ravens need to run the ball every week, especially since last week Cam Cameron listened to the criticisms surrounding the run game and called for 37 running attempts. 

    The main reason "run the ball more" appears in this section is because of the Raiders' run defense. Now admittedly their defense isn't very good. Their pass defense is ranked 21st, giving up an average of 245.2 passing yards a game and their overall defense is also ranked 21st giving up an average of 369.3 yards a game.

    It's their run defense that is the real kicker though. Last week, the Raiders were humiliated by Buccaneers' rookie Doug Martin who ran for 251 yards and four touchdowns.

    It was the third time this year the Raiders allowed a 100-yard rusher. More importantly though, it's crippling to a team's confidence to allow that many yards to one player. The Raiders will be determined to play better than that but who knows if their confidence will be back so soon after last week's disaster.

    While Ray Rice may not reach 250+ rushing yards, he could easily top 100. With the friendly home crowd and a weak Raiders' defense, Rice should have one of his best games this season.

4. Bring the Red Zone Defense to the Rest of the Field

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    A big reason the Ravens even got the victory against the Browns was because of a stingy defense that did not allow a touchdown. Though Phil Dawson converted on all five field goal attempts, the Browns stayed out of the end zone and it was a big reason the Ravens won the game.

    Yet the Browns did still get in field goal range five times and they racked up 290 offensive yards against the Ravens. The Ravens are now ranked 26th in yards allowed, giving up 386.2 yards a game.

    Even with all of the injuries on the defensive side of the ball, the Ravens have to find a way to get opposing offenses off the field. A lot of their mistakes are little ones, such as errors in communication: a mistake Jameel McClain says is the most apparent one. 

    This defense is a prideful one, though, and they are committed to fixing things. At home against a sub .500 team like the Raiders offers a good chance for the Ravens to do so.

5. Improve the Early Down Pass Rush

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    The Ravens' pass rush issues have been well documented this season. They only have 13 total this season and sack leader Dannell Ellerbe isn't even a pass rusher. 

    Getting more specific though, the Ravens' pass rush has been at its worst on first and second downs. This isn't too surprising since most teams get a lot of sacks on third down, which can be a high pressure down and often falls into obvious passing situations. 

    Still, the Ravens have a disproportionate amount of sacks on third down.  They have only five on the first two downs and eight on third down. That's a number that needs to be balanced out for their pass rush to have more success.

    The unspoken hope is that Terrell Suggs will be the guy to fix the pass rush. So far he has one sack through two games and is still trying to get back into shape. A healthy Suggs should make a difference in the pass rush but until then players like Paul Kruger and Courtney Upshaw could really help things by stepping up.

6. Spread out the Ball in the Passing Game

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    Last week, the Ravens really didn't do much in the passing game. What little they did was pretty much exclusively Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. Boldin led the team in receiving yards while Smith had 46 receiving yards and the Ravens' only receiving touchdown in the game. 

    It's all well and good to see Smith and Boldin succeed in the passing game, but it would really help if other players could get the ball. Third-stringer Jacoby Jones had zero catches, making that his second such game in 2012. 

    The tight ends were also marginal in the passing game with both only having two receptions. Ray Rice also had a disappointing game with two catches for six yards. 

    If Flacco can get the ball to Flacco out of the backfield or to Dennis Pitta down the center of the field, that could only open things up for Boldin and Smith. As mentioned earlier, the Raiders have a weak pass defense so the Ravens should look to throw a little more this week. 

7. Stop Getting so Many Penalties

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    It turns out the replacement refs may not have been wrong about calling so many penalties on the Ravens.

    Even with the regular refs back, the Ravens now are second in the NFL with 66 penalties called against them. They also have given up the third-most penalty yards in the league with 577. 

    These are just not the kind of numbers that a playoff contending team should have. John Harbaugh has said he's not happy about it and he's looking for ways to change it. 

    These penalties are coming on both sides of the ball. A lot of them are pre-snap penalties whether they are false starts or offsides penalties. There's also been a fair amount of personal fouls and unnecessary roughness penalties courtesy of the defense.

    Like the third down problems and the communication issues, simply being home should help the Ravens. Still, the penalty problems need to be fixed and the Ravens need to get back to basics like tackling correctly and communicating correctly so they don't cause self-inflicted wounds with penalties. 

8. New Defensive Players Need to Continue Stepping Up

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    Contrary to what some people believe, the Ravens' defense is not hopeless—even with the injuries to Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb. "Next man up" has always been the mantra in the locker room and there have been some surprising defenders that have shined now they've been given the opportunity. 

    One of these players is new starting inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe. He's now the team leader in sacks with 3.5, while also third in tackles with a very serious chance of leading that category by season's end. 

    Ellerbe continues to impress in a big contract year that could lead to him getting a nice contract from the Ravens. It was actually against the Raiders three years ago that Ellerbe had his breakout game with his first career interception. He'd love to have another big one against this team, especially since he's come a long way in those three years.

    Another player who deserves credit is Cary Williams. While seemingly everyone in Baltimore criticizes his coverage ability, Williams is turning into a bit of a ball hawk. He has four interceptions in his five last games and now leads the AFC in that category.

    Improve his coverage ability and Williams suddenly becomes a very dangerous player. For now, though, with Ed Reed getting older, it's strange to think Williams may be on his way to becoming the most feared man in the Ravens' secondary.

9. Don't Be Afraid to Win Ugly

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    Although the Ravens should be favored massively in this one, there's no guarantee they will roll to a victory. This team is still struggling in a lot of areas and even their impressive home winning streak has looked tentative this season. After all, Dallas and Cleveland both have losing records yet they gave the Ravens 60 minutes of hard-played football during their games here.

    If the Raiders do keep this close, the Ravens will at least have some close game experience to draw in. Granted, too much of that competition has been against some of the NFL's worst teams. Still, the Ravens have stepped up and delivered victories in the fourth quarter so they are well-prepared for that scenario.

10. Stay Focused on This Week and Don't Look Ahead Yet

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    Next week, the Ravens will be battling the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday Night Football. Obviously it's a huge game with major AFC North implications between two rivals that hate each other.

    There's a big difference between playing an impressive Oakland team at 1 p.m. and playing the Steelers in prime time. Still, the Ravens need to understand that and get excited for this one instead of looking too far ahead to what happens next week.

    Next week and the ensuing battle for AFC North supremacy will come soon enough. Before then, the Ravens need to take care of business against the Raiders and make sure they don't slip before what could be their biggest game of the year.