To pass or not to pass, that is the question facing the Ravens this week as they host the Oakland Raiders.
It's doubtful there is any team in the NFL that is more uncomfortably comfortable than the Baltimore Ravens right now. At 6-2, they still have a one-game lead in the AFC North and they added another win to their total last week in their defeat of the Cleveland Browns, but they are also a team in trouble.
The elusive road win came fairly easily to the Ravens last week, thanks to a commitment to running the ball through all four quarters, but this week Baltimore plays at home, which means the possibility that 25 carries for Ray Rice is a thing of the past.
With just eight games left for the Ravens, including this one, and two clashes with the Pittsburgh Steelers yet to go, every contest feels like a must-win if Baltimore is going to hold onto its lead and make it to the postseason.
Here's a game plan for how it can defeat Oakland and move on to its preparations for Pittsburgh with confidence.
The Run Game No-Brainer?
What do you do if the team you're set to meet this week gave up 278 rushing yards in its last game? Of course, you run the ball.
However, considering the Raiders fell flat on their faces when trying to contain Martin last Sunday, they'll be expecting the Ravens to run the ball. That's not to say Baltimore won't be successful in these efforts, but it likely means Ray Rice isn't going to have over 200 yards guaranteed simply because the Raiders are the Ravens' opponents.
Though the Raiders gave up all those rushing yards last week, they're also a weak defense against the pass, giving up an average of 245.2 yards per game. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has been far more successful passing the ball at home, and as such, don't expect them to abandon the passing game for the run simply because of what happened to Oakland last week.
However, considering those yards the Raiders allowed as well as the fact that Flacco handed the ball off to Rice 25 times last week, we'll likely see Rice get the ball more than we've seen in any Baltimore home game thus far.
The issue is predictability. The Raiders are acutely aware that teams are going to run the ball heavily on them because of that one game and are going to be extra-prepared to stop it. Whether or not they do run is another matter entirely, but even just knowing how offenses will likely approach them does present some advantages.
Baltimore is not done experimenting with the no-huddle passing game—it's just that it is far better at it at home. Plus, with the Ravens defense still struggling against the run and the pass itself, the offense has had to take control of games, which means limiting one-dimensionality is key.
The Ravens cannot just run, run, run against Oakland—even if it seems to be working in their first drive or two. They should give Rice as well as Bernard Pierce a good number of carries—25 total seems appropriate—but they aren't going to pull it off without passing.
Oakland expects the run, which means it should have more success defending it this week than in the last.
Force Carson Palmer to Pass
The Raiders offense presents a tricky challenge for the Ravens defense this week. Despite holding the Cleveland Browns to five field goals and no touchdowns last week, Baltimore still ranks 22nd when defending the pass and 28th against the run.
Though the Raiders are a far better passing team than running—they rank sixth in passing yards per game and third in attempts, compared to 31st in rushing yards and 29th in average carries—it would actually be smarter for Baltimore to force the Raiders to pass the ball.
Just like the Raiders will be bracing for a barrage of running from the Ravens, they'll also be hoping that Baltimore's defense will be the key to breaking out of their run slump.
Jones is shifty and fast and hasn't had a lot of playing time this year, which means it will be harder for the Ravens to prepare for him. Against that defense, Jones could have a big day. But not if the Raiders want to stick with the pass.
Though the passing game is producing 1.6 touchdowns per game for Oakland, putting it in the Top 10, Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer isn't getting these scores easily. His yards per pass attempt is 6.8, not the best figure in the league by any stretch, and he averages an interception per game (he threw three last week).
And when it comes to deep passing—passes of 20 or more yards—Palmer ranks 31st among starting quarterbacks, with only nine completions and one touchdown on his 39 deep pass attempts.
Palmer isn't throwing a huge number of catchable passes considering how much he is throwing the ball, and his receivers have also combined for 10 drops. Making Palmer go deep is a perfect way to exploit his weaknesses and leave the Ravens defense less vulnerable to the run.
Baltimore should play short, expecting runs and screens and leaving Palmer's receivers with time to go deep against the Ravens' secondary. Granted, this will require sharp man coverage from cornerbacks Cary Williams and Jimmy Smith and safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard (though Pollard will also be useful in run support), something that might be difficult considering their issues thus far and how fast Oakland's receivers are. But the longer the pass, the less accurate Palmer is, and the Ravens must exploit this.
A defensive scheme like this will give Palmer a false sense of security that plays right into the Ravens' hands while at the same time allowing Baltimore to better handle whatever run attempts come its way.