Baltimore Ravens vs San Diego Chargers: 10 Keys to Game for Ravens
If the Ravens' game against the Chargers seems oddly familiar, that's because it is. The Ravens were in a nearly identical scenario last season when they traveled to San Diego to take on a flailing Chargers team.
The 2011 Ravens were a tough unit defensively and could run the ball effectively, yet the Chargers completely dominated the Ravens, winning 34-14.
Now, in 2012, the Ravens need to go back and ask what went wrong and how can it be fixed?
There are no easy answers to that question, but here are 10 ways the Ravens can put last year's brutal defeat behind them with a win in San Diego.
Get After Philip Rivers
The Ravens beat the Steelers last week for one reason: Their pass rush had its best performance of the season. They will need a similar performance this week to beat the Chargers.
Their might be holes in the offensive line for the Ravens to exploit. Former Raven Jared Gaither is still not practicing for the Chargers, meaning much maligned Mike Harris could be getting the start at left tackle.
Harris has been abysmal this season, giving up four sacks and 31 pressures. Right tackle Jeremy Clary has been little better, giving up eight sacks and 19 pressures.
If Gaither is still out, as he is expected to be, Paul Kruger must be licking his chops. Kruger has three sacks in the past two weeks, and he is really starting to develop as a pass-rusher. He could have a big game.
Over seven percent of Philip Rivers' throws are intercepted when he's under pressure. A few big pressures could result in some big plays for the Ravens.
Win the Turnover Battle
Last year, Joe Flacco tossed two interceptions in San Diego, compared to zero turnovers by the Chargers.
The Chargers were able to turn one of those interceptions into a touchdown, while one of those interceptions ended a promising Ravens' drive.
If the Ravens want to win on the road, they will need to play mistake-free football and force some mistakes on the Chargers' part.
They should be able to succeed in forcing turnovers, with Philip Rivers having tossed 14 interceptions so far this season. Getting pressure on him would help in this regard.
The key, though, will be avoiding turnovers on offense. The Ravens have been very good at that so far this season, but they will need extra focus to succeed in San Diego.
Attack the Chargers Secondary
As bad as Joe Flacco is on the road, the Ravens would be wise to attack one of the worst secondaries in the NFL.
Specifically, Antoine Cason, Marcus Gilchrist and Atari Bigby are vulnerable players who should be attacked by the Ravens. Opposing passers have completed over 75 percent of their passes when attacking these three players. Even the road-challenged Flacco has to like those odds.
More likely than not, Quentin Jammer will be matched up with Torrey Smith, meaning Anquan Boldin and Jacoby Jones could have big days.
The Ravens would be wise to attack aggressively through the air. The Chargers have a vulnerability that the Ravens simply can't afford to ignore.
Protect Joe Flacco
In the Ravens two losses this season, they've given up 17 hurries and 13 hits on Joe Flacco. Simply put, Joe Flacco is not the same quarterback under pressure, meaning the Ravens need to protect him today.
Thankfully, the Chargers don't exactly have a fierce pass rush. They've only racked up 18 on the year, and only Shaun Phillips strikes fear into defenses.
To be fair, the offensive line is just as susceptible to the Ravens' road woes as Flacco is, and that has played a big role in his inability to produce on the road.
Against the Chargers, though, the Ravens' offensive line has no excuse. Any competent offensive line can stonewall the Chargers' pass rush, and the Ravens will have to be competent to compete in San Diego.
Maybe the most troubling issue with the Ravens' defense this year has been its inability to tackle. Simply put, every level of the defense has been at fault.
Most visibly, the Ravens safeties have been poor tacklers all year. Bernard Pollard and Ed Reed are usually too busy going for the kill-shot to focus on fundamental tackling. This can result in some big hits, but it just as often results in penalties and missed tackles. Unsurprisingly, Ed Reed has missed 11 tackles this season.
In the front seven, the Ravens struggle to wrap up runners. Jameel McClain has been especially problematic in this regard, clearly whiffing on at least three tackles this season. Paul Kruger has been even worse, whiffing on five this season.
Running backs have been taking advantage of this for weeks. Even the Steelers' Jonathan Dwyer looked like the second coming of Jerome Bettis last week.
Ryan Matthews is a talented runner who should be looking forward to breaking tackles left and right this week. The Ravens can't let him do that.
Don't Get Pushed Around on Defense
On second thought, as bad as the Ravens' tackling has been, it's been their inability to hold the line of scrimmage that is most troubling.
Arthur Jones and Ma'ake Kemoeatu have been the most egregious offenders, regularly getting pushed back and rarely making impact plays at the line.
No matter who is along the defensive line, though, every run seems to see the defensive line pushed back. This has resulted in the linebackers being engulfed by blockers and opposing running games finding success.
As Haloti Ngata and Pernell McPhee get healthier, this should improve. Also, DeAngelo Tyson has been a minor revelation, playing very well in run defense in limited reps.
Shutting down the Chargers' struggling rushing attack could be the spark this defense needs to regain their 2011 form.
Avoid Costly Penalties
The Ravens might have welcomed back the regular refs at the beginning of the season, but after averaging 7.4 penalties per game, the Ravens might be regretting that warm welcome.
Of course, they've brought these issues on themselves. The Ravens allowed multiple long scoring drives thanks to stupid penalties, especially pass interference and personal fouls. Likewise, some promising offensive drives have been killed by holding and false start penalties.
Discipline has been an issue all season for these Ravens, but to beat anyone on the road, they will need to be the more disciplined team.
Penalties are just a matter of will. If the Ravens are focused, they won't commit stupid penalties. If they do commit penalties, it will show a lack of focus that will carry over to other phases of the game.
Win the Special Teams Battle
If the Ravens have one clear advantage over the Chargers, it's in the special teams.
The Ravens have one of, if not the best special teams units in the NFL, while the Chargers have just been average.
The Chargers return units are pretty mediocre. The Ravens can and need to pin the Chargers deep every chance they get.
In the Ravens return game, Jacoby Jones is proving to be the best returner in the NFL this year. He can always turn the tide of a game with a big return.
If the Ravens manage to stay in this game, a big return could be the difference between a loss and a win.
Better Play Calling on Third Down
Ravens fans can stop complaining, as Cam Cameron is including Ray Rice in every game plan since the Ravens' drubbing at the hands of the Houston Texans.
That having been said, close observers have to find fault with Cameron's third-down play calling.
He is especially bizarre on 3rd-and-short. Often, Cameron will run either a long developing running play or a long pass. Predictably, these runs are stuffed and the passes fall incomplete.
Seemingly the only time Cameron runs a dive play is when he shouldn't. When Cameron ran a halfback dive on 3rd-and-short against the Steelers, it was stunning, as he almost never makes that call. Just as stunning was that he did it against a defense that was throttling the Ravens' offensive line all night.
Cameron seems to be afraid to make the easy call. On 3rd-and-inches, a QB sneak works better than any other play. Cameron refuses to make that call.
Not to be forgotten is the Ravens' performance on 3rd-and-long. How often does Joe Flacco complete a third-down pass, only to have his receiver tackled short of the first down? Please, attempt a pass that would actually get a first down.
Cameron isn't a bad play-caller. He does call some creative plays, and his system does help maximize the talents of most of his players. His third-down calls, though, are killing the Ravens.
Until the Ravens figure out how to handle third downs, they won't be competitive on the road.
Fix the Running Game
The Ravens might be 8-2, but the running game has had little role in that figure. Ray Rice has not rushed for 100-plus yards in a game since October 7.
In that same time span, he has not averaged over five yards per carry in a game and has not had a rush over 17 yards.
Whether these struggles can be attributed to the offensive line or to Rice himself is debatable, but what is not debatable is that the Ravens need to fix it.
Let's be honest, Joe Flacco will not have a good game against the Chargers. The farther away from M&T Bank Stadium Flacco is, the worse he does. San Diego might be the most geographically far location in the NFL from Baltimore, guaranteeing a poor performance from Flacco.
That means Ray Rice and the running game will need to excel in San Diego. The line will need to get better push than it has in recent weeks, and Rice will need to run with more aggression and vision.
The talent is there for the Ravens to do this. They just need to execute.