This Sunday's game against the Washington Redskins marks the start of a difficult four-game stretch; here's how they can get off on the right foot.
The Baltimore Ravens still sit atop the AFC North, but their loss last week to the Pittsburgh Steelers means they have yet to technically clinch a playoff berth. Winning this week against the Washington Redskins will punch their postseason ticket, but it won't be easy.
Here's a game plan for the Ravens as they face the NFL's top rushing offense this Sunday.
Stopping the Run, Containing the Offense
Teams with good run games have been like kryptonite for the Ravens defense this season, considering all of the injuries and free agency departures Baltimore has had to deal with on that side of the ball. Three times this season, the Ravens gave up 180 or more rushing yards to their opponents, and at 125.8 yards per game, they rank 23rd against the run at present.
In the last two weeks, Baltimore's defense has better handled the run, giving up 91 rushing yards to the San Diego Chargers in Week 12 and then 96 to the Pittsburgh Steelers in last Sunday's loss. This is a sign of progress. However, the real test will be how it handles the Redskins and their top-ranked rushing offense.
On a per-game basis, the Redskins are putting up 167.2 rushing yards, with that number jumping to 173.5 in home games. With 1,106 yards, Redskins running back Alfred Morris is the third-best back in the league at present, while quarterback Robert Griffin III has 714 rushing yards of his own.
Though Griffin is very dangerous in the air, having thrown 18 touchdowns, their run game as a whole is even scarier, producing 13 scores thus far, 8.8 first downs per game and averaging 5.3 yards per rush attempt.
Though the Ravens have faced some strong rushing offenses before, like the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans, they haven't faced one quite like the Redskins, who have one of the most dynamic and elusive quarterbacks in the league. Keeping Griffin and Morris contained is going to be a tall order for Baltimore this Sunday, and even succeeding in doing so could still open them up to punishment from Griffin's arm.
With Ray Lewis at least one week away from returning to in-game action, Dannell Ellerbe likely sidelined for another week and Terrell Suggs a game-time decision with a torn biceps, the injury-wracked Ravens defense is going to have quite a task on its hands. So how can the team stop Washington's run game—or, at the very least, keep the run game from scoring touchdowns?
Only once—in Week 8 against the Pittsburgh Steelers—were the Redskins held to under 100 total rushing yards, with 86. The Steelers did so by remaining patient—watching, for a brief moment, how the Redskins' offensive plays developed and then reacting, rather than making assumptions the moment the ball was snapped.
Washington's pistol-based offense (a hybrid of the shotgun and I-formation) is fast-moving, easily adaptable and allows Griffin to make decisions at the line—to hand it off, to run with it himself, to pass it—faster than defenses can figure out what is going on. The goal for Baltimore this week is to limit his options and make Griffin and the offense predictable.
Discipline will be key for the Ravens defenders. Once focus shifts from the play to Griffin himself, an assignment is blown, giving the Redskins a weakness to attack. Awareness of Griffin is key, but staying aligned with the overall defensive game plan is even more important. Distracting defenders is a major reason why Griffin is so successful, and the Ravens cannot bite.
There needs to be pressure, of course, and outside containment. Washington's receivers need to be covered. At the same time, there need to be Ravens defenders playing close in case Griffin takes off or hands the ball away.
There will be much to take stock of in a short period of time, and though it's difficult to keep Washington's offense and, particularly, their run game in check, it can be done—and it will have to be if Baltimore is to win this game.
Passing the Ball
It seems like anathema to suggest the Ravens' offensive approach against the Redskins this week be pass-heavy considering how Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco has struggled on the road this season, but it may just be their best bet to defeat the Redskins if they do it intelligently.
The light-on-Ray-Rice approach that offensive coordinator Cam Cameron seems intent on pushing ultimately doomed the Ravens last week against the Steelers, and there's no way I could suggest the Ravens repeat that strategy this Sunday. However, the Redskins defense is far stronger against the run than against the pass, and the Ravens will need to exploit that fact.
That isn't to say that Flacco needs to keep taking deep shot after deep shot. Last week against the Steelers, he completed only 2-of-8 passes of 20 or more yards, and though he's gone deep more than any other quarterback other than Andrew Luck, he's only completed 28-of-78 throws. It's produced eight touchdowns, yes, but it also kills drives—and quickly at that—when the passes don't result in completions.
Flacco's deep passing needs to be more measured this week, based out of the play-action and augmented with successful running. He needs to throw more intermediate passes that have a higher success rate, making not Torrey Smith but Anquan Boldin and tight end Dennis Pitta his biggest targets.
The goal here is not to just move the ball down the field—it's also to control the clock. The Ravens defense is going to have its hands full keeping Washington's offense at bay, and the longer it can be kept off the field, the better for Baltimore's bottom line.
Taking deep shots with the end zone in mind can be a good strategy, but if the Ravens can pick up those yards in a more methodical manner, it gives their defense a much-needed breather and ideally limits the damage the Redskins offense can do when it has the ball.
Exploiting a weak-against-the-pass defense can take more forms than just laying big play after big play out before it; the Ravens need to keep that very much in mind when they call their pass plays on Sunday.