For the Baltimore Ravens to maintain their hold of the AFC North division and earn a playoff berth, they need to turn around their current two-game slide. A three-game Ravens losing streak is something nearly unheard of and, at this crucial part of the season, is something the team cannot afford.
It's going to be difficult for the Ravens to get a victory this week. They are hosting the Denver Broncos—a team that already has their AFC West division wrapped up and is currently on an eight-game win streak. With quarterback Peyton Manning at the helm of the offense and their defense being one of the best pass-rushing units in the league, the challenges for the Ravens are great.
Here's a game plan for Baltimore that will help neutralize the Broncos' strengths while maximizing their own.
How to Handle Peyton Manning
Injures have rattled the Ravens defense all season long, and it hasn't eased up as the playoffs approach. Though linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs did practice on Friday, their status for Sunday will likely be game-time decisions; if Lewis cannot play, Dannell Ellerbe (active for the first time this week) would get the start, with Josh Bynes getting the nod if Ellerbe is also not ready to return.
Linebacker Albert McClellan has already been ruled out, and strong safety Bernard Pollard hasn't practiced all week with a rib injury, which means that James Ihedigbo could start in his place. Add into that the fact that cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb have been off the field for weeks, and the ranks of those tasked with keeping Peyton Manning's offense under control have thinned considerably.
Based on Pro Football Focus' metrics for quarterback accuracy, Manning is the third-most accurate quarterback in the league at present. He ranks fifth when under pressure, but is also the least-pressured quarterback in the league. He's tops in completions of 20 or more yards and is sixth in play-action passing.
Needless to say, he's the best quarterback the Ravens have faced this season, even better than Tom Brady, whom the Ravens defeated in Week 3.
Stopping Manning won't likely come from the pass rush—he's been sacked just 19 times this year. Manning is just too experienced at reading defense and has seen practically everything that can be thrown at a quarterback to be shaken by Baltimore enough to completely ruin his effectiveness. Instead, focus will need to shift to neutralizing his receiving targets.
Though the Ravens secondary is in pieces, that doesn't mean it cannot rally enough talent to cut receivers Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas and Brandon Stokely off from Manning's passes.
Thomas will be the biggest challenge. So far this season, he's caught 74 of the 108 passes thrown his way (68.5 percent) for 1,199 yards and eight touchdowns. He has a staggering 487 yards after the catch, and none of the passes thrown to him have been intercepted.
More than likely, Cary Williams will be matched up with Thomas. Williams is one of the more inconsistent corners in the league. He's allowed 67 percent of the passes thrown in his direction to be caught for 785 yards and five touchdowns. However, he's also defended eight passes and has four interceptions.
This latter iteration of Williams—the good one—will have to be prominent this week if he's going to keep Thomas under wraps.
Decker is equally as dangerous as Thomas when it comes to scoring—he, too, has eight receiving touchdowns this season—and will be matched up with Corey Graham. Graham, in his limited starting snaps, has fared somewhat better than Williams, with 58.7 percent of passes caught for 323 yards and one touchdown. He also has two interceptions to his name.
Safety help and assistance from Baltimore's coverage linebackers will be necessary on every apparent Broncos passing play on Sunday. The Ravens pass defense has been shaky this year, currently ranked 23rd overall and giving up an average of 246.3 yards per game. To defeat Manning's Broncos, it cannot look like the 23rd-ranked pass defense, and the key will be good coverage rather than the pass rush.
Running the Ball
The hope is that. with the change in offensive coordinator from Cam Cameron to Jim Caldwell, the Ravens will have a more varied offense—a faster-paced one that doesn't value Joe Flacco's deep ball higher than simply making productive completions and over elite-level running back Ray Rice.
When it comes to defeating the Broncos this week, Rice needs to have a prominent role. No offense has been able to do much against Denver this year in either the passing or rushing game. The Broncos rank sixth against the run, allowing 93.7 rush yards per game, and seventh against the pass, with 215.7 yards allowed.
With 15 interceptions and 39 sacks, the Broncos defense is one of the scariest pass-rushing units in the league. Pressure has led to quarterbacks falling prey to both sacks and interceptions. And with Flacco still shaky with his pocket awareness—taking 31 sacks on his 153 pressured dropbacks and completing only 45.4 of his under-pressure passes—it would behoove the Ravens to try to get the ball out of his hands quickly.
No-huddle passes and shorter throws will help with this, but nothing will assist with the Ravens' offensive efforts more than giving the ball to Rice as often as is prudent. Playing from behind is never the best time to always be running, for example, but even in that situation, the Ravens cannot abandon it entirely.
A major priority for the Ravens this Sunday needs to be keeping the Broncos offense off the field, which they can partially accomplish by running the ball and eating up time. The misuse of Rice was one of the myriad of reasons why Cameron was fired, so it stands to reason he'll finally get his money's worth of carries this week with a new offensive philosophy in place.
Rice is currently averaging 4.6 yards per carry and his backup, Bernard Pierce, 4.5. Not running when their backs when they're outperforming so many of their peers would be a major mistake this week, even if Denver's defense is giving up so few yards on the ground. Just because offenses, on average, haven't run well against them doesn't mean it's not possible.