Baltimore's Keys to Success in the 2013 Playoffs
Last week's thoroughly dominating win over the defending Super Bowl champs reminded fans and even some experts why the Baltimore Ravens were a fashionable preseason choice to represent the AFC in New Orleans in February.
A couple of stumbling blocks early in December cost offensive coordinator Cam Cameron his job and left many wondering if Baltimore had the right man under center.
A three-game losing streak and a matchup against a talented Giants team equally desperate for victory gave even the most optimistic Raven diehards pause. A decisive win last Sunday re-affirmed faith in maligned quarterback Joe Flacco and helped build confidence that Baltimore can win without their best defensive players on the field.
The tide has turned somewhat at M&T Bank Stadium. Once known for its frighteningly aggressive and dominating defense, the 2012 Baltimore Ravens are beating people down with a healthy dose of offense. With almost all of their offensive weapons playing at full strength, Baltimore has shown that it can provide matchup nightmares for almost any defense.
The Ravens defense, which has played the last two weeks without its top three tacklers, seems to have found the right combination and rotation of players to stay fresh, aggressive and disruptive against some very prolific offenses.
With the regular season wrapping up Sunday, Baltimore will be tested by division rival Cincinnati as they prepare for the postseason for the fifth consecutive year. It could potentially be a preview of Baltimore's first-round matchup, as the final four AFC seeds will be determined by Sunday's results.
Here are five keys to success for a Baltimore playoff run.
Ray Lewis, Bernard Pollard, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata, Pernell McPhee, Terrell Suggs, Jimmy Smith and Dannell Ellerbe have spent as much time on the Ravens' injury report as they have on the stat sheet. With a relatively significant game against Cincinnati this weekend, how much field time will these guys see with the playoff picture taking shape Sunday?
There are several scenarios that could unfold with the most likely being the Ravens sitting at the fourth seed hosting either Indianapolis or this weekend's opponent and division rival Cincinnati. As AFC North division champs, Baltimore will host their first-round opponent.
The offense is at full strength, with wideout Anquan Boldin's shoulder injury the only concern. Defensively, Ray Lewis will be looking to make his return from a biceps injury suffered in Week 9 against Dallas. The emotional boost that Lewis can provide with his return would be enormous for the battered, but proud, defensive corps.
Consistency at Quarterback
No player has had a roller-coaster year like Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco. In his fifth year as the Baltimore starter, Flacco was expected to take his game to the next level as the director of the Ravens offense.
At times this season, Flacco has been every bit the player whom Baltimore expected and has needed him to be. Then again, there have been games where Flacco seems to be his own worst enemy, failing to protect the ball while making poor decisions and even worse throws.
Mechanically, everything is sound with Flacco. He is a big, athletic quarterback with a cannon for an arm. Whatever issues he seems to have exist above the shoulder pads between the ears.
It is hard to say decisively if it is the play-calling or Flacco that has broken down during the low points of the season this year. Last week's impressive performance by the Baltimore offense could signal that all parties, particularly Flacco and offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, are on the same page.
Against strong defenses (Houston, Pittsburgh and Denver) Flacco has looked poor and has faltered when he has limited time in the pocket. With Sunday's matchup against a stingy Bengal defense, which quarterback will we see?
Control the Line of Scrimmage
This is hardly a ground-breaking declaration here, but when the Ravens can get a push from both the offensive and defensive lines, they win ballgames.
Controlling the line of scrimmage to give quarterback Joe Flacco another half second to make decisions has been critical in almost every Baltimore win this season. Obviously, the running game is affected just as much by the offensive line's ability to create holes and space for the speedy Baltimore backs.
On the other side of the ball, the Ravens have been able to enjoy success, even through the massive injuries, by getting to the opposing quarterbacks.
The team's 34 total sacks put Baltimore literally in the middle of the NFL in that category but aren't indicative of the solid team defense that Baltimore can play. With seven defensive starters injured or banged up to some degree, Baltimore has shuffled in a ton of players and seems to have found a decent combination the past couple of weeks.
With players mending and joining the ranks of the relatively healthy in time for the playoffs, Baltimore's defense will be better than its relatively low overall rank. It sits in the middle of the league in almost every defensive category, but the Baltimore red-zone defense is ranked second in the NFL.
Establish the Run
"Check down. Hey diddle diddle, Ray Rice up the middle" isn't the most complicated offensive strategy in the world, but the most important player on the Baltimore offense is their fifth-year tailback.
While the quarterback touches the ball on every play, half of those snaps should end with the ball in Rice's capable hands.
With his diminutive size, Rice isn't a bruising back designed for 25-30 carries per game, but Baltimore has a speedy alternative when their first option needs a rest. Bernard Pierce has impressed in his rookie debut, providing a huge spark of the bench and showing big-play potential.
The return of Marshal Yanda last week seemed to make a huge difference in both run- and pass-blocking. Keeping Vonta Leach active in the running attack is crucial, too. The All-Pro fullback plays like an additional offensive lineman in the backfield, blasting holes in the defense.
Proper Game Plan
It's hard to conceive that the Baltimore Ravens are headed into the playoffs after having replaced their offensive coordinator so late in the season. However, given the state of the offense and some of the play-calling during the three-game skid, something drastic needed to happen.
While I don't necessarily expect the Ravens offense to click as efficiently as they did against the Giants last week, it was nice to see what it was capable of. Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell is smart enough to recognize what works with his quarterback and knows that getting Flacco confident early is crucial.
Designing an offensive strategy that spreads the ball around while balancing the run and the pass will keep any defense on its heels. Utilizing the no-huddle offense with Flacco also seemed to keep the pass rush away from his quarterback.
Defensively, coordinator Dean Pees has done a remarkable job with his makeshift lineup all year. Statistically, Baltimore has struggled, but it has tightened up in the red zone and still boasts a quality number of playmakers on the defensive side of the ball.
Every quarterback whom Baltimore will potentially face in the postseason can light up a secondary when given time. The only team with a legitimate star running back is Houston, so stopping the pass will be a priority. Getting to the quarterback and putting hits on him will be critical.