The Baltimore Ravens, fresh off of a 30-9 victory over the Houston Texans, will be expected to win when they take on the Buffalo Bills in Week 4. As Baltimore prepares for the game, it only needs to look at last week for a reminder that there is parity in the NFL.
Anybody can win on Sundays. The Cleveland Browns can beat the Minnesota Vikings after trading their starting running back just four days before. The Indianapolis Colts can go into Candlestick Park and dominate the San Francisco 49ers. Nobody can be taken lightly, and the Ravens will need to be locked in to avoid an upset.
Injuries (or recoveries) could play a huge role in the contest for both teams, so here is a table showing who didn’t practice on Wednesday.
The Baltimore offense is still a work in progress, but the Bills defense is a favorable matchup. Buffalo has given up the second-most rushing yards in the NFL, and it is coming off of a Week 3 game against the New York Jets where it allowed two 100-yard receivers (Stephen Hill, 154 yards; Santonio Holmes, 108 yards).
Here are the keys to the game for the Ravens on offense and defense.
Pound the Ground
Ray Rice was a limited participant in practice and expects to play on Sunday, according to The Baltimore Sun. Getting him back should be a big boost for the offense, and they need to feed the two-headed monster of Rice and Bernard Pierce early and often against a soft Bills front.
The entire starting defensive line for the Bills may not play on Sunday with Alex Carrington out for the year, Marcell Dareus limited in practice and Mario Williams and Kyle Williams not practicing.
Even if they suit up, the Bills have been terrible against the run this year.
Buffalo has given up 465 rushing yards in three games, which averages out to 155 yards per game. After facing stout run defenses in the first three weeks of the season, the Ravens have no excuses if they can’t run the ball against the Bills.
Throw Some Bombs
This year, Buffalo has repeatedly used a single high safety. The result of this has been a number of long plays when receivers beat the one-on-one coverage.
For example, Ted Ginn Jr. of the Carolina Panthers scored a 40-yard touchdown in Week 2 by beating his man over the top.
One of the safeties moves up to be in line with the linebackers (circled in red), which results in the lone high safety moving to the middle of the field. Ginn runs an out-and-up (yellow), and the safety is too far away to provide any help over the top.
Likewise, Santonio Holmes scored a 61-yard touchdown against the Bills in Week 3.
Even though Jim Leonhard (circled in red) isn’t as close to the line of scrimmage as the safety in the last play, he’s still too far away to recover when Holmes catches the ball on a “9 route” (yellow).
The Ravens have some speed of their own the outside, and they should be able to take advantage of one-on-one matchups on the outside.
Torrey Smith is due for a touchdown, and he excels in those situations (just ask Champ Bailey). In addition, Marlon Brown and/or Deonte Thompson (if they play) have the speed to stretch the field and make big plays.
Joe Flacco has attempted only 17 passes that went 20 yards or longer down the field this year, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He’ll be sure to test the cornerbacks when he sees a safety come down into the box.
Feed Ed Dickson
A secondary goal for the Baltimore offense this week will be to try to incorporate Ed Dickson as a receiver. He has struggled with drops this season, but he has the talent to be a valuable weapon working the seams.
Part of his problem seems to be mental, but he also admitted to some rust after missing the entire preseason due to a hamstring injury, according to Matt Zenitz of The Carroll County Times.
There are schematic ways that offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell can try to jump start the tight end, and getting him going could be tremendously beneficial for a Ravens offense that is starved for playmakers.
Pressure the Rookie
When a quarterback is hurried, they have to make quick decisions. When said quarterback is a rookie, they are more likely to make bad decisions. Consequently, the Ravens will be aggressive with their pressure and try to rush EJ Manuel.
The Buffalo Bills allowed eight sacks in their last game against the New York Jets. You can be sure that the Ravens front seven was salivating when they watched the tape of that game.
The Jets were physical with receivers, jamming them on the outside and altering the timing of their routes. The blitz packages were creative, and the results were devastating.
The Ravens pass rush could have a similar effect.
Eyes on Manuel
When defensive coordinator Dean Pees dials up the pressure, he has to take Manuel’s scrambling ability into account.
Manuel is the latest dual-threat quarterback, and he’s already showcased the ability to make plays with his feet in his first three games.
On this play against the New England Patriots in Week 1, Manuel feels the pressure coming off the edges (red arrows). Looking downfield and seeing four of his receivers closely covered, he doesn’t hesitate to tuck the ball and run.
In his haste, he misses a wide-open receiver at the bottom of the picture (light blue), but you can’t fault the result. Manuel steps up into the pocket and takes off, resulting in a 19-yard gain on the play.
The Bills have also used Manuel on some designed runs, like on this third-down play against the Jets in Week 3.
The entire defensive line bites (red arrows) on the fake handoff to C.J. Spiller (black), and Manuel has room to run (yellow) on the right side of the field.
The ability to scramble when the play breaks down can result in huge gains, so the Ravens need to be cognizant of Manuel and be ready to recover if he takes off.
Set the Edge
Spiller is an electrifying running back who averaged a ridiculous six yards per carry last year. He hasn’t been able to find his groove yet this season, but he’s a home run hitter. The Ravens need to prevent him from turning the corner and gaining a full head of steam while running downfield.
If the edge isn’t set, he will find the open space and then the defense is at his mercy, like on his longest run of the season against the Carolina Panthers in Week 2.
Spiller is headed through the hole, and it’s up to Thomas Davis (No. 58 , circled in red) to cut him off and force him back inside by setting the edge (red arrow).
On this play, Davis can’t get there in time, and Spiller hits the hole and gains 46 yards. Baltimore will need to show discipline and prevent Spiller (and Fred Jackson) from getting around the defensive line and finding room on the outside.