The Baltimore Ravens have a rough end to the 2013 season, and it starts with a trip to Ford Field to take on the Detroit Lions. Every game is essentially a must-win game for the Ravens with the playoff race getting tighter, but a victory won’t be easy against the Lions’ explosive offense.
Detroit is second in yards per game and sixth in points, so Week 15 will be a challenging test for Baltimore’s defense. Here are three things that Baltimore needs to focus on as they prepare to face the Lions.
How Do You Stop Megatron?
The Baltimore defense gets to face two of the game’s best offensive players in back-to-back weeks (Adrian Peterson and now Calvin Johnson). Now the Ravens have to deal with the problem that NFL defensive coordinators lose sleep over: How on Earth do we contain Calvin “Megatron” Johnson?
This week, rookie safety Matt Elam gave Ravens defensive coaches even more to worry about. How on Earth do we contain the aptly nicknamed Megatron when he has something to prove?
For those who don’t know, Elam made some comments this week about Johnson’s age.
Ravens S Matt Elam said Calvin Johnson was "pretty old" and would shy away from physicality. Johnson laughed » pic.twitter.com/GdtY4IElSg— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 12, 2013
Not that it’s going to be a huge factor in the game, but remember the last time somebody made comments about the megastar wide receiver? That was Dez Bryant, and Johnson responded by hanging 329 receiving yards on the Dallas Cowboys.
So we return to the question at hand. How can Baltimore attempt to defend the unguardable receiver?
The Ravens cornerbacks generally stick to their sides of the field, so we won’t see one cornerback covering Johnson for the whole game. That means that the entire secondary has be on their game to limit Johnson’s effectiveness.
Jimmy Smith is the only cornerback that can come close to matching up physically with Johnson, but even then the wideout holds a big advantage standing at 6’5” and 236 pounds.
Smith has been playing excellent defense in recent weeks, but this is the most challenging test in the league.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees won’t explicitly double-cover Johnson, but there will be safety help over the top to bracket the big-time receiver. It’s a tactic he’s used against the other star receivers the Ravens have faced this season, and the defense has fared well in those matchups.
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Johnson is a star among stars, however. He’s going to make plays, and Matthew Stafford is going to throw his way—a lot.
He was only targeted six times last week—a season low—but that had more to do with the impossible conditions than Stafford’s decision making.
The key for Baltimore is to limit the big plays. Johnson is second in the league with 20 receptions of 20 yards or longer. He is a menace on deep balls, and he’s such an athletic freak that plays like this are fairly routine for him:
If Baltimore can limit his opportunities to make huge plays down the field, they'll live with his production.
Reggie Bush as a Receiver
Reggie Bush has highlight reels full of ridiculous runs where he jukes defenders out of their cleats, but he’s just as dangerous as a receiver—especially in the Detroit offense.
Matthew Stafford targets running backs in the passing game more than every other quarterback not named Drew Brees, so Bush and Joique Bell are sure to be featured against the Ravens in Week 15.
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One particular area that Baltimore needs to focus on is the screen game. Bush is so deadly in space that the linebackers need to be cognizant of situations where the Lions might pull a screen out of their playbook.
Detroit is very creative with their screen game, and they have even gotten Bush involved when he isn’t in the backfield. For example, Bush was split out wide on this play against the Cleveland Browns, but it was a designed screen all the way.
Bush runs a quick bubble screen (yellow), and the interior offensive linemen come out to block for him (blue).
Bush weaves his way through the blocks and the defenders to take it 18 yards for the score.
The running back is going to be a factor on the ground, but he could just as easily be a dynamic receiver for the Lions. The Ravens need to be prepared for his potential impact as a pass-catcher out of the backfield—particularly on screens.
Detroit hasn’t racked up a ton of sacks this season, but its pass rush has still been very good. According to ProFootballFocus (PFF), the Lions have the eighth-best pass rush in the league (subscription required).
The Ravens offensive line has been a problem all season, and Joe Flacco has been sacked 41 times this year—fourth-most in the league.
Baltimore’s O-line has to give Flacco enough protection, especially against Suh, so that he has the time to make his reads and attack the Lions secondary down the field.