The Vikings' offense flopped in last Sunday's loss to Pittsburgh and can't afford a repeat performance at Baltimore. The problem is the assignment won't get any easier.
The Ravens' 3-4 defense is ranked sixth overall in the NFL - one spot behind the Steelers - and is especially tough against the pass. The Ravens are seventh in that category and 13th against the rush. This will make it absolutely imperative for the Vikings to establish a ground game.
That is something they failed to do against a tough Pittsburgh run defense, accumulating only 54 yards. Veteran Brad Johnson also will have to rebound from his worst performance since replacing the injured Daunte Culpepper as the starting quarterback.
If Minnesota can't get the Ravens to respect the play-action pass, the Vikings' hopes for a postseason berth will go up in smoke.
The Vikings' defense will be looking to create turnovers, something it wasn't successful at against the Steelers. Because Pittsburgh built a lead, it was able to keep the ball on the ground and away from an opportunistic secondary that features free safety Darren Sharper.
Minnesota's hope is that Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller returns to earth after a fantastic night against Green Bay on Monday and makes the type of mistakes that the far superior Ben Roethlisberger was able to avoid.
The best hope for the Vikings' offense is for the defense to give it the ball in favorable field position. Of course, the Vikings got the ball at the 3-yard line against Pittsburgh on one occasion and came away with only a field goal.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Vikings SLB Raonall Smith likely will find himself tested by Ravens TE Todd Heap, who had nine catches in Monday's route of Green Bay. Two of his grabs went for touchdowns. Vikings linebackers have struggled this season against tight ends and Heap's receiving ability will provide a challenge, especially for the substitute strongside linebacker who will be responsible for Heap in the red zone.
The Vikings' offensive line will have to account for left OLB Adalius Thomas, who leads the Ravens with seven sacks. The Vikings' past two opponents, the Rams and Steelers, have shown a willingness to blitz and that's likely to continue with Thomas. Thomas also has two interceptions.
Rookie right tackle Marcus Johnson and center Melvin Fowler both have sprained ankles, meaning Mike Rosenthal and Cory Withrow could find themselves back as starters.
Tight end Jermaine Wiggins also is hobbled by a sprained ankle but expects to play. Wiggins has only five catches in the past three games, and Jim Kleinsasser likely will see plenty of playing time no matter what happens. One of the NFL's best blocking tight ends, Kleinsasser also can catch the ball.
Raonall Smith will remain the starter at strongside linebacker in place of Keith Newman. Heath Farwell's return could help a special teams unit that struggled last Sunday against Pittsburgh.
The Ravens will keep a balanced attack in going against the Minnesota Vikings. The strong play of running back Jamal Lewis will keep the pressure off quarterback Kyle Boller. But the Ravens want to evaluate Boller in these final two games, which means giving him between 20 to 25 pass attempts.
Defensively, the Ravens have been solid in shutting down the run and forcing teams to throw. The defense will once again stack the box with eight defenders, either with an extra linebacker or lineman. The Ravens want to put it on quarterback Brad Johnson, who doesn't have great arm strength, to go deep to beat them.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Ravens TE Todd Heap vs. Vikings FS Darren Sharper: Heap is coming off his best game of the season, making nine catches and scoring two touchdowns. Sharper leads Minnesota with eight interceptions, running two back for touchdowns.
Ravens QB Kyle Boller vs. Vikings QB Brad Johnson: Since returning from a toe injury, Boller has thrown four touchdown passes in three wins and seven interceptions in three losses. Johnson threw two interceptions in a loss to Pittsburgh last Sunday after throwing just one in Minnesota's six-game winning streak.
Ravens LB Bart Scott vs. Vikings RB Michael Bennett: Scott, who replaced injured Ray Lewis, has made 13 tackles in each of his past three games. Bennett ran for 149 yards in wins over Detroit and St. Louis before being held to 43 yards in a loss to Pittsburgh.
Ravens CB Chris McAlister vs. Vikings WR Travis Taylor: McAlister leads the Ravens with 19 passes broken up. Taylor, who played for the Ravens from 2000 to 2004, is second on the Vikings with 42 catches.
CB Dale Carter (back) is expected to play nickel back. He is questionable after participating in Wednesday's walkthrough.
TE Darnell Dinkins (ankle) is considered a game-time decision. He didn't finish Monday's game.
KR/PR B.J. Sams (knee) is expected to play after participating in the walkthrough.
LB Mike Smith (thigh) has a good chance of playing after missing a couple of games. He plays on special teams.
TE Daniel Wilcox (ankle) is expected to return after missing his first game of the season.
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