When most football fans think of the Baltimore Ravens, the image of an oppressive defense and a run-oriented offense comes to mind – a throwback to a bygone era of the NFL that has proved extremely effective over the years. But, as the Vikings set to meet the Ravens Sunday, they're going to come up against a different Ravens team than they're used to seeing – a squad that can put a lot of points on the board, but one that is in the throes of a two-game losing streak desperately trying to avoid extending it to three.
The Ravens enter play this week as the highest scoring team in the AFC with 138 points, having scored 31 or more points in each of their three wins. One of the major differences has been the stepped-up play of quarterback Joe Flacco. The second-year quarterback was asked to be more of a game manager in his rookie season, becoming the first rookie QB to lead his team to a conference championship game. This year, the Ravens have taken the leash off of Flacco, allowing him to use his arm much more than he did as a rookie. Through five games, he has completed 117 of 182 passes for 1,289 yards with nine touchdowns and five interceptions. This has been quite a departure from seasons past – Flacco is third in the NFL in attempts, fourth in completions, 13th in passing yards and sixth in touchdown passes. He has a cannon for an arm and, if given proper protection (he's been sacked just seven times in five games), he is capable of picking apart a defense. With any young quarterback, the Vikings will try to employ disguised coverages and blitzes from all sides to prevent him from getting comfortable in the pocket. If he is afforded time, it could be a long day for the Vikings defense.
The mainstay of the Ravens offense for years has been its running game. The year the Ravens won the Super Bowl, they went the entire month of November without scoring an offensive touchdown. Yet, they won three of the four games played that month, thanks in large part to a running game that could control the pace of the game and eat time off the clock. That hasn't changed over time. The Ravens have a three-headed monster at RB. Second-year man Ray Rice is the catalyst. Blessed with good speed and the ability to make something out of nothing, Rice has rushed 63 times for 364 yards and a touchdown and leads the team with 23 receptions for another 208 yards and a TD. His versatility is what makes him dangerous and it's no surprise that he is the lead back in the offense. But he is far from the only weapon in the Baltimore backfield. Veteran Willis McGahee, who was the starting running back before being injured last year, has become an excellent red zone option. He has just 38 carries, but has gained 199 yards and scored seven touchdowns – which ties him for the league lead with Adrian Peterson. Le'Ron McClain, who became the Ravens' featured back last year when both McGahee and Rice went down to injuries, has resumed his role as the primary fullback in the offense. But his ability to pound the ball between the tackles makes him a candidate to be used late in the game if Baltimore has a lead and is looking to wind down the clock. They are three players with three different sets of skills, but all capable of doing damage to the Vikings' hopes of remaining unbeaten.
The receiver corps remains a little non-descript, but it has more than done the job done this season. Leading the way is veteran Derrick Mason, who briefly retired in the offseason, but had a change of heart and came back for the 2009 season. He leads all Ravens wide receivers with 19 catches for 284 yards and two touchdowns. He doesn't have great deep speed, but runs precise routes and has the veteran savvy to get defenders out of position and make big plays. He lines up opposite Mark Clayton, a former first-round pick whom many had tabbed as going to the Vikings in 2005 before the team used its first of two draft picks on Troy Williamson. Like Williamson, he has never lived up to expectations, but is having a decent start to the season – catching 17 passes for 213 yards and a touchdown. Depth is provided by free agent signee Kelley Washington and Demetrius Williams. Washington has deep speed and playmaking ability and has slightly out-produced Clayton, catching 17 passes for 219 yards and a touchdown. Williams has been dogged by injuries in his two-plus seasons in the NFL and there are some who are wondering if he will ever meet the potential the Ravens have seen so often in practice and during offseason camps.
The tight end position is one of strength, led by veteran Todd Heap. Heap is second on the team with 21 receptions and tied for the lead in touchdowns with two. Despite numerous injuries over the years, he can get down the deep seam and make big plays. He isn't a burner that will stretch the field with regularity, but catches just about everything thrown his way and isn't afraid to take a big hit over the middle. Former Eagle L.J. Smith is also in the mix, but he has been limited due to injuries and has just one catch for 26 yards. If both can stay healthy, the Ravens have a potent 1-2 punch at TE that makes up for the lack of true playmakers at wide receiver – something that should concern the Vikings since they've been lit up by tight ends each of the last three weeks.
For any offense to be effective, it is a prerequisite to have a formidable offensive line and the Ravens are among the best in the NFL in that department. Anchoring the line is a familiar face to Vikings fans – multi-time Pro Bowler Matt Birk. After losing Pro Bowl center Jason Brown to a megabuck deal from the St. Louis Rams, Birk has been an ideal replacement, with his combination of skill and veteran savvy that has helped the line not miss a beat. However, there are some question marks with the injury to mammoth left tackle Jared Gaither. He suffered a frightening neck injury two weeks ago that had some concerned that he might have sustained a career-threatening injury. But, after brief numbness in his legs, he is on his way to making a speedy recovery, although doubtful for Sunday. If he can't go, the Ravens will use rookie Michael Oher, a talented, high-octane tackle who is expected to be a fixture on the line for years to come, but more likely on the right side. Like the Packers when they lost their left tackle, the Ravens have shuffled their line a little bit, moving Oher to left tackle, right guard Marshal Yanda to tackle and backup Chris Chester to right guard, joining Birk and third-year guard Ben Grubbs to give the Ravens a formidable offensive front. For a lot of teams, the loss of the starting left tackle would be a death knell for the offense, but, thanks to the Ravens' commitment to improving its O-line, it is able to absorb a big loss like Gaither without missing a beat.
While the Ravens offense has been a pleasant surprise, just about everyone knows the calling card of Baltimore has been and continues to be its defense. Consistently ranked at or near the top of the league, the Ravens have seen some changes on their defense, but never a drop-off in talent or execution. The Ravens have been operating out of a 3-4 defense about as long as any team in the league and have consistently found playmakers to get the job done. Up front, they have a Pro Bowler in Haloti Ngata at one end spot and a versatile run stopper/pass rusher in Trevor Pryce on the right side. They flank nose tackle Kelly Gregg, a 10-year veteran adept at clogging the middle, which is why the Ravens are again near the top in run defense in the league – holding opponents to just three yards a carry for the season. Depth is fairly solid as well, with six-year veteran Dwan Edwards at end and 340-pound man mountain Kelly Taiavou backing up Gregg at nose tackle. Much like the offensive line, the Ravens have enough talent backing up the starters that they can absorb an injury without a big letdown.
While the front three is talented, the hallmark of the Ravens for years has been its suffocating linebacker corps. Despite losing Bart Scott to free agency, the Ravens have a lot of talent that can create havoc. The group is led by future Hall of Famer, inspirational leader and original Raven Ray Lewis. Although he is in his 14th season, Lewis is still a dominating physical presence who almost singlehandedly won the Ravens Week 2 game over San Diego with a huge fourth-down play inside the 10-yard in the final minute. He is joined on the inside by second-year man Tavares Gooden. In his first year as a starter, Gooden has excellent size, speed and strength. On the outside, Terrell Suggs remains a ferocious pass rusher and run stopper and seven-year man Jarret Johnson has excelled this season, leading the team in sacks with four. Between the two of them, Johnson and Suggs have accounted for 6.5 sacks and will be assigned to contain Adrian Peterson, no small order, but a challenge they expect to be up for Sunday.
The secondary is strong as well, led by playmaker Ed Reed at free safety. Reed is about as big a playmaker as there is at the safety position and he continually finds ways to make game-changing plays. He is joined at safety by fourth-year man Dawan Landry. Landry missed much of last season due to injury, but is a solid eighth man in the box who excels in run support. At the corners, the Ravens have solid cover corners in Fabian Washington and Domonique Foxworth. There is no questioning Washington's ability. During the Ravens run to the AFC Championship Game, he had some of the best games of his career, but durability is an ongoing concern. Foxworth is an excellent cover corner that handles one-on-one coverage without too many problems. Depth is provided by seven-year veteran Frank Walker at nickel back and third-year special teamer Antwan Barnes. The depth level is exceptional throughout the defense and, on paper, there doesn't appear to be a position of weakness anywhere.
While the Vikings bandwagon has taken on a lot of followers over the past few weeks, there are some who aren't convinced they can be an elite team until they beat elite competition. The Ravens will be first big test for the Vikings, who will be playing their final home game in a month Sunday. A team with Super Bowl aspirations of its own, Baltimore can ill-afford a third straight loss, so look for them to come out with guns blazing – looking to end the Vikings unbeaten streak at five games.
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