Putting Harbaugh hype aside, Ravens offense has tall order in front of it

November 23, 2011 | Luke Jones

Putting Harbaugh hype aside, Ravens offense has tall order in front of it

After a few days, I admit it.

I’m a little Harbaugh-ed out.

With no disrespect to either John or Jim Harbaugh and the remarkable story of the two becoming the first brothers in NFL history to meet as opposing head coaches, neither will play a snap in a nationally-televised game on Thursday night. The storyline was originally meant to inject life in a game appearing to be a mismatch when the schedule-makers pegged it for Thanksgiving night back in April.

But this matchup is stimulating, whether two brothers are facing off or the opposing head coaches wouldn’t recognize each other walking down the street. The Ravens are roughly where most expected them to be through the first 10 games of the season — overlooking the sub-.500 opponents their three losses have come against — but Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers are the biggest surprise of the 2011 season, having won eight in a row and suffering their only loss of the season in overtime back in Week 2.

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Even with a short week that clearly puts the 49ers at a disadvantage having to travel across the country, this game is simply too appealing to spend too much time focusing on the Harbaughs.

Much like John’s first year in Baltimore in 2008, the younger Harbaugh has made his stamp on a San Francisco team that had plenty of talent but needed new direction after failing to reach expectations under the previous regime. He has already guided San Francisco to its first winning season since 2002, and the 49ers are right on the heels of the undefeated Green Bay Packers for the No. 1 seed in the NFC. They’ve done it just like the Ravens did in 2008 — a strong defense and a power running game.

Meanwhile, the Ravens have their eyes on the top seed in the AFC — currently tied with New England, Pittsburgh, and Houston at 7-3 — and sorely need a win when taking into account the Patriots’ and Steelers’ favorable schedules over the final six weeks of the regular season. For the sake of their playoff positioning, Thursday is a game the Ravens really can’t afford to lose.

The Baltimore offense will need to bring its best effort against a 49ers defense that prides itself on stopping the run and taking the ball away from you at a prolific rate. Led by inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman and imposing defensive end Justin Smith, San Francisco owns the top-ranked run defense and has not allowed a rushing touchdown all season.

Though they found the elusive balance between the run and pass in last Sunday’s 31-24 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, the Ravens will be challenged to gain positive yardage on the ground against the 49ers’ front seven. The possibility may push Baltimore to slip back into the more one-dimensional offense we’ve seen in recent weeks.

“It’s [about] whatever is going to move the football for us and get us first downs,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “If we’re able to do both of those things and hit chunks [of yardage via the pass] here or there, then that’s what’s going to be important.”

The San Francisco pass defense is less impressive, ranking 27th in the NFL, but it’s opportunistic nature (15 interceptions) highlights the biggest area in which the Ravens need to be concerned.

Turnovers.

No team in the NFL has done a better job of protecting the football while causing the opponent to fail in doing so. Not only are the 49ers tied for fewest giveaways (nine) in the league, but their defense has forced an incredible 26 takeaways to lead the NFL. San Francisco’s plus-17 turnover margin is easily the best in the league.

In contrast, the Ravens’ 18 giveaways are tied for sixth-most in the AFC. Following a turnover-free performance in a Week 1 win over Pittsburgh, the Baltimore offense has committed two or more miscues in six of its last nine games and at least one in all nine games.

The 49ers have won the turnover battle in all but one of their games this season while the Ravens have committed more miscues than their opponent in five of their 10 games, still managing to win three of them.

Short week or not, the Ravens will have their hands full on Thursday night against one of the best defenses in the league. It’s a unit that can make you pay if you’re not on your toes, protecting the football and setting the tempo by gaining just enough on the ground to keep the front seven honest.

If not, the Ravens will have no choice but to let the passes fly from Flacco’s right arm and, with it, a greater chance for a turnover against defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s attacking San Francisco defense.

In recent weeks, the Ravens have spoken ad nauseam about their need to get the running game going and to take better care of the football. They’ll have their chance on Thanksgiving against the best team in the league in stopping the run and taking away the football from the opposition.

“I know it’s going to be a challenge, but I don’t plan on forcing anything,” said running back Ray Rice, who reached the 100-yard rushing mark for the first time since Week 6. “I have to take what’s given and I’m looking forward to one of those Pittsburgh Steelers kind of games with [that] defense. They’re in a different division, but they play like our defense and they’re going to be tough.”

It’s not a season-deciding game, but a win over the 49ers would go a long way in determining where the Ravens wind up in their potential playoff journey.

And that’s far more important than who happens to be coaching on opposite sidelines.

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