Playing on the road for the first time in nearly a month, the Ravens know exactly what’s at stake when they travel to Ford Field to take on the Detroit Lions on Monday night.
A three-game winning streak has pushed Baltimore above the .500 mark for the first time since October, but a 1-5 road record can’t be overlooked as the Ravens play two of their final three away from M&T Bank Stadium against first-place teams. And with Miami and San Diego also hanging around in the AFC wild-card picture, the margin for error is small.
The Ravens have the clear advantage with health as linebacker Elvis Dumervil was the only player of real consequence listed as questionable and the rush specialist is expected to make his return after missing last week’s game against Minnesota with an ankle injury. Meanwhile, the Lions have three starters listed as questionable or worse on the final injury report of the week.
It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens aim to improve to two games above .500 for the first time all season. Monday night marks the fourth time these teams have ever met with the Ravens holding a 2-1 all-time advantage. Detroit won the only meeting between the teams at Ford Field, a 35-17 final back in 2005.
Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to maintain their grip on the No. 6 seed in the conference playoff race …
1. Facing a banged-up and below-average secondary, Torrey Smith finds room down the field for a long touchdown. The Lions will be without starting cornerback Chris Houston and rookie backup Darius Slay while starting free safety Louis Delmas missed two practices this week with a knee injury, leaving Detroit’s 25th-ranked pass defense even more vulnerable than normal. Smith has been held to just nine receptions over the last three games, but the return of tight end Dennis Pitta and the recent emergence of Jacoby Jones alleviates the heavy attention he was facing earlier in the season. This will free him up to slip past the secondary for a deep touchdown on Monday night, which will put him over the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his three-year career.
2. Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson will go over 100 yards receiving and catch a touchdown over safety Matt Elam in deep coverage. The rookie’s comments questioning Johnson’s age and physicality earlier in the week were foolish, but the league’s best wideout was already motivated with the Lions fighting Chicago and Green Bay for the NFC North title. Elam has been a disappointment in pass coverage — recording just two pass breakups — as he’s played out of position all season and his small frame doesn’t play well against Johnson if he’s asked to provide help over the top. Cornerback Jimmy Smith has received most of the attention in terms of who will cover Johnson, but the Ravens rarely ever flip their corners and will likely try to offer as many different looks as they can in coverage. It won’t matter as Johnson will still get his yards and a score on Monday.
3. Linebacker Terrell Suggs will collect his first sack since Nov. 3, but the Ravens won’t generate much pressure on Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford. The Lions have only allowed 15 sacks this season, which is a major reason why Stafford has remained healthy and is 24 yards shy of his third consecutive 4,000-yard season. Baltimore hasn’t collected a sack since Week 12, but blitzing will leave the defense vulnerable underneath against running back Reggie Bush coming out of the backfield, leaving defensive coordinator Dean Pees in a difficult position. Suggs will beat left tackle Riley Reiff for a sack in the first half and Dumervil’s return will help, but Stafford’s quick release and the Ravens’ concern with Bush and fellow back Joique Bell catching passes out of the backfield will lead to another week of underwhelming pressure.
4. Joe Flacco will roll out and move from the pocket by design to neutralize the Lions’ interior pressure to throw for 250 yards and two touchdowns. The presence of defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley is a major concern for the Ravens as Flacco will need time in the pocket to step up and go vertical to test a poor secondary. Even if right guard Marshal Yanda and center Gino Gradkowski can hold their own against Suh, Fairley is likely to give A.Q. Shipley fits, which will prompt offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell to use designed roll-outs and waggles for Flacco to move outside the pocket. Flacco has shown that he can throw effectively on the run and Pitta’s presence will help in that regard with intermediate passes to move the chains. Detroit’s defensive line is too strong to try to play straight up in the passing game, so the Ravens will try to get Flacco in space behind the line of scrimmage.
5. Struggling at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, the Ravens can’t quite keep up in a 27-20 final to Detroit. Most attention has fallen on the likes of Johnson, Stafford, and Bush this week, but the Ravens’ running game and pass rush do not match up well against the Lions, which will be the difference in a game in which points could come liberally for both sides. Baltimore will not be able to find space against the league’s sixth-ranked run defense, putting everything on Flacco’s throwing arm, but the passing game just hasn’t had a consistent 60 minutes of play all season long and that will catch up with them late in a back-and-forth game. With the Ravens unable to pressure Stafford, the Lions will just be too tough to stop as a late score against a defense that’s been unable to finish will be the difference in an entertaining contest.