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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens know an enormous challenge awaits when they welcome Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in his first trip to Baltimore as a starter.
They’re well aware of the accuracy, the strong arm, the quick release, and the ability to extend plays to find a talented group of pass catchers. But unlike other top quarterbacks such as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady the Ravens meet regularly, Rodgers is a signal caller the Ravens have mostly watched from afar aside from a 2009 loss at Lambeau Field in which he threw for 263 yards and three touchdowns in a 27-14 final.
On paper, Rodgers doesn’t scare you with his legs as he’s rushed for just 42 yards in four games, but his ability to extend plays reminds the Ravens of Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger and it creates a unique challenge for a pass rush with 19 sacks this season, ranking second in the league behind Kansas City. The key is getting to Rodgers — or at least making him uncomfortable — while keeping him in the pocket to prevent a talented trio of wide receivers from breaking off routes and losing defensive backs in coverage like they can when he’s allowed to escape.
“He’s great on the move. He can move to run, but he really moves to throw,” coach John Harbaugh said. “Those guys do a great job of uncovering downfield. They push off. They do all the different tricks of the trade to get open downfield, and they do a good job with it.”
Discipline must accompany the pressure that’s often wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks this season as the free-agent additions of linebacker Elvis Dumervil and defensive end Chris Canty coupled with the renaissance of 2011 AP Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs have often masked a vulnerable secondary in a pass defense that ranks 16th in the league. As was the case last Sunday in Miami when Ryan Tannehill completed five passes of 20 or more yards in the Ravens’ 26-23 win, the secondary has too often given up the big play, which doesn’t bode well against Rodgers and the league’s fourth-best passing attack at 312.3 yards per game through the air.
Packers wideouts Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and James Jones each have more than 300 receiving yards through four games, so the Ravens will depends on Suggs and the defensive line to put heat on Rodgers to prevent these targets from getting loose. Though they allowed only one sack against Detroit in Week 5, the Packers have struggled to protect Rodgers with fourth-round rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari — veteran Bryan Bulaga was lost for the year in the preseason — and an offensive line that yielded 10 sacks in their first three games.
The Ravens secondary fully acknowledges how the pass rush has aided the transition of two new starting safeties — including rookie Matt Elam — from a year ago.
“It’s like our best friend right now,” cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “Once we can sic our dogs on them, it’s heaven for defensive backs, because we’re just waiting for the ball to fly out. We’re running with our backs down to the ball, and you hear big cheers that we just got a sack.”
What’s been even more effective for the Ravens’ pass rush and defense in general has been the ability to consistently generate pressure with the front four, which was a constant problem a year ago with a weaker defensive line and a banged-up Suggs for much of the season. According to Pro Football Focus, only four of the Ravens’ 19 sacks this season have come by use of the blitz, leaving more defenders to drop into coverage on many occasions.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees has effectively used sub packages to not only keep the defensive line fresh but to confuse opponents by lining pass rushers up at various spots over the course of the game.
“Pressure in any kind of way is good,” Suggs said. “You can do it with three-man rushes; you can do it with blitzes. You definitely don’t want an NFL quarterback to have all day.”
Unlike other top quarterbacks such as Manning and Brady who are statuesque in the pocket, Rogers will move away from pressure, making it critical for the defensive line to be disciplined and mindful of the edges in its quest to hit the 2011 league MVP and three-time Pro Bowl selection as much as possible.
The Ravens followed a similar strategy in each of the last two weeks against mobile quarterbacks in Buffalo’s EJ Manuel and Tannehill. However, defenders warn that they can’t let discipline turn into hesitation with the fear of Rodgers using his legs to roll and escape trouble.
“You’ve just got to keep on after him and keep rushing him,” defensive tackle Arthur Jones said. “When you play timid, you open up more lanes to run. If we play our game of football, we’ll take care of it.”
The Ravens’ defensive game has lived and died with their front seven this season, and they’ll have an opportunity to show the disastrous Week 1 performance against Manning and the powerhouse Broncos was more of an aberration than an inability to answer the challenge against a top offense.
Suggs has been the ringleader of the pass rush with seven sacks already, putting him on pace to shatter his career high of 14 collected in his award-winning campaign just two years ago. But like the rest of a defense that currently ranks 14th in yards and points allowed, Suggs isn’t satisfied and sees better days ahead for the group.
Containing Rodgers and an offense that’s averaged over 450 yards and just under 30 points per contest would be the Baltimore defense’s loudest statement yet.
“It’s just five games,” said Suggs of his monster start as well as the Ravens’ potent pass rush. “We have a great expectation for this team. You can’t be satisfied after five games with what you’ve done. You always want to consider your progress. It’s not a big deal. We’re going to continue to work.”