It doesn’t happen often, but on the rare occasion when the Ravens defense is torched, players have long memories about the circumstances.
The last time Baltimore faced the San Diego Chargers — early in the 2009 season — quarterback Philip Rivers threw for 436 yards and two touchdowns, and the Ravens needed a heroic stop by Ray Lewis on a fourth-and-2 play inside the red zone with seconds remaining to preserve a 31-26 victory.
“We were up early, and they started coming back,” defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. “Rivers is great at those big-chunk plays, and they started coming back. We just have to make sure once we are up, we stay up and not let them come back and get those chunk plays. Then you remember that Ray Lewis hit in the backfield. So, that was great, but hopefully we don’t have to keep it that close.”
While personnel changes have come for both sides over the last two seasons, the 6-7 Chargers still possess gigantic targets in 6-foot-5 receivers Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd as well as 6-foot-4 tight end Antonio Gates. Despite problems turning over the football and a plethora of injuries on the offensive line, San Diego possesses the seventh-ranked passing offense in the NFL.
Rivers has rebounded from a tough stretch of football during the Chargers’ six-game losing streak to toss six touchdown passes over his last two games — both wins — in which San Diego scored a combined 75 points. Four of those passing scores went to Gates, Jackson, and Floyd, who more closely resemble a basketball team than a trio of dangerous receivers for Rivers to target.
Gates has 53 receptions and six touchdowns while Jackson has 53 receptions and eight scores to lead San Diego receivers.
“They’re just guys that can go make plays, guys that can finish on the ball,” Harbaugh said. “It’s hard to account for that. I just think they’re extremely talented. Every single position you look at is very talented, and when they’re hitting on all cylinders, obviously, we’ve seen what they’re capable of.”
Unlike that 2009 encounter in which the Ravens’ top three corners were all under six feet in height, the Ravens now possess defensive backs with the length to challenge Jackson and Floyd on the outside. Though top cornerback Lardarius Webb is suffering from a turf toe injury and may be sidelined on Sunday night, 6-foot-1 Cary Williams and 6-foot-2 rookie Jimmy Smith are better equipped to match up physically with the Chargers receivers than the undersized Domonique Foxworth and Fabian Washington were two seasons ago.
“We’re kind of excited about the fact that we’ve got some bigger corners who are playing really well to take out there,” Harbaugh said. “We didn’t have that as much a couple years ago when we were out there, so we’ll be looking forward to seeing how those guys match up against their great receivers.”
Whether Webb is available or not against Rivers and the Chargers, the Ravens will depend on their robust pass rush to disrupt the eighth-year quarterback’s timing with his tall receivers. Allowing Rivers to sit back in the pocket poses a problem for Baltimore defensive backs trying to establish good position against bigger targets downfield.
Never shying away from wearing his emotions on his sleeve, Rivers can be shaken, and the Ravens feel they can get in his head by building upon their league-leading 45 sacks through 13 games this season. Though the San Diego offensive line has stabilized over the last couple weeks — ironically, the addition of former Raven Jared Gaither being a major reason why — it has struggled to protect Rivers in an up-and-down season for the Chargers.
“I think he is a quarterback that hates to get hit and loves to win,” defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. “I think if we can get in front of his face and hit him often, I think it gets him a little frustrated. He doesn’t really like getting hit. I think you can see that he really starts to get on his linemen and into the refs and talking about some hits. Once we can do that to him, get him frustrated, it’s going to be a better game for us.”
The Chargers find their backs against the wall, needing to win their final three games just to have a remote chance to secure a playoff spot. On the other hand, Baltimore will secure its fourth straight playoff appearance with a win on Sunday night and has visions of a No. 1 seed by grabbing three victories to close the season.
The Ravens feel they’re built for December football and eye home-field advantage throughout the postseason. However, a slip-up in San Diego will make that difficult with three other AFC teams holding a 10-3 record.
Baltimore hopes it won’t come down to another last-second play to survive in San Diego, but it appears Lewis will return to the field after a four-game absence in case the Ravens need the veteran’s heroics. At the very least, Lewis’ cerebral prowess will help immensely against a talented San Diego offense.
“I think the way this machine works, it starts with No. 52,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “Then it trickles down, No. 20 [Ed Reed], and then myself, No. 95 [Jarret Johnson], No. 92 [Haloti Ngata], and we all act accordingly. When it comes to leadership, we are all just one unit. This machine works when we are all doing our part. We’ve been a steady, good machine. Hopefully, we get that big, key part back this week. If not, the machine is going to keep trucking along.”