This Sunday’s matchup in M&T Bank Stadium features a pair of clubs going in opposite directions so far in a complete switch of where predictions had them for 2009.
The Ravens, expected to be one of the elite teams in the AFC, are sitting at 3-3 after a 3-0 start. Denver, expected to be one of the worst teams in the conference after off-season turmoil, is 6-0 and arguably one of the best teams in the NFL so far.
Both teams have had a week off, and the Ravens are back home. Adjustments made, personnel tweaked and self-scouting accomplished, the Ravens need this victory to stop a slide that has threatened a promising season.
(Remember that we will have our weekly Purple Haze chat this Sunday at 7 pm until halftime of the Sunday Night game to discuss Ravens-Broncos and the rest fo the NFL. Click here for info, and to see our previous chats).
Offensively, the Ravens been fearless, and that’s not a term used often when talking about Baltimore football in the 2000s. There have been a lot of positives in that phase of the game in 2009, and it will be the offense that decides Sunday’s contest.
RB Ray Rice has become a key cog in the Baltimore attack. He leads the team in rushing yards, averaging 6 yards per carry, and also leads the Ravens in receptions (second in receiving yards) with 33 catches for 325 yards. His versatility has allowed him to be the feature back and also be the safety valve for QB Joe Flacco, as evidenced by his 16 rushing first downs and 15 receiving first downs, the most-balanced stats on the squad. The 31 total first downs lead the Ravens, nine more than WR Derrick Mason.
In the last two games, Flacco has completed more passes for 0-9 yards (14 each game) than he did combined for passes of 10+ yards (6 vs. Cincinnati and 13 at Minnesota). In other words, defenses are allowing short passes to Rice and others in order to clamp down on the receivers downfield.
That’s where the run game has to take over for Baltimore against Denver. The Broncos, under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, have not allowed any opponent to run for more than 100 yards as a team this season. Rice, Willis McGahee and even seldom-used Le’Ron McClain will have to run well to control the clock and the line of scrimmage to allow Flacco to run play-action and Ravens OC Cam Cameron to dictate play calls regardless of down and distance. Denver hasn’t allowed a third down conversion in the second half of the last four games, which is the longest streak since at least 1992.
The Ravens have not run for 100 yards as team or scored in the first quarter in the last two games — both trends have to reverse this week. Denver leads the NFL in scoring defense (11 points) and third-down percentage allowed (26.9 percent). The matchup to watch will be the Ravens offensive line vs. NFL sack leader OLB/DE Elvis Dumervil (10 sacks).
Baltimore’s defense will be tested once again this week by a quality offensive unit. QB Kyle Orton has thrown just one interception and RB Correll Buckhalter leads the NFL in average yards per rush at 6.7. Denver has the lowest percentage of rushes for negative yardage and are seventh in rushing yards per game (132.7).
The good piece of news for the Ravens here is that Denver runs up the middle more than to any other spot (61 plays) — much different than the outside runners that have given Baltimore a lot of trouble this season. Also, when the Broncos throw, it’s primarily short (less than 15 yards). Denver has 27 long-distance pass attempts as opposed to 166 from 1-15 yards.
When Orton passes, his main target is the reformed WR Brandon Marshall, with 29 catches for 332 yards and four TDs. One other person to watch for is TE Tony Scheffler, who leads all NFL TEs in yards per catch (13.8) since coming into the league in 2006. He has 18 catches for 217 yards to date.
Believe it or not, despite the effectiveness of the Broncos offense so far, the Ravens average more offensive yards per game (393.2 to 368.7) than Denver.
Special teams will be crucial. The Ravens’ switch to Ladarius Webb has helped with Webb’s 25.6 return average. Baltimore needs a shorter field to work with on offense, and Webb’s returns have helped there. On the other side, Eddie Royal returned a kickoff and a punt for TDs at San Diego. Baltimore will be very careful in their decisions to kick to, or away from, Royal during the course of the game.
PREDICTION: Another mirror image in gameplans this week. Both teams will try to stop the run, and put the game in the hands of the quarterbacks. Flacco shredded Minnesota in the fourth quarter in the last game, and the wraps might be off again this week. Can the Ravens find the right combo against a tough defense? If the Ravens can keep Dumervil at bay by getting decent run yards and running play-action, they have a pretty good shot at winning. Baltimore is extremely tough at home, and Denver will go against a defense that feels like they are against the wall. It won’t be easy, but the Ravens will pull out a high-scoring affair late on a Steve Hauschka field goal. Ravens 31, Broncos 28.