OWINGS MILLS, Md. — As if preparing for arguably the NFL’s most explosive offensive player in Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson wasn’t enough, the Ravens must also deal with a pair of monsters in the middle of the Lions defensive line on Monday night.
And while Detroit’s defense ranks an ordinary 17th in yards allowed and 18th in points surrendered this season, tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley can wreak havoc on an offense in a variety of ways. Effective in shutting down the run as well as providing pressure up the middle, the tackles also bring an intimidation factor that walks a fine line between intimidating and dirty at times.
“Their reputation, they definitely live up to it,” running back Ray Rice said. “I don’t know if you want to call it physical or dirty. Whatever the refs see, that’s what they see. But needless to say, I’m not going to spark any fire. No. 1 is those two guys there in the middle, Ndamukong Suh and Fairley. They are great football players. We know we have our hands full with those guys.”
The Lions rank sixth against the run, which doesn’t bode well for a Baltimore running game that’s last in the league in yards per carry, but Suh’s biggest asset is his ability to put pressure on the quarterback. His 5 1/2 sacks rank second on the Lions behind defensive end Ziggy Ansah while Fairley has added 3 1/2 sacks on the season.
Guards Marshal Yanda and A.Q. Shipley along with center Gino Gradkowski will be entrusted to keep quarterback Joe Flacco upright and to give him room to step up to throw against a vulnerable Detroit secondary. Yanda’s task will be especially challenging as Suh has graded out as the second-best pass-rushing defensive tackle in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
“One of the things that you notice about them is the fact that they can push the pocket,” offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said. “They can keep you from stepping up in it, and therefore you aren’t able to get the ball down the field with the kind of precision that you like. They do that quite often to quarterbacks. They get free.”
One man on ‘Megatron?’
Plenty of discussion this week has centered around how the Ravens will try to cover Johnson with third-year cornerback Jimmy Smith being named as the most popular candidate.
As you’d expect, the Ravens aren’t giving away how they plan to defend the 6-foot-5 receiver, but Smith is their most effective defender in press coverage should they try to play a physical brand of football against him like they did earlier this season against standout receivers such as Cincinnati’s A.J. Green and Chicago’s Brandon Marshall.
“How many corners are 6-foot-2 [with] long arms, a physical guy, a strong guy and the guy can run?” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “Those are all the things you look for in a corner. Besides that, I think his confidence is growing. That’s the other side of it and the more it grows, the better you become.”
Pees would only say that fans and media would find out Monday night if the Ravens have decided to match Smith against Johnson exclusively, but the strategy isn’t as simple for a defense that plays extensive zone coverage.
In fact, the defensive coordinator provided a pretty convincing explanation for why the Ravens shouldn’t move away from their typical strategy of keeping Smith at right corner and Lardarius Webb on the left side in the base defense. Matching Smith up with the star receiver would require adjustments everywhere else and defenders to have new responsibilities if the Ravens are to show anything other than man coverage.
“You can’t go into a game, and every time I walk over with [No.81], they know you’re in man coverage, so a red flag is going to go up,” Pees said. “You’ve got to be able to play all of your coverages if you are going to play it that way. There’s a lot more involved in playing that, and all of a sudden the guy is in the slot, and he’s not an outside receiver, and you’re in sub defense, and Jimmy is in a nickel, or your guy is not a nickel. There’s a lot more involved when you try to play matchup coverage. It’s easy when you play man; go get your guy. But I wouldn’t want to be a coordinator in this league that tells the offensive coordinator every time I’m in man coverage.”
After dealing with a tornado-prompted delay in Chicago, a snowstorm in Baltimore, and high winds during a number of games over the last six weeks, the Ravens are embracing the opportunity to play indoors for the first time since Super Bowl XLVII.
It doesn’t result in any distinct advantage against an opponent that plays all home games inside, but the fast track and controlled climate of Ford Field just might be the elixir for a passing game that now possesses tight end Dennis Pitta and is looking for more consistency.
“I never make a big deal about playing outside,” Flacco said, “but every time you go into a dome and you start warming up, you realize how awesome it is to be able to throw the ball inside. It won’t have too much of an effect on the outcome of the game. As a quarterback, you always want great conditions and a dome obviously presents that.”
In addition to an easier time in the passing game, the Ravens will receive a respite in the kicking game after excellent work from kicker Justin Tucker and punter Sam Koch in some very difficult conditions.
The Ravens have even needed to adjust to the idea of not needing to prepare for harsh weather conditions.
“It’s been interesting,” special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. “I gave the players the weather report this morning in the meeting, and I said it’s going to be 72 and calm. And there was a long pause. They weren’t sure they understood. ‘Oh, yeah. That’s right!!’ So, yes, we don’t have to deal with that. I think the people that are most happy about that are the specialists.”