OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens and the Oakland Raiders are both trying to prove they belong among the AFC’s contenders.
Despite a 3-0 start, the Ravens have beaten three below-average opponents by only a combined 13 points and are still trying to shake any lingering odor from a 5-11 campaign a year ago. Meanwhile, 2-1 Oakland has two road wins and was a sexy pick to make the playoffs despite lacking a winning season since 2002, but the league’s 32nd-ranked defense hasn’t inspired much confidence through three weeks.
Sunday’s featured matchup will be Baltimore’s second-ranked defense taking on the Raiders’ No. 2 offense. Something will have to give.
“You hear the numbers; there is no shying away from that,” inside linebacker Zach Orr said. “They are definitely top two or top three in the league offensively. It will be a great challenge to see where we stack up. Statistically, we are one of the top defenses in the league right now. It will be a great battle.”
The Ravens must avoid a repeat of last year when quarterback Derek Carr threw for 351 yards and three touchdowns in a 37-33 win for Oakland, but this defense looks and feels different in 2016. After collecting only six interceptions all last season, Baltimore has five in its first three games, a few coming at critical junctures of close games.
Slowing the talented receiver combination of Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree won’t be easy, but the Ravens are now faster, healthier, and smarter on defense. Welcoming back five-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil will also help a pass rush that’s been disruptive inside but could use another impact rusher off the edge opposite 14th-year veteran Terrell Suggs.
“We kind of got the deck stacked,” said Suggs, who is tied with defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan for the team lead with three sacks. “We have all our guys back. We have all our working parts. We get another guy back this week. That is going to help us out. I think everybody is just committed to getting better every week, and that is huge for us.”
Getting better will be critical for a Baltimore offense that’s managed only four touchdowns in three games and currently ranks 25th in the NFL in total yards and 24th in points per game. Quarterback Joe Flacco and the passing game have shined at times, but the aerial attack has too often been bogged down by a running game averaging a meager 3.3 yards per carry.
The anticipated absence of rookie left tackle Ronnie Stanley makes for an uncomfortable matchup with Oakland defensive end and 2015 Pro Bowl selection Khalil Mack, but the Ravens still couldn’t ask for a much better matchup to finally get their offense rolling, especially playing at home for the first time since Week 1. Knowing there’s a talented offense on the other side, Baltimore will need to score touchdowns and not settle for field goals as has often been the case over the first three weeks.
The Ravens keep saying they’re close to breaking out offensively. It needs to come against one of the worst defenses in the league so far this season.
“We feel like we are ready to burst onto the scene,” Flacco said. “We have a lot of moving parts, a lot of guys catching passes. I think if we get our run game going a little bit and clean up the little things like penalties, some drops and a couple missed throws — stuff like that — I think we will be going.”
Sunday represents Baltimore’s greatest challenge to date as Oakland has more talent than any of the first three opponents of 2016. A win gives the Ravens their best start in the John Harbaugh era and provides further validation for a return to being a dangerous team in the AFC after a one-year hiatus.
Of course, a loss doesn’t decide anything just a quarter of the way through the season, but it would give ammunition to the critics doubting just how good the Ravens really are after a soft schedule the first three weeks.
This one should be fun as both teams have something to prove.
“It is going to be a great matchup, a great game, and physical,” safety Eric Weddle said. “You have to have your ‘big-boy’ pads on and get ready for it.”