3TFO: Ravens @ Broncos, AFC Divisional
Throughout the past 14 years, we have watched Peyton Manning and Ray Lewis fight year after year to make it to the Super Bowl. Each has been successful in getting the ring once. On January 13, 2007, they faced each other in the playoffs for the first time, with the Colts winning the field-goal matchup 15-6. Three years later they faced each other again in the divisional round, with the Manning-led team coming out on top again.
It may be just coincidence that these two face each other every three years in the divisional round of the playoffs, but it is also noteworthy because this won’t be happening in 2016. Lewis will retire this year, and it’s unknown if Manning will play that long. While they will steal the votes of Hall of Fame voters when they are eligible, and have already stolen the limelight in this introduction, there are plenty of other players that deserve attention.
In Week 15, the Broncos beat the Ravens 34-17 in Baltimore. Here are three matchups that Baltimore needs to improve this time around to have any chance at letting Ray retire on top.
Who will stop Von Miller?
Throughout the regular season, the Ravens have trusted second-round rookie Kelechi Osemele at right tackle. If you ignore his worst three games, Osemele had an excellent season with a Pass Blocking Efficiency of 96.7, which would make him the best pass-blocking right tackle in the NFL. The only problem is there were three games where defenses got the best of Osemele. In Week 2, the Eagles’ duo of Jason Babin and Brandon Graham had three hits and two hurries thanks to Osemele. In Week 5, Justin Houston of the Chiefs had his best game of the year with two sacks and six hits. Then in Week 15 there was Von Miller.
The Broncos run a defense geared toward getting Miller to the quarterback, and it has been very successful. Miller has a Pass Rushing Productivity of 15.8, which is by far the highest for any player with at least 250 pass rushes. Week 15 against the Ravens was one of his best games in terms of overall pressures with eight. However, it was also one of just four games where Miller was unable to register a sack. On the plays where Miller recorded a pressure, Flacco was sacked once and completed just two of seven passes.
Because of a toe injury to Jah Reid, the Ravens played musical chairs with their offensive line for their Wild Card matchup. Osemele moved from right tackle to left guard, Michael Oher went from left tackle to right tackle, and Bryant McKinnie started the game at left tackle. It hasn’t been confirmed if the Ravens will use this same offensive line combination against the Broncos, but it might not affect how Miller plays.
This year Oher has a lower Pass Blocking Efficiency than Osemele, 94.0 compared to 94.6. In 2011, Oher was a right tackle and had a similar Pass Blocking Efficiency at 93.8. And Oher hasn’t played well in playoff games. He allowed three sacks and three hurries to the Texans, and a hit and seven hurries against the Patriots during the 2011 playoffs. He allowed two sacks each to the Chiefs and Steelers in 2010. The offensive-line combination they used against the Colts might make sense because McKinnie is a better left tackle than Oher, and Osemele could be a better left guard than Reid. But in this matchup it might spell disaster.
The Ravens have begun using Bernard Pierce at running back more, with 49 carries the past three weeks compared to 72 in the first 14 games. Pierce has run the ball to the right 65 times, compared to 56 times to the left, and has been significantly more successful to the right with 6.8 yards per carry, compared to 3.7 to the left. However, this also means running right at Miller, who has a Run Defense Rating of +31.9. The next highest for any 4-3 outside linebacker is +9.6.
Ravens Passing Deep
Joe Flacco is one of those quarterbacks who looks like he is better than average, but doesn’t look like he belongs in the top tier. He has been one of the least accurate quarterbacks this year, with an Accuracy Percentage of 67.4%, ranking sixth-lowest in the league.
The story is a bit different when Flacco decides to throw the ball deep. He does so on 17.9% of his passes, which is more than any other quarterback — his Accuracy Percentage on deep passes is 42.4%, which is on par with the league average. His raw numbers of 1,257 yards on 40 completions for 12 touchdowns and zero interceptions are very impressive. This was especially helpful in the Wild Card round, when he completed five deep passes for 157 yards and a touchdown.
It helps when Flacco has the targets of Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin. Smith is known for his long catches and 42.6% of his targets have come on deep throws — that’s most in the league for those with at least 30 deep targets. On those, he has 14 catches for 447 yards and five touchdowns. Boldin isn’t targeted nearly as much on deep passes, with just 20 targets, but on them he also has 14 catches for 421 yards and five touchdowns.
In the first matchup, the Ravens pulled off two deep passes on four attempts. One was a 31-yard touchdown to Dennis Pitta, and the other a 43-yard go route to Jacoby Jones. The problem is the Ravens need more of these kind of plays against the Broncos, but chances are they will have less. Opponents have thrown the ball deep against the Broncos 67 times, which is right around the league average. Denver has allowed just 14 of those passes to be complete. That is a completion percentage of just 20.9%, which is the lowest in the league.
The trio of Champ Bailey, Chris Harris Jr., and Tony Carter will be responsible for stopping the Ravens’ passing attack. This season Bailey has been responsible for stopping the opposition’s top receiver, and has done so while leading the league in Yards per Coverage Snap, with 0.82. He has done especially well during the Past five games — teams have avoided him, throwing his way only 16 times, and Bailey allowed just half of them to be caught for 85 yards.
This has also been a breakout year for Harris, who has yet to allow more than 60 receiving yards in a game. His Yards per Coverage Snap has also been impressive at 0.92, which was fourth-best in the league. In the Week 15 matchup against the Ravens, the Broncos’ defense held Boldin without a catch, and Smith to just one 14-yard catch.
The Ravens’ deep passing game has saved them a lot this season, but one of two things needs to happen in order for it to save Baltimore again. Either Boldin or Smith needs to have a significantly bigger impact than the Week 15 matchup, or another player needs to step up. Jones has the next most deep catches for the Ravens at four, followed by Pitta at three. Both players saw more of an impact early in the season rather than later. Whoever it is probably needs more than one deep catch with how many points the Broncos are likely to put up.
Where will Moreno Run?
It is well known that the Broncos can pass, and likely will with success. It will do the Ravens a lot of good if they can find a way to stop the run so they only have to worry about the pass. This means stopping Knowshon Moreno, who had his best game of the season in Week 15 against the Ravens.
When Willis McGahee was the lead back, the Broncos ran more to the left than right, which he did 57.8% of the time. This made sense as the Broncos’ best run blockers are on the left side with Ryan Clady and Zane Beadles. However, with Moreno at running back the Broncos have run more to the right than left, which he does 58.7% of the time.
When Moreno runs between the center and right tackle, he has averaged just 1.8 yards per carry. He has been more successful running outside of the right tackle, where he has 6.0 yards per carry. This was no different in the first matchup against the Ravens, where Moreno ran just three times for 9 yards between the center and right tackle — when he ran outside the right tackle he had 54 yards on seven carries.
When the Ravens had a stop on defense, chances are rookie outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw was somehow involved, whether it was making the tackle himself or freeing up a teammate to make the play. His Run Stop Percentage this year was 9.8%, which was the second-best for all 3-4 outside linebackers.
The problem is that, in general, Upshaw plays in run situations while Paul Kruger plays in passing situations. In the first game against the Broncos, Denver used three-receiver sets on 29 plays. Of those, Upshaw was on the field for just five. On the other 48 plays with two wide receivers or less, Upshaw saw 42 snaps. The problem is the Broncos typically use three-receiver sets on 69% of their pass plays, but used it significantly less against the Ravens because of their early lead. If this game stays close, Denver will likely use more three-receiver sets, which means less Upshaw so Moreno should see more success.
This means someone else on the defense will need to step up and make the play. While Haloti Ngata, Arthur Jones, and Pernell McPhee will likely be able to stop anything that comes inside, the problem will occur when the Broncos run to the outside. Over the past seven weeks, Terrell Suggs has a Run Stop Percentage of 4.3%, and Paul Kruger has one of 1.6%.
The question then becomes whether the Ravens sacrifice some of their pass rush to get Upshaw on the field. Because of how rarely Manning gets pressure, it is certainly worth considering. If the Ravens do decide to put Upshaw on the field more, then the Broncos could employee a strategy where they run away from Upshaw, which on some plays would involve running to the left side, which is the strength of their run blocking.
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