3TFO: Ravens @ Lions, Week 15
This week’s primetime game on ESPN will feature a couple of teams fighting desperately to keep pace in the playoff hunt. While both the Ravens and the Lions are in at the moment, the loser of this game may no longer control their own destiny, depending on how Sunday’s slate of games goes.
Detroit’s chief competition comes from within its division. If they close out the season with three straight victories, the NFC North will be theirs, but with a narrow lead over the Bears (by virtue of tiebreaker) and Packers (a half game lead), a loss this weekend could see either of those teams take control of the division. Despite a couple of teams nipping at their heels, the Lions should be optimistic, as after Baltimore they get two winnable games in hosting the Giants before closing out the season in Minnesota. Even if Detroit falters this week, the Packers and the Bears must play in week 17, ensuring that they can’t both win out.
The Ravens have a real outside shot at the division, which has resulted in them fighting the slew of middling wild card hopefuls in the AFC. They currently sit tied with Miami (winning the tiebreaker) and with a gauntlet to finish out the season (home against New England and in Cincinnati), they can’t afford to drop this week’s matchup in Detroit. Here are a few points to look for in the second last Monday Night Football game of the year.
Stafford’s Pass Protection
In the Lions’ up and down season, it’s been lost how good their offensive line has performed. They aren’t the absolute best in the business paving the way for running backs, but you’ll struggle to find many units better at protecting their signal caller. Twenty-nine quarterbacks have taken more sacks than Matthew Stafford, and it’s telling that Peyton Manning (who has the fastest average time to throw) is the only full time starter who has been sacked less than Detroit’s fifth year quarterback. Not a single player on the Lions’ roster has graded below -1.0 for his pass blocking this year. Left tackle Riley Reiff has allowed five sacks, far and away the most on the team, but considering he has pass blocked over 550 times this season, he’s hardly a liability. In terms of their pass protection, there really isn’t a weak link on this offensive line, with all six linemen who have played a major portion of the team’s snaps landing in the top half of their positional ranks in terms of Pass Blocking Efficiency.
That doesn’t bode particularly well for a defense that may once again be without their star free agent pickup, Elvis Dumervil. Snagged from the Broncos on the back of a faxing error, Dumervil currently leads the team in sacks with 9.5 officially. In terms of total pressure though, it’s actually his teammate and 2011 Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs whose 54 pressures lead the team (albeit on 136 more pass rushing attempts than Dumervil). Not a single Raven has even half as many pressures as either of them, and with Dumervil questionable, the onus will fall upon Suggs to pressure Stafford into early throws. Should Suggs hit home often, it can only bode well for Baltimore, as Stafford’s QB rating under pressure is a paltry 56.7.
Limiting Calvin Johnson
Getting to Stafford might be a tough task, but it’s nothing compared to the chore of covering his favorite target. A prime physical specimen, Calvin Johnson leads all wide receivers with 12 touchdowns and is second with 1348 receiving yards. One of the most important receivers to his team’s offense, Johnson has 258 more yards and seven more touchdowns than the seven other wideouts who have played for the Lions this year have combined. League-wide, he is second only to Cleveland’s Josh Gordon in Yards per Route Run. Clearly slowed down by the poor footing afforded by last week’s loss in Philadelphia, Johnson only saw five balls thrown his way, breaking his streak of six straight games with ten or more targets. But there’s no chance of snow inside Ford Field, so expect Megatron to be back to his best.
A deep safety is an absolute must against Johnson, but the bulk of the work against Johnson will have to be done by the Ravens’ cornerbacks. About 80% of Johnson’s snaps have come lined up out wide rather than in the slot. This means he’ll see plenty of Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith when Baltimore is in its base defense, mixing in some Corey Graham in nickel packages. Graham will likely be manning the left cornerback position when on the field, and though he’s allowed seven touchdowns through the air, he has made quarterbacks pay with three interceptions to his name. Webb hasn’t quite hit the heights of 2011 since tearing his ACL midway through last year, and even if he’s surrendered over 800 receiving yards this season, he’s kept opposing receivers out of the endzone. Webb has allow just two touchdowns despite being thrown at 88 times. Smith is having arguably the best season of the trio, as he is by far the least often targeted of the bunch and has given up the fewest receptions (39, tied with Graham) while seeing the most playing time. In all likelihood, each will have his turn with Johnson and how they slow him down will be as important as anything in this game.
Moving the Chains
With a lackluster running game thanks to some less than stellar run blocking, the Ravens will once again have to rely on the arm of one of the NFL’s highest paid players. Joe Flacco has had a difficult time living up to that contract, earning a QB rating of 77.0 this year, with his interception count (17) nearly matching his touchdown total (18). Luckily for Flacco, he has Dennis Pitta back playing in his second game this year. Flacco’s favorite tight end in 2012 (90 targets to Ed Dickson’s 31), Pitta was heavily featured in Baltimore’s thrilling win over the Vikings last week. On his 33 pass routes, Pitta was thrown at ten times, catching balls on four different defenders and scoring a touchdown. A pair of drops isn’t what you’d like to see from your number one tight end, but bear in mind that was his first game back from injury.
With Pitta not being one to stretch the field (11.1 yards per catch in 2012), Detroit will likely assign its linebackers to cover him. After years of mediocre or even bad play, outside backer DeAndre Levy has finally put together a solid year, especially in pass coverage. The fifth year player out of Wisconsin has amassed the third highest coverage grade at OLB (+11.2) and leads the league with six interceptions. Opposing quarterbacks have a QB rating of just 53.3 when targeting Levy. Should Levy and company hone in on the short to intermediate passes, Baltimore could struggle to move the ball at all. Though feared for the deep ball, Flacco has been accurate on only a shade over 30% of his deep attempts this year, 34th of 39 quarterbacks.