4 key matchups to watch during Raiders-Ravens
The Baltimore Ravens are 3-0 and sit atop the AFC North with a game lead over the Pittsburgh Steelers, largely thanks to defensive play that has limited opposition to 20 points or under in each of the Ravens’ three games so far.
This week, Baltimore will host the Oakland Raiders, who may test that defensive success. Though they managed just 17 points against Tennessee, the Raiders have been impressive on offense so far this season, and are averaging 436 yards of total offense per game, second-most in the league. Their 6.7 yards per play is also second (trailing the Falcons in both categories), despite limiting themselves repeatedly with penalties, racking up a league-leading 31 flags on offense for 257 yards.
Perhaps the most interesting battle between these two teams will take place up front. Baltimore’s defensive front has been formidable, especially against the run, but they will be coming up against one of the best offensive lines in the game, and a team that has averaged 148.3 rushing yards so far this season.
The left side of the Raiders’ offensive line, in particular, has contributed to the run game in a major way, with Kelechi Osemele justifying his free-agent price tag, and Donald Penn remaining a quality player, despite advancing age (he’s now 33 years old). Oakland has recorded 283 of its 445 yards rushing to the left side of the line so far this season. They will be up against Baltimore linemen Timmy Jernigan, Brandon Williams, and defensive stalwart Terrell Suggs, each of whom is extremely tough against the run.
Take this run against Jacksonville as a pretty good example of how physically imposing that trio can be:
They are actually lined up on the right side of the offensive line on this play, but both Williams on the nose and Suggs at outside linebacker cave in their blockers. Jernigan doesn’t have as much success on engagement with RG A.J. Cann, but looks to be shedding that block as the run approaches.
The battle between these two units should be entertaining for anybody who is a big fan of tough football in the trenches.
Three other key matchups
WR Amari Cooper and WR Michael Crabtree vs. Baltimore cornerbacks
The Raiders have both Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper performing well so far this season. Each has over 230 yards and 15 catches through three games, and they are both closing in on 30 targets for the season. Cooper is definitely the big-play threat of the two, but Crabtree has been a safer pair of hands and a fine possession option within the offense. Between the two, they form a very tough matchup problem for the Ravens’ coverage that hasn’t had exceptional cornerback play thus far.
Ravens CBs Jimmy Smith and Shareece Wright have been targeted a combined 41 times through three games, and have surrendered 28 catches (68.3 percent) for 291 yards and four touchdowns. QBs targeting the pair have a passer rating of 121.1 so far this season. Neither has an interception, and they have broken up just one pass between them; now in Week 4, they’ll face one of the league’s better wideout tandems.
QB Joe Flacco vs. Oakland secondary
Don’t look now, but Joe Flacco is actually playing pretty well. He’s currently PFF’s eighth-highest graded QB, with a mark of 82.2—a notable bump from 74.7 a year ago, which saw him rank 27th in the league. His raw statistics don’t look great this season, but his play has been far better when you turn on the tape. He has made far more of the big plays that he’s struggled with in the past to offset some of the poor throws he continues to make.
Amerson is currently PFF’s top-graded CB, with a 92.5 overall grade, while Smith is busy climbing back up the rankings after being taken to the cleaners by Brandin Cooks on opening weekend. Rookie safety Karl Joseph saw his first action last week and looked an immediate upgrade; that corresponded with Reggie Nelson posting the best grade of his season with a new partner in the deep secondary.
Flacco has attempted a deep pass (traveling 20+ yards in the air air) on 13.4 percent of his throws this season, one of the 10-most aggressive rates in the league—a likely indicator that he’ll test this Oakland secondary deep. Baltimore has speed in their receiving corps to hurt them on those passes, so how well the Raiders hold up could be the difference in big plays and points.
OLB Khalil Mack vs. LT Ronnie Stanley and RT Ricky Wagner
He hasn’t been the same player from a year ago, but Khalil Mack is still a formidable opponent for any tackle, especially a rookie. Ravens LT Ronnie Stanley has been solid, if not quite up to the standard he set over preseason. So far he has surrendered a sack, QB hit, and seven QB hurries, as well as being flagged three times over three games. On the other side, Wagner has looked back to something like his 2014 best, making his 2015 disaster season look something like an anomaly. He has allowed a sack and four hurries over three games, with no penalties to his name, but has not quite matched his solid pass protection with his performance in the run game.
Mack hasn’t been the same dominant force as a year ago, but he is still a threat as both a pass rusher and run blocker. He has yet to record a sack, but does have nine total pressures, and has been solid as a run defender, posting four defensive stops and still wrecking blocks at the point of attack to disrupt the run. Will we see the old Mack this week? If not, will the two Baltimore tackles be able to deal with the 2016 version? Both will likely see plenty of Mack, as he has split his time this season between the left and right side of the line, lining up outside of the left tackle 74 times and outside of the right 106.