Previewing Week 5: Ravens at Raiders
After an ugly 44-7 loss in London, the Ravens came home to Baltimore to play the rival Steelers in what was supposed to be a close, hard-fought slugfest between the top 2 teams in the AFC North. What we witnessed was unfortunately more of the same ugliness that we saw in London. The offense managed a paltry 65 yards in the first half and handed the Steelers excellent field position for much of the game. The Steelers offense was more than happy to grind out drives as the defense couldn’t stop the rushing attack led by Le’Veon Bell or the short/intermediate passing game. The Ravens now sit at 2-2 and have to head across the country to play the 2-2 Raiders who are also looking to bounce back after 2 straight losses.
It might come as a surprise to some that the Oakland Raiders have struggled on offense almost as much as the Ravens. For a team with one of the best offensive lines in football, a young talented QB, and a strong group of receivers the lack of production is somewhat puzzling. The offseason acquisition of RB Marshawn Lynch was supposed to be the final piece of the puzzle for the Raiders offense, but he has been largely ineffective through 4 weeks. Star WR Amari Cooper has been plagued by drops, an issue that seemed to be behind him after a stellar sophomore campaign. QB Derek was forced to leave Sunday’s game against the Denver Broncos with a back injury that will keep him out of this match-up with the Ravens. Even the offensive line has seemingly regressed this season, allowing 9 sacks through 4 games and not affording Carr the time in the pocket that he has grown accustomed to playing with.
This means the Ravens defense will be facing back-up QB EJ Manuel in a game that could potentially make or break their season. Will they be able to handle Manuel and the sputtering Raiders offense? Pessimistic Ravens fans will probably expect the “struggling” Ravens defense to be just the salve needed for an opposing offense to get back on track. The Steelers certainly were able to move the ball this past week. However, the Ravens still managed to limit the big play, holding the Steelers to 4.1 YPC on the ground while keeping Roethlisberger uncomfortable to the tune of only 1 passing TD to 1 interception. None of the Steelers WRs managed even 50 yards on the day as CB Jimmy Smith continued to blanket opposing WRs in what has been a very strong season to date. I expect Smith, Brandon Carr and Marlon Humphrey to similarly limit the Raiders top WRs Cooper and Michael Crabtree. Dean Pees dialed up more pressures in week 4, and he may try to get even more aggressive against a strong Raiders OL as the 4 man rush is unlikely to produce much pressure. The other line of thinking would suggest the Ravens should play coverage, dropping 7 or 8 players and hope 3 or 4 man rush can eventually bait Manuel into making a bad throw into tight coverage. Either way, making Manuel uncomfortable should lead to mistakes, and as we saw in the first 2 weeks, the Ravens defense knows how to convert on QB errors.
Where the Ravens need to improve the most on defense is in the middle of the field; covering RBs, TEs and slot receivers has been a problem all season. If they can take away TE Jared Cook and RBs Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington out of the back-field they will have a good shot at neutralizing the Raiders offense. Against the run, the Ravens will also have their hands full as the Raiders have a very talented offensive line led by former Raven Kelechi Osemele, and the Ravens have not been overly effective stopping the run this season. Oakland has underperformed rushing the ball but with a back-up QB under the center, I would expect them to lean extra heavily on the rushing attack. Marshawn Lynch rarely goes down after first contact, so the Ravens will have to swarm to the ball when it is handed off. Richard is a smaller, shiftier back, but he can threaten to take the ball the distance if not bottled up quickly. I have to believe stopping the run will be a focus per usual for the Ravens defense.
When the Ravens have the ball, they have to first and foremost account for game-wrecker Khalil Mack. The reigning NFL DPOY is a constant threat to sack the QB and he is a force against the run as well. The Ravens should avoid running at Mack and will need to bring help in pass-blocking in the form of double teams and chips from TEs and RBs. However, the Raiders as a whole are below average in run defense and pass defense, so the Ravens should really attempt to get the running game going early and generate a balanced offensive attack off of it. Alex Collins once again looked impressive running the ball for the Ravens this past Sunday, but he also put the ball on the ground for the second time on only 25 carries making it unlikely he ever becomes a high volume ball carrier. That said, he by far has the most big play potential and seems to be able to make something out of nothing which is a skill the Ravens other RBs do not possess. John Harbaugh may look to lean on Collins more and more, but it is certainly a risky endeavor.
When the Ravens pass the ball, they can look to take advantage of a middling group of Raiders LBs. Marty Mornhinweg may try to use a similar offensive strategy that we saw week 2 against the Browns. Establish the run, and then use a lot of roll-outs and boot-action designed to get the LBs to commit to stopping the run which should open the middle of the field. I would expect TE Ben Watson to be able to take advantage of the Raiders defense, and WRs Michael Campanaro and Jeremy Maclin might have nice games as well working out of the slot. We have yet to see any real contribution from Breshad Perriman, so maybe this is the week he can get open downfield for a big play off a play-action roll-out.
The Ravens caught a break when Derek Carr was ruled out of their week 5 match-up. E.J. Manuel may be a fine back-up QB, but he is still a back-up with little experience in the Raiders offense. Even an injury depleted Ravens defense should be able to limit the Raiders offense that is missing their star QB and hasn’t looked right for 2 weeks in a row. Above all else, the Ravens need to get off the field on defense, convert on 3rd downs at a reasonable rate and avoid costly turnovers. The reality is the offense’s performance is going to depend on how well the offensive line plays. If they can effectively block against Mack and the Raiders defense, the Ravens offense should be good enough to get a win in Oakland. I think the Ravens will manage to be just good enough to earn a much needed win on the road, 20 – 13.