Previewing Week 7: Ravens at Vikings
So far the 2017 NFL season is feeling a lot like the 2016 season for the Baltimore Ravens; get out to a fast start before mounting injuries lead to bad losses and a poor product on the field. Getting blown out by Jacksonville in London was embarrassing, but could be written off for a number of reasons. Losing at home to a Chicago Bears team starting a rookie QB that had not won on the road in 10 games really makes one evaluate the state of the team.
The list of injured Ravens is littered with starters and major contributors, but right now no name stands out more than DT Brandon Williams. The Ravens have been abysmal defending the run since Williams went out with a foot injury in week 2. They are currently 30th in run defense letting opposing teams rush for over 141 YPG at a 4.3 YPC clip. There is a sliver of irony in the fact that the Ravens spent so many offseason resources improving the secondary that has been the bane of the defense for years, and now opposing teams barely even try to pass on them because all they need to do is run the ball to be successful. So far this year’s defense has been the polar opposite of 2016 where the run defense was playing at a historical level for much of the season, but unfortunately the results are essentially the same because one aspect of the defense has been so poor.
The good news for the Ravens is that Brandon Williams is not out for the season (we hope), and could be back as early as this week against the Vikings. Minnesota is missing their starting QB and their starting RB, but they have still been able to put together a functional offense carried by a revamped offensive line and a strong WR corps as well as solid contributions from back-up QB Case Keenum and RB Jerick McKinnon. The Ravens may have their toughest test of the season going to Minnesota to play a Vikings team that has one of the best defenses in the NFL and is now in the driver’s seat to win their division.
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For a struggling Ravens offense, heading into Minnesota to play a very talented Vikings defense is a daunting task. This will be a good game to evaluate Marty Mornhinweg and the rest of the offensive coaching staff, because on paper the Ravens are in for a long day. The Vikings front seven compares very favorably to the Jaguars and Steelers fronts in terms of raw talent, and just a quick reminder: those defenses absolutely handled the Ravens offensive line. Not only do the Vikings boast a premier pair of edge rushers in Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen, but they also have one of the best DTs in the game in Linval Joseph. Thus far, the Ravens OTs have handled opposing edge players quite well, but they have been manhandled up the middle meaning the Ravens coaches are going to have to figure out a way to game-plan for Joseph while also accounting for Hunter and Griffen.
The Vikings have limited offenses to just 78.7 YPG on the ground, and while the Ravens are actually one of the top rushing teams in the NFL, it still looks like a tough match-up. Alex Collins has been the Ravens best RB, and he has seemingly cleaned up his issues with fumbling while also steadily having his workload increased week by week. He may be in line for 20+ carries against the Vikings, and his ability to pick up chunk yardage may be the Ravens best bet to stay competitive in this game. If the Ravens can get the run game going, QB Joe Flacco can look to pick on CB Trae Waynes who is probably the weakest link the in Vikings defense. Waynes has elite speed, but is still prone to getting beat deep. I would look for Mike Wallace to attempt a few double moves to see if he can get deep for a long completion or pass interference penalty off play action.
When the Vikings have the ball, the Ravens are going to need to first and foremost stop the run. This seems like a weekly point, but with how much the Ravens have struggled here, the emphasis is important. Jerick McKinnon is not a big back, but he has elite speed and explosiveness and can take any run to the house if he gets a crease. We don’t yet know the status of Brandon Williams, but if he can return for this game it would obviously be a huge boon for the Ravens. If the Ravens are without Williams, they will likely need to stack the box again and play lots of man coverage, counting on CBs Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr and Marlon Humprey to limit the Vikings talented WRs.
The Ravens have also been very poor covering TEs this year, and the Vikings TE Kyle Rudolph is a good player, although he is not overly fast or athletic which may be a favorable match-up for Ravens LB C.J. Mosley and Safety Tony Jefferson. The status of the Vikings star WR Stefon Diggs is not yet known for this game, but he missed last week with a groin injury. If he is out, the Vikings will lean on Adam Thielen and former 1st round picks Michael Floyd and Laquan Treadwell who have been disappointing NFL WRs. Thielen is a good player, but he is not the threat that Diggs is, and the Ravens have done a great job of limiting opposing WRs this season.
The Vikings have a solid if not spectacular offensive line led by OTs Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers. Overall, they are better in pass blocking than run blocking and the Ravens will look to take advantage of rookie Center Pat Elflein with talented interior DTs Michael Pierce, Willie Henry and Williams if he can play. Case Keenum has proven to be a solid if not spectacular QB in the place of injured QB Sam Bradford. He has generally limited mistakes and made enough plays to keep the Vikings offense competitive. Dean Pees will be looking for OLB Matthew Judon to build off of his impressive 2 sack performance against the Bears, and team up with Terrell Suggs to give Keenum a long day.
Overall, the Ravens are going to be in a tough spot against the Vikings in Minnesota. They will likely have to play a close to perfect game on offense avoiding penalties, negative plays and turnovers to have a chance in this one. I think the Ravens defense will have a good shot at limiting the Vikings offense, especially if Brandon Williams can play, but they may need to force a turnover or two of their own to win this one. The Ravens need a lot to go right, but I do expect John Harbaugh’s team to be competitive. In the end though, I think the home team will pull out a victory, Vikings 19 – Ravens 13.