This weekend, the 5-8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers head to Baltimore for the first time in eight years to face a 7-6 Ravens team that is right in the thick of both a division title hunt and a Wild Card race. Having won three of its last four games, the Ravens are just a half-game behind Pittsburgh, which has dropped three in a row, in the AFC North standings. Baltimore also currently owns the sixth seed in the conference on a series of tiebreakers over three other 7-6 squads. The Buccaneers' playoff hopes, while not as promising as Baltimore's, remain alive and most likely require the beginning of a three-game winning streak this Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Ravens' recent 3-1 run has come with rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson at the helm while veteran Joe Flacco has been sidelined by a hip injury. Flacco, who has been inactive for each of those four games, is expected to return to active status on Sunday, though Ravens Head Coach Jim Harbaugh has announced that Jackson will get the start. Both quarterbacks could figure into the game plan, though, and the defensive challenge for the Buccaneers would be quite different based on which one is under center. Flacco threw for roughly 275 yards per game during the Ravens' first nine contests but rarely ran the ball. Jackson, in contrast, is already the Ravens' leading rusher with 475 yards but has thrown for about 170 yards per game.
Baltimore's defense is having another fine season, ranking second in the league in yards allowed per game, including top-four marks against both the run and the pass. The Ravens have racked up 37 sacks, including seven each for Terrell Suggs, Matt Judon and Za'Darius Smith, but they've forced only 10 turnovers, the second-lowest total in the league. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges the Buccaneers will face in Baltimore on Sunday:
Each week during the season, Head Coach Dirk Koetter puts together a specific video package to show to his players called "Game-Wreckers." The clips are meant to identify the three or four players on the opposing team who are likely to make the big plays that most affect the game's outcome. The Buccaneers know they have to limit the damage inflicted by these game-wreckers if they are going to come out on top.
Koetter's cut-up is an internal tool for his team and it is not shared publicly, though he does occasionally note an opposing game-wrecker or two during media sessions. Below are four players who might be on this week's tape.
1. LB Terrell Suggs. In his 16th season, the seven-time Pro Bowler continues to produce at a high level. His 7.0 sacks so far this year give him 132.5 in his career to go with 33 forced fumbles, 14 fumble recoveries and even seven interceptions, two returned for touchdowns. Suggs can drop into coverage – he has six passes defensed this year – but he's most dangerous when rushing off the edge, as he still possesses a quick first step.
2-3. DTs Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams. Though Suggs, Judon and Smith get most of the sacks, the combination and/or rotation of Pierce and Williams, two of the top defensive tackles in the league, drives the Ravens' second-ranked offense. Both players are outstanding against the run and that helps the Ravens get opponents into unfavorable third-down situations, which then allows the pass rush to seal the deal.
4. WR John Brown. The Ravens haven't had one dominant force on offense this year, instead getting it done with a wide cast of characters. No Baltimore player has more than 475 rushing yards or 672 receiving yards, and the team's leading touchdown producer, Alex Collins, is on injured reserve. That said, Brown has the potential to wreck a game as a big-play threat, as evidenced by his average of 17.7 yards on 38 receptions. That's the fourth-highest average in the NFL among qualifying receivers. Brown is also the team's leader in touchdown receptions, with five.
Baltimore's defense is strong across the board. In addition to the overall, rush and pass rankings noted above, the Ravens are also fifth in first downs allowed, fourth in third-down percentage and, most importantly, first in points allowed. Here are some other areas in which the Ravens have excelled so far this season:
· Whether it's Flacco or Jackson at the helm, the Ravens know how to extend drives. Helped out by a 46.8% success rate on third down, Baltimore has recorded 32 drives of 10 or more plays each, the most in the NFL.
· Baltimore's defense has held opposing ballcarriers to 3.8 yards per carry, and while that's just a bit under four yards the Ravens have stopped a high percentage of runs for less than four yards. In fact, only 118 of 303 runs against Baltimore have resulted in at least four yards, or 38.9%, and that's the lowest in the NFL.
· The Ravens have used four different players as punt returners and have received good results across the board. Cyrus Jones has handled the most, with 15 returns, and has an average of 16.1 per runback that includes a 70-yard touchdown. Baltimore has five punt returns of 20 or more yards, tied for the second-most in the NFL.
· Opposing offenses have a 34.5% conversion rate on third down against the Ravens, in part because Baltimore's defense creates longer third downs by being very good on first down. Baltimore opponents have averaged 4.6 yards per play on first down, the second-lowest figure in the NFL.
The Ravens haven't really had a dynamic passing attack, ranking 26th in the NFL with an average of 5.96 yards per pass play. As noted earlier, the Baltimore defense has often been stifling but it has created just six interceptions and four fumble recoveries. In addition:
· A factor in Baltimore's low yardage rate on passing plays is a struggle to connect on downfield throws. On balls thrown more than 20 yards downfield, the Ravens have a 22.6% completion rate, fourth lowest in the NFL. Overall, Baltimore has a 49.6 passer rating on such plays, also fourth worst in the league.
· A low number of takeaways also means a low number of points produced off turnovers. Baltimore has just 23 of them in 2019, little more than half the league average and the 26th-highest total in the NFL.
· Baltimore has a very good rushing attack (134.5 yards per game), especially since Lamar Jackson took over at quarterback. However, the Ravens haven't had a large number of breakaway runs. Forty-one of their 415 carries have gone for 10 or more yards, or 9.9%, which is fifth lowest in the NFL.
· The Ravens' defense hasn't been as good as one might expect in the red zone. Baltimore has allowed opponents to score touchdowns on 65.7% of their drives that penetrate the Ravens' 20-yard line. That's the eighth-highest percentage in the NFL.
NEW FACES IN 2018
The Ravens used a first-round pick on quarterback Lamar Jackson, ostensibly their quarterback of the future and the heir apparent to Joe Flacco. That future might have just arrived, as Jackson will start for the first time on Sunday in a game in which Flacco is also healthy and active. That's the biggest of all possible on-field changes for an NFL franchise, but there are some other new contributors in Baltimore this year, too.
1. Willie Snead, Michael Crabtree, John Brown. The Ravens top three pass-catchers are all receivers added to the offense this year. Snead came from the Saints, Crabtree from the Raiders and Brown from the Cardinals. They have more than replaced the production of the departed Mike Wallace and Jeremy Maclin.
2. LB Kenny Young. Baltimore used a 2018 fourth-round pick on the UCLA linebacker and he has played in all 13 games with three starts. Young is fourth on the team with 46 tackles and he also has 2.5 sacks and four tackles for loss.
3. TE Hayden Hurst. The South Carolina tight end was the 25th player drafted in April and the first tight end off the board. A foot injury cost Hurst the first four games of the season and he hasn't produced big numbers yet – seven receptions for 82 yards and a touchdown – but he is an athletic player with good speed (4.67-second 40-yard dash at the Combine) and very reliable hands.
1. RB Alex Collins. Collins was the Ravens' leading rusher through 10 games, with 411 yards, but he landed on injured reserve after sustaining a foot injury. He has been ably replaced by undrafted free agent Gus Edwards, who has rushed for 382 yards in the last four games.
2. G Alex Lewis. The third-year lineman has started 10 games at left guard this season but he missed the Ravens' last contest with a shoulder injury. James Hurst, who started the first six games at right tackle before giving way to Orlando Brown, Jr., stepped in to play left guard last week.
3. S Tony Jefferson. Part of the Ravens veteran safety duo along with Eric Weddle, Jefferson has missed the last two games due to an ankle injury. He is still the team's second-leading tackler.