It appears as though the state of Ohio has at least somewhat figured out a way to beat the Baltimore Ravens.
The Cincinnati Bengals won their week two matchup against Baltimore by a score of 15-10, and the Cleveland Browns lost a tough battle 24-17. For many of the same reasons, these two games should be used as the blueprint of what it takes to beat the Baltimore Ravens, the Broncos' week five opponent.
Denver will take it's show on the road to play an early game in Baltimore, a place that they simply just do not play well. Last year, the Broncos were embarrassed when they played the Ravens, a game that sent them sprialing into darkness for the rest of the season.
So why the Bengals and Browns? Cincinnati has played the Ravens very well over the last couple of seasons, and not only swept the Ravens last year, but swept the entire division. The Bengals have won their past three meetings with Baltimore, so they obviously have the correct formula.
The Browns have not been so lucky, and their record indicates that they are a poor team. However, Cleveland has had a lead in the fourth quarter of every game they have played this year, including their week three showdown in Baltimore. Those two teams had the recipe for success, and I'd be willing to bet that if not for a brain fart on the part of Seneca Wallace and/or Peyton Hillis, the Browns could easily have come away from that game with a W.
Here are some things I took from those two games that the Broncos can and will have to use in order to beat the Ravens on Sunday.
This is obviously the first key to winning any game. If you don't allow a bunch of points, you're going to be in a much better position to win. That really goes without saying. The Bengals were able to hold the Ravens' new-look unit to a mere 10 points, and teams have really not had trouble containing this team all season long.
Baltimore is only averaging 15.2 points per game this season, which is very pedestrian considering the amount of weapons they possess. Clearly, they can be stopped offensively. They have big play threats in Derrick Mason and Anquan Boldin, as well as another great possession man in T.J. Houshmandzadeh, but teams (save for Cleveland) have been able to bottle all of those guys up.
The one exception was when the Browns allowed three touchdowns to Anquan Boldin in their loss.
The Ravens are averaging just over 300 yards of offense per game, and have really been carried through their first four games by their stellar defense, which is giving up barely two touchdowns per contest.
The Broncos have played very good defense through four games, save for some hiccups here and there, and are one of the NFL's best teams against the run. With Andre' Goodman "hopeful" to return for this game, the secondary should get a much needed boost as well. The Broncos might not force four interceptions like the Bengals did, but they can definitely force Flacco into bad throws.
I think the Broncos will approach this game defensively much like they did the Indianapolis game. Champ Bailey will blanket Boldin, Goodman will be covering Derrick Mason, and the Broncos will have to keep a close eye on tight end Tood Heap while focusing on bottling up Ray Rice on early down situations.
Denver has been able to control Maurice Jones-Drew, Chris Johnson, Justin Forsett, and Joseph Addai through four games, and Ray Rice is really having a down year. He is averaging only 3.8 yards per carry, which might seem like a lot to Broncos fans (funny, but still sad), but is really rough considering how the Ravens love to run the ball.
2. Establishing Competent Run Game
Normally, this wouldn't be a problem. This season, it is. It sounds like Knowshon Moreno returned to practice on Wednesday, and while he likely isn't 100 percent, the Broncos absolutely will need him for this game. In the Bengals' win against the Ravens, Cedric Benson ran the ball 23 times for 78 yards. Those are not great numbers, but against the Ravens, they are deadly. Benson getting a little more than three yards per carry forces Baltimore to respect that facet of the game, and it opens up the short passing game for the Bengals and Carson Palmer.
We all saw what Peyton Hillis did. He attacked the Ravens' defense and did something that only a handful of backs have done in the last few years--ran for over 100 yards. And he did it in embarrassing fashion. Averaging 6.5 yards per carry, Hillis rumbled for 144 yards on 22 carries. That's nearly twice as many yards as Benson, and while the Browns were not able to win the game, they undoubtedly had command offensively. They had very few three and outs, which is critical against the Ravens, and aside from their one costly mistake, they had it right.
The Broncos are going to need all hands on deck. This will be the second game that the starting offensive line has had to mesh, and it will be a huge help for guys like Laurence Maroney and Correll Buckhalter, who have been the main backs in Moreno's absence.
Maroney has looked rusty, especially in the passing game last week, but he gained some experience behind the line, and chemistry is being at least worked on to some degree. It has not been pretty, as Buckhalter and Maroney are averaging less than two yards per carry, but the line definitely needs the time to jell.
What the Bengals and Browns did--and what the Broncos need to do--is run the ball right down Baltimore's throat. Josh McDaniels said today that the Ravens are an "in your face" kind of team. Well, in order to beat them, you are going to have to get right back in their face.
Peyton Hillis ran a good majority inside the tackles, attacking any and every hole he could find. For the Broncos' backs, if they see a hole, they need to simply take what they can get. While the line isn't opening a ton of running lanes, Bronco backs are trying to make too much out of nothing, and it's turning into negative yardage. That is unacceptable, especially against a great defense like Baltimore.
Benson did the same thing--He had some nifty moves every now and again, but for the most part, he just took what was given and set up the passing game for a 2nd and 7 on a very consistent basis. The Bengals obviously weren't able to convert their drives into touchdowns, but 15 points, at least on average, is just about enough to beat the Ravens this year.
The Broncos could really use Knowshon Moreno, as he is their best interior runner. Period. Moreno is a good back, but he just needs to learn to hit the holes harder. He has great initial burst, but it seems again like he tries to make too much out of nothing, just like our other backs.
3. Beat the Blitz With Short Passes
The Ravens are a great defense, so eventually they catch on to the screens and what not, but in the two games I studied, they seemed content to give up the short pass on many plays because of two things:
- They have great faith in their pass rush and 3rd down defense
- They are fantastic tacklers
Ed Reed will not be playing in this game, but that doesn't mean the Ravens have lost any production from their defense. They currently rank 1st in the NFL in pass defense, and are as stingy as ever. Tom Zbikowski has played very well in place of Reed, and despite losing Domonique Foxworth, the corners have played extremely well. Fabian Washington, Chris Carr, LaDarious Webb--they are all very, very fast, and they are for a reason.
The Ravens utilize a blitz nearly every play it seems, and if they aren't blitzing, they are using stunts from their defensive linemen. If it's not Ray Lewis, it's Terrell Suggs, Dawan Landry, Zbikowski, or whomever they use as the nickel corner.
They are an extremely aggressive defense, and it works, by golly. The way to counter all the blitzing is to come to the line with two plays. A run, and a pass. Kyle Orton is a smart enough player to be able to recognize the blitz, but he did not do a good enough job of it last week. He hung in the pocket too long on a couple of occasions, and wound up being sacked six times by the Titans.
The Broncos have a great couple of blitz pickup backs in Moreno and Buckhalter, and they will have a ton of use in the passing game on Sunday. I would love to see a steady dose of the running back swing pass, a couple of receiver screens--anything to keep the Ravens honest defensively. They should not be able to blitz on every play and dominate this offense, we are too good for that.
That is where guys like Moreno, Buckhalter, Royal, Lloyd, and the ultimate weapon (Demaryius Thomas) come in. The Broncos have been great at getting the ball downfield through the air, and certainly you don't want to have to play into the Ravens' game. By going to the short passing game, you are semi-abandoning what has worked this year, which is the big play (the Broncos are 2nd in the league in pass plays over 20 yards.).
Ray Lewis claims that our passing game has had success because of opposing teams' poor tackling as well as getting yards after the catch. I don't recall a ton of poor tackling, but Lewis has probably watched the Broncos even more than I have, so we'll have to see if he's correct.
Either way, I think in order for the Broncos to offset the Ravens' blitzing, they need to recognize it prior to the play, and come to the line ready to call something to counter it. You want to stick to your guns in calling plays, but this is a unique defense. Like coach McDaniels said, they don't do anything fancy. They are not a smoke and mirrors team. The Ravens are an "in your face" team, and they are very good at what they do.
4. Take What They Give You
It had to have been hard for the Cincinnati Bengals to take five field goals, but they did--and they won. It had to be hard for the Browns to play the field position game until they got a lead early in the fourth quarter--but they did.
The Broncos simply cannot afford mistakes against this team. Neither Cleveland nor Cincinnati had any turnovers, which was huge. They did, however, make some serious mental mistakes, which easily could have cost them.
But both teams throughout the game did a good job of taking what was given to them. The Broncos have a great passing game, led by Kyle Orton. He is one of the absolute best in the NFL at taking what opposing teams give him. It sometimes really gets under the skin of fans, but Orton doesn't make a ton of mistakes, especially in the red zone where he has only thrown three career interceptions.
Unless the Ravens jump out to a huge early lead, the Broncos can afford in this game to be a little less aggressive as far as going for it on fourth downs in opposing territory and take Matt Prater field goals. I'm not saying that they should change to a vanilla game plan against Baltimore, but they should definitely play it more safe in terms of taking points and not leaving any on the field.
The Broncos cashed in on 6 of their 7 red zone attempts last week against the Titans. If they can do that against the Ravens, it will be hard for them to lose.
I really like this matchup for the Broncos, and I believe that win or lose it will be a great experience on the road heading into their home game against the Jets. The Ravens do so many things similar to the Jets, and I think it's critical that the Broncos win at least one of the next two games. Winning both would give them a huge edge heading into the second half of the season.
The Ravens are not unbeatable. They are arguably the toughest team we will face this season, but as we saw last week, the Broncos are also a very tough team. They can take a punch to the jaw, and they can deliver one.
That is the difference between this Broncos team and Broncos teams of the past decade.