It wasn’t so long ago that the Ravens defense was known for devouring young quarterbacks like double-meat sandwiches. Remember? The unit simply was too rugged and savvy for inexperienced signal callers such as Colt McCoy, JaMarcus Russell and Mark Sanchez, just to name a few recent victims.
But the Ravens defense isn’t the same in 2012, ranked No. 25 in the league, and the Washington Redskins’ Robert Griffin III isn’t just another rookie appetizer waiting to get gobbled up. Instead of forecasting doom for Griffin, many experts envision a reversal unfolding Sunday, with Griffin getting the best of the Ravens’ banged-up defense. Nine of the 14 members of ESPN’s pick-it panel went with the Redskins, who are favored by one to three points.
Griffin certainly presents a major challenge in the “pistol” offense the Redskins have installed for him; in his last three games, all wins, he has thrown for 667 yards, rushed for 185 and produced eight touchdowns to just one turnover.
Coming off a game in which it let ancient Charlie Batch dominate, the Ravens defense seemingly doesn’t have the speed to contain such a quarterback, especially with so many of its linebackers injured.
But dismissing the Ravens’ signature unit might be a mistake. Even in a down year, it is ranked No. 8 in the league in fewest points allowed. And few defenses, if any, hit harder. You can be sure safety Bernard Pollard and others will introduce themselves to Griffin. We’ll see how that plays out.
The Ravens’ best antidote for RGIII, however, might not occur when Griffin is on the field. Keeping him off the field, period, could be the key to the Ravens gaining an upper hand in a game they badly need in the race for a high playoff seed.
Of course, the Ravens are also struggling in that department, as only two losing teams, Jacksonville and Tennessee, have controlled the ball for less time than Baltimore this season. The Ravens are averaging 27 minutes and 44 seconds of possession per game.
This shortfall is a byproduct of such developments as the team’s attempt to run a faster-paced offense before its October bye, and more recently, repeated failures in third-down situations. The running game is ranked No. 23 in the league, with Ray Rice on pace for his fewest carries since 2009. That’s not a formula for hogging the ball.
But the Redskins defense, ranked No. 29 overall, is the kind against which you can reverse such trends, get healthy. Although Washington is No. 4 against the run, that’s partly because the pass defense is ranked next-to-last, yielding an average of 299 yards per game. Why bother to run when you can generate big chunks in the air?
The New York Giants showed the Ravens how to do it last Monday night, rolling up 21 first downs and 390 yards, converting nine of 15 third downs into firsts, and controlling the ball for over 33 minutes without committing a turnover. If all you saw from that game were those stats, you would figure the Giants won, perhaps easily. Somehow, they lost. They probably still haven’t figured it out.
If the Ravens offense produces similar numbers and controls the ball that completely, the Redskins will have a tough time winning again. Twenty-plus carries for Rice should be a must (as opposed to 12 against Pittsburgh last Sunday) and the passing offense should also be able to generate gains against a Washington secondary depleted by injuries and suspensions. (But enough with the repeated downfield shots. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is just six of 35 this year on passes traveling over 30 yards, and just 21 of 70 on passes traveling over 20 yards.)
Yes, the Ravens defense obviously will also have to carry its weight and make some stands against Griffin and rookie running back Alfred Morris, who has gained 234 more yards than Rice this season on 32 more carries. At the very least, the Ravens need to get back to bending but not breaking, rising up in the red zone.
But the offense’s shortcomings have contributed to the defense’s struggles this season, and the moment when that needs to change has arrived.