Although one individual matchup never decides an NFL game, the outcome of Sunday's contest at M&T Bank Stadium could easily sway with how the Ravens' strong pass defense fares against the Detroit Lions' prolific passing game, led by quarterback Matthew Stafford.
The Ravens rank No. 2 in the league in pass defense. Stafford is No. 5 in passing yards.
I'm sure the Lions are optimistic after watching Green Bay's Davante Adams and Houston's DeAndre Hopkins both surpass 100 receiving yards in Baltimore's past two games while working with less adept quarterbacks than Stafford. Detroit's top receivers, Golden Tate and Marvin Jones, Jr., have five 100-yard performances between them this season.
But I'm also sure the Lions are worried, as the Ravens picked off five passes in those two games and lead the league in interceptions and overall takeaways.
Great stuff. Great matchup. But remember, it's not solely up to the Ravens cornerbacks and safeties to limit Stafford and his receivers. The Ravens are going to need a difference-making pass rush.
With time to throw, Stafford is liable to pick any secondary apart. But if he's under duress, well, that's tough on any quarterback.
Sizing up this game in tale-of-the-tape detail, I'd say the quality of the Ravens' pass rush is potentially among the most decisive elements.
The Lions are averaging 5.2 more points per game, which is quite a bit, nearly a touchdown. Suffice it to say, the Ravens probably aren't going to make up the difference with their offense, although they might have some success on the ground against a Detroit defense ranked No. 23 against the run. The likelier scenario is the Ravens defense keeping Detroit under its scoring average. That puts the spotlight on the pass defense, which needs an accompanying rush to thrive.
A study of the numbers offers the Ravens hope. They're tied for No. 10 in the league in sacks with 30, with Terrell Suggs owning almost a third of the total. The Lions, meanwhile, are tied for No. 3 in allowing the most sacks. Stafford has been taken down 35 times in 11 games. The high number is partly attributable to the fact that the Lions throw so much, but Stafford does get hit.
The Lions hoped the return of Taylor Decker, a promising young left tackle, would bolster their pass protection; Decker was injured until Week 10. But he has received low grades from Pro Football Focus since returning, and now he'll face Suggs, who is on a roll with five sacks in the past three games.
"He will need to tighten up his game," PFF wrote of Decker, a second-year player who was nine years old when the Ravens drafted Suggs in 2003.
The Ravens, by the way, are 20-1 all-time in games when Suggs records at least two sacks.
The Lions are aware of the potential issue, of course; it wouldn't surprise me if they gave Decker some help. That means the Ravens might need the pressure to come from sources other than Suggs.
That's a less predictable proposition. A dozen Ravens other than Suggs have recorded sacks in 2017, but besides Matthew Judon, who has five, no one has more than 2.5. It's been a year of development more than production for rookies Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams and most of the team's next-gen pass rushers, Judon excluded.
Needing to fill in, Ravens Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees has taken on the role of a crafty baseball pitcher, dialing up a variety of schemes to produce pressure and sacks.
Reinvigorating the pass rush was an organizational goal in 2017 after the Ravens slipped to a tie for No. 24 in the league a year ago, and no doubt, the project has gone well. With their next sack, the Ravens will equal their season total from a year ago.
But they could stand for that next sack, actually a few, to come Sunday. Whether the pressure comes from Suggs, Judon or Pees' schemes, the Ravens need to get after Stafford. Baltimore's cornerbacks are enjoying an excellent season, but they're not invulnerable, and the task awaiting them Sunday is large.