The Ravens are set to take on the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium (4:15 p.m. ET).
*BR.com offers a look at Baltimore's next opponent. *
2009 Rankings* *
Total Offense – 14th (317.0 ypg) Total Defense – 25th (366.0)
Rush Offense – T20th (77.0) Rush Defense – 25th (148.0)
Pass Offense – 13th (240.0) Pass Defense – 16th (218.0)
Points Per Game – T9th (24.0) Points Per Game – T15th (20.0)
Sizing Them Up
The San Diego Chargers, led by head coach Norv Turner, are a team that many pundits have picked to reach the Super Bowl. They start 12 Pro Bowlers and have won the AFC West in four of the last five seasons.
Offensively, they have the potential to be a juggernaut. Quarterback Philip Rivers is one of the league's best, and he has the targets to move down the field in a hurry. Rivers' favorite target is tight end Antonio Gates. The former NCAA basketball player has been to five consecutive Pro Bowls and led the Chargers in receptions (60) and touchdown catches (eight) last season.
In addition, the Chargers let their talented pair of running backs do damage in the passing game. LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles are both threats in the open field, besides being able to get the job done in-between the tackles. Tomlinson is going to be a game-time decision because of an injured ankle.
San Diego's biggest concern heading into Sunday may be their offensive line, which has three starters listed on the injury report. Center Nick Hardwick (ankle), another Pro Bowler, has slim chances of playing, while left tackle Marcus McNeill (hand) and right guard Luis Vasquez (knee) have both missed practices this week. McNeill has told reporters that he expects to suit up, however.
On the defensive side of the ball, linebacker Shawne Merriman returns from a knee injury that ended his 2008 campaign early. With him and Shaun Phillips, the Chargers boast a dangerous pass rush. And coupled with cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who has notched 12 interceptions in the past two years, San Diego can be trouble for opposing quarterbacks.
What's Up?* *
My counterpart, Casey Pearce of Chargers.com, writes that the Chargers' pass rush didn't get a lot of pressure on the quarterback against the Raiders because they max protected.
"The Chargers expect other teams to approach them the same way, but Defensive Coordinator Ron Rivera won't use that as an excuse for not getting to the quarterback."
Kevin Acee, the great beat reporter from the San Diego Union-Tribune, covers the unspoken relationship between Rivers and Gates.
*"Said Gates, who has been the Chargers' leading receiver five straight seasons: 'You practice and get in a rhythm and get to learn one another. Over time, the communication is nonverbal in a game.'" *
In the wake of last weekend's game against Oakland, Acee also notes how Sproles can make plays in place of Tomlinson.
"With LaDainian Tomlinson hobbled by a sprained ankle, Sproles had nine rushes and caught five passes in addition to his three punt and five kickoff returns. His 5-yard touchdown run with 18 seconds remaining gave the Chargers their 24-20 victory margin."
Offensive – Rivers is one of the top quarterbacks in the league. He is coming off a season where he led the NFL in passer rating with a 105.5 mark and was a Pro Bowl alternate. Rivers is the type of quarterback that you can never count out. He's led 10 fourth-quarter comebacks, and he's only in his sixth season.
Defensive – Merriman is the guy that you have to watch, but he's been less-than-stellar in his 2009 debut after coming back from two torn knee ligaments. The Maryland native can be a beast off the edge, as he recorded 39.5 sacks in his first three years in the league.
WR Legedu Naanee
Naanee is emerging as a big-time threat in the Chargers' high-powered receiving corps. The three-year veteran is a sizeable target for Rivers at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds and is working as San Diego's third receiver. In Week 1, he tied for the team lead with five receptions and boasted 49 yards with a long of 23 yards. Naanee, who is versatile enough to play tight end and fullback, is also one of the team's top special teams players.
Ravens LT Jared Gaither vs. Chargers OLB Shawne Merriman
Gaither had issues last week with Kansas City's Tamba Hali, who notched one sack and got into the backfield multiple times. For the Ravens to be successful in the passing game, it will be imperative for the 6-foot-9, 335-pound offensive lineman to handle Merriman without the Ravens resorting to adding a tight end or a fullback next to him. And, these two are both University of Maryland alumni, which makes this a hometown battle for Ravens fans.
Ravens TE Todd Heap vs. Chargers S Eric Weddle
Heap had a breakout game against the Chiefs, showing that he is finally healthy and back to the playmaker he once was after finishing his 2008 campaign aching from a back injury. The Raiders had a lot of success last week with tight end Zach Miller in the seam, and Heap could also exploit that. The main job of covering him will likely fall on Weddle, who is a versatile defender that is all over the field.
Turner on how critical the matchup between Rivers and the Ravens' pass rush is:"We appreciate how good the Ravens are on defense. When you look at them, they're one of the most balanced teams in this league, and I understand why a lot of people are picking them to do great things this year. We've got to do a great job keeping them off of Philip. The best way to do that, obviously, is to get some run going. We want to run the football and we want to have balance. I really think we have different personnel styles, but offensively we are very similar."
Merriman on if the Ravens have upgraded their tackle position since the last time he played them:"Yeah. I've seen Jared [Gaither] play for years. He went to the University of Maryland, so I've been keeping up with him for a long time. He's a big. He's a specimen. He's a big guy. He can move his feet. He plays with a lot of power. He's athletic, especially for a tackle. I had seen Jonathan Ogden for years, probably more a little bit of his later years, but Jared has some of those same kind of qualities."
They say it every week, but this is truly a game that the Ravens must win in the trenches.
It's sad to see other players get injured, but when they happen in the NFL, teams must exploit them. Such is the case with the Chargers. San Diego has three nicked up starters, and it's looking grim that Nick Hardwick and maybe even Luis Vasquez will play on Sunday.
That means Haloti Ngata and Kelly Gregg must collapse the pocket against a backup center and guard to let Terrell Suggs and the rest of the Ravens' pass rushers get after Philip Rivers.
Rivers is the type of quarterback that can kill a defense if he's given any time, which showed in his fourth-quarter dismantling of the Oakland Raiders last week.
On offense, the Ravens will need a better performance out of Jared Gaither, because Merriman is a beast. I'm guessing that Joe Flacco won't throw as much as the 43 times he did against the Chiefs in the season opener. The Chargers were gashed by Oakland's running backs up the middle, and with Ray Rice and Willis McGahee toting the rock, there are opportunities to exploit San Diego's rush defense.
It is yet another tale of the offensive and defensive lines that can earn a victory for the Ravens.