The Baltimore Ravens might be feeling a little sense of deja vu heading into the final two weeks of the 2018 regular season.
For the second straight year, they are sitting at 8-6 entering week 16. With wins in their last two contests of the year, they would find themselves in the playoffs, ending a three-year postseason hiatus. Last year the Ravens took care of business agains the Colts in week 16, but week 17 produced a devastating season-ending 31-27 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Ravens hope that this year is different as they look for back-to back wins after this Sunday’s 20-12 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In his first start as the QB1, Lamar Jackson put together another performance that was good enough to win. He was 14-for-23 for 131 yards and a touchdown on shovel pass to Chris Moore. Jackson also pitched in 18 carries for 95 yards rushing on the day as well.
The Ravens defense stifled the high-powered Bucs offense, holding them to 241 total yards. Marlon Humphrey continued his Pro-Bowl caliber season with two tackles, four pass deflections and an interception. Humphrey earned high praise for the performance:
The Ravens look to solidify their hold on the sixth playoff spot when they head to Carson, California to take on the 11-3 Los Angeles Chargers on Saturday night at the Stubhub Center. The Chargers are coming off a big division win over their rivals, the Kansas City Chiefs, last Thursday. The Chargers will have the advantage of rest and home field on their side.
Here’s what to watch for ahead of Saturday’s matchup.
1) Third down
Ahead of what is likely a must-win game for the Ravens, continuing their success on third down is going to prove pivotal to their success against the Chargers.
The Ravens are the only team in the NFL that ranks in the top five in third down offense and third down defense. The Ravens are #3 in third down defense, allowing a conversion rate of just 34.2% and are currently ranked third in third down offense, converting on 47.5% of third down opportunities.
From the Chargers side of things, they rank 24th in third down defense, allowing a conversion rate of 40.8% and rank 12th in third down offense, converting on 40.5% of third down opportunities.
Third down efficiency has proven to be one of the biggest keys for the Ravens in their 4-1 stretch. During the run of strong play, the team is giving up a third down conversion rate of 32% (20-or-62) and are picking up third downs at a conversion rate of 51.3% (37-of-72).
The key to their offensive efficiency has been the Ravens unstoppable rushing attack under Jackson. The Ravens have tallied an absurd 1,152 yards rushing since Jackson became the starter. Both Jackson (427 yards) and Gus Edwards (486 yards) are in the top five in league rushing over the last five games.
The Chargers boast the NFL’s ninth-best rushing defense, allowing a total of 103.7 yards-per-contest. This could project to be tough sledding for the Ravens second-ranked rushing offense, but a deeper dig into the numbers leaves me encouraged for the running game this Sunday.
In five contests against the NFL’S top ten rushing attacks (Seahawks, Rams, Bills, Titans, Niners) they have given up 129.8 rushing yards-per-game. That would be good for 29th in the NFL.
While things may not turn out to be as difficult as projected, this is the best run defense that the Ravens have faced with Jackson under center. He will need to keep the engine running smoothly, especially on third down for the Ravens to emerge victorious.
2) Can the Ravens defense translate their home dominance to the road?
Once again on Sunday, the Ravens leaned on a run-heavy offensive attack because their top-ranked defense was once again able to stymie one of the league’s top offensive units. The Bucs were held to 241 total yards, 175 yards under their season average.
The Ravens boast the top points-per-game defense in the NFL, the third-best group in terms of stopping the run and stopping the pass.
I was interested to see how some of these numbers stack up road versus home as the Ravens have recently been far superior at home than they have been on the road.
Here’s how the numbers stack up:
|Rushing yards-per-game allowed:||92||82.2|
|Passing yards-per-game allowed:||190.6||246.4|
|Total yards-per-game allowed:||282.6||328.6|
|3rd down defense conversion rate allowed||37.5%||31.5%|
The biggest difference road and home has been the Ravens passing defense. The group led by Humphrey has been stingy at home but has really struggled to take that show on the road. The Ravens road total in passing yards-per-game would put them around 20th in the NFL, a far cry from their current ranking of third.
It won’t get any easier on the road this week as the Chargers are loaded with offensive weapons. They expect to get Pro-Bowl running back Melvin Gordon back, who has missed the past two games with a MCL sprain. Gordon has 1,255 total yards on the season and 13 touchdowns. They carry a receiver group that features Keenan Allen, who exited last week’s contest with a hip pointer. His status is up in the air for Sunday, although early indications are he will play. He has 88 catches for 1,074 yards and six touchdowns this season.
In Allen’s absence last week, Mike Williams, the second-year wideout from Clemson, put up seven catches for 76 yards and two touchdowns last week while also adding a 19-yard rushing touchdown. He also scored the two-point conversion that gave the Chargers the win over the Chiefs. Running back Austin Ekeler and WR Tyrell Williams are threats as well along with ole reliable tight end Antonio Gates, who is in his 16th season.
This an extremely talented offense and the Ravens will have their hands full again in their attempts to put together another signature road performance.
3) Ball Security
Unless you live under a rock, you are probably aware that Lamar Jackson has struggled to hold onto the football since taking over as the Ravens starting quarterback.
He has nine fumbles on the year, including seven in his five starts, He has lost a fumble in each of the last three games. In addition to the fumbling issues, Jackson also has thrown three interceptions as the starter although none of which have come over the last three weeks.
Don’t cry to me that Jackson is a rookie and that there are growing pains for rookie quarterbacks in the NFL. You’re 100% right. However, the other rookie QB’S that are starting are doing so because their teams don’t have an alternative and/or because their teams are not competing for a playoff spot.
We all know the Ravens have a fully capable and healthy alternative in Joe Flacco. The Ravens are also locked into the six seed in the AFC playoff picture and if they win their last two games, still have an outside shot at winning the AFC North division and securing a home playoff game.
I don’t care that the team is 4-1 under Jackson. I don’t care that he has sparked a dormant running game. I don’t care that you hate Flacco. Jackson needs to a better job protecting the ball. Point blank period.
The Ravens are not talented enough to survive costly turnovers in key moments. I have covered the lack of talent issue ad nauseam. If the Ravens want to get to the playoffs this season, they will need Jackson to clean this issue up in a hurry.
If he doesn’t, the Ravens will once again be on the outside looking in.
Jake McDonnell– Chargers 30 Ravens 24
Nolan McGraw– Chargers 26 Ravens 24
Jay Stavros– Chargers 27 Ravens 20
Ian Schultz: Chargers 27 Ravens 19
The Ravens have struggled to win must-win games since winning the Super Bowl in 2012. In 2013 they lost 34-17 to Cincinnati in a season-ending elimination road loss. In 2014, the defense surrendered two 14-point leads in the AFC Divisional playoffs in Foxborough. 2016 featured a Christmas day defensive meltdown in Pittburgh. 2017 was the Dalton/Boyd heart-breaker. Why will this be any different?
Image Credit: Baltimore Sun