The Baltimore Ravens continue to roll and are currently the hottest team in the AFC. The only team preventing the Ravens from being the hottest team in the NFL visits M&T Bank Stadium this Sunday as the 10-1 San Francisco 49ers come to town.
The Ravens continued their dominating ways on Monday night with a 45-6 shellacking of the Los Angeles Rams. With the the win, the Ravens moved to 9-2 on the season and remain the #2 seed in the AFC Playoff picture. They’re just one game behind the AFC-leading Patriots, who are also 10-1.
Lamar Jackson continued his MVP campaign with five touchdown passes, going 15-for-20 for 169 yards through the air. Jackson added eight carries for 95 yards on the ground as well, helping pace a rushing attack that piled up 285 yards against the NFL’s fifth-best rushing defense. Mark Ingram picked up 111 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries.
The Ravens offense was dancing up and down the field all night.
Hollywood Brown and Willie Snead each had two touchdown receptions. Jimmy Smith and Marcus Peters tallied interceptions for the defense and the Ravens embarrassed a Rams team that is fading rapidly in the NFC playoff race.
But a greater challenge lies ahead as the Ravens welcome the Niners to Baltimore. San Francisco is coming off of a 37-8 mauling of the Green Bay Packers. Their only loss of the season came on Monday Night Football to the Seattle Seahawks on November 11.
Here’s what to watch for Sunday in a clash of two of the NFL’s best teams.
1) Ravens offensive line vs Niners pass rush
While the Ravens were running all over the Rams defense, they did endure a huge loss when starting center Matt Skura went down in the first quarter with a knee injury. He was replaced by undrafted rookie free agent Patrick Mekari. It was announced Tuesday that Skura is out for the season.
Mekari filled in admirably for Skura on Monday night and the Ravens offensive line didn’t miss a beat. It was an impressive performance from Mekari especially considering that he hasn’t played center since high school. Additionally, he was making his NFL debut against Aaron Donald and an impressive Rams front.
The Ravens’ offensive line has been excellent this season in paving the way for the NFL’s best rushing offense ever. Additionally, Jackson has had solid pockets to throw from when the Ravens have needed to air it out. But they will face their biggest test this season when the Niners roll in on Sunday.
San Francisco have 44 sacks on the season which leads the NFL. The group is paced by Arik Armstead who has 10 sacks and rookie sensation Nick Bosa has added eight. Free agent signing Dee Ford has 6.5 sacks and the Niners pass rushing quartet is rounded out by DeForest Buckner who has 5.5 sacks.
Ford didn’t play last week and his status for Sunday is up in the air. Either way, this group presents a huge challenge for Ronnie Stanley, Bradley Bozeman, Mekari, Marshal Yanda, and Orlando Brown Jr..
2) Ravens running game vs Niners rushing defense
At this point in the season, the Ravens running game has proven to be a mismatch for everyone both on paper and on the field.
The rushing attack is averaging 210.5 yards-per-game on the ground to lead the NFL by nearly 65 yards-per-game over the second place Niners. After facing two of the NFL’s previously five top-rated rushing defenses in the Texans and the Rams, the Ravens will now get to go up against the NFL’s 19th ranked run defense.
Despite drubbing the Packers on Sunday, the Niners still surrendered 117 rushing yards. Over their last four games, they are giving up an average of 138 yards-per-game. The Ravens have averaged 221.75 rushing yards-per-game over their last four which included matchups with the Patriots, Rams, and Texans. All three of them ranked in the top 10 at the time they saw the Ravens.
The Ravens enter Sunday’s game with the NFL’s three leading yards-per-carry rushers in the NFL (minimum 85 attempts). Jackson leads the NFL at 7.1 yards-per-tote. Ingram and Gus Edwards each average 5.2 yards-per-carry. This is an overwhelming advantage for the Ravens in Sunday’s game and there is no reason to think the running game won’t continue its dominance against San Francisco on Sunday.
3) How do you neutralize George Kittle?
The Ravens know how lethal an elite tight end can be. Mark Andrews is part of the upper echelon of NFL tight ends. George Kittle may be at the top of the mountain.
Kittle has 52 catches for 670 and three touchdowns. He has also missed two games this season which is effecting his overall stat line. Kittle ranks second in the NFL among tight ends with 74.4 receiving yards-per-game. He can make tough catches over the middle, is a bear in the run-blocking game and can even do this:
In both of the Ravens losses this year, they struggled to cover tight ends. In Week 3 against Travis Kelce, another candidate for the league’s best tight end, the Ravens surrendered seven catches for 89 yards. Week 4 versus Cleveland saw Ricky Seals-Jones go for 82 yards on three catches, including a 59-yard touchdown.
The Ravens have done a nice job against the tight end position the rest of the year, surrendering just one touchdown outside of the Seals-Jones breakdown. Kittle also helps to fuel the Niners second-ranked rushing attack along with former Ravens fullback Kyle Juszcyk. Kittle is undoubtedly the Niners best offensive weapon.
If the Ravens are able to take Kittle out of the game, it is going to be a long day for Jimmy Garoppolo and the San Francisco offense. Garoppolo has 10 picks this season. Look for the Ravens to cause a few mistakes from him on Sunday as he tries to force the ball down the field.
Jake McDonnell: Ravens 24 Niners 20
Nolan McGraw: Ravens 34 Niners 14
Isaiah Stumpf: Ravens 31 Niners 16
Ian Schultz: Ravens 26 Niners 21
I am not picking against the Ravens again just yet. They continue to annihilate their competition but could face a stronger challenge from the Niners on Sunday even with a west coast team traveling east for a 1pm kickoff. Look for Jackson, Ingram, and Edwards to rumble for another 200+ yards on the ground, leading the Ravens to a franchise-record eighth straight win. A win, by the way, that will inch the Ravens closer to the #1 team in the AFC.
Image Credit: NY Post