This Sunday, the Packers look to establish their first winning record of the season as they take on the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. Jason Butt of Baltimore Beat Down was kind enough to answer some questions about the Ravens and gives us his game prediction.
APC: Prior to last week's win over previously undefeated Miami, the Ravens had the look of a team that would take care of business at home but let down on the road. What changed last week for Baltimore?
What happened is the Ravens returned to the run game and gave Ray Rice 27 carries. When the Ravens stick with the run, even when it's not working the way they want it to, they have a greater chance for success. Since Rice's rookie season, the Ravens are 34-9 when Rice gets 20 or more touches per game. They looked abysmal against Buffalo when Rice got the ball five times. Rice has to be a focal point in Baltimore's offense for it to be successful. Though they paid Joe Flacco a ton of money, he's not the centerpiece to what clicks. The Ravens don't have the receiving depth for Flacco to be able to carry an offense at this time.
What's unique about it is that a lot of folks in Baltimore lauded the coaching staff for returning to the run. In a way, that, by design, masks an even bigger problem: the Ravens still can't run the ball. With left tackle Eugene Monroe expected to start Sunday, the organization is hoping he can be the presence needed to run power left with Vonta Leach lead blocking.
It's been a struggle all year. But it's something the Ravens have to stick with to be successful. It's amazing when a player like Ray Rice struggles, he still commands the kind of attention that can open up an offense.
APC: Last year, the Ravens' strength on offense was their ground game featuring Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. Through the first five weeks of 2013, each has averaged less than 50 yards per game and three yards per carry. Can you shed some light on what's causing their struggles?
It's caught everyone by surprise because four of the five linemen that were a part of last year's Super Bowl run are back this year. The lone difference is center Gino Gradkowski, who, to his credit, isn't getting pushed around out there. However, there are some issues he's still working with. He has to be more confident in his calls at the line of scrimmage. Last week he admitted that he's making his calls and then second-guessing himself after the snap. If he can fix that, the line may look more in sync.
The other issue has been McKinnie. He looked great during the Super Bowl run, but he spent the entire season in coach John Harbaugh's doghouse and on the bench. An injury to guard Jah Reid shuffled the lineup and got him in, and a motivated and determined McKinnie helped propel this team to a championship.
This year, he came into camp overweight and has not protected well. The Ravens choose not to run the ball to his side, opting for runs up the middle or stretch plays off of right tackle Michael Oher. Monroe's presence, in theory, should fix this.
APC: As everyone has read a thousand times, Joe Flacco's run of magical performances in last season's playoffs earned him that fat new contract along with a Super Bowl ring. This season hasn't been quite as magical as Flacco's completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown percentage, and interception percentage all trail his career averages. Should there legitimate concern about Flacco, or is this just a case of small sample size?
I think it's a bit of "to each their own." To this franchise, a quarterback that puts up Aaron Rodgers type numbers isn't a necessity. The formula is to win with defense, a running game and a quarterback that is head-strong enough to win games. Flacco's proven he can win games. He'll have his days where he throws for 300 yards and three touchdowns. He'll also have 150-yard, two-interception days too. Either way, the win column has been friendly to him.
Given Flacco's win total over his first five years, his age and the value of quarterbacks in the NFL, it was impossible not to offer Flacco that kind of contract. But what the organization did was backload the deal to the point where if he doesn't produce the way they want him to by year three, then they could force a restructure. The option of cutting him would be there, though the dead money from the signing bonus would be costly.
APC: Following Super Bowl XLVII, many of the Ravens' key contributors left for other teams or retirement. In their place, Baltimore added Chris Canty, Marcus Spears, Elvis Dumervil, and others. How have the new players performed, and do you think there's been a net gain or loss in productivity as compared to last season?
I'd say there has been a slight difference for the better. The run defense does appear improved, though a 203-yard day from Buffalo's running backs (and E.J. Manuel) indicate that it isn't a top tier group.
The pass defense has been the biggest issue. Manning is the only elite quarterback Baltimore has faced (until this Sunday) and he torched the secondary. There has been a lot of focus this week on Aaron Rodgers and the receivers, and how to slow them down. But can they? This week will be telling.
One thing to note is that the Ravens brought in free safety Michael Huff to take over for Ed Reed. They drafted Matt Elam to be Bernard Pollard's replacement. What wound up happening is that James Ihedigbo, a special teams player and sub-package safety with Baltimore a year ago, and who has had stints with the Patriots and Jets, wound up winning the strong safety job. After Huff performed poorly against the Broncos, Elam was inserted as a starter at free safety.
In a sense, it's scary to think what Rodgers could do against Baltimore's defensive backfield, which relies so much on the front seven getting pressure due to its weaknesses.
APC: Finally, it's game prediction time. Who do you have winning on Sunday and why?
The Ravens will have to prove it can slow down Green Bay's passing attack. Running the ball could be difficult, even without Clay Matthews in there. It's hard to pick against Rodgers when you know the Ravens secondary is susceptible to pass-heavy offenses. Packers 27, Ravens 23
We'd like to thank Jason and Baltimore Beat Down for answering our questions. Be sure to check out our Q&A session over there as well as their fantastic coverage of all things Ravens. As always, keep your internet machines tuned to Acme Packing Company this Sunday for game day coverage.
Jason Hirschhorn covers the Green Bay Packers for Acme Packing Co. He has previously written for Lombardi Ave, College Hoops Net, LiveBall Sports, and the List Universe. He is also currently a senior writer for Beats Per Minute, an indie-music webzine. Follow him on Twitter: @JBHirschhorn