COMMENTARY | The Baltimore Ravens caught the eye of the NFL last week when they rolled over the Houston Texans, but Baltimore still has work to do to be considered among the NFL's elite. A dominating performance Sunday against the Buffalo Bills could be enough to vault the Ravens' back into the discussion of the NFL's elite teams.
That's just one of several storylines to keep an eye on when the Ravens head to Buffalo. Let's take an in-depth look at some of the biggest ones.
Can a struggling rushing attack and deep passing game get going against the Bills' porous defense?
The Ravens have so far taken on three very solid defenses, and all three have shut down the Ravens' ground game while limiting the passing attack. Drops and poor blocking haven't helped matters.
Fortunately for Baltimore, the Ravens finally get a reprieve against one of the NFL's softest defenses.
The Buffalo Bills are missing several starters in their secondary, and their front seven struggles to defend the run even when healthy, which they're not. The question is not whether or not the Ravens will find success against the Bills, but how they will elect to do it.
This is an opportunity for the Ravens to build some momentum offensively. There is no reason that the Ravens shouldn't score at least 30 points and generate at least 400 yards. Any less would be a disappointment.
With that in mind, the Ravens have a struggling ground game and a struggling deep passing game. Ideally, they'll get both going against the Bills with a balanced attack, but even getting one going would be a big help.
The Ravens could elect to pound the ball constantly with Bernard Pierce and possibly Ray Rice, but injuries in the backfield could limit that strategy to an extent. Historically, though, this is the kind of game the Ravens look to focus on the ground game, eliminating mistakes and controlling the clock.
If the Ravens don't feel comfortable overworking Rice and Pierce, they could elect to focus on pushing the ball downfield, a strategy that would work even better with a strong running game.
Joe Flacco needs to get on the same page with his receivers, as Torrey Smith has so far been the only Raven to even hint at being a deep threat. The Ravens could use the confidence that a deep strike or two to Marlon Brown, Tandon Doss and even possibly Deonte Thompson would provide.
Expect a balanced attack from the Ravens, and expect success.
This is a Bills' defense that gave up massive yardage to a Jets' offense led by Geno Smith and Bilal Powell. Failure to finally produce offense against the Bills could be indicative of bigger issues than anyone realized.
Does the Ravens' defense still have a killer instinct?
We know this Ravens' defense can play after shutting down both the Cleveland Browns and the Houston Texans. So far, the pass rush has looked fierce and the run defense has been much-improved. The secondary has also improved significantly after a fluky showing in Denver.
Turnovers, though, have been relatively rare, with the exception of Daryl Smith's big interception return against the Texans. Against a rookie quarterback, this defense should be thinking turnovers, sacks and big plays.
We've seen what this defense can do against a good quarterback in Matt Schaub. Let's see what it can do against a rookie.
Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil should be looking to immediately set the tone by hitting E.J. Manuel. Manuel is relatively fast and he has some power to him, but he's still a rookie. He is mistake prone, and hitting him early will force him into mistakes throughout the game. Manuel has already been sacked nine times this season. A few more Sunday could easily tilt the game in the Ravens' favor.
Meanwhile, the once-beleaguered secondary has improved greatly, and a turnover or two could really cement that turnaround. Matt Elam has yet to generate his first career turnover, as he's looked tentative thus far. The Ravens should set him loose and try to encourage him to play more recklessly against a Bills offense that should provide Elam some opportunities to make big plays.
So far, E.J. Manuel has avoided making mistakes by playing very conservatively. That won't be enough against the Ravens. He will have to try to make some big plays, and that's where the Ravens will get their opportunities.
Show that this defense can dominate when it's supposed to. Show that it can make E.J. Manuel look like the rookie he is. That was how the Ravens played defense for a long time. Now is the time to get back to that dominating style.
Can the Ravens avoid the trap?
After everything said so far, one would assume the Ravens will dominate this game. They should, but that doesn't mean they will. Ravens fans know all too well this team's tendency to play down to opponents, something that the Ravens need to avoid here.
Fans will find the answer to this question simply by looking at the score. If the Ravens don't win by double-digits, they did something wrong. The Ravens are more talented, faster, stronger and more physical. There is no way they should lose this game.
Yet, this is the kind of game the Ravens are vulnerable in. Joe Flacco often struggles early in road games, while the team's intensity can wane against a lesser opponent.
Further, the Ravens are coming off a big, emotional win against a very talented opponent.
Finally, the Bills have a talented ground game, ranked fifth in the league, that could control the clock if the Ravens let it.
Everything about this game screams "trap."
The Ravens need this game to get into rhythm. They have yet to find that rhythm on offense, and this is their best chance to do it.
More importantly, the Ravens are heading into the tough part of their schedule. They will travel to Miami to take on an improved Dolphins team next week, followed by a home game against the Green Bay Packers and a road game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Heading into that stretch with a 3-1 record should guarantee they escape that stretch with a record of at least .500.
Ultimately, the Ravens should not settle for a win. They should expect domination in every phase. With that as the expectation, avoiding the trap should not be a problem for a team that still has quite a bit to prove.
Shawn Brubaker is a staff writer for the Cordell Beacon. He was a featured columnist for two years with Bleacher Report, as well as a member of their Breaking News Team. He currently hosts the Ravens Central Radio show, and he is a 2013 graduate of the Catholic University of America.
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