Ravens Can't Afford to Look Past Struggling Vikings
Not so fast though. As is the case every time a mismatch like this appears on the schedule, the phrase any given Sunday applies. The notion of "trap games" also comes into play, especially given recent circumstances surrounding the Ravens. This game is sandwiched between a huge Thanksgiving win over the Steelers and an upcoming Monday Night Football showdown with the Lions. In fact, this is the only game left on the Ravens' schedule not to feature a prospective 2013 playoff team.
Also for once this year, you can't discount what the Vikings have done recently. They are arguably the hottest they have been all year, coming off a tie and an overtime win. Both games came against division rivals and prospective playoff teams in the Packers and Bears, respectively.
All of this goes to say, the Vikings have some pride and will very likely bring some fight with them to M&T Bank Stadium. Their coach Leslie Frazier may also be on the hot seat, another factor which could lead to a strong desire to play spoiler. The Ravens need to realize this and try to put together a complete team effort in route to pulling off their third straight win. Here are some of the steps they need to take that will likely ensure victory.
Pressure whoever the Vikings play at QB
Similar to many bad teams, the Vikings' quarterback situation has been terrible this year. That being said, Christian Ponder has been the best of the bunch lately and it's looking as though a concussion could cause him to miss Sunday's game. That leaves either Josh Freeman or Matt Cassel as the quarterback for this week.
I'm a little partial to Cassel, if only cause I remember how awful he was as the Chiefs' quarterback in that wildcard game several years back. Regardless of who suits up, the Ravens need to dial up the pressure and hit him early and often. The Ravens were somehow held without a sack against the Steelers and if that drought continues, this team will very likely miss out on a playoff berth.
Improve red zone offense
Through 12 games, the Ravens are currently ranked 24th in redzone offense, converting touchdowns on 48.7% of their drives. This stat hasn't hurt the team too much, thanks to Justin Tucker's superhuman kicking abilities. But still as playoffs near, you got to be able to convert touchdowns that deep in opponents territory.
I'm not going to waste time dissecting the run game's struggles since at this point in the season, it's doubtful that weakness will be fixed. Instead this week represents a great opportunity for Joe Flacco and his receivers to put up good numbers. The Vikings are 30th against the pass this year, giving up 287 yards a game. Their secondary has suffered greatly after losing Antoine Winfield this offseason.
Also worth watching this week and likely every week going forward, is the status of Dennis Pitta. This could be the week that he returns to action. If so, the Ravens will have gained a major redzone contributor and a key offensive player who could help down the stretch.
Stop (or at least contain) Adrian Peterson
When he's hot, Adrian Peterson is basically unstoppable to even the best of defenses. Therefore despite the Ravens #6 ranking against the run, I don't think they'll be able to shut down Peterson.
With the quarterback troubles, Peterson is the centerpiece of the Vikings' offense. Last week saw his best rushing output of the season with 211 rushing yards. He probably won't top 2,000 rushing yards again this year, but there's no denying his place as one of the most dominant running backs of this generation.
The rush defense needs to play a fundamentally sound game and not make mistakes. They need to wrap up on tackles and try not to allow running lanes. Force Cassel or whoever's back there to throw. It'll also be interesting to see if the Ravens can keep him out of the endzone and remain with a league-best two rushing touchdowns this year.
Win the kick return battle
This game features two of the NFL's more explosive returners. Jacoby Jones has yet to bring one back for the Ravens this season, though he came within a proverbial foot of scoring one last week. Rookie Cordarrelle Patterson ranks first in the NFL in kick return average with 34.0 yards per return. He's a special guy and some recent involvement in the receiving game, shows that he could even become the primary target for the Vikings' next quarterback.
Patterson's got two return touchdowns on the season, one tying the record for longest in NFL history (109 yards). If the Pro Bowl still had kick returners, he'd be a shoe-in to win the starting position. The Ravens need to respect his speed and explosiveness by kicking away when possible and containing well on all of his returns.
On the other side of the ball, the Ravens can help redzone woes by creating plays via special teams. It would be exceedingly beneficial for team morale to see Jones finally break a kick return touchdown this year. Hopefully that element will appear soon as Jones seems to be more and more healthy each week.