Ravens vs Raiders: Key Matchups to Watch
One of the NFL's marquee games in Week 4 will feature a great defense vs a great offense. The 2-1 Oakland Raiders are coming to M&T Bank Stadium sporting a 2-1 record and through three games, they have the No. 2 offense in the NFL (436 total yards per game). The 3-0 Baltimore Ravens boast the No. 2 defense in the NFL (254.3 total yards allowed per game).
Something will have to give in this game. For the Ravens, it is an excellent test to see if their retooled defense is legitimate. Minus a horrid first quarter where the Cleveland Browns scored 20 points, the Ravens have allowed three touchdowns in 11 quarters. They have recorded five interceptions, which is one fewer than their putrid total of six picks in 2015.
On the other side of the ball, both teams have struggled. The Raven' offense is ranked 25 overall in yards per game (324.3) and 24th in points per game (19.0). The Raiders' defense is even worse than that, ranking 32nd in yards allowed per game (436.0). In two of their three games, they have allowed over 30 points while the Ravens' offense has never scored more than 25 points in a game this season.
In a game with such contrasting styles, there are a lot of individual matchups that should have a lot to say about how the game turns out. Here's a look at some of the key matchups for Ravens vs. Raiders.
OAK WR's Amari Cooper & Michael Crabtree vs. BAL CB's Jimmy Smith & Shareece Wright
The Raiders' hot offensive start is largely due to the explosiveness of their starting receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. Both Cooper and Crabtree are off to great starts this season, with Cooper having recorded 270 receiving yards in three games and Crabtree having recorded 220 yards in three games. Both of them victimized the Ravens' corners in their matchup last year, with both receivers recording over 100 receiving yards and a touchdown in that game.
This Raiders' receiving tandem represents a good challenge for a Ravens team that hasn't gone against very many elite receivers yet this season. The exception came last week when Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Allen Robinson had a decent day with seven catches for 57 yards and two touchdowns. Both he and Browns' rookie receiver Corey Coleman were able to expose the secondary partially, though the vast majority of Coleman's damage came in a first quarter where the Ravens allowed 20 points. He is thus far the only receiver to top 100 yards against the Ravens this season.
Jimmy Smith and Shareece Wright will have their hands full in this matchup. Wright in particular, has struggled with assignments in the last two games, as he allowed receiving touchdowns in both of them. Smith meanwhile needs to forget about the memories of last year's disastrous performance against the Raiders where then-rookie Cooper burned him for a 68-yard receiving touchdown.
BAL WR's Steve Smith Sr. & Mike Wallace vs. Oak CB's Sean Smith & David Amerson
The Ravens have only scored three receiving touchdowns so far this season and Mike Wallace has been the recipient for all of them. If there was ever a day for Joe Flacco to throw for a ton of yardage and multiple passing touchdowns, it would make sense for it to be against an Oakland team that is ranked 32nd in pass defense.
Steve Smith Sr. is a receiver to watch as he went off against the Raiders last season as he caught 10 passes for 150 yards. It was his second best game in his injury shortened 2015 season. Smith has yet to score or top 100 receiving yards in 2016, but he did catch eight passes for 87 yards last week.
Raiders' defensive backs David Amerson and Sean Smith will be tasked with trying to stop Smith and Wallace, easily the two biggest threats in the Ravens' passing game. Despite the abysmal start to the season, both Amerson and Smith did look a little better last week when they stifled the Tennessee Titans' receivers and didn't allow any of them to top 48 receiving yards. However, the Titans are going excessively run-heavy on offense this season so it will remain to be seen whether or not the Raiders were just taking advantage of a favorable matchup.
Bal QB Joe Flacco vs. OAK S Reggie Nelson
Flacco has now thrown multiple interceptions in back-to-back weeks. He now will have to watch for a savvy veteran in the Raiders' maligned defensive backfield. That would be 10th year veteran Reggie Nelson, who joined the Raiders this offseason. Nelson played the previous six seasons as a Cincinnati Bengal, making him very familiar with Flacco's style of play.
Last season saw Nelson record a career-high eight interceptions, including a stretch of five consecutive games where he got one interception. It's easy to want to underestimate the Raiders' 32nd ranked pass defense, but as long as this savvy veteran is out there, the Raiders' secondary could still have the potential for making dangerous plays. Flacco needs to play safer and avoid turnovers, unlike last year where he threw a late interception against the Raiders that ended the Ravens' comeback hopes.
Bal LT James Hurst vs. OAK DE/LB Khalil Mack
It's looking like rookie left tackle Ronnie Stanley will miss his first NFL game this week, thanks to a foot injury. He's listed as doubtful for this week and fellow rookie left guard Alex Lewis is questionable, having suffered a concussion last week. This could cause a big shakeup on the offensive line with James Hurst very likely to get the start at left tackle and Ryan Jensen possibly starting at left guard.
Ravens fans do not have fond memories of Hurst, the player who crashed into Flacco when he suffered a torn ACL last season. Even with Khalil Mack's slow start to the season, this is a definite mismatch. Mack is one of the top young defenders in the NFL and he is going to try to exploit this matchup early so that Hurst's confidence is shaken up.
The Ravens could respond to having Hurst and Jensen in the lineup by trying to run the ball with more authority. The Raiders have allowed 136 rushing yards a game, which ranks them 30th in the NFL. This may be the game for Justin Forsett and Terrance West to finally break out and take some of the pressure away from Flacco needing to carry the offense by throwing the ball.
Oak OG Kelechi Osemele vs. BAL DE Lawrence Guy
Kelechi Osemele was the Ravens' biggest loss in free agency this year. He makes his return to Baltimore as an Oakland Raider, who is eager to prove his former team wrong for choosing to let him walk. For much of the game, Osemele will be lined up against Ravens' defensive end Lawrence Guy.
Osemele has helped to make a difference already in Oakland. His run blocking has been part of the reason why their three-headed rushing attack is currently ranked second with 148.3 yards per game. Osemele has already made it clear that he is extra fired up for this game and both Guy and any other Raven who draws him, can be sure to get a tough assignment. What remains to be seen though is if Osemele's emotion helps him play well or if it makes him careless and causes him to commit costly penalties.
James Reagan writes for the Baltimore Ravens on Pro Football Spot. He can be followed on Twitter @james__reagan.