From Nov. 20 to Jan. 15 last season, only one team managed to solve the Ravens, and did so in dominating fashion.
Baltimore sees that squad once again Sunday when it travels west to face the San Diego Chargers.
Amid a stretch of strong defensive play in 2011, the Chargers broke through for 415 yards in a 34-14 thumping of the Ravens in San Diego. Quarterback Phillip Rivers completed 17 of 23 passes for 270 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions while tailback Ryan Mathews ran for 90 yards and two scores for the Chargers.
“Last year, it wasn’t that pleasant,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “Before I could look up, it was 31-7. It was like raining touchdowns out there. He’s a good quarterback. We definitely can’t make it a seven-on-seven contest. We definitely have to play some better defense. We can’t let him get real comfortable back there.”
Has that resonated with the Ravens at all, considering it was their only loss in an eight-game stretch leading up to their AFC Championship appearance? Coach John Harbaugh seemed to think so.
“Thankful for another opportunity to go against Philip after he sliced us and diced us last year, sure,” Harbaugh said. “And it will be a big challenge. He’s a great player. Between the quarterback and their receivers, they’re maybe the most talented passing group in the league. Matthews does a great job at running back. So offensively, they are very dangerous.”
Talent-wise, that might be the case. But in terms of numbers, the Chargers’ offense has struggled on the team’s way to losing two straight during a 4-6 start.
San Diego ranks 23rd in the NFL in total offense (328.8 yards per game) while sitting in the middle of the pack in passing (17th) and scoring (16th). Rivers, who entered this season having ranked among the NFL’s top 10 in passing in six of seven years, hasn’t been the same.
He ranks 16th in the NFL in passing yards, right behind Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, and has had difficulty maintaining possession this year. Rivers has thrown for 17 touchdowns and a league-worst 14 interceptions.
The Chargers’ receiver corps has remained solid even with elite wideout Vincent Jackson having departed for Tampa Bay. San Diego still has Malcom Floyd (43 receptions, 639 yards, three touchdowns) and tight end Antonio Gates (30 catches, 355 yards, four touchdowns).
“One after another, every one of their guys (is a threat),” Harbaugh said. “I can start listing them, but we would probably run out of time. They have a lot of great players - not to mention their tight end who is pretty good, too. Every one of their guys is a threat downfield. I think Philip has a lot of confidence in them, where he’ll throw to spots and let those guys try to go make plays.”
Suggs believes the Chargers still possess a tough-to-handle offense and are a team the Ravens should be wary of despite their recent woes.
“Very dangerous,” he said. “Wins in the NFL are very hard to come by. You don’t want to overlook anybody. You all recall, we lost to a team (Miami Dolphins) that hadn’t won a game in 2007, and we were the first game they won. So you definitely can’t overlook anybody. This team is dangerous. This team is very dangerous. They have a lot of weapons, and they have a very good offense.”
The Ravens come in hoping to extend a three-game winning streak, and will have an opportunity to move closer to clinching the AFC North. At 8-2, Baltimore holds a two-game division lead over the Steelers (6-4), who travel to face the Browns this week.
The Ravens are fresh off an improved defensive performance where they held Pittsburgh to 309 yards and 13 points. Baltimore has continued to possess the best red-zone defense in the league, and hasn’t let a team score a touchdown in nine straight red-zone trips over three games.
The Ravens’ offense will be looking to get back on track, especially on the ground, after finishing with 200 yards overall and 47 rushing last week.
“We’ve got to reinvent ourselves a week later,” running back Ray Rice said. “You can’t just run at the Pittsburgh Steelers. And with this week, it’s the same kind of deal. Those are big, heavy guys up front. You’ve got to get them moving, and we’ve got to try to execute in the run game. But people look at the run game - that’s not from a lack of blocking or a lack of execution. It’s more a numbers game up there. So you get those big guys moving, and hopefully you get a crease.”
Baltimore will also be seeing several former teammates on the Chargers’ side, including fullback Le’Ron McClain, linebacker Jarret Johnson and linebacker Antwan Barnes. Former Ravens and current Chargers tackle Jared Gaither was placed on injured reserve Friday.
Johnson, a Baltimore fourth-round pick in 2003, is in his first year with San Diego after spending his first nine seasons with the Ravens. Flacco said it will be interesting to go up against Johnson for the first time.
“I’ve been on his side for the last four years. He’s a pretty ferocious player - an intense guy,” Flacco said. “It should be fun, first of all. I’m sure he’ll be up for this game. I don’t think he really is one of those guys that gets up for one more than any other. He will definitely be ready to go. Hopefully, our guys can keep him off of me as much as possible.”
The Ravens aim to secure a ninth win for the fifth consecutive season, and do so against a team getting more national attention for its coach being on the hot seat than anything else. But no matter the Chargers’ internal issues or record, Flacco knows it won’t come easy.
“This is a talented football team, and we know that,” Flacco said. “They’re going to be ready to play. They play well at home. We just have to be ready to go in there and play a tough game.”