The opportunities to record a signature win in the NFL are fleeting. Teams don’t all play each other during a 16-game schedule and there’s only so many elite teams out there.
The Ravens hope their second shot at such a victory goes much better than the first - a 49-27 loss at Denver in Week 1 - when the Green Bay Packers visit M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday.
Cornerback Jimmy Smith views this as a “statement game” for Baltimore, as it has a chance to show it can stop one of the top quarterbacks in the league in a way it did not at Denver.
“Personally, I think Peyton Manning is one of the best ever to do it, and I think Aaron Rodgers is taking steps that way,” Smith said. “When you’re playing a quarterback that has full control over the offense and their receivers are in tune, you have to be on your best game. We’re looking at this game like we’re facing another Peyton Manning. To Aaron Rodgers’ credit, he’s a little quicker with the ball. He has better arm strength right now. He can fit some balls in there that you wouldn’t expect.”
As Smith alluded to, Rodgers has earned his place among the special ones. Rodgers is one of only two quarterbacks to throw for at least 3,600 yards and 20 touchdowns while recording fewer than 12 interceptions in each of the last four seasons. (The Ravens’ Joe Flacco is the other.)
This season, Rodgers has passed for 1,331 yards, nine touchdowns and three interceptions during a 2-2 start. His 332.8 passing yards per game ranks third in the NFL.
“Aaron Rodgers is a great quarterback. He’s one of the premier quarterbacks in football,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He does it his way. He’s got his own unique style. He’s great in the pocket. He’s accurate, he gets the ball out very quickly. He’s great on the move. He can move to run, but he really moves to throw. Those guys do a great job of uncovering downfield. They push off - they do all the different tricks of the trade to get open downfield, and they do a good job with it.”
With those skills, Rodgers has Green Bay ranked third in the league in total offense (453.3 yards per game), third in scoring (29.5 points per game) and fourth in passing (312.3 ypg).
So how do the Ravens plan to stop him?
“Pass rush is going to be a big part of that,” Harbaugh said. “If he gets out and starts running around down there, then that’s more difficult because it extends the play. It gives those guys a chance to run unorchestrated routes, and they do a good job with that. So keeping him in the pocket is going to be important. He throws well from the pocket, as well. So we need to just get the pressure on him and keep him in there. We’ll have a plan for that, sure.”
Adding to the Packers’ danger factor is a running game they have lacked in recent seasons. In Rodgers’ first five seasons as Green Bay’s starter, the offense developed a reputation as pass-first and pass-only. Rodgers never had the benefit of a talented tailback, and as a result, the team ranked 20th, 27th, 24th, 14th and 17th in rushing over the last five seasons.
This year, the Packers are fifth in the NFL in rushing with 141.0 yards per game through four contests. They have a three-pronged attack led by rookie starter Eddie Lacy, who has 150 yards in three games and ran for a career-high 99 last week. Rookie Jonathan Franklin has added 104 rushing yards, 103 of which came in one game. Veteran James Starks leads the team with 187 yards on the ground, 132 of which came in one contest, but he’s out with a knee injury.
“Well, I think this year we’re changing some of those preconceptions about us,” Rodgers said via conference call this week. “We’re in the top five in the league in rushing yards per game. Eddie was a yard away from being our third different 100-yard back this year, where we had 40-plus games before that without a guy who rushed for 100 yards.
“So that says a lot about our offensive line and the way they’re blocking in the running game. Obviously, teams are playing us a little more to pass because we have here in the past, but I think we can do some good things in the running game, and Eddie gives us a different dimension than we’ve had back there in a while.”
So this should provide a rising Ravens defense with quite the challenge.
Baltimore now stands 14th in the league in both total defense (335.4 yards allowed per game) and scoring defense (22.0 points allowed per game). Take away the opener, when the Ravens allowed 510 yards and 49 points, and they’re holding opponents to 291.8 yards and 15.3 points per game. Those figures would rank second and fourth in the league, respectively.
With Rodgers leading a surging Packers offense against a stout Ravens defense, it could make for quite the matchup on Sunday.
“He’s a champion. He’s definitely one of the best quarterbacks in this league,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “We definitely have a game on our hands.”