For this week’s edition of “Behind Enemy Lines,” we reached out to Aaron Wilson, Ravens beat writer for the Baltimore Sun. Here are five questions we posed to Wilson in advance of Sunday’s Vikings-Ravens game at M&T Stadium.
1. What’s been the biggest issue with Baltimore’s ground attack (gaining 81.1 yards a game, tied for 29th in the NFL, after averaging 118.8 last season)?
AW: They really miss [center] Matt Birk. Matt was a mainstay on the line and now Gino Gradkowski has to learn on the job, and he doesn’t get as much push as Matt did and doesn’t know the line calls as well. He’s a more inexperienced player going from a six-time Pro Bowler.
[Running back] Ray Rice, he hasn’t been as explosive this year. He doesn’t break many tackles, doesn’t elude many tackles. He had one good game against a suspect run defense [Bears] where he had 131 yards, but he’s struggled mostly this year and doesn’t look the same. He had a strained hip flexor earlier in the season, and they haven’t got a lot out of the backup running back Bernard Pierce. He’s had some nagging injuries too; nothing serious but enough to slow him down.
2. With an inconsistent run offense, the Ravens have relied more on quarterback Joe Flacco. How has he looked after a Super Bowl MVP and a 120.6 million contract in the offseason (highest-paid player in NFL history)?
AW: Since Jacoby Jones got healthy the last couple of weeks, they’ve had two deep threats with him and Torrey Smith, which I think has opened things up for Joe. They run it enough for people to respect the run, and they play action a lot. They still run about 25 times a game, so people will have to take it serious enough where they just can’t stay back and play the pass.
He’s had an up-and-down year. He had one terrible game where he was forcing the ball into traffic and throwing off his back foot against Buffalo. He threw five picks. The biggest problem he had is he didn’t adjust well to not having [wide receiver] Anquan Boldin and [tight end] Dennis Pitta. I think that affected his confidence. He used to have a bunch of contested catches that Anquan and Dennis would make a play. Just throw it up and they’d come down with it, and he really doesn’t have that without those guys. The pass protection took a step back this year too.
3. Pitta is on injured reserve with designation to return (hip) and has practiced over the last two weeks. Will he play on Sunday?
AW: He looks to be on schedule on Sunday in a limited role. They still have to activate him, but I think they will this Saturday. We don’t see much, but I’ve seen him run some routes before and after practice and he looks pretty sharp. He doesn’t have any real difficulty planting and cutting. He seems to catch the ball cleanly. I think it’s just a matter of the unanswerable question: Can he take a hit? This was the first week he did team drills, and I’ve heard it’s been positive.
4. Without safety Ed Reed and linebacker Ray Lewis, how has the Ravens’ defense improved statistically (10th in NFL allowing 329 yards a game compared to 350.9 yards last season)?
AW: They’re better without those guys. I don’t think everyone anticipated that but this is a younger, faster defense. I think two pass rushers in [linebackers] Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs really makes things difficult for people. They have a good front seven. …They’re not the stoutest group ever [against the run] but the stats are pretty good and they do a solid job overall. (The Ravens allow 122.8 rushing yards a game, 20th in the NFL).
5. The Ravens are 6-6 and two games behind the Bengals in the AFC North. Could they catch Cincinnati and win the division?
AW: I don’t think winning the division is realistic. I don’t think Cincinnati will collapse. I think the Wild Card is down to them and Miami. They still have to play Detroit, New England and Cincinnati. Is it conceivable they could win this game and lose a couple more and not win the Wild Card? Yeah I think that is, but they really can’t take anything for granted. They lost to Chicago, which Minnesota just beat them.
I pick them to win, but I don’t feel like it’s anything where, ‘Oh, they’ll definitely win.’ They usually win at home. …I think they have a good chance to if they contain [Vikings running back Adrian] Peterson.
Prediction: Ravens 23, Vikings 13