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Scouting report previewing the Ravens-Bills matchup

RAVENS PASSING GAME: Quarterback Joe Flacco’s numbers certainly aren’t gaudy, but he’s played mistake-free football the past couple of weeks while developing more chemistry with some of his newer targets, like Brandon Stokley and Dallas Clark. He’s also made sure to involve top wide receiver Torrey Smith who has 12 catches for 177 yards the past two weeks. The deep passing game has been mostly missing from the Ravens’ offense as Flacco has averaged just 6.25 yards per attempt, which is 28th in the NFL.

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BILLS PASSING GAME: First-round pick EJ Manuel was the first NFL quarterback since 1960 to post a passer rating of 89.0 or better in each of his first two games as a rookie but he struggled last week against the New York Jets, completing 42 percent of his passes. Still, he’s thrown just one interception in three games. After Manuel was sacked eight times last week, the Bills want him to make quicker decisions. Stevie Johnson leads the Bills with 27 catches for 236 yards and two touchdowns.

EDGE: RAVENS


RAVENS RUNNING GAME:
The big mystery with the Ravens is what has happened to their normally solid running attack. The Ravens rank 25th in the NFL, averaging just 77.3 yards per game on the ground despite being 10th in the league in attempts. Their average of 2.6 yards per carry is second to last in the league, ahead of only the winless Jacksonville Jaguars. But they should get a big lift with the expected return of Ray Rice, who missed one game with a hip injury. Last week’s starter, Bernard Pierce, will still play a big role.

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BILLS RUNNING GAME: The Bills run some read-option so Manuel’s speed can’t be discounted as part of a ground game that is averaging 135.0 yards per contest, the fifth highest total in the NFL. The Bills also have a strong running back tandem with C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson with Spiller being the big-play threat and Jackson serving as the chain mover. This was supposed to be the year Spiller took over the featured back role but Jackson (169 yards, one touchdown) has been the more productive back so far.

EDGE: BILLS


RAVENS RUSH DEFENSE:
There has been little let-up from this group, which has allowed only 74.7 yards per game on the ground, the fourth lowest total in the NFL. The Ravens are one of three teams to not allow a rushing touchdown this season and they have allowed just two runs for 10 yards or more, the fewest in the league. The Ravens handled a two-headed rushing attack last Sunday with the Houston Texans’ Arian Foster and Ben Tate. They’ll face a similar challenge this week against C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson.

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BILLS RUSH DEFENSE: In the loss to the Jets, the Bills were gouged for 182 rushing yards, 149 of them from unheralded back Bilal Powell. This season, the Bills have surrendered 155 yards per game on the ground. Only two teams have allowed more. They have given up only one rushing touchdown and that was by Jets quarterback Geno Smith. Rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso leads the team with 27 tackles. Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus anchor the Bills’ defensive line.

EDGE: RAVENS


RAVENS PASS DEFENSE:
The team’s most improved unit lately, the Ravens’ defensive backs have ironed out some of the communication and coverage issues that ailed them in Week 1. Not only have they held the opposition out of the end zone for two straight weeks, the Ravens have allowed only three pass plays over 20 yards the last two games. They surrendered nine versus the Denver Broncos. The Ravens are sixth in the league with 11 sacks and they figure to dial up a collection of blitzes against EJ Manuel.

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BILLS PASS DEFENSE: Defensive end Mario Williams is one of the league’s elite pass rushers but he has struggled to stay healthy. After setting a team-record with 4.5 sacks in Week 2 , Williams played sparingly last week because of an ankle injury. The Bills secondary is decimated with cornerbacks Leodis McKelvin and Stephon Gilmore, and free safety Jairus Byrd nursing injuries. The Bills are allowing 262.3 passing yards per game and cornerback Justin Rogers has been particularly vulnerable.

EDGE: RAVENS


RAVENS SPECIAL TEAMS:
If there was any concern over kicker Justin Tucker following his two misses in Week 2, he eased it by making all three of his field goals against the Texans. Tandon Doss has flourished as a punt returner during Jacoby Jones’ absence, averaging 27.2 yards per return and scoring on an 82-yard touchdown last week. Punter Sam Koch is second in the NFL with a 49.5 yard per punt average. Safety Jeromy Miles was claimed off waivers this week to bolster the coverage units.

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BILLS SPECIAL TEAMS: Former Miami Dolphins kicker Dan Carpenter has been a nice addition for the Bills, connecting on 7-of-8 attempts, including a 55-yarder. Shawn Powell is averaging 47.5 yards per punt and he’s dropped seven punts inside the opposition’s 20-yard line, including three last week. Former Ravens safety Jim Leonhard will likely handle punt-return duties if McKelvin is out or limited. The Bills coverage teams have been solid thus far.

EDGE: RAVENS


RAVENS INTANGIBLES:
The Ravens have adopted an us-against-the-world mentality this week in response to questions about the leadership of the team and the off-the-field issue involving Bryant McKinnie and Jones. Under John Harbaugh, the Ravens are 7-2 against AFC East foes and have won four straight games. The Ravens have 27 road wins since 2008, tying the New England Patriots for the NFL’s most.

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BILLS INTANGIBLES: First-year NFL head coach Doug Marrone has the Bills playing hard and competitive football. All three Bills’ games have been decided by one possession or less. However, the Bills remain a work-in progress, and they’ve made some of the mistakes that you’d expect from a team playing young players at key spots. The Bills have committed 24 penalties for 217 total yards, good for 25th in the NFL. They are also banged up on both sides of the ball and certain injuries could loom large this week.

EDGE: RAVENS


PREDICTION:
The Ravens have gotten better each week and their performance in the second half last Sunday against the Houston Texans was emblematic of a team with Super Bowl aspirations. While letdowns on the road have been an issue in the past for the Ravens, this is a new team that is seemingly building chemistry and momentum with each passing week. Winning anywhere on the road isn’t easy and Ralph Wilson Stadium is no different. But the Ravens’ defense will key this victory.

RAVENS, 23-13.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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