By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun
11:01 PM EST, December 14, 2013
RAVENS: A beleaguered Ravens running game took baby steps last week, gaining 97 total yards and averaging 3.6 yards per carry. Though he had pedestrian numbers, Ray Rice ran hard and also was a threat out of the backfield with five catches for 42 yards. Short-yardage situations continue to be the team's Achilles' heel. Center Gino Gradkowski and left guard A.Q. Shipley will be under the microscope against one of the league's best fronts. The Ravens still rank 29th in the league in rushing.
LIONS: After sitting out last week when he aggravated a calf injury in warm-ups, Reggie Bush expects to play Monday, and the Ravens will have to account for his big-play ability. Lethal in space, Bush has 1,302 all-purpose yards and five touchdowns. If there is a weakness, Bush has lost three fumbles this season. A physical Joique Bell has proven to be a great complement to Bush with 504 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Bell lost two fumbles last week.
RAVENS: Joe Flacco's superb fourth quarter in a victory over the Minnesota Vikings last week saved the Ravens' season and provided some hope that the offense is starting to find a rhythm with tight end Dennis Pitta back. Pitta's size and route running from the slot should open things up deep for Torrey Smith, who has just nine catches over the past three games. Flacco will be challenged on third down, where the Lions are allowing a league-low 30.2 conversion rate.
LIONS: The good news for Matthew Stafford is he won't have to deal with the elements this week. In the snow in Philadelphia, Stafford fumbled five times and completed 10 of 25 passes. He's struggled late in games recently, but he still directs one of the league's most prolific offenses. He has a strong arm and gets the ball out quickly, the reason he's been sacked just 15 times. And of course he has Calvin Johnson lining up outside to catch anything and everything.
RAVENS: The Ravens shut down Vikings Pro Bowl running back Adrian Peterson before his injury and then they couldn't handle backup Toby Gerhart late. They've still allowed just one 100-yard rusher all season, but Gerhart gained 89 yards on 15 carries. The Ravens rank eighth against the run, allowing 101.2 yards per game. Because of Johnson on the outside, the Ravens likely won't be able to commit an extra safety in the box to stopping Bush and Co.
LIONS: What had been one of the NFL's most dominant run defenses was gashed last week by LeSean McCoy and the Eagles, who gained 299 yards on the ground. The Lions hadn't allowed a rushing score in the previous eight games but they gave up four to the Eagles in the fourth quarter alone. Their run defense dropped from third in the NFL to sixth. Linebacker Stephen Tulloch has a team-leading 107 tackles, but it's the penetration that the Lions get inside that dooms so many runs.
RAVENS: Jimmy Smith, who has emerged as the Ravens' top corner, will probably spend a lot of time shadowing Johnson, though the Ravens will make sure Smith gets plenty of help. What Smith and the Ravens secondary need most is the return of the team's once-productive pass rush. The Ravens have gone two straight games without a sack and they have just five sacks over the past four games. The Ravens' tackling last week was dreadful.
LIONS: Detroit has been vulnerable on the back end, allowing 255.8 passing yards per game, which ranks 25th in the NFL. The Lions have a veteran secondary which hasn't gotten much help from the pass rush. Detroit has just 27 sacks this year despite the presence of dominant interior defensive linemen Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley and first-round pick Ezekiel Ansah. Outside linebacker DeAndre Levy is the surprise NFL leader with six interceptions.
RAVENS: Jacoby Jones' 77-yard kickoff return touchdown last week was his first of the season, but he's continually given the Ravens quality field position since his return from a knee injury. As a team, the Ravens are sixth in the NFL in kickoff return average and first on punts. Justin Tucker didn't attempt a field goal last week, so his streak of 27 consecutive makes carries over. He'll be happy to be kicking indoors after dealing with mostly tough conditions the past four games.
LIONS: The Lions picked up wide receiver Jeremy Ross in October and he's emerged as a game-breaking returner, averaging 19.9 yards on punt returns and 33.5 yards per kickoff return. Last week in Philadelphia, Ross became just the second player in Lions history to have a punt and kickoff return touchdown in the same game. Detroit's kick coverage has been shaky, as has veteran kicker David Akers, who is just 15-for-20 on field-goal attempts.
RAVENS: The Ravens have won three straight games, are healthy for this time of year and they've been buoyed by back-to-back close wins. However, they've had few answers on the road this year, where they are just 1-5. Given their big-game experience, the Ravens don't figure to be fazed by the environment at Ford Field, nor by what's on the line. But coach John Harbaugh was right when he said that his team will need to play its best game to win.
LIONS: Seemingly coasting to an NFC North title, the Lions have lost three of their past four games and are starting to take on the look of a team in turmoil. In all three of those losses, they've blown second-half leads amid a flurry of turnovers and breakdowns. They have turned the ball over 15 times in the past four games and their minus-10 turnover ratio ranks 28th in the league. They are 4-2 at home this season and they've averaged more than 32 points in those six games.
PREDICTION: The Ravens won three consecutive home games to revive their season, but whether they are truly peaking or they just took advantage of three average teams remains to be seen. There have been some positive developments, but Flacco is still making too many mistakes, the running game is still not productive enough and the defense can’t get off the field late in games. All of those things have doomed the Ravens on the road all season and they will again Monday. The Lions will prevail, forcing the Ravens to win their final two games to stay in playoff contention. Lions, 31-20
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