Carroll County Times

High-powered Broncos will test embattled Ravens defense

OWINGS MILLS - It's been a tough two weeks for the Ravens' defense.

They allowed nearly 300 yards to a third-string quarterback in a loss to the Steelers, they yielded nine passing plays of 15 yards or longer during last week's loss to the Redskins and they were gashed for more than 125 yards by Washington rookie running back Alfred Morris.

And now, they'll be saddled with the task of slowing down a Peyton Manning-led Broncos offense ranked among the best in the NFL.

"We're looking forward to this challenge," Baltimore outside linebacker Albert McClellan said. "We really want to prove ourselves, especially with how things have been looking for us this season, so we're really looking forward to this."

The Ravens are ranked 10th in the NFL in scoring defense, but just 24th out of the league's 32 teams in total defense.

They're ranked 25th against the run and 23rd versus the pass.

Baltimore allowed a league-low 14.5 points per game during November, but has surrendered a combined 54 points in its last two games.

Pittsburgh third-string quarterback Charlie Batch threw for 276 yards in leading the Steelers to a comeback win against the Ravens in Week 13. He was 16-of-20 for 219 yards and a touchdown during the second half and led two fourth quarter scoring drives as Pittsburgh erased a late deficit to come away with a 23-20 victory. Batch completed five passes of 15 yards or longer during the second half.

A week later, Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III had eight completions that went for gains of 15 yards or longer as he led Washington to a 31-28 win against Baltimore.

With Washington trailing 28-20 in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter, Griffin led the Redskins into Ravens territory. He was eventually forced to exit with a knee injury, but his backup, Kirk Cousins, came on to a throw an 11-yard touchdown before running in for a game-tying two-point conversion.

Baltimore is allowing an average of 247 passing yards per game.

Manning has averaged 302 yards in his last 11 games. He has 27 touchdowns and just seven interceptions during that period.

He ranks second in the NFL with 53 completions of 20 yards or longer, an average of more than four per game.

Demaryius Thomas leads the Broncos in both catches (74) and yards (1,197), but he's just one of five Denver pass catchers with 34 receptions or more. Thomas and fellow wide receiver Eric Decker each have eight touchdown catches.

Fueled by its passing game, Denver (10-3) has won eight games in a row.

"Peyton throws to everybody, man," Ravens safety Ed Reed said. "He's still Peyton Manning. That's the reason why they've won, what, the last eight games or something like that? ... So, every man has to be on point on what he's doing this week."

With Manning operating out of a similar up-tempo spread offense to the one he ran during his historic 14-year run with the Colts, the Broncos have scored 30 points or more in six of their last eight games.

Manning signed with Denver in March and has helped transform a Broncos offensive attack that ranked second-to-last in the NFL in passing offense last season.

"He's doing a good job of building the offense," Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said of Manning. "He and the coaches there are building the Indianapolis-style offense into what they're doing. Give Denver a lot of credit. They ran a different offense last year, according to the quarterback that they were playing with, and now they've got Peyton, and they are running an offense that fits into his skill set."

Added Reed: "You know, it sort of looks like Indy over there to me. Just the things he's doing, looking at Peyton on the sideline ... he's coaching everybody. That's no different from when he was in Indy. So, I don't see too much of a difference. I really don't."

The Ravens will be tested on the ground as well - Knowshon Moreno ran for 119 yards last week and has carried the ball 20 times or more in each of the last three games - but it's no secret that Denver's offense is centered around Manning. And with Manning at the helm, Baltimore safety James Ihedigbo described the Broncos as a high-powered unit that will test every facet of the Ravens' defense.

"We've got our hands full," Ihedigbo said. "But you talk about wanting to be a great defense, and getting to where we want to go deep in the playoffs and to a world championship, you've got to win games like this. This game will truly prove the level of defense we have going against a quarterback like this."