Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Zrebiec breaks down what to look for when the Ravens play the New Orleans Saints at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Monday Night Football.
RAVENS: Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak spent the bye week trying to find a way to get quarterback Joe Flacco out of his recent slump. Perhaps a return to the site of the Ravens' Super Bowl XLVII triumph and one of Flacco's best performances will do the trick. Flacco has struggled lately to find big plays down the field and convert on third downs. It hasn't helped that the Ravens haven't been picking up blitzes, putting him under duress. Torrey Smith has five touchdowns in his past five games.
SAINTS: Directing the league's second-ranked offense, Drew Brees is fourth in the NFL in passing yards (3,071), first in completion percentage (69.5) and completions (290) and eighth in touchdown passes (19). The loss of rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks to a thumb injury should lead to more targets for Marques Colston and Kenny Stills. Tight end Jimmy Graham has 25 catches and four touchdowns over his last four games. Brees has been sacked just 13 times on 417 drop backs.
RAVENS: The Ravens stayed with the run in their last game and they succeeded in wearing down the Tennessee Titans, finishing with 151 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. If they don't fall behind the Saints early, they'd probably like to adhere to a run-heavy game plan, similar to what the Cincinnati Bengals did to New Orleans last Sunday. Justin Forsett, who is having a career year, is the undisputed starter, but Bernard Pierce and Lorenzo Taliaferro have both seen snaps as the No. 2 back.
SAINTS: These aren't the Saints of the past. This year's team can run the ball. Mark Ingram, the former Heisman winner, has 618 rushing yards and six touchdowns despite playing in just seven games because of a shoulder injury. He's rushed for 100 or more yards in three of his last four games. As a team, the Saints are averaging 124.7 rushing yards per game, eighth highest in the NFL. They've totaled 1,247 yards on the ground a season after gaining just 1,473.
RAVENS: Only four NFL teams are stopping the run better than the Ravens, who are holding the opposition to 84.5 yards per game on the ground. The Ravens haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 20 straight games, the longest streak in the NFL. Just two teams — the Bengals and Indianapolis Colts — have rushed for 100 yards against them this season. While the focus is on getting to Drew Brees, the Ravens know that the Saints will work hard to establish Mark Ingram and their running game.
SAINTS: The Bengals exploited this group last week, rushing for 186 yards against the Saints and averaging 5.2 yards a carry. Bengals rookie Jeremy Hill became the second back this season to rush for 100 yards against New Orleans with a 152-yard day. The Saints have allowed 114.7 rushing yards a game, tied for 19th in the NFL, and 10 rushing touchdowns. Inside linebacker Curtis Lofton leads the team and is sixth in the NFL with 93 tackles.
RAVENS: The makeshift secondary, with converted safety Anthony Levine starting at cornerback, and recent acquisition Danny Gorrer playing the nickel, held up against the Titans, but the Saints obviously are a much more difficult challenge. Brees gets the ball out extremely quickly, so the Ravens' defensive backs may not be able to depend on the pass rush. The Ravens also don't have an obvious solution to match up with Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, though few teams do.
SAINTS: The Saints can relate to the Ravens' secondary woes. Top corner Keenan Lewis is struggling to play through a knee injury. Fellow starting corner Corey White has been targeted often. Rafael Bush became the latest safety to go down with a season-ending injury, leaving the Saints extremely thin on the back end. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan loves to send pressure and he'll want to see if the Ravens have shored up their protection issues.
RAVENS: Aside from a few too many penalties, the Ravens have been strong in this area. Jacoby Jones is second in the NFL with an average of 31.7 yards per kickoff return. He scored on a 108-yard kickoff return against the Pittsburgh Steelers and had a long punt return taken back by a penalty against the Titans. Sam Koch has put 19 of his 35 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Kicker Justin Tucker has never missed a field-goal attempt indoors in his career, going 10-for-10.
SAINTS: Cooks' injury leaves the Saints without their primary punt returner though Travaris Cadet, who handles kick return duties, is a candidate to fill that role. Former Raven Shayne Graham has made 15-of-16 field-goal attempts. Thomas Morstead handles kickoffs and punting duties, and he leads the NFC with a 42.5-yard net punting average. Opponents are averaging only 3.4 yards per punt return, the lowest total in the NFL.
RAVENS: The latest bye week in John Harbaugh's tenure came at a good time for the Ravens, who had more time to get healthy and prepare for the Saints' explosive offense. The Ravens are 5-1 after bye weeks under Harbaugh. They've also won five straight games against NFC teams. But they've been a different team in recent seasons on the road, winning just four of their last 13 games. The Ravens are 3-0 against NFC South teams this season, outscoring them by a 115-34 margin.
SAINTS: Since 2008, the Saints are 40-13 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Only the New England Patriots and Ravens have better home marks during that span. However, they've lost back-to-back games there for the first time since early in the 2012 season. They have won 14 straight prime-time home games, winning by an average of nearly 20 points per game. The Ravens are the only team that coach Sean Payton and Brees have never beaten.
If there is such a thing as a good time to go on the road and play the Saints, this is it. The Saints are struggling and the only reason they have realistic playoff hopes is because they play in the woeful NFC South. But they still have Brees, who is always at the top of his game at home and in prime time, and enough offensive weapons to overwhelm a mistake-prone Ravens secondary. The Ravens have to win at least one more road game to make the playoffs, but I don't see it happening tonight. Playing on the road and against a top-notch quarterback is not a winning proposition for them.