As the Ravens (4-2) square off with the Atlanta Falcons (2-4) on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, here's Baltimore Sun reporter Aaron Wilson's checklist of things to keep an eye on:
1. Falcons pass defense
One week after quarterback Joe Flacco shredded the Tampa Bay Buccaneers secondary, another vulnerable pass defense will try to contain the Ravens' emerging passing game. The Falcons don't have great personnel, having lost linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and safety William Moore to injuries. Their 4-3 defensive alignment lacks elite pass rushers. And their secondary hasn't adequately replaced cornerback Brent Grimes since he signed with the Miami Dolphins a year ago. The Falcons start cornerbacks Robert Alford and Josh Wilson, a former Ravens starter who allowed a game-winning touchdown pass to Roddy White against the Falcons four years ago.
The Falcons have only two interceptions this season, and opposing quarterbacks have completing 65.5 percent of their passes for 1,712 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions for a cumulative 98.2 passer rating. Teams have averaged 8.6 yards per attempt against the Falcons.
Flacco has 1,556 yards, 12 touchdowns, three interceptions and a 97.8 quarterback rating this season Five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith has 35 catches for 573 yards and four touchdowns, plus a strong track record against the Falcons. In 20 career games versus Atlanta, he has 91 receptions for 1,279 yards and five touchdowns. This is another matchup in which Flacco and Smith should be able to pad those numbers. The Falcons rank 31st in pass defense (419 yards allowed per game), 29th in pass defense (277.7 yards allowed per game) and 29th in scoring defense (28.3 points allowed per game).
Now that the Ravens have placed the veteran safety on the active roster after he finished serving a six-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy, their plan for his season debut isn't overly ambitious. Ideally, he'll play special teams Sunday and some defensive snaps to knock off his rust.
The Ravens would be thrilled if Hill can recapture his form from last season, when he had 77 tackles, two interceptions and two forced fumbles for the New York Giants. What the Ravens lack in starting safeties Darian Stewart and Matt Elam is someone with Hill's range in coverage. Both are aggressive, sound tacklers, but neither has made many plays on the ball in the secondary.
Elam has allowed quarterbacks to complete 14 of 17 passes for 291 yards and a touchdown against him in six games, defending one pass and making no interceptions. Stewart ranks third on the defense with 28 tackles and has two passes defended. Quarterbacks are 13-for-17 throwing in his direction for 241 yards and one touchdown.
Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg made it clear that the Ravens won't shy away from kicking to the Falcons' star return specialist, but directional kicking is in order against Hester.
Hester is averaging 12.4 yards per punt return and has one touchdown this season. On kickoff returns, he's averaging 23.9 yards. He's the most dangerous returner in NFL history, having set the NFL record for career return touchdowns last month.
The Ravens are allowing 9 yards per punt return and 23.1 yards per kickoff return this season.
4. Julio Jones
The Falcons star wideout is the Ravens' biggest reason for concern. Jones already has 44 catches for 620 yards and three touchdowns in 2014. He's on pace to finish the season with 117 catches for 1,653 yards.
The Ravens won't necessarily need bracket coverage to contain Jones because of the presence of shutdown cornerback Jimmy Smith. But because the Falcons also have Roddy White working opposite Jones, the Ravens will have to rely on plenty of single coverage against Jones. That means safeties Matt Elam and Darian Stewart will need to provide help over the top.
Jones has an excellent size-speed combination. At 6 feet 2, 220 pounds, he has been timed at 4.38 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
5. Red-zone play
The Falcons aren't a winning outfit away from Atlanta, having gone 0-3 on the road. One thing they excel at, though, is red-zone offense. They've scored nine touchdowns in 12 red-zone possessions, and their 75 percent touchdown percentage in those situations is best in the league.
The Ravens will counter with the top red-zone defense in the NFL. They've allowed only seven touchdowns in 20 red-zone defensive situations, a 35 percent conversion rate. The Ravens have held opponents to five field goals and prevented opponents from scoring on 40 percent of their red-zone possessions.