The formula for beating the New Orleans Saints hasn't changed for a long time. If you want to keep their high-powered offense out of the end zone, you have to keep the ball out of the hands of wily quarterback Drew Brees.
For the Ravens to do that, they might need to take the ball out of the hands of Joe Flacco.
Not completely, of course. Flacco is still the man, but the Ravens need to make sure they use more than their share of the clock on Monday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and the best way to do that is to keep the ball on the ground as much as possible and keep Brees and his talented receiving corps on the bench.
The Ravens were very fortunate to assemble a very solid group of running backs after the Ray Rice scandal left them without an obvious No. 1. Veteran Justin Forsett stepped right into the lead role in September and delivered another solid performance (20 carries, 112 yards) two weeks ago when the Ravens headed into the bye week with a 21-7 victory over the Tennessee Titans.
Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak loves to run the ball, so it won't be much of a surprise if Forsett, Bernard Pierce and Lorenzo Taliaferro get every opportunity to punch holes in the Saints defensive line and take some of the pressure off Flacco to chase Brees and Co. up and down the field all night.
Kubiak hinted at that strategy during his bye week podium session and couldn't have seen anything that changed his mind when the Bengals scored a decisive road victory over the Saints last Sunday. The Ravens have struggled to convert third downs over the past several weeks, and consistent ball control generally comes back to a team having confidence in its running game.
Kubiak and the coaching staff couldn't have asked for a better scout game than the Bengals' 27-10 victory over the Saints. Cincinnati carved up the New Orleans defensive line for 186 rushing yards, 152 of them from rookie running back Jeremy Hill.
The parallels to the Ravens were too obvious to miss. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was coming off another inconsistent performance in a lopsided home loss to the Cleveland Browns. So, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson took a little bit off his plate and the result was a very balanced attack that allowed Dalton to complete 16 of 22 passes for 220 yards and three touchdowns.
Flacco also has had his struggles over the past few weeks — throwing three interceptions in the back-to-back losses to the Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers — but directed a more balanced attack against the Titans in which he completed 16 of 27 passes and did not throw an interception.
It seems like the entire AFC North has rediscovered the run. The Steelers got a scare last week from the Titans, but came back from a late 11-point deficit behind an impressive performance by Le'Veon Bell.
Bell ran for 204 yards on 33 carries and rushed for 110 yards in the final 18 minutes of the game. The Steelers took the lead midway through the fourth quarter and then ran the final 6:58 off the clock with a drive during which Ben Roethlisberger handed the ball to Bell seven straight times for 43 yards before kneeling out the final two plays.
Everybody talks about running the ball, but the NFL has become so addicted to the pass that it's easy to forget how important a solid running game can be, especially to a team that is trying to patch up its defensive secondary.
Obviously, Brees is going to be looking to pick it apart in a game the 4-6 Saints need as desperately as the Ravens. He completed 33 of 41 passes against the Bengals last week and the Saints still had a slight edge in time of possession despite the lopsided final score. He's going to make his throws, so the Ravens have to make sure he doesn't get that many of them Monday night.