RAVENS: All eyes will be on wide receiver Steve Smith, who faces the organization he played with for 13 seasons. While Joe Flacco will undoubtedly look to get Smith the ball early, he needs receivers Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones and Marlon Brown to be more involved in the passing game. That trio has combined for just 10 catches this season. Flacco has not been sacked in two straight games, but with left tackle Eugene Monroe sidelined, his blindside will now be protected by undrafted rookie James Hurst.
PANTHERS: Cam Newton missed Week 1 after having offseason ankle surgery, but he’s looked reasonably sharp since returning. Tight end Greg Olsen remains a trusted target and red-zone threat. First-round pick Kelvin Benjamin, a big and physical receiver, looks like the real deal and is coming off his first-career 100-yard game. The Panthers’ big question mark is their offensive line. Newton has been sacked seven times the past two games and hit numerous others.
RAVENS: The Ravens vowed to get the running game going, and thus far it’s been their biggest strength. The Ravens are averaging 137 rushing yards per game, the eighth best total in the NFL. They’ve done it by relying on three different backs and with Harbaugh sticking with the hot hand. Last week, the hot hand belonged to rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro, who rushed for 91 yards and a touchdown. The return of Bernard Pierce will make for some tough decisions on who gets the carries.
PANTHERS: After missing two games with a thigh injury, DeAngelo Williams is expected to return as the Panthers’ primary running back. That’s essential for Carolina, which watched two other backs — Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert — go down with injuries last week. The Panthers are averaging only 72.3 rushing yards per game. Only three other NFL teams average less. Newton, who is dealing with ankle and rib injuries, isn’t running as much as he did earlier in his career.
RAVENS: The Ravens are allowing only 89.7 rushing yards per game, which ranks eighth in the NFL. However, defensive coordinator Dean Pees sees plenty of room for improvement, specifically with how the Ravens are defending stretch plays. Cleveland Browns rookie backs Terrance West (Towson) and Isaiah Crowell found a lot of room outside last week, with Crowell scoring on a 14-yard run. Inside linebackers C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith are tied for the team lead with 21 tackles.
PANTHERS: In last week’s loss to the Steelers, the Panthers surrendered 264 rushing yards as both Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount eclipsed 100 yards. That left the Panthers with the 27th-ranked run defense (145.3 yards per game). However, stopping the run had been a major strength. Since Week 14 in 2012, the Panthers have permitted just three 100-yard rushers and six rushing touchdowns. A big reason for that is tackling machine Luke Kuechly, the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year last season.
RAVENS: From the lack of a consistent pass rush to poor tackling to miscommunication on the back end, the Ravens have had all sorts of problems defending the pass. They are allowing 262.3 passing yards per game, which puts them 24th in the NFL. They have just one interception, and that’s by defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. Terrell Suggs remains without a sack. The Ravens have to find a pass rush to disrupt Cam Newton, and they need much steadier play from safeties Matt Elam and Darian Stewart.
PANTHERS: Defensive lineman Greg Hardy, who had 15 sacks last season, remains on the exempt list as part of the fallout from his domestic violence incident. The Panthers have other pass-rushing options, led by defensive end Charles Johnson, who has nine sacks or more in four straight seasons. Carolina has eight sacks and three interceptions through three games. Veteran safeties Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud could be vulnerable to getting beat deep.
RAVENS: This group was as big of a reason as any that the Ravens escaped Cleveland with a victory. Justin Tucker was 3-of-3 on field-goal attempts, including the game-winning 32-yarder. Sam Koch doomed a late Browns’ possession by pinning them inside their 10 with a 58-yard punt. Asa Jackson blocked field goal attempt from Billy Cundiff. Jacoby Jones has been quiet, but the Ravens are still in the top six in the NFL in kick and punt return average. Fourteen of 16 of Tucker’s kickoffs have been touchbacks.
PANTHERS: Kicker Graham Gano has emerged as one of the league’s best, making seven of his eight attempts this season and connecting on seven straight from 50 yards or more dating back to last year. His strong leg helps nullify the opposition’s return game. The Panthers have not gotten much in their return game, and rookie Philly Brown lost a fumble on a punt return last week. Punter Brad Nortman set franchise records in both gross and net yardage last season.
RAVENS: Every week seemingly brings another distraction or personnel challenge to the Ravens, but there’s been no on-field evidence that the developments are affecting the team. The Ravens have been called for only 12 penalties, tied for the lowest in the league. Under Harbaugh, the Ravens are 11-1 at home against NFC teams. They are also 16-7 in September since 2008, Harbaugh’s first season. The Ravens’ offense needs to prove it can succeed without Monroe and tight end Dennis Pitta.
PANTHERS: There were a lot of questions about Ron Rivera’s team, many of them silenced when Carolina started 2-0. But they were blown out by Pittsburgh last week, a loss made even more painful by a slew of injuries. The Panthers are 3-1 all time against the Ravens, but only one of those matchups has come since 2008. In Rivera’s four seasons, the Panthers are a solid 13-12 on the road.
With four road games in the next five weeks — including matchups against the Indianapolis Colts, Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers — the Ravens cannot afford to slip up here. The Panthers are a well-coached, physical team, so this should be a tough game. But it appears the Ravens are catching Carolina at a good time, as the Panthers are dealing with key injuries and trying to fortify several areas. The Ravens should take advantage of that and follow Steve Smith’s lead to a hard-earned victory. A 3-1 record would be a solid result through the first quarter of the season.