Bob Wojnowski and Justin Rogers take a look at the Lions-Ravens game in Baltimore on Sunday. Detroit News
Allen Park — For all the talk of the Detroit Lions’ sluggish starts and inability to run the football, this isn’t the week to anticipate quick fixes. The Baltimore Ravens defense might be the NFL’s best unit, which means every yard, first down and point will be tough to come by this Sunday.
The Ravens are picking up steam down the stretch. They’ve won three of their last four, including a pair of shutouts. They’ve kept three opponents off the scoreboard this season, just the fifth time a team has accomplished the feat the past 30 years.
Baltimore’s success is accentuated by the ability to force turnovers. They lead the NFL with 26 takeaways, paced by a league-leading 18 interceptions.
“They do a good job, really it’s all levels,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “I think their defensive line does a great job of getting pressure. Their linebackers and (defensive backs) are facing the quarterback a bunch, making really nice plays on the football. They rally to the ball. The ball gets tipped in the air. You never know — it doesn’t seem to hit the ground much when they’re playing.”
It starts up front, where ageless wonder Terrell Suggs, in his 15th season, he leads a team with 9.5 sacks.
“This guy just continues to make plays, rushing the quarterback, batting balls,” Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said. “He just kind of ends up where you don’t want him to end up. Seems like a lot of times he knows what the offense is doing maybe before they do."
Suggs is complemented by strong interior play of Brandon Williams, Michael Pierce and ex-Wolverine Willie Henry, and edge defenders Za'Darius Smith and former Grand Valley State standout Matthew Judon.
Lions offensive tackle Rick Wagner, who played the past four years in Baltimore, knows the challenge his unit faces.
“Going against them in practice every day, I definitely know, first-hand, how good they are,” Wagner said. “They have a lot of special talent up there and we have a lot of work to do this week.”
In the second level, C.J. Mosley has tallied a team-high 95 tackles, including eight behind the line. He’s a sideline-to-sideline playmaker that must be accounted for every snap.
And the back end is no picnic with a group of ball-hawking defensive backs. On the outside, Brandon Carr and Jimmy Smith blanket opposing receivers, defending 16 passes and intercepting six. And quarterbacking everything is Eric Weddle, a four-time Pro Bowl safety, pacing the Ravens with five turnovers (four interceptions and one forced fumble).
“Anytime you have a group of guys that have experienced the things that they have — obviously Weddle with different teams and all of the different things that he’s seen through the years — there’s not too many things that are going to catch him by surprise,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “Not too many things are going to be an oddity to them and they’re going to be in the right position the great majority of time.”
All added up, opponents are averaging 305 yards and 17 points per game against Baltimore.
But if the Lions need reason for optimism, you can look at the schedule the Ravens have played. The best quarterback they’ve beaten this season is Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton in Week 1. The other five victories came over teams led by DeShone Kizer, E.J. Manuel, Matt Moore, Brett Hundley and Tom Savage.
Statistically speaking, Stafford will be the best quarterback they’ve seen this year.
“Matthew Stafford is an excellent player,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said during a conference call earlier this week. “He’s one of the top quarterbacks in football, without question. He throws it the most of any quarterback in football. They throw the ball a lot, and do a great job with it.
“I think they lead the league in big-play passes. It’s spread out pretty evenly. The top guy has 17 (catches), and I think the next guy has 11, and the next seven guys have four to six, so that’s quite a spread. He’s the leader of it; he directs the whole thing.”
The Lions' offense hasn’t exactly been consistent this year, but they’ve moved the ball well through the air, limited turnovers, and, as Harbaugh pointed out, had success throwing deep. They’ll likely need to stay the course in all three areas if they want to come away with a victory.
And the Lions desperately need a win this weekend. For all intents and purposes, their playoffs start now. Not even running the table the final five weeks guarantees a playoff spot, but the odds drop precipitously with each loss. Breaking through against the Ravens' defense is the first hurdle to making a run.
Lions at Ravens
Kickoff: 1 Sunday, M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore
Records: Lions 6-5, Ravens 5-5
Series: Ravens lead, 3-1 (Ravens 18, Lions 16, Dec. 16, 2013)
Line: Ravens by 3