Streaking Bucs Set to Take on Lewis, Ravens

Yeah, I’ll be honest. I had this game marked down as a loss when I was going through the Bucs’ schedule before the season.

Could you really blame me? The Bucs were coming off a season where they were the polar opposite of the violent and physical mantra that Coach Raheem Morris put forth before the 2009 campaign. And, all things considered, who is more violent and physical than a team led by future-Hall-of-Famer and all-around fear-inducing, game-changing LB Ray Lewis? It seemed like a match made in Hades for the Buccaneers.

Fast forward to Week 12 of the season. Team A takes on Team B at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore this Sunday. Team A has rushed for 1178 yards this season, which ranks 12th in the NFL. Team B has rushed for 1166 yards, good for 13th. Team A has rushed 275 times this season. Team B – 313 times. Team A has a yards-per-carry average of 4.3. Team B? 3.7.

So Team A is clearly the Baltimore Ravens, correct? To borrow a phrase from Lee Corso: not so fast, my friend.

Team A is your Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That’s right. The Bucs’ have actually been more productive overall and more efficient per carry than RB Ray Rice, C Matt Birk, LT Michael Oher, and the vaunted Baltimore Raven running attack. As maligned as the Buccaneer rushing attack was early in the season before the discovery of the bruising LeGarrett Blount, the Bucs have found that much success throughout the remainder of the season to date. As much of a credit it is to Blount’s punishing running style, a good part of that success has hinged on the play of the offensive line, which has struggled with injury a bit this season. Rookie G Ted Larsen stepped in at left guard after Jeremy Zuttah slid over to center following Jeff Faine’s quad injury and has developed into a steady presence in run blocking and pass protection. RT James Lee stepped in following a knee injury to Jeremy Trueblood and has performed well in his stead.

Typically, when you talk about Ray Lewis and the Ravens, you start with their defense. Under John Harbaugh, the Ravens’ defense has been dominant on its home turf the past 3 seasons. They’ve allowed a paltry 12.7 ppg, best in the NFL. They’ve snared 34 interceptions, second best in the NFL. They’ve allowed 266.8 total ypg, best in the NFL. They’ve held visiting QBs to a 59.8 passer rating, best in the NFL. To be sure, M&T Bank Stadium has been one of the toughest places in the NFL for visitors to emerge victorious.

That success starts up front for the Ravens, who feature a fierce pair of linebackers that need no introduction anywhere in the civilized football world in LILB Ray Lewis and ROLB Terrell Suggs. Suggs lines up behind the physical and productive RDE Haloti Ngata, who combine to create a nightmare for the left side of opposing offensive lines. On the season, the pair have combined 93 tackles and 12.5 sacks from the right side. Although the Ravens line up out of a base 3-4 defense, Suggs, who goes 6’3″, 260 pounds, can rush the passer with the same effectiveness as a productive 4-3 DE, and gives the Ravens the flexibility to get creative with their blitz schemes.

However, despite that recent dominance, the Ravens have been somewhat vulnerable on defense at times this season. Last week, Panther RB Mike Goodson ran for 120 yards on only 22 carries, despite the absence of a true passing threat. In the past 6 games, the Ravens have allowed 4 WRs to reach 100 yards receiving, even after the return of ball-hawking S Ed Reed from injury. In Week 7, Buffalo QB Ryan Fitzpatrick completed 29 of 43 passes for 374 yards and 4 TDs, nearly lifting the then-winless Bills to an improbable road victory. The Bills fell just short in OT 37-34, but they showed a blueprint that teams with a decent passing game could follow. Denver WR Brandon Lloyd pulled in 5 catches for 135 yards and 2 TDs from Kyle Orton, who threw for 314 yards in the Broncos’ 31-17 loss to the Ravens. Matt Ryan, who finished with 316 yards passing, led the Falcons on an 80-yard game-winning drive in less than a minute, which culminated with a 33-yard TD strike to Roddy White with only seconds remaining. White finished with 138 yards receiving. As such, the Bucs could find opportunities down the field early and often with their pair of big rookie receivers Mike Williams and Rejus Benn against the much smaller Baltimore cornerbacks Josh Wilson and Chris Carr.

On the flip side, the Buccaneer defense will be tested by what has been a very balanced Baltimore offense this season. The Ravens have run the football 313 times and passed 332 times. Much like last week, the Bucs should be looking first to stop a Pro-Bowl running back that’s the backbone of the opposing offense, this time being Ray Rice. Rice has been active both on the ground (730 rushing yards) and in the passing game this season (40 catches for 345 yards). However, although the Bucs will try to bottle up Rice the way they did with Frank Gore, it won’t be nearly as easy to slow down the Ravens’ offense, given the balance of their offense and the weapons they have at their disposal. Anquan Boldin is on pace for another 1000-yard season and double-digit TD receptions. Veteran wideout Derrick Mason has been a solid #2, tallying 489 receiving yards so far this year. TE Todd Heap is having a bounce back season from an injury-plagued 2009. Joe Flacco has been efficient, completing over 62% of his passes for 2433 yards and 16 TDs to only 7 INTs.

Kickoff is set for 4:15 EST.