The Nate Peterman revenge tour starts this Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium as the Buffalo Bills square-off with the Baltimore Ravens in their first regular season contest of 2018. This weekend’s game will be the first time these two teams have formally faced one another since 2016, a contest that ended in a 13-7 loss for Buffalo.
In Week 17 of last season, the blackbirds were deprived of the final wild-card spot in the AFC when Andy Dalton tossed an absolute dime to Tyler Boyd in the dying moments of the fourth quarter, propelling the Bills to their first playoff birth in 17 years. While both teams went through some significant personnel changes in the offseason, you can rest assured that the Ravens will be looking to avenge their fate.
So what are the key factors for the Bills as they begin their first campaign in years without the burden of carrying the league’s longest playoff-drought?
The Ravens’ Defense is Good… Real Good
The biggest factor facing the Bills in this one is the Ravens’ defense, a group that finished sixth in the NFL last season in terms of points allowed. Baltimore did an excellent job of retaining their talent from last year as all 11 starters have returned for 2018.
Here’s the silver lining though. Starting cornerback Jimmy Smith will not be playing Sunday as he begins serving his four-game suspension. This offseason, he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Why is this significant? According to Warren Sharp of Sharp Football, the Ravens’ defensive statistics took a nosedive in the passing game during the four games they played without Smith in 2017.
Ravens CB Jimmy Smith
*suspended first 4 games
*Ravens with Smith:
• 41.7% success (#4)
• 4.53% Int rate (#1)
• 76.1 passer rtg (#1)
*Ravens without Smith:
• 47.9% success (#29)
• 1.53% Int rate (#31)
• 91.5 passer rtg (#18)
via Warren Sharp / Sharp Football
— Bills QB Watch (@BillsQBwatch) September 5, 2018
Their struggles without the seven-year veteran are reminiscent of the issues the Bills were faced with through the air when E.J. Gaines was injured last season. Smith’s replacement, Brandon Carr is certainly no slouch, but at 32 years old, his elite playing days are well behind him. Look for Peterman to target the left side of the Baltimore defense early and often.
In the trenches and at linebacker, the Ravens still boast one of the better groups in the league, led by three-time Pro Bowler, C.J. Mosley, and future Hall-of-Famer, Terrell Suggs. Despite the undeniable talent across from them, the Bills should still be able to get the running game going against a Baltimore side that ranked 15th last season in run defense.
A makeshift Bills offensive line could be in for a long day if Buffalo gets in a hole early. Though their run-blocking ability was relatively solid throughout the preseason, if the offense is forced to lean on the passing game, Peterman might get well-acquainted with the turf on Sunday.
If Brian Daboll can design a gameplan that focuses on the running game while exposing Smith’s absence through the air, the offense may have a chance to put some points on the board against arguably one of the top-10 defenses in the league from last season.
Baltimore’s New-Look Offense
Well, sort of. Marty Mornhinweg is still the offensive coordinator and Joe Flacco is still the quarterback, but the Ravens did experience an overhaul of sorts in their receiving corps. Five of the six wideouts they carry on the roster were not with the team last season.
Presumed number one target, Michael Crabtree headlines a group that includes former New Orleans Saint, Willie Snead, and former Arizona Cardinal, John Brown. That’s a pretty big improvement from last year’s squad that featured an aging Mike Wallace and current Bills’ slot-receiver, Jeremy Kerley as their top pass-catchers. Sean McDermott’s opportunistic team of defensive backs will have their work cut out for them.
The x-factor for the Baltimore offense will be 24-year-old running back, Alex Collins. Last season he averaged 4.6 yards per carry falling just short of 1,000 yards despite only starting in 12 games. Though they were labelled as a relatively good defense last season, the Bills ranked 30th in the NFL against the run. Hopefully, the addition of players like Star Lotulelei and rookie Tremaine Edmunds will help stop a dangerous Baltimore rushing attack.
Similar to the defense, the Baltimore offensive line will return all of their starters from last season. Though they aren’t considered one of the elite units in the league, they certainly aren’t weak. The availability of new addition, Trent Murphy will prove critical in this one. If he can help provide pressure from the left side, he could make Flacco’s life much more difficult.
Speaking of Mr. Flacco…
Good Joe, or Bad Joe?
As is the case with most teams in the NFL, the Ravens’ fate rests heavily with their quarterback. Through the first six weeks of the 2017 season, Flacco posted an average quarterback rating of 65.38, tossing four touchdowns and eight interceptions. Woof.
Starting in a Week 8 win at Oakland, Smokin’ Joe suddenly flipped a switch, finishing the year with an average rating of 98.77 with 13 touchdowns and five picks. An improvement to say the least. While it has certainly been speculated that Flacco was playing hurt early in the year, his sudden improvement is still notable.
The question now becomes, which Joe Flacco will show up against the Bills? If the 33-year-old signal-caller has trouble shaking off the offseason rust like he did last year, it could bode well for the Bills’ chances. It is well known that their ball-hawking defense ranked sixth in the NFL last season in turnovers through the air. If they can keep their heads up for the occasional errant pass that Flacco is prone to throwing, they could help put the offense in better field position, something they’ll need if they hope to put up points against a stingy Ravens’ front.
You didn’t think we would go the entire article without talking about Peterman’s first start of the season, did you? As previously mentioned, Baltimore is a tough task, the first of a four-game stretch that features some very talented defenses.
Everyone remembers Peterman’s first career start. Everyone. To his credit, the second-year passer has shown a great deal of resiliency and determination in pursuit of another chance at the Bills’ starting gig.
While the Bills certainly made a name for themselves last season in the turnover department, the Ravens led the league with 22 interceptions.Of course, most of that total came with Smith anchoring the left side. It remains to be seen whether or not their safety tandem will have as easy a time if they’re forced to assist Carr all game long.
Either way, this matchup is far from a cakewalk for a quarterback who seems dead-set on proving his doubters wrong in 2018. A strong outing against Baltimore will only fortify his confidence as he heads into a very difficult Week 2 matchup with a Los Angeles Chargers team that accounted for five interceptions against him in his rookie debut. Joey Bosa probably still haunts his dreams after making minced meat of Jordan Mills last year (a matchup he’ll be assigned to once again this season).
Hopefully, his pedestrian offensive line can keep him from getting obliterated before the final whistle so he at least has a chance at revenge at home against L.A.
It’s never popular to be a scrooge when it comes to the Bills, but looking at this game in an unbiased manner, the Ravens are simply the more talented squad. The presence of Daboll could make the Bills’ attack a little more unpredictable so Buffalo does have that going for them, but there is an undeniable skill mismatch, particularly when comparing their respective offences.
Week One is notoriously the most unpredictable week in football. Upsets happen every year. This game will be closer than people think, but I’m not sure that the Bills will be one of the spread busters this week.
BALTIMORE 27 – BUFFALO 17
Editor’s babble: It’s probably not a stretch to assume the Ravens’ defensive game plan will be to load up the box and force Nathan Peterman to throw the ball. However, it’s the Bills’ defense who I believe will make or break this game. If they cannot get two turnovers and some decent field position for the offense, it will likely be a long day in Baltimore. It certainly doesn’t get easier when the Los Angeles Chargers show up in Buffalo for the season opener at New Era Field next weekend. Thanks to Anthony Sciandra for setting us up for the game on Sunday. You can find Anthony on Twitter @SciandraSports.