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NFL Preview - Detroit (2-10) at Baltimore (6-6)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz is a native of Baltimore, MD, and for three hours on Sunday afternoon, the Baltimore Ravens will try to make his homecoming an unhappy one.
The native son will be a decided enemy when he brings his team into M&T Bank Stadium in Week 14, as a Ravens team desperately in need of a win to further its playoff prospects looks to punish struggling Detroit its recent frustrations, felt most recently by John Harbaugh's club on Monday night.
In that game, a 27-14 loss to the Green Bay Packers at chilly Lambeau Field, the Ravens dug themselves a 17-0 halftime hole during a listless 30 minutes, nearly pulled out of the morass by cutting the lead to 17-14 by scoring a pair of touchdowns in a 30-second span in the third-quarter, then promptly handed the game back to the Pack during a mistake-laden fourth quarter.
The team's biggest sins were committed by quarterback Joe Flacco, who had one of the worst games of his young career. The former first-round pick out of Delaware completed 15-of-36 passes for 135 yards, a touchdown, and three interceptions, two of which came on back-to-back plays in Baltimore's ill- fated fourth quarter.
The Ravens also had major trouble steering clear of the men in stripes, committing 12 penalties for 135 yards to harm their cause.
The defeat - which dropped Harbaugh and company to 3-6 in their last nine games - kept the Ravens one game back of the final wild card spot in the AFC. That situation has Baltimore in major need of a Week 14 victory to get back over .500, and the 2-10 Lions would seem to be a strong candidate to accommodate their opponent in that regard.
Detroit was a 23-13 loser in Cincinnati last week, holding the football for just 21:12 of a possible 60 minutes and losing their injury-scarred quarterback for an indefinite period.
Rookie first-rounder Matthew Stafford re-injured a shoulder that had bothered him since a Week 11 win over the Browns, and the pain from the injury has rendered him unavailable to start Sunday's contest.
In his place, veteran Daunte Culpepper will make his third start of the year, and will get an eighth crack at his first win as the Lions' No. 1 QB. Culpepper is 0-7 as a starter since leading the Raiders to a win over the Chiefs on Nov. 25, 2007, including 0-2 while wearing a Detroit uniform this season.
While trying to pick up a long-overdue win for his own resume', Culpepper will also be seeking to lead his beleaguered franchise to a rare win away from the Motor City.
The Lions are 0-18 on the road since winning at Chicago on Oct. 28, 2007, including 0-6 this season.
The series between the Ravens and Lions is knotted, 1-1, with Detroit evening the series by virtue of a 35-17 home win when the teams last met, in 2005. Baltimore's last victory in the series came in the 1998 regular season finale in Charm City, a 19-10 triumph. That game was the final one in the career of Lions Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders. Detroit last won in Baltimore in 1977, when they defeated the Colts there.
The Ravens' Harbaugh and Lions' Schwartz will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective team, for the first time as head coaches. As mentioned, Schwartz is a Baltimore native and served as an assistant coach with the Ravens from 1996 through 1998.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
The Lions offense could stand to do a number of things better on Sunday than they have over the past 13 weeks, but Culpepper (433 passing yards, 1 TD) figures to place particular emphasis on protecting the football. Detroit has thrown an NFL-worst 24 interceptions on the year, two of which were thrown by Culpepper when he started in Weeks 5-6. In his only complete outing of the 2009 season, Culpepper completed 23-of-37 passes for 282 yards with a touchdown, an interception, and 44 rushing yards in a 25-17 loss to the Steelers during Week 5. He will be facing the Ravens for the first time in his career. When he looks to throw, Culpepper figures to target Calvin Johnson (47 receptions, 4 TD) most frequently. Johnson caught six balls for 123 yards against the Bengals last Sunday, and scored a touchdown for the third straight week. Veteran Dennis Northcutt (29 receptions, 1 TD) and Baltimore native Bryant Johnson (26 receptions, 2 TD) have also been contributors this season. Running back Kevin Smith (678 rushing yards, 39 receptions, 5 TD), who hasn't posted a 100-yard game since September, does not figure to end that streak against Baltimore. A thin Lions o-line has allowed 36 sacks on the year, including nine of Culpepper in fewer than 80 drop-back attempts.
After struggling at times against Aaron Rodgers on his 263-yard, three- touchdown night, the Ravens will likely be pleased to see the less potent aerial attack of the Lions on Sunday. Baltimore could also be getting healthier in that regard, as safety Ed Reed (45 tackles, 3 INT) could return to the lineup after hip and ankle problems forced him out of the Green Bay contest. Veteran corner Domonique Foxworth (38 tackles, 1 INT) will likely line up with Calvin Johnson, but will need a great deal of help from the safeties over the top, and rookie Lardarius Webb (25 tackles, 1 sack) might get a crack at the former first-rounder as well. The pass rush will also be key to Baltimore's efforts, and the health of outside linebackers Terrell Suggs (42 tackles, 3.5 sacks) and Jarret Johnson (45 tackles, 6 sacks, 1 INT) figures to be highly scrutinized up until game time. Suggs has missed the last three games with a knee injury, while Johnson, who had an interception of Rodgers on Monday night, has missed practice time this week with a back problem. The run-stopping group has been the most consistent element of Baltimore's defense this year, as a group led by linebacker Ray Lewis (99 tackles, 2 sacks) and defensive tackles Haloti Ngata (27 tackles) and Kelly Gregg (48 tackles) is allowing a league-low 3.5 yards per rush attempt.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
After his brutal game at Lambeau Field on Monday, Flacco (2881 passing yards, 14 TD, 11 INT) will be under the microscope as he seeks to bounce back against the Lions and their shaky pass defense. Flacco has cooled off considerably since a hot start, throwing just two touchdown passes versus six interceptions over his past five starts. Targets for Flacco will include wideouts Derrick Mason (54 receptions, 5 TD) and Kelley Washington (31 receptions, 2 TD) along with tight end Todd Heap (42 receptions, 2 TD), though the team could be hampered by the absence of Mark Clayton (33 receptions, 2 TD) due to a hamstring problem. Heap had a team-high five catches for 52 yards in Green Bay, while Washington caught Flacco's lone touchdown pass. Also looking to get re- started will be running back Ray Rice (875 rushing yards, 64 receptions, 7 TD), who was held to 54 yards on 14 carries at the Packers and amassed a season-low 71 total yards for the night. Willis McGahee (275 rushing yards, 11 receptions) scored his team-leading ninth touchdown of the year versus the Pack, though his four carries netted minus-four yards. The Baltimore offensive line has allowed 26 sacks on the year, including three of the less-than-mobile Flacco in Week 13.
If the Ravens can't get going offensively against the Lions defense, it will be a surprise. Detroit ranks last in NFL scoring defense (29.8 points per game), passing defense (274.8 yards per game), touchdowns allowed (41), touchdown passes allowed (28), and opponents' completion percentage (69.7), and has at times looked helpless against opposing aerial attacks. Cornerbacks William James (51 tackles, 2 INT) and Phillip Buchanon (37 tackles, 1 sack) have generally struggled against top receivers, and safeties Louis Delmas (72 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and Marvin White (27 tackles) don't elicit a great deal fear in coverage either. Part of the problem for Detroit has been an inconsistent pass rush that has left the Lions secondary exposed often. Outside linebacker Julian Peterson (57 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and end Cliff Avril (26 tackles, 3.5 sacks) are 1-2 on the team in sacks, but have combined for a total of two over the past six weeks. The Lions have been better against the run, but come off a week in which they allowed Cedric Benson to grind out 110 yards on 36 carries. Middle linebacker Larry Foote (87 tackles, 2 sacks) has helped tighten things up in the run-stopping realm, and tackles Grady Jackson (26 tackles) and Sammie Lee Hill (21 tackles) combined for nine stops last Sunday.
The only Lion consistently worth starting this season has been Calvin Johnson, and he remains worthy here against a group of Ravens cornerbacks that has not been the strongest. Otherwise, best to steer clear of anyone wearing a Detroit uniform.
On the Ravens side, the likes of Rice and Mason are always solid plays, and against the Lions' poor defense, this is a good week to use Flacco, Heap and perhaps even McGahee as well. The Baltimore defense hasn't lived up to its reputation this year, but should have one of its best days of the season against a mistake-prone Lions attack. Also worth noting is that kicker Billy Cundiff suffered a concussion against the Packers on Monday, and his status for Week 14 is up in the air.
After six days of hearing about the offense's regression and the worst game of his career, you can expect Flacco and the Baltimore attack to come out with some focus against the Lions. Luckily, Detroit's depleted defense should be the antidote to what ills the Ravens, as Baltimore should have the ability to both run and throw the ball with efficiency for most of the day. On the other side, Culpepper will undoubtedly show some rust after not playing a full game since early October, and if the Baltimore defense can limit Calvin Johnson's effectiveness, they shouldn't be troubled too much in this one.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 34, Lions 14
12/12 15:48:51 ET