After playing poorly in a 27-20 loss to the New York Jets last week, the Buffalo Bills don't have an easy opponent on the schedule to help them get back on track. The Bills (1-2) play host to the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens (2-1) Sunday.
However, it's a very different team than the one that won Super Bowl XLVII in February. Ray Lewis, Anquan Boldin, Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe, Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard are among the players who are no longer on Baltimore's roster.
The Daily Messenger asked Matt Vensel, the Ravens beat reporter for the Baltimore Sun, some questions about this year's Ravens. He has covered the team since 2008.
Q: The Ravens let a lot of players walk on the defensive side of the ball, is the defense still as tough as it used to be?
A: A lot of attention was paid to the unprecedented dismantling of the Super Bowl-winning defense and rightfully so, but their performance in the playoffs made many overlook the fact that the Ravens were just 17th in total defense last year and 12th in scoring defense. Ozzie Newsome did not overlook it, though, and took advantage of the retirement of Ray Lewis to overhaul the defense. On paper, it looked like the Ravens would be much better on defense, especially with Elvis Dumervil helping Terrell Suggs chase after quarterbacks. But the Broncos appeared to shred that notion on opening night. The defense has rebounded, though, and the Ravens have not allowed a touchdown the past two games. They are again looking like a top-10 defense, and that's without creating many turnovers. If the Ravens start taking the ball away, they will have one of the NFL's best.
Q: Why has the Ravens' offense struggled early in the season?
A: There has been a lot of turnover on offense, too, but this was not actually planned. Sure, the Ravens took a bit of a gamble by trading away Anquan Boldin after he refused to take a pay cut. But they believed that tight end Dennis Pitta would be able to replace most, if not all, of his production in the slot. Early in training camp, though, Pitta suffered a season-threatening hip injury. In week 1, Jacoby Jones hurt his knee. In week 2, Ray Rice suffered a hip injury. The Ravens have worked a lot of new faces into the mix, from youngsters like Marlon Brown and Bernard Pierce to graybeards like Brandon Stokley and Dallas Clark. Their chemistry with Joe Flacco is not there yet and their lack of familiarity with those skill players may have limited the play-calling.
Q: If Ray Rice can't play Sunday how much does that hurt Baltimore's offense?
Page 2 of 2 - A: It hasn't mattered whether it was Rice or Pierce who was in the backfield. Both have had little running room as the offensive line has struggled early in the season. The Ravens rank near the bottom of the league in yards per carry, and even a matchup against a Bills defense that has struggled to stop the run isn't guaranteed to fix what ails them. Rice has practiced the past couple of days, so it looks like he is going to play. We'll see how the carries are split if that's the case.
Q: Who is a player on the Ravens that Bills fans might not be familiar with, but will make an impact on Sunday's game?
A: I'll give you one on each side of the ball. On defense, middle linebacker Daryl Smith, who flew under the radar in Jacksonville for about a decade, was signed to replace Lewis and has played well for the Ravens, probably better than Lewis did a year ago before tearing his triceps. Coaches and teammates rave about his leadership and preparation, and his pick-six against the Texans last weekend turned the tide in a 30-9 win. Offensively, it's a little tougher because fantasy football players and casual fans are familiar with players like Torrey Smith, Pierce and even fullback Vonta Leach. Despite being a Pro Bowl right guard, Marshal Yanda probably isn't a household name, but he is one of the NFL's best interior linemen. If the Ravens are to get their running game going against the Bills, his bruising blocks will likely be playing a large part in that.
Q: The Ravens will come away with a win on Sunday if …
A: If they keep doing what they are doing on defense. Their offense remains a work in progress, though a banged-up Bills secondary might help them get their passing game going. But if they continue to put pressure on the quarterback, plug up running lanes and keep the Bills out of the end zone, they should be able to put up enough points to win on the road.
Follow Matt Vensel on Twitter at Mattvensel and Dan Goldman at MPN_DanGoldman.