The NFL's No. 1 scoring defense will try to keep the struggling Jaguars in their sustained slump when the two teams square off Monday at EverBank Field, where Jacksonville returns home seeking to avoid its longest losing streak in 16 years.
The Blaine Gabbert era in Jacksonville hasn't started smoothly, with the rookie quarterback yet to lead his team to a win in four tries as a professional starting quarterback. The Jaguars own the league's least productive passing offense, averaging a mere 137.7 yards per game through the air, and also rank at the bottom of the heap in total offense (260.3 ypg).
Jacksonville mustered a paltry 76 passing yards in last week's 17-13 loss at Pittsburgh, the team's fifth consecutive setback since a season-opening triumph over Tennessee, with Gabbert hitting on just 12-of-26 throws and taking five sacks. The 2011 No. 10 overall draft choice has completed less than half of his pass attempts (48.8 percent) during his brief tenure.
The Jaguars also are 31st in the NFL in scoring (12.0 ppg) and have eclipsed 13 points just once in their initial six outings this season.
There were some positives to take out of last Sunday's defeat to the formidable Steelers, however. Jacksonville outscored Pittsburgh 10-0 in the second half, with Gabbert throwing an 18-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jason Hill, and outgained the reigning AFC champions by a 141-55 margin in total yards over the final two quarters.
"I thought we settled down and did some of the things we needed to do," Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio said of his team's performance after halftime. "We made some of the plays that were there to be made in the second half."
Still, Jacksonville enters this nationally-televised showdown on its worst skid since a five-gamer in 2001. The team hasn't dropped six in a row since a seven-game slide in 1995, the then-expansion franchise's first season of existence.
Getting the offense untracked figures to be a challenge this week, as the Ravens are yielding a league-low 14.2 points per game during their 4-1 beginning to the 2011 campaign. The current AFC North leaders are also third in both total defense and against the run.
Baltimore has held the opposition to under 300 yards or less in prevailing in each of its last three tests and come in off a convincing 29-14 decision over visiting Houston in Week 6. The Ravens also put up 402 yards of offense on the afternoon, with standout running back Ray Rice compiling 161 yards from scrimmage and veteran wideout Anquan Boldin gaining a season-best 132 receiving yards on eight catches.
The Ravens weren't entirely sharp on that side of the ball, however. The club scored touchdowns on only two of its four red-zone possessions and settled for five field goals by kicker Billy Cundiff against the Texans.
Baltimore is just 28th in the league in red-zone efficiency with a 36.8 percent touchdown rate.
"We're not good enough down there yet," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh remarked. "We haven't really been that spectacular down there all year. It's an area that we have to get better at. We'll just keep working it, keeping coming up with schemes. Really, it comes down to executing the things we do a little bit better down there."
Jacksonville has a 9-7 edge in its overall series with Baltimore, but the Ravens have won seven of the last eight nine meetings between the one-time division rivals and recorded a 27-7 home victory over the Jaguars in the most recent clash, which took place in 2008. Jacksonville's lone positive result over that span occurred in 2005, when the Jags routed the Ravens by a 30-3 count at EverBank Field. Baltimore is just 2-5 all-time in Jacksonville and last won there on Nov. 25, 2001.
These teams met twice annually as members of the AFC Central from 1996-2001.
Del Rio has a 1-2 career record against the Ravens, for whom he served as linebackers coach from 1999-2001. Harbaugh won his only previous encounter with both the Jaguars and Del Rio with that 2008 verdict.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
In spite of their red-zone issues, the Ravens do enter this week's play as the league's fifth-highest scoring team (29.6 ppg) and have gotten excellent work out of Rice (398 rushing yards, 21 receptions, 4 total TD), one of the game's premier all-around backs. The versatile fourth-year pro is averaging 140 yards from scrimmage on the season and ranks second on the team in catches and receiving yards (302), providing a reliable outlet for quarterback Joe Flacco (1278 passing yards, 7 TD, 4 INT) as well as a boost to a wideout corps that's been plagued by injuries and inconsistency. Boldin (23 receptions, 354 yards, 1 TD) broke out with a big game against the Texans, however, and is a proven performer with five seasons of over 80 catches and 1,000 yards to his credit, with rookie Torrey Smith (9 receptions, 3 TD) has displayed legitimate big- play ability in his short time as a pro. The 2011 second-round pick will draw another start this week with veteran Lee Evans still bothered by an ankle injury that's kept him out since Week 2. Flacco's play has been up-and-down over the course of the year, but the strong-armed signal-caller did throw for 305 yards without an interception last week and is an established winner, bringing a 36-17 career record as a starter into Monday's tilt.
A revamped Jacksonville defense that brought in five new starters by either trades or free agency during the offseason has held its own for the most part, though the unit has shown some cracks against the run. Pittsburgh racked up 185 rushing yards on the Jaguars in last week's game, while New Orleans totaled 177 yards on the ground in a win at EverBank Field in Week 4. Jacksonville has done a solid job in stopping the pass, having surrendered the eighth-fewest yards in the league through the air (210.3 ypg), and the secondary should get starting cornerback Derek Cox back from a groin strain that's caused him to miss the last three weeks. Strong safety Dawan Landry (36 tackles, 1 INT), a member of the Ravens from 2006-10, and fellow veteran addition Dwight Lowery (16 tackles, 2 INT) have helped solidify the back end, while ex-Brown Matt Roth (9 tackles, 3 sacks) and former CFL all-star John Chick (4 tackles, 2 sacks) head up a pass rush that sacked Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger three times this past Sunday. Middle linebacker Paul Posluszny (55 tackles, 1 sack, 5 PD) and longtime strong-side starter Daryl Smith (44 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) are the team's top two tacklers who will be in charge of keeping Rice under wraps.
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
As is the case most every week, the Jacksonville game plan will be centered around the considerable talents of running back Maurice Jones-Drew (572 rushing yards, 2 TD, 9 receptions). The two-time All-Pro hasn't been affected by the offense's season-long slump, as he's averaged nearly 100 yards per game and five yards a carry as the featured player in the team's run-based attack. Moving the football through the air has been a far more difficult task for the Jaguars, with Gabbert (717 passing yards, 4 TD, 2 INT) still undergoing a trial-by-fire to the NFL ranks and the rookie not getting a whole lot of support from a pedestrian group of receivers, though Hill (14 receptions, 2 TD) has stepped it up of late by hauling in a touchdown pass in two straight games and amassing a career-best 118 yards on five catches in a loss to Cincinnati two weeks back. The Jaguars did make a move to shore up that area by bringing back wide receiver Mike Sims-Walker on Tuesday, shortly after he was released by St. Louis. The good-sized target led Jacksonville with 63 catches and 869 receiving yards in 2009, but was cut loose by the team following last season. A front line that couldn't handle Pittsburgh's fierce pass rush a week ago hopes to get valued left tackle Eugene Monroe back this week after he sat out last Sunday's loss with a shoulder injury.
Gabbert's going to have make strides in the passing department for the Jaguars to have a chance on Monday, as the Baltimore defense has been a stone wall against enemy running backs all season long. The Ravens are permitting a minuscule 3.3 yards per carry and 76.6 rushing yards per game (3rd overall) at the moment, and were able to limit Houston star back Arian Foster to a harmless 49 yards on 15 attempts last week. The front seven boasts three elite players in perennial All-Pro inside linebacker Ray Lewis (42 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT), massive tackle Haloti Ngata (21 tackles, 2 sacks) and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (15 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 INT), while a strong secondary is once again anchored by prolific playmaker Ed Reed (21 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT). The game-changing free safety is a major reason why Baltimore ranks second in pass efficiency defense and stands among the league leaders with 14 takeaways, though half of those came in the team's season-opening rout of rival Pittsburgh. The Ravens can get to the quarterback as well, with Suggs spearheading a pass rush that's generated 15 sacks through the first five games and loves to bring the blitz.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Quarterback play. Jones-Drew is a great back, but it's a bit of a stretch to think the Jacksonville catalyst will be able to run wild on a Baltimore defense that's one of the stoutest in the game. Therefore, Gabbert will need to come of age and make some plays to keep the Ravens from keying on the Jaguars' best weapon. On the other side, Flacco was brutal in the Ravens' only loss this season and historically plays better at home than on the road, and Jacksonville can stay in this one if he doesn't perform up to standards.
Turnovers. Though Gabbert has done well at avoiding the big mistake during his time under center, the rookie will surely be tested by an aggressive Baltimore defense that excels in inducing errors out of the opposition. The Jaguars have little chance of coming out on top if they're not on the plus side of the turnover battle, so their defense is going to have create some miscues in order to end the team's lengthy slide.
Maintain the momentum. Jacksonville did play a terrific second half against the Steelers last week, with the defense swarming to the football and the offense operating in at least a serviceable fashion. If the Jaguars can keep up that level of execution on Monday, they'll certainly have a shot.
Experience counts, and the battle-tested Ravens hold a clear advantage over a painfully-young Jacksonville team that's still trying to establish an identity. The Jaguars' improved defense and Baltimore's struggles in the red zone should make this a reasonably competitive contest, but unless Gabbert and the Jacksonville offense improve by leaps and bounds over their previous performances -- which doesn't seem likely against the Ravens' stellar stop unit -- another loss appears in the cards.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 23, Jaguars 10