Four Downs: Keys to beating the Ravens

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A look at four keys for the Bears to beat this week’s opponent.

1. Contain Ray Rice
He may not be very big, but at 5-foot-8, Baltimore running back Ray Rice runs like a truck. As is the case with most short running backs, Rice runs with excellent leverage and is difficult to bring down. He’s quite adept at maintaining balance and keeping his legs churning after contact. Commentators have raved about his ability to use his free hand to prevent himself from hitting the ground when being tackled to keep the play alive and grind out extra yardage. It usually takes more than one tackler to bring him down because he doesn’t go down without a fight. Something that may hurt the Bears is that if you don’t use proper tackling technique on Rice, he’ll get away from you. Tackling has been one of the biggest issues during Lovie Smith’s tenure, even when the Bears had a Top 5 defense. Rice is the ninth-leading rusher in the league. He has eight carries of 20-plus yards, the sixth-best total in the league, and three carries of more than 40 yards, which is the third-best total in the league. He’s also very good at protecting the football as he’s fumbled just once.

2. Chew up the clock with long drives
When facing a team with a good run game, the last thing you want to do is fall behind because you may have difficulty getting the ball back. Hence, the longer the Bears offense can stay on the field and the more points they can put on the scoreboard, the less amount of time the Ravens will have to establish their run game. When a team is playing from behind, it cannot continue to run the ball, which is a major contributing factor to why the Bears have the worst rushing offense in the league. If the Bears can tire the Ravens’ defense and keep the score close throughout the game, they could exploit that in the fourth quarter. One of the best ways to prolong a drive is by using the short passing game, which is what the Bears will want to utilize against a ball-hawking secondary, anyway.

3. Limit the turnovers
The Ravens’ defense has 16 interceptions this year, sixth-most in the NFL. They’ve also forced 10 fumbles and have recovered six of them. With all the turnover they’ve had from both a coaching and player personnel standpoint, it’s remarkable that they’ve consistently have had one of the best defenses in the league each year this decade. Two of the main reasons have been the play of middle linebacker Ray Lewis and free safety Ed Reed. Reed, arguably the best safety in the league, has missed the past two games with groin and foot injuries and is listed as doubtful for this game. Even without him, the Ravens clamp down on receivers and can jump routes. It’s never a good idea to tell a gun-slinging playmaking quarterback to play conservatively, but Jay Cutler will have to play cautiously, at least more so than usual. He’ll also have to be on the move because Lewis figures to be bearing down on him often. The Ravens have a plus-4 turnover ratio while the Bears sit at minus-4. Protecting the football is of the utmost importance because the Bears will have little chance to win if they lose that statistic.

4. Attack Joe Flacco
Flacco had a terrific rookie season while taking his team to the AFC conference championship last year, but has slowed down a bit this year. He’s not a bad player but he is the Ravens’ weakest link on offense. He’s a big guy with a strong arm and he can move around in the pocket well. He can also extend plays with his feet and throw on the run, so the Bears’ defensive backs will have to stick with their receivers longer. He’s been sacked 26 times, which ranks him No. 11 in the league. He’s thrown 15 touchdowns compared to just 11 interceptions. This would be a good game for the Bears to use some exotic blitz packages to throw Flacco off his game. Even if sacks are hard to come by — which has been the case most of this season — the Bears at least need to rough him up and not let him get comfortable in the pocket. The Ravens’ game plan, obviously, is for Rice to get the majority of the play calls, but if the Bears can get a lead on Baltimore, they have a chance to get after Flacco.

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