In Week 15, the extremely banged up and some would even say reeling Baltimore Ravens will host the red-hot Green Bay Packers who currently lead the NFC North and are the top seed in the entire NFC. Since their stunning season-opening stinker of a loss to the New Orleans Saints by a score of 38-3, the reigning league MVP Aaron Rodgers and Co. have looked like nearly unstoppable juggernauts.
They are coming off a big win over their division rival Chicago Bears in which they ultimately won convincingly in the end but it didn’t start that way. The lowly Bears were able to keep pace and actually led at halftime thanks in large part to their ability to make spark plays on special teams.
Even though they wound up losing by two scores 45-30, Chicago might have exposed a few chinks in Green Bay’s amour in the often-overlooked third phase of the game that could prove to be a fatal flaw to the Ravens advantage. Bears’ wide receiver/return specialist Jakeem Grant only fielded three punts in the game yet was able to rack up 131 yards on a pair of returns in the first alone because of the Packers’ inability to keep their rush lane integrity on their kick coverage unit.
Grant is one of the most explosive players in the league with his incredible burst, acceleration, and breakaway speed. He was able to take advantage of the Packers’ sloppiness to rip off 34 yards on his first opportunity and made history by scoring on his second.
By reversing field after fielding the ball deep in his team’s side of the field on a punt that appeared destined to be a touchback, Grant was able to set a new NFL record with his 97-yard punt return touchdown. It gave Chicago a 10-point lead that they weren’t able to extend or hold onto but it showed a way in which a team that has been struggling to score 20 or more points can keep up with or at least hold serve with a more dominant and well-balanced opponent on both sides of the ball.
Despite his explosive plays as a punt returner this past week, Grant is still second in the league in total punt return yards or yards per punt return. In first place is none other than the Ravens’ own Devin Duvernay who has been the most dangerous punt returner in the league this year. The dynamic second-year wide receiver leads the NFL with 360 punt return yards and averages a league-high 14.4 yards per punt return.
Ravens Special Teams Coordinator Chris Horton knows that if his unit can gash the Packers in the return game, even if they don’t score or set any new records, they’ll at least be able to set up the offense with a handful of short fields to work with. He will certainly be showing his players film of the Packers’ coverage deficiencies and anticipate how they intend to rectify so that he can continue to expose them.
Duvernay is the Ravens starting kick returner as well and after watching Bears’ rookie running back Khalil Herbert rip off a pair of kick returns for 40 or more yards in the first half, that will also be an area where the savvy, disciplined, and well-prepared special teams unit in Baltimore could look to exploit as well.
The Ravens were nearly able to pull off an epic comeback against the Cleveland Browns this past week after their first successful onside kick recovery in two decades gave them a chance to get into range for a game-winning field goal. If the situation arises again late in this matchup, the Packers have shown that they are susceptible to giving up that kind of play too against the Bears. I can already envision Chuck Clark successfully recovering a ball that took the perfect bounce off the turf just inside Green Bay territory.
The usually unimaginative Bears also showcased some creative ways to create mismatches in the second level to generate explosive scoring plays that the Ravens could draw inspiration from. Both clips below are of plays in which Duvernay can be used in a similar fashion and yield similar if not identical results if dialed up and executed properly against a certain or favorable defensive alignment.
Chicago scored the first touchdown of the game on a play similar to one the Ravens have used Duvernay on before but with much better results. They brought Grant in motion and Justin Fields tossed him a quick pass that he proceeded to take around the edge and up the left sideline for a 46-yard score.
After the Packers took their first lead of the game on a Rasul Douglass interception return for a touchdown, the Bears responded with a swift touchdown drive of their that only took three plays to get into the end zone and snatch the lead back. On the drive’s third and final play wide receiver Damiere Byrd lined up in the backfield at halfback to the right of Fields and ran a route that was either an option, angle, or Texas. It left him one-on-one with a dime linebacker and he took the short pass 54 yards to the house.
Ravens fans and pundits have been clamoring for Duvernay to have his role and involvement expanded all season long. Even though he has played 55 percent of the team’s total offensive snaps this season, he only averages just over two touches per game and has yet to have more than five in a single contest this year.
A couple of weeks ago, Offensive Coordinator, Greg Roman said he has more schemed-up plays to get the ball in the hands of Duvernay and others in a vault waiting for strategic deployment. With the team losing back-to-back games for the first time this season and their lead in the AFC North race significantly reduced, there’s no better time than the present to open the vault and unleash one of their most dynamic weapons in two phases of the game.