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Ravens vs. Lions key matchups: Battle between young coordinators takes center stage

This interconference heavyweight bout features key battles between specific players, units, and coaches.

Atlanta Falcons v Detroit Lions Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images

The Baltimore Ravens will be back at home in Week 7, where they’ll face off with the Detroit Lions at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday. They are minor favorites in this interconference matchup against arguably the most complete team in the league, who is coming off an impressive win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 6.

However, games aren’t won on paper or decided by betting odds. There are some pivotal matchups between individual players, units, and players and coaches that will go a long way in determining the outcome of this contest.

Below are a handful of those key battles that could prove to be deciding factors.

DC Mike Macdonald v. OC Ben Johnson

Two of the fastest-rising stars in the coaching realm, who will be among the hottest names up for head coach vacancies, will be facing off in an chess match on Sunday. Both coordinators excel at devising creative ways to put their players in the best positions to succeed as well as create and exploit mismatches.

Macdonald, 36, has done a great job of dialing up deceptive ways to deploy the versatile defenders at his disposal. That has helped the Ravens generate pressure, rack up sacks, disguise coverages, force turnovers, and limit big plays. His unit is allowing the second-fewest yards per game (260.8) and the second-fewest yards per play (four).

“Mike might be the smartest defensive coordinator I’ve had,” outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney said Wednesday. “He puts everybody in position to make plays. And [with] the stuff he draws, I’ll be like, ‘Mike, keep dialing it up! Keep dialing it up!’ I enjoy playing for him. Like I said, he makes sure he puts the gameplan together, [and] we try to go out there and execute. And I respect him [for] the way he prepares us and has us ready to go into the games, and I just love playing for Mike.”

Johnson, 37, has been excellent in coming up with a multitude of plays that maximize the skill sets of his dynamic playmakers. They can stretch the field vertically and horizontally, and pick up chunk gains after the catch. His unit ranks third in yards per game (383.7), fourth in points per game (28), and fourth in yards per play (5.8). When asked how he would describe Johnson’s offense during a press conference on Thursday, Macdonald called it “multiple and balanced.”

“[They’re] able to get to a lot of things easily with their personnel being able to move guys around using all their pieces,” Macdonald said. “I think their run game mixes all the zone [scheme] and the gap [scheme] world mixed with under center. They’re very explosive with the under-center, play-action pass. Then, you couple that with the drop-back game and being able to get guys in space and find matchups and things like that.

DB Geno Stone v. QB Jared Goff

The fourth-year free safety is in line to make his 12th career start and fourth of the season in place of injured veteran Marcus Williams. He’ll be going up against a veteran signal caller who is playing like a league MVP to start the season.

While Goff was a passenger and glorified field manager the Los Angeles Rams, he’s been a decisive field general and highly efficient point guard in his last 16 games with the Lions. Dating back to last season, he has recorded 37 touchdowns to four interceptions, completing 65.46 percent of his passes for 4,152 yards with a 13-3 record as a starter. He is seeing the field well and manipulating defenders at an elite level with 11 touchdowns, three interceptions, a completion percentage of 69.5, and 1,618 passing yards through the first six games.

“I feel like Goff is a guy that’s going to control that offense very well,” Stone said. “He’s a very talented guy. He’s going to make sure everyone is in the right spots to get the right checks.”

Stone is also having a career year and making the most of his extensive playing time and emerging as one of the most dangerous ball hawks in the league. His career-high three interceptions aren’t just the most on the Ravens but are tied for the league lead through six games. His overall Pro Football Focus grade of 86.4 is the third-highest on his team and third among all safeties in the league.

The 2020 seventh-rounder will need to continue his impressive play as a center-fielding playmaker in the secondary . He’s been making plays on the ball to either deflect or intercept passes, as well as quickly close throwing windows. That could help make Goff hold the ball longer, which will buy more time for the Ravens’ top-ranked pass rush.

“I had like five goals on there and three-plus interceptions were one of them,” Stone said. “I feel like I have a lot more goals I want to hit this year, and most of them are team goals at this point. So, I just have to take it one step at a time; one week at time. It’s really early in the season, so I don’t want to get complacent. The success is good, but at the same time, you’re only good as your next opportunity I get. I never want to get complacent; I want to be able capitalize on my next opportunity I get.”

Ravens’ front seven v. Lions’ offensive line

While Baltimore is tied for the most sacks in the league through six games, their ferocious defensive front will face the toughest blocking unit they’ll see all season on Sunday. Detroit has arguably the deepest offensive line in the league that either matches or surpasses the reigning NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles. They are tied for the fourth-fewest sacks allowed (10), have the fifth-lowest sack percentage (4.7), and have paved the way for their offensive unit as a whole to rank Top-10 in both rushing and passing.

Everything the Lions do on offense starts up front in the trenches. That includes pounding the ball and trying to set a tone with their ground game, as well as giving Goff enough time to throw on target. That also happens to be where the Ravens are very strong with interior defensive linemen Michael Pierce, Travis Jones, Brent Urban, Broderick Washington, and Justin Madubuike — who is in the midst of an elite breakout season.

Their outside linebackers and Madubuike, who occasionally lines up on the edge, will have their hands full with an elite offensive tackle duo. Veteran left tackle Taylor Decker is a rock-solid stalwart but third-year right tackle Penei Sewell is a rising star. He’s fresh off a Pro Bowl season and is on track to be an All-Pro this year.

According to PFF, the former Top-10 pick in 2021 hasn’t allowed a sack in 525 consecutive pass-blocking snaps. Veterans Jadeveon Clowney and Kyle Van Noy, who have been heating up as of late, will need to pull out their best pass rush moves if they hope to stay hot.

Ravens’ offensive line v. DE Aidan Hutchinson

The Lions have a really stout defensive line filled with hard-nosed ascending players who hustle and grind to the whistle and are capable of making plays. However, their most disruptive player is last year’s second-overall pick, who leads the team in sacks with 4.5 and is a clutch playmaking machine. At times, Hutchinson appears to have a similar “right place, right time” mojo that T.J. Watt of the Pittsburgh Steelers has, where he consistently comes up with game-changing or victory-clinching play.

Hutchinson had a great rookie season and is on pace to set even more impressive career-highs in his second season. In addition to already having nearly half of his sack total from a a year ago (9.5) through six games, he has already topped that in pass breakups with four and is on his way to doing the same with tackles-for-loss (four) and quarterback hits (eight). He also has great awareness and athleticism to make plays on the ball with four interceptions, including three as a rookie and one this year thus far.

What makes Hutchinson a problem for the entire Ravens’ offensive line is his versatility, given he can line up inside and out. As a rookie, he primarily played over the opposing right tackle but this year he has spent more time working the opposing quarterback’s blindside. He’s also been moving inside over guards and centers at times, so veteran bookends Ronnie Stanley and Morgan Moses won’t be the only ones with their hands full on Sunday.

One other specific battle to keep an eye on will be between Ravens’ second-year center Tyler Linderbaum and Lions’ third-year nose tackle Alim McNeill. McNeill is emerging as an underrated interior pass rusher in addition to being a great run stuffer. However, Linderbaum is having a standout season himself with not a single sack or quarterback hit on 136 pass-blocking snaps according to PFF.

QB Lamar Jackson v. LB Alex Anzalone

The Lions have the top-ranked rush defense that has allowed a league-low 388 total yards on the ground and is giving up just 64.7 yards per game through six weeks. Leading the charge for the unit will be the seven-year veteran Anzalone, who leads the team with 44 total tackles.

Anzalone has been establishing himself among the top off-ball linebackers in the league who excels at not just making plays in the run game but in coverage as well. Per PFF, his 239 coverage snaps without allowing a touchdown this season ranks first among all linebackers.

Limiting the damage that the Ravens’ star signal-caller can do with his legs but more importantly his arm is much easier said than done. Jackson has been masterful and lethally accurate from inside the pocket this year. So, even if the Lions manage to slow down and stymie their run game, he’s shown that he is more than capable of getting the job done through the air primarily.

Ravens’ cornerbacks v. Lions’ wide receivers

Detroit has three pass catchers with over 300 receiving yards and three touchdowns and their top two are both wideouts off to sizzling-hot starts to the season. While seven-year veteran Josh Reynolds has been a pleasant surprise with his clutch plays and potent production, Goff’s top target and most trusted playmaker in the passing game is third-year receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown. St. Brown leads the team in targets (50), receptions (38), receiving yards (455), and receiving first downs (23).

“He’s a guy that’s really good in the slot; tough guy; good guy after the catch,” Stone said. “He’s probably their best player, I would say, on the offensive side of the ball, and they’re going to try and get him going. So, we have to try to limit as much as we can on the defensive side for him.”

Since St. Brown can make plays inside and out, the Ravens might have three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey dust off his nickel skills and spend some time in the slot following him wherever he goes. Third-year pro Brandon Stephens would be a better matchup for Reynolds and veteran nickelback Arthur Maulet could help out in the slot with St. Brown as well.

The Lions also have a second-year wideout in Jameson Williams, who they drafted in the first round last year. He’s capable of blowing the top off of an opposing defense with speed as well as making contested catches down the field. Sunday will only be his third game back since serving a reduced suspension for gambling. However, the threat he presents will not be taken likely after what he showed last week against the Buccaneers last week.

DB Kyle Hamilton v. TE Sam LaPorta

The Lions’ standout second-round rookie doesn’t just lead all rookie tight ends in targets, receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns through the first six weeks. Among all players at his position, his 29 catches rank third, his 329 receiving yards rank second behind only Travis Kelce, and his three receiving touchdowns are tied for the most with Mark Andrews.

Thankfully, the Ravens are uniquely equipped to limit such a dangerous playmaker with one of their own on the opposite side of the ball in Hamilton. The second-year pro who is having a breakout season. Their defense has yet to allow 50 or more receiving yards to a tight end all season and has only allowed more than three receptions to a player at that position once. That was to the Cleveland Browns’ David Njoku, who only recorded 46 receiving yards in a losing effort in Week 4.

Hamilton has been a big reason for their tremendous success at locking up the opposing team’s tight ends. He gets plenty of practice during the week going up against one of the league’s best in Andrews. According to PFF, Hamilton has the most coverage snaps by safety without giving up a touchdown pass. He’s been targeted 15 times in coverage and has only allowed eight receptions for 29 yards, a completion percentage of 53.3 percent and an opposing passer rating of 31.3 and an interception.