1) Attack the linebackers: The trio of Minnesota backers is as good a group against the run as there is in the league. They have great gap integrity, tackle well, and pursue from sideline-to-sideline. However, they are not as strong in pass coverage.
This is a group that has given up big plays against tight ends. Specifically, Vernon Davis and Jermichael Finley put together two of the bigger performances by tight ends this season.
The Ravens will need the same type of effort from Todd Heap. Heap will have to work out of multiple spots along the line, and stretch his routes downfield. He will need to force the backers out of the box and into the open field, where they lack the quickness to keep up.
2) Single back set: Against Minnesota, opponents often give up on running the ball before halftime. The Vikings pride themselves on being able to stuff offenses on first down, forcing them to convert in third-and-long situations. That is when the front seven is able to tee off against the quarterback.
Although it is tough to move the ball on the ground against the Vikings, Baltimore will have to stay balanced. The best bet for the offense will be to run the ball from the spread formation, when the Vikings anticipate pass.
This is a Ray Rice game all the way. The second-year player has developed into an effective spread formation back. He does a nice job of staying patient before a gap opens, and then once it does, he accelerates through it. The offense will need Rice’s ability to quickly squirt through fast-closing gaps, especially off the edges, where the Vikings may be vulnerable in obvious passing situations.
3) Throw away from Winfield: There are few shutdown cornerbacks in the NFL. Antoine Winfield is among the small fraternity of defenders who can man up any receiver without help from a safety. Winfield is perhaps the toughest press corner in the league. He rarely gets beaten at the line. In addition, Winfield is known for baiting quarterbacks into making mistakes. He will sometimes play off of a receiver so the quarterback thinks there is a clean throwing lane, only to be in position to jump the underneath route.
Given that the Bengals did such a great job of taking away Derrick Mason a week ago, expect Winfield to draw the assignment and be counted on to shut down the veteran receiver. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will try to move Mason around so he is a part of the passing game, but overall, the Vikings will do whatever they can to take him out of the offense. Like the Bengals, the Vikings will take their chances with other receivers making plays in the passing game.
The Ravens will need to orient their attack away from Winfield’s side, even if that means not involving Mason. Offenses have been able to throw against corners Cedric Griffin and Benny Sapp, and the Ravens will need to get the same level of production from their receivers.
1) Seven in the box: With future Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre on the field, defenses have had a dilemma all season. Do they commit eight defenders in the box to stop Adrian Peterson and take their chances against Favre? Or do they account for Favre’s passing ability and keep their safeties back?
Most defenses have opted to slow down Peterson, hoping that Favre would self-destruct as a passer. However, that plan has backfired and Favre has torched the single safety looks he has faced.
The Ravens have always used a seven-man front to stop the run. They rarely commit a safety in the box to help against the run. They are able to use this approach because the front seven defenders do such a good job of stacking and shedding blocks, so they are able to hit the ball carrier before he gets to the second level.
Baltimore will not use a consistent eight-man front to defend Peterson because they have enough respect for what Favre can do. They will try to stuff the run with their front seven just as they have done against every other top notch rushing attack.
2) First down defense: The key for the Baltimore defense will be its ability to limit the Minnesota offense on first down. By keeping the Vikings in check on first down, the defense will face an easier challenge on third down, when Peterson is generally out of the game.
How the front seven plays against Peterson on first down will dictate how often Favre has to throw the ball on third down. If the Ravens are solid against Peterson on first down, holding him to an average of 3.0 yards per carry, Favre will have to make plays with his arm to keep drives alive.
3) Zone defense: Facing more single safety coverage, Favre has been able to complete passes to his receivers on the outside. Once he’s been able to get the ball to his receivers, they have been able to gain yards after contact.
The Ravens have struggled to defend in man-to-man situations. Given Favre’s ability to defeat single coverage, and the playmaking ability of the Minnesota receivers once they’re in open space, this game could call for more use of zone defense to slow down the passing attack. The goal should be to turn Minnesota into a check down offense that has to methodically move the ball, as opposed to hitting on a few big plays. Moreover, if Favre is forced to throw against tighter zone coverage, he will be more prone to make a mistake.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch: Ben Grubbs versus Kevin Williams: Williams is recognized for his run-stuffing ability, but he is equally effective as a pass rusher. Williams is a three-down player who is quick out of his stance and uses his hands well. He is one of the most explosive gap-splitters in the league. Grubbs has developed into a better pass blocker, although he still struggles with his technique. He will have to match Williams’ speed and counter his pass rush moves to keep him out of the backfield.