When NFL officials put together the league’s schedule this spring, they could not have expected one of Week 7′s best games to be played in Baltimore. The Ravens’ matchup with the Detroit Lions was not prime-time material. It was not even late-afternoon-kickoff material.
Yet here the division leaders are, preparing for a 1 p.m. kickoff at M&T Bank Stadium that will be telecast across wide swaths of the country. The 4-2 Ravens are field goal favorites, but it’s the 5-1 Lions who are perhaps the more intriguing curiosity. Detroit, which hasn’t won a playoff game since 1991, has the look of a potential powerhouse. The Lions are one of just two teams, along with the San Francisco 49ers, to rank in the top five in both offensive and defensive DVOA, according to FTN.
“Arguably the best team in the NFC right now,” as Ravens coach John Harbaugh put it Monday.
And almost certainly the best team the Ravens have faced this season. Here’s what to watch in their Week 7 matchup.
1. Lions quarterback Jared Goff has played the Ravens twice over his eight-year career. Both times he looked like a quarterback incapable of his current level of offensive mastery.
In 2019, Goff completed over 70% of his passes but threw two interceptions as the Ravens blew out the Rams in Los Angeles 45-6. Two years later, after he was traded to the Lions, he again completed over 70% of his passes but could not put the visiting Ravens away for good in a 19-17 loss.
The Goff the Ravens will see on Sunday is perhaps the best version yet. He’s Pro Football Focus’ highest-rated quarterback, just ahead of the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson, having honed his strengths and addressed his weaknesses. Goff not only has a touchdown pass rate of 5.4% — his best mark since his early years in Los Angeles — but also a turnover-worthy-play rate of 1.3%, according to PFF, a career low and the NFL’s best mark among starters.
“He’s always been really good,” Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said Thursday. “I remember when [the Rams] came out here — I think it was in ’18 — and we practiced against him, and it was an impressive operation. And what I remember was, he was extremely accurate. And so you watch him now, and that definitely is consistent. But [he’s in] total control of their offense, and it seems like his eyes are always right; he always knows where he wants to go with the football. So that’s going to be a point of emphasis, to try to make him not as comfortable as he’s been the last few weeks.”
2. It doesn’t seem to matter how defenses try to stop Lions star wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown.
Man-to-man coverage hasn’t worked; he’s earning nearly one target for every three snaps he gets, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, and making the most of them, too, with 13 catches on 15 targets for 132 yards. St. Brown is just as dangerous against zone coverage (25 catches on 35 targets for 323 yards), regularly punishing linebackers who lose track of his whereabouts over the middle on play-action passes.
Just as frustrating for defensive coordinators, St. Brown is hard to pigeonhole. Last season, he had 584 yards when aligned in the slot and 509 yards when aligned out wide. This season, he has 196 yards and 223 yards, respectively.
How the Ravens deploy top cornerback Marlon Humphrey, their best hope for a St. Brown stopper, could be one of the game’s more important subplots. Since returning from injury in Week 5, Humphrey has played almost exclusively as an outside cornerback (73 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus). But Humphrey has lockdown ability as a slot corner, too, and his strength could give the well-built Brown a challenge inside.
“I think that’s very situational based,” Macdonald said of the Ravens’ matchups with St. Brown and rookie tight end Sam LaPorta. “Like, first-and-10 is going to be a lot different than third-and-3, and then where you’re at in the field is going to matter as well. [The Lions] do a good job of moving both those guys around, so whatever world we’re in we definitely have to account for them.”
3. With the emergence of Aidan Hutchinson (4.5 sacks), the Lions have a blue-chip defensive end to anchor their pass rush. But Detroit asks a lot of last year’s No. 2 overall pick.
Under defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, the Lions blitz the quarterback just 22% of the time, the fifth-lowest rate in the NFL and a dramatic drop-off from last year, when they ranked eighth in blitz rate (36.4%), according to NGS.
If Hutchinson can’t turn the corner against Ravens tackles Ronnie Stanley and Morgan Moses, and if defensive tackle Alim McNeill (two sacks) can’t push the pocket inside, Detroit’s passive approach could prove costly. Jackson is 84-for-110 (76.4%) for 853 yards against three- and four-man pass rushes this season, and he’s been sacked just nine times on 145 drop-backs (6.2% sack rate). Jackson’s overall success rate when not facing the blitz is 53.8%, fifth best in the NFL.
“He’s a growing thrower in this league,” Glenn said Thursday. “There’s a number of ways that he can hurt you. I mean, this guy was a former MVP, and he’s there for a reason.”
4. One year after finishing 29th in the NFL in rushing defense (146.5 yards allowed per game), the Lions entered Week 7 atop the league leaderboard (64.7 yards). But the Ravens and Jackson pose a challenge unlike any Detroit’s seen this season.
Five of the six starting quarterbacks the Lions have faced this season — the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, Seattle Seahawks’ Geno Smith, Green Bay Packers’ Jordan Love, Carolina Panthers’ Bryce Young and Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Baker Mayfield — are not featured in their offense’s designed-running game. Atlanta Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder, the lone exception on the Lions’ schedule, has just six designed runs this season, according to NGS.
Jackson, meanwhile, has 24 such carries for 126 yards and two touchdowns, plus another 33 scrambles for 202 yards and two scores.
“If I was dreaming about how to stop these guys, he’d be the first one I would think of if I was coming out of a nightmare,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said Wednesday. “He is dangerous. They don’t ask him to do as much as he did before with his legs, but there’s plenty of it still in there, and he’s throwing it pretty good. They’ve made a concerted effort to do a little more drop-back [passing] with him, and he is. He is throwing the ball well. And he’s got guys that are making plays for him. But if it’s not there, he’ll take off and he gets up the middle, he gets to the edge and he’s going to hurt you.”
5. The Ravens are 4-0 against the Lions under Harbaugh, who’s undefeated against only one other team over his 16 years in Baltimore (Tampa Bay). If not for kicker Justin Tucker, though, Harbaugh might only be 2-2.
In 2013, Tucker hit a career-long 61-yard field goal with 38 seconds left to lift the Ravens to an 18-16 win over the Lions. Eight years later, back in Detroit, Tucker doinked an NFL-record 66-yard field goal through the uprights as time expired in a 19-17 win.
Those are the only 60-plus-yard field goals Tucker has made in his NFL career. He’s 0-for-7 otherwise.
“I think anytime you put Justin out there, he’s going to try to dominate the football game,” Ravens special teams coordinator Chris Horton said Thursday. “If you let him line up and say, ‘Hey, you go out there, it’s field goal time,’ he’s fired up, and he’s going to be ready.”