Pregame: Matt Cassel back under center again in Vikings-Ravens
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
The Minnesota Vikings (3-8-1) and Baltimore Ravens (6-6) both came off overachieving seasons in 2012, but have failed to meet expectations this season.
The Ravens currently hold the coveted sixth-seed in the AFC Playoffs, while a tie at Lambeau Field has the Vikings a half-game out of the No.2-overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. The Vikings currently sit with the sixth pick behind the Houston Texans (2-11), Jacksonville Jaguars (4-9), Washington Redskins (3-9), Atlanta Falcons (3-9) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-9).
Two trends work against the Vikings on Sunday - depending on how you look at it. Although they've struggled this season, the Ravens are 5-1 at home at M&T Bank Stadium this season. If you're cheering for a higher draft pick, you'll be happy to hear the Vikings are the only team in the NFL without a road win.
Quarterback Matt Cassel will get his third start of the season on Sunday after quarterback Christian Ponder was not cleared to return to practice this week after suffering a concussion against the Chicago Bears last week. Cassel led the Vikings to their Sept. 29 win in London over the Pittsburgh Steelers, which was classified as a home game.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco lost his only career matchup against the Vikings in 2009. Flacco threw for 385 yards and a 109.2 passer rating at the Metrodome, but was outdone by Brett Favre's three-touchdown performance.
The Vikings are still searching for an adequate quarterback, and have been since Favre's exit in 2010, but Cassel will lead a relatively healthy squad that will be without only tight end Kyle Rudolph (foot) and cornerback Josh Robinson (chest). Running back Adrian Peterson (groin), safety Jamarca Sanford (ankle) and linebacker Larry Dean (knee) were all listed as questionable, but coach Leslie Frazier expects all three to play.
Let's check out the five key matchups heading into Sunday.
For the Vikings
Know your identity - The NFL's reigning MVP has seen his carries increase to a career level after a midseason lull in which the Vikings started three quarterbacks in three different games and seemingly left out their workhorse in the game plan. Still dealing with bumps and bruises, Peterson has played through a groin injury in back-to-back overtime games and has averaged 33.5 carries, 178.5 yards and 5.3-yards-per-carry in those contests.
The Ravens' sixth-ranked rushing defense will likely be without linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who is listed as doubtful with an ankle injury. Something has to give as Peterson has ran for a league-leading 10 rushing touchdowns this season, while the Ravens have allowed a league-low two rushing touchdowns through 12 games.
Make them one-dimensional - Much like Maurice Jones-Drew and other elite rushers, the Ravens' Ray Rice has fallen from grace this season after consecutive seasons as a Top-10 rusher in the NFL. Of 29 running backs that have 125 carries or more this season, Rice is the only one averaging fewer than three yards per carry. Along with fellow running back Bernard Pierce, the Ravens boast a league-worst 2.9-yards-per-carry.
If the Vikings can make the Ravens abandon the running game, that will go a long way in covering up their atrocious pass defense. Linebacker Audie Cole will get his third start in the middle, shifting Erin Henderson back to the weak side. Cole has 22 tackles in his first two starts, as well as two pass deflections and one sack. However, despite Henderson's first start in three games, I still expect a lot of nickel packages for the Vikings defense as they play one of the more explosive passing offenses in the NFL. Safety Robert Blanton should continue to start as the slot cornerback, with Cole and linebacker Chad Greenway staying on the field as the nickel linebackers.
Pass rush - After notching a combined three sacks against the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers, the Vikings brought Bears quarterback Josh McCown down four times in Sunday's overtime win. Defensive end Brian Robison has five sacks in the last five games and will look to continue that trend against a Ravens offensive line that has allowed 39 sacks - fifth-most in the NFL. Robison should pile onto Ravens right tackle Michael Oher's QB pressure count, which currently sits at 24 allowed this season. However, Ravens left tackle Eugene Monroe has allowed just five sacks all season, while defensive end Jared Allen has been held to just 1.5 sacks across the last six games. The Vikings' 24th-ranked pass rush will need to get the ball out of Flacco's hands quickly to protect the Vikings' 30th-ranked pass defense from the deep ball.
For the Ravens
Tip drill - Cassel played just the second half and overtime on Sunday, but had five of his 33 passes batted down at the line of scrimmage. Whether it's letting his vision stay too far downfield or simply not accounting for defensive linemen in his passing lanes, Cassel will have to correct that trend against a Ravens defense that is eighth in NFL with 78 pass deflections. The Ravens could be without cornerback Lardarius Webb, who is tied for the team lead with 15 pass deflections and questionable with an abdomen injury. However, nine teams have fewer interceptions than the Ravens' nine picks - including the Vikings (8). The Vikings have had one interception since safety Harrison Smith's injury on Oct. 13.
Explosive plays - Ravens receiver Torrey Smith is fifth in the NFL with 17 receptions of 20 or more yards and is on par with the likes of Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon as one-third of his receptions go that distance. In Week 3, Gordon finished with 146 yards on 10 catches, including a 46-yard touchdown in the first quarter of the Browns' 31-27 win over the Vikings.
This will be the Vikings' last game without safety Harrison Smith, who plans to return against the Philadelphia Eagles on Dec. 15. But they'll need big plays from a secondary that will start rookie cornerback Xavier Rhodes again. Rhodes has hit his stride as the Vikings' starter in the previous two weeks, defending eight passes in that stretch. After Rhodes, the Vikings' secondary play drops off as cornerback Marcus Sherels is second on the team with eight deflections this season. Safeties Andrew Sendejo and Jamarca Sanford will play key roles in defending the deep ball as the Ravens are second in NFL with 13 pass plays of 40-plus yards.
• The Ravens' kickoff coverage unit is ranked 11th in the NFL as they have not allowed a return longer than 44 yards all season. Meanwhile, Vikings rookie receiver Cordarrelle Patterson leads the NFL in both total return yardage (1,088) and average yards-per-return (34). Ravens return man Jacoby Jones is eighth in the NFL, averaging 26.5 yards per kickoff return.
• Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel has faced the Ravens twice in his nine-year career - and lost both times. Cassel ended his 27 touchdown, seven interception season with a three-interception outing in a 30-7 wildcard playoff loss to the Ravens at Arrowhead Stadium in 2010. Cassel also lost a 2012 matchup in one of his last games leading the Kansas City Cheifs against the Ravens. He has 162 yards and five interceptions in two games against Baltimore. In other words, Cassel has five interceptions in just 33 career throws against the Ravens.
• Ravens linebacker Elvis Dumervil is tied for eighth in the NFL with 9.5 sacks and his absence would be a giant relief to Vikings fans. Listed as doubtful with an ankle injury, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said he was a 'game-time decision.'
"[Dumervil] is not a guy that has to practice to play," Harbaugh said in a conference call this week.
• Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta is hopeful to make his season debut after dislocating his hip in July. The Vikings have allowed career games to multiple tight ends this season, including the Bears' Martellus Bennett and the Browns' Cameron Jordan. Bennett had his first multi-touchdown game in a 31-30 win for the Bears on Sept. 15, while three of Cameron's seven career touchdowns happened at the Metrodome in a Sept. 22 win for the Browns.
Out - TE Kyle Rudolph (foot), CB Josh Robinson (chest), QB Christian Ponder (concussion)
Questionable - RB Adrian Peterson (groin), S Jamarca Sanford (ankle), LB Larry Dean (knee)
Probable - DT Fred Evans (knee), DE Everson Griffen (toe), DE Jared Allen (finger), DT Sharrif Floyd (illness), LB Chad Greenway (wrist), RB Matt Asiata (shoulder), S Andrew Sendejo (toe)
Out - S Brynden Trawick (ankle)
Doubtful - LB Elvis Dumervil (ankle)
Questionable - DE Chris Canty (shoulder), CB Asa Jackson (thigh), WR Brandon Stokely (knee), CB Lardarius Webb (abdomen)
Probable - CB Jimmy Smith (concussion)