Jaguars vs. Ravens preview

When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday Where: M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore TV: CBS

This is an AFC matchup between teams headed in opposite directions when the surging Baltimore Ravens (8-5) play host to the fading Jacksonville Jaguars (2-11).

The Ravens have won three of their past four games to keep them in the thick of the AFC playoff race. They are a half-game behind the first-place Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North, and they can earn at least a wild-card berth if they win their final three regular-season games.

The last-place Jaguars have lost five of their last six games as they eye a top-five draft pick for the fourth straight season. Jacksonville is an NFL-worst 6-17 (.261) in December since 2009.

ESPN Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco and Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley take a closer look at Sunday's game:

Hensley: The Ravens are vulnerable in the secondary, ranking No. 31 in pass defense. Their biggest problem is defending the deep pass. Can Blake Bortles exploit this?

DiRocco: In theory, yes, but it depends on how well the offensive line performs and how the Ravens attack. Teams have defended the Jaguars by putting eight men in the box to stop the run and daring the Jaguars to beat them by throwing the ball. So far, Bortles hasn’t been able to get it done but that’s partly because of an inconsistent offensive line that has given up 54 sacks, including 15 in the past three games. Not all of those sacks are on the OL – running back Denard Robinson was beaten twice in protection in the New York game and Bortles has held onto the ball too long at times – but the majority are. The Jaguars’ answer has been shorter passes to beat the pressure, but they’ve tried to take shots down field as well. They haven’t hit many, whether it’s because Bortles didn’t make the correct read, pressure forcing him to get rid of the ball quickly, or coverage. Rookie Marqise Lee has really come on the last few weeks and he does have good speed, but he’s not really a deep threat. Rookie Allen Hurns is, however, and three of his six touchdown catches have been from more than 30 yards. If the offensive line can give Bortles a tad more time the Jaguars might be able to hit a few deep shots.

Why are the Ravens struggling so badly against the pass?

Hensley: Do you have a couple hours to talk about this? That's what it would take to explain why the Ravens are on pace to give up the most passing yards in the franchise's 19-year history. There have been injuries. Cornerback Jimmy Smith, the team's top defensive player, went down with a season-ending foot injury in October. The Ravens were down to three healthy corners this week before they signed free agent Antoine Cason. There also has been some bad play. The Ravens' two starting cornerbacks, Lardarius Webb and Asa Jackson, are both in the bottom 20 in Pro Football Focus' rankings. This doesn't even touch upon the problems at safety. The Ravens have a good enough pass rush to overcome the deficiencies in the secondary against non-elite quarterbacks. But they can't be considered a serious Super Bowl contender with these struggles in the secondary.

Speaking of vulnerable spots, the Jaguars have allowed the fifth-most rushing yards in the NFL. What has been the biggest problem with their run defense?

DiRocco: Whenever I’ve asked about this issue the answer the players always give is run fits. Essentially, they weren’t properly filling their assigned gaps because they were either getting blocked, running around blocks, or trying to do more than their responsibility on the play. That was a big problem early in the season, when they gave up 480 yards in the first three games. They solved that issue in the next four games, giving up just 292 yards and that averaged out to 110.3 yards per game allowed through the first seven games – a solid number. Then middle linebacker Paul Posluszny was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Since then, with little-used fourth-year player J.T. Thomas manning the middle, the Jaguars have allowed 159 yards per game rushing. Some of that has been run fits, but another problem has been missed tackles. That has been an on-again, off-again issue all season, especially in the secondary. Big gains have resulted when defensive backs miss tackles, and safeties Johnathan Cyprien and Josh Evans have been the biggest violators.

The Ravens have three former Jaguars in key roles: Eugene Monroe, Daryl Smith and Justin Forsett. It's a bit of a surprise that Forsett has played as well as he has. What sparked him? Was it just a matter of opportunity, which he didn't get in Jacksonville last year because he was injured?

Hensley: It really is a matter of opportunity and being healthy this year. Forsett averaged 4.9 yards per carry in his five NFL seasons before coming to the Ravens. The problem was, he never received more than 118 carries in a season. This season was the first time he really got a break in his career. He went from No. 3 on the depth chart to the starter after Ray Rice was abruptly released and Bernard Pierce was injured. Forsett has been the most valuable player on the Ravens because this team wouldn't be in the hunt for a playoff berth without him. He is the NFL's third-leading rusher and is the league's best big-play runner this year. This has the makings of a bad reunion for the Jaguars, who have given up a league-worst 15 runs longer than 20 yards.

The Jaguars have lost nine games by double digits, and the talk about low morale has been a hot topic on your blog. The Ravens are 43-11 at home since 2008 (second-best record over that span). What has to happen for the Jaguars to pull off this upset?

DiRocco: To answer that you only have to look at the Jaguars’ two victories. In beating Cleveland and the New York Giants, the Jaguars forced six turnovers and turned those into four touchdowns and a field goal. The offense just isn’t consistent enough to generate more than one or two scoring drives without help. In fact, the Jaguars have scored only two offensive touchdowns in the past three games, neither of which began with an opponent turnover. The defense scored twice against the Giants on fumble recoveries. To beat the Ravens, the Jaguars are going to have to force some turnovers inside Baltimore territory and come away with touchdowns while at the same time taking care of the football. They’ve had just one turnover-free game this season (against the Giants) and Bortles has thrown a league-high 16 interceptions.

Jamison, you wrote earlier in the week that coach John Harbaugh is at his best as a coach when the Ravens face adversity. That obviously rubs off on the team. So, do you expect the Ravens to make the playoffs and do some damage?

Hensley: It depends on when you ask me this question. After the Ravens won in New Orleans, I thought they were going to win the division. After they lost to San Diego, I didn't feel they were going to make the postseason. Now, after they won in Miami, I can see them winning out and earning at least a wild-card berth. Where I've been consistent is forecasting their fate in the postseason. The glaring weakness in the secondary will be their downfall. I can't see them beating the likes of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck with this defensive backfield. But, when it comes to beating a rookie like Bortles, that's a different story.