Double Coverage: Ravens at Bills

With ailing starters on both teams, RBs Fred Jackson and Bernard Pierce could see a lot of action Sunday. USA TODAY Sports

The Baltimore Ravens and Buffalo Bills will meet Sunday for the first time since 2010, when Baltimore edged Buffalo 37-34 in overtime.

It's only September, but it might not be too early to call this a must-win for the Bills, who sit at the bottom of the AFC East at 1-2. If Buffalo can't pull out a win over the Ravens on Sunday, they face a tough four-game stretch that begins next Thursday in Cleveland.

The Ravens, on the other hand, must be feeling good after toppling the Houston Texans 30-9 last week. They are now 2-1 and in first place in the AFC North.

ESPN.com Bills reporter Mike Rodak and Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley dig deeper into this matchup.

Mike Rodak: Jamison, all the talk this offseason was about how the Ravens were set for a Super Bowl slide. After losing some key veterans on both sides of the ball, they just weren’t going to be the same team, some said. That belief seemed to hold up in their opener, in which the Denver Broncos had their way with Baltimore, scoring 49 points. But in the past two weeks, we’ve seen the Ravens pick up steam at home, handily defeating the Texans on Sunday. Was Week 1 just an anomaly, and have the Ravens overcome their offseason changes?

Jamison Hensley: Mike, not to sound too much like an apologist, but the Ravens were in a tough spot in Denver. They were facing a Broncos team that waited seven months for revenge and had seven new starters from the Super Bowl team that faced Peyton Manning. The Ravens have since changed their personnel in the secondary and their attitude in coverage. Baltimore benched safety Michael Huff and cornerback Corey Graham after the season opener. The Ravens went with two first-round picks, rookie safety Matt Elam and cornerback Jimmy Smith. Baltimore also became more aggressive with receivers and more physical in breaking up passes.

Of course, what also helps is having Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil coming off the edge. They've been able to put a lot of pressure on quarterbacks, such as Brandon Weeden and Matt Schaub. Rushing EJ Manuel is totally different. Have the Bills protected their rookie quarterback this season? And how has Manuel handled the pass rush?

Rodak: If you asked me that last week, Jamison, I think the answer would have been that the offensive line had done a great job protecting Manuel. Through two games, they allowed just one sack, second in the NFL to the Rams, but the flood gates opened last week. The Bills knew the Jets were going to blitz -- that’s the hallmark of Rex Ryan’s defense -- and they couldn’t stop it. Manuel was sacked eight times and hit 16 times. He completed only 45 percent of his throws, and some of his incompletions were ugly. The concern on the Bills’ end, I think, is that teams will copy the Jets’ model going forward, bottling up C.J. Spiller and forcing Manuel to throw downfield. Coach Doug Marrone was asked about this possibility Monday and said that he expects teams to blitz but feels as though it will open up the big play. While he gave credit to the Jets, Marrone said he felt they left some big plays out there Sunday.

For the Bills, Spiller is dealing with a thigh injury, but he expects to play Sunday. What about Ray Rice, who has a hip injury?

Hensley: Rice missed his first game since 2008 when he sat out Sunday. Coach John Harbaugh said Rice has "a chance" to play against the Bills, and I expect him to be labeled the proverbial game-time decision. The bigger question is whether the Ravens are going to get their run game on track, with or without Rice. The Ravens are averaging 2.6 yards per carry, which is next to last in the NFL. Backup running back Bernard Pierce was held to one yard or less on 11 of his 24 carries against the Texans. He's a one-cut-and-run-downhill type of a runner, and he looked very indecisive. The offensive line, especially tackles Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher, have struggled to open holes.

One of the biggest keys of the game will be whether the Ravens can run at Buffalo. I see the Bills are allowing 155 yards rushing per game. Is that number inflated? Or is there a big concern with the Bills' run defense?

Rodak: There’s definitely concern with the Bills’ run defense. They’re actually allowing more yards per game than they did last season, when they allowed 145 yards per game, 31st in the NFL. They’re tied with Washington as second worst this season. However, it’s worth noting that teams are racking up most of their rushing yards in the middle of the field. Once opponents get deep inside Bills territory, they struggle to run. Buffalo allows just 2.36 yards per rush inside its own 25-yard line, 10th best in the NFL. That’s when a well-stocked defensive line, especially Kyle Williams, seems to be at its best.

What has plagued the Bills, though, is their third-down defense. They rank 27th in the NFL and struggled, especially in the first half, to stop the Jets on third down last week. Jamison, is that something Joe Flacco and the Ravens can exploit?

Hensley: The Ravens are ranked eighth in third-down conversions (44 percent), but this fails to tell the whole story. Over the past two games, Baltimore converted only three of 14 third downs (21.4 percent) in the first half. After halftime, the Ravens have converted 13 of their 18 third-down chances (72.2 percent). The Ravens are going to have to figure out a way to start faster on offense. Torrey Smith and Brandon Stokley are tied for the most third-down catches on the team with seven, although there's a disparity between the average yards for those catches between Smith (24.3) and Stokley (8.3). The Ravens' pass protection has held up well for Flacco this season and limited the Texans' J.J. Watt to one sack. The challenge this time is Mario Williams. Will Baltimore have the same success? We'll find out Sunday.