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Keys to the Game: Panthers at Ravens

A look at what the Panthers need to accomplish in Baltimore.
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The Carolina Panthers (3-7) are heading to Baltimore for their Week 11 matchup to take on the Ravens (6-3). A formidable foe led by quarterback Lamar Jackson, the Ravens will surely be a tough test for a Panthers squad who will once again be leaning on Baker Mayfield following an injury to PJ Walker. Here is what they need to do to get the win:

Get creative and take chances on defense

The Panthers defense has a tall task this weekend, taking on a Ravens offense that is currently 3rd in the league in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average). This is a run first-offense, that is of no question. The passing game is a lot more dangerous than people give Baltimore credit for though. Lamar Jackson's mobility has had all of the notoriety since he came into the league, but he has truly developed in to one of the most deadly passing threats in the NFL as well. 

Beyond that, the Panthers will be without a few notable players this weekend, with Matt Ioannidis, Juston Burris, and Myles Hartsfield all set to miss the game due to injury. Thankfully, reinforcements are on the way.

Jeremy Chinn has been activated from the injury reserve, and is expected to immediately jump back into the starting lineup. Often noted for his chess-piece style versatility, Chinn is the exact kind of player Carolina needs to keep an eye on Lamar Jackson.

Chinn can't do it all himself though, so defensive coordinator Al Holcomb is going to need to get creative. Carolina needs to attack, mask coverages, and constantly switch things up, otherwise Baltimore will simply take advantage of what is given to them. 

Baltimore is a team that has thrived in being able to run the ball consistently against any opponent they face. With a strong scheme and a mobile QB, the likes of Gus Edwards, Kenayan Drake, Justice Hill, and Mike Davis have been much more of a handful that teams would like. 

Baltimore is going to get what they need on the ground, the Panthers will simply have to do their best to mitigate damage there. The true test and script-flipping opportunity will be on third downs.

The Ravens pass for only the 27th-most yards per game in the league, but part of that lower ranking can be attributed to how successful the run game is in preventing obvious passing situations. But there is still a hole in the armor! Outside of tight end Mark Andrews, Baltimore lacks any huge passing game threats. 

If the Panthers can get aggressive and play for the big-play rather than to mitigate damage, enough of those prudent third downs can flip in Carolina's favor to make this a game.

Respect the intelligence of the Baltimore defense

With Baker Mayfield back at the helm for the Panthers this weekend, Steve Wilks and offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo are going to have to be very intentional with how they attack the Baltimore defense. 

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With extremely talented and knowledgeable veterans like Calais Campbell, Justin Houston, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Marcus Peters, as well as one of the top cornerbacks in the league in Marlon Humphrey holding down the outside, the Ravens certainly sport a defense to be respected. 

Baltimore's defense doesn't win by pressuring the quarterback where they blitz and pressure at the 22nd and 26th-highest rates in the league respectively. They also don't win from taking chances on the back end, where opponents are averaging the 6th lowest average depth of targets in the league. Rather, the Ravens' goal on defense is to win a war of attrition.

With a bend, don't break style, the Ravens are fine allowing small completions and letting teams take the easy plays. With the intelligence this squad brings to the field, they wait for the field to get shorter and bet that the offense will make a big mistake before they do.

The Ravens really know how to make life difficult with all of those talented defenders. Opponent's are converting just 33.7 percent of third down attempts against them this season, the fourth-lowest rate in the league. Combining that with the fact that Carolina has completed a league-low 28.3% of third down attempts, that is not the battle the Panthers need to pick.

Attack through the air: early, often, and over the middle

If the Panthers are going to find success, they are going to have to strip away a conservative approach that has been featured for much of the season and attack this defense where they are week- through the air and over the middle.

The Ravens have allowed fifth-most passing yards in the league this season, often being attacked over the middle where you won't generally find the likes of Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters. Baltimore recently traded for Bears' linebacker Roquan Smith to try and help solidify their middle a bit, but that is still the place to attack this scheme.

Taking advantage of the bend-don't-break mindset will be paramount for Carolina, as a passive game plan plays exactly to the strengths of Baltimore. DJ Moore, Terrace Marshall, and the rest of the Panthers passing options are going to need to not just find the space that is given to them, but challenge this defense by doing in ways and at times where they are not expecting it. 

Baker Mayfield is going to need to be confident in his reads, remain poised in the pocket, and hope that he can establish timing early with his receiving options. Passing on early downs and avoiding obvious passing downs is the way to do this. This would be a great game for one of the tight ends to finally have a breakout performance. 

McAdoo's offense will need to place its full trust in Mayfield on Sunday, whether or not it's the comfortable approach. Otherwise, Baltimore will win that war of attrition on that side of the ball. For better or for worse, this game will be decided on Mayfield's ability to let the ball rip.

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