Carolina Panthers (3-2) at Baltimore Ravens (4-1)KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
SURFACE: Sportexe Momentum
TV: FOX, Sam Rosen, Tim Ryan
SERIES: 3rd meeting. Panthers lead series 2-0. The Panthers have defeated the Ravens twice before, both of those wins coming in Charlotte. This is the first time the two teams will meet in Baltimore for a regular season game.
2006 RANKINGS: Panthers: offense 23rd (12th rush, 25th pass); defense 18th (21st rush, 16th pass). Ravens: offense 29th (24th rush, 28th pass); defense 2nd (3rd rush, 3rd pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: If the Panthers' offense doesn't find a way to be more efficient, it will have an extremely difficult time scoring points against the league's No. 2 defense. Carolina has converted a league-low 18.6 percent of its third-down conversions, and will be without injured backup RB DeAngelo Williams. With the Ravens being hard to run against with any consistency, expect plenty of short passes from Carolina with the hope someone can make a big play after the catch. Ravens QB Steve McNair still doesn't look comfortable in his new offense and has thrown five interceptions in his past two games. However, the onus will be on his shoulders against one of the league's better defensive lines. Baltimore has struggled to establish the running game with RB Jamal Lewis, and coach Brian Billick hinted Musa Smith and/or Mike Anderson could receive significant carries should one get hot during a game.
FAST FACTS: Panthers: Are 7-2 in past nine games decided by eight points or less. ... Are 6-0 all-time when RB DeShaun Foster rushes for at least 100 yards. Ravens: Are 8-2 in their past 10 home games. ... McNair is 22-9 (.710) against the NFC.
--FB Brad Hoover (hamstring) was upgraded to probable on Thursday and is expected to play Sunday against the Ravens. Hoover was limited to 15 plays last week and missed practice Wednesday. He is making good progress, and the Panthers will need him this week against a physical defense.
--Still too tough to call whether C Justin Hartwig (groin) will start this week or if the Panthers will stick with Geoff Hangartner. In one sense, the offensive line is playing better and developing some cohesiveness, so the Panthers may want to stay with Hangartner. On the other hand, Hartwig is supposedly a better player, a guy the Panthers gave big bucks to in the offseason, so they will want to get him back in the lineup as soon as possible. An interesting decision is coming.
--SS Shaun Williams (foot) is probably going to play this week, although he may not start.
--OLB Thomas Davis did not practice Thursday due to an illness, but he's expected to recover in time to play Sunday. He was added to the injury report Thursday as probable.
--RB DeAngelo Williams is out for this week's game with a sprained ankle.
--WR Steve Smith is looking to bounce back from a three-drop performance last week against the Browns but will face tough coverage from Baltimore's Chris McAlister.
--The Panthers are 6-0 when Chris Draft starts at middle linebacker, including 3-0 this season.
--DE Terrell Suggs did not practice Thursday, but it's not a major occurrence. He has practiced sporadically the past two weeks and still played well in games. He remains questionable with a hamstring injury.
--TE Todd Heap is questionable with ankle and leg injuries. He said it has limited him practice but has not affected how he plays in games.
--CB Corey Ivy was released from a Pittsburgh hospital after suffering a kidney tear. It is unknown whether he will play again this season. He will be replaced by Evan Oglesby at nickel back.
--CB Evan Oglesby will play a major role in the Ravens defense, taking over for injured Corey Ivy at nickel back. He will likely line up against Drew Carter, the Panthers' third-leading receiver.
--LB Gary Stills was added to the injury report as questionable with an abdominal injury after not practicing Thursday. He is a major part of Baltimore's special teams.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:Panthers:
Panthers defensive tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu returns this week to Baltimore, where he played for four seasons prior to signing a five-year, $23 million deal with Carolina.
Kemoeatu is part of a run defense that has allowed just 71.1 yards per game on the ground the past three weeks after giving up an average of 196 the first two games.
He's also been taking up blockers inside, freeing up defensive end Julius Peppers to make more plays. Peppers has six sacks.
"Yeah, I try to do my best, hanging in there, take double teams," Kemoeatu said. "That's what they brought me in here for, see if I can take up blocks and free up people every now and then. Things are going well for me. The locker room atmosphere has been great. I enjoy being around these guys every day. It's been fun."
Kemoeatu anticipates this will be a low-scoring game.
"It's going to be a defensive game," he said. "Baltimore's got a great defense. We've got a good defense. It will be a defensive game out there. It'll be like Denver (against Baltimore) last week. Denver's defense came out and played hard and kept the pressure on Steve McNair. We've got to do the same thing."
--LB Chris Draft has filled in admirably in MLB Dan Morgan's place. Since he took over as the team's starting middle linebacker in Week 3, the Panthers are 3-0.
"We are 3-0 (with him in there)," said safety Mike Minter. "I believe he's a big reason because we've been stopping the run. I think he's a big reason because we have put him in the middle and that is what he plays well. He's a guy that sees things and gets there fast just like Dan would. That is what makes Dan so good. He's so good and he read things fast. If you're a middle linebacker and you hesitate for one second then you will get killed on the run. And Chris Draft doesn't' do that. He will get there and he will stop it. He will fill that hole up and stop that running back from going further."
Minter believes Draft is one of the more underrated players in the league.
"No doubt. I guarantee he is. I don't know why," Minter said. "I think when you get labeled in this league it's hard to shake labels. And he probably was labeled as a special teams guy. The guy can start anywhere and perform at a high level, as you see right now."
Still, teammates said there's no replacing a leader like Morgan.
"That's tough because here you have a guy who is a warrior," said defensive end Mike Rucker. "It's one of those things where if you break a hand or sprained a finger it's one thing to deal with, but when you feel fine and not be to get back out there on the field, that's tough.
"He's just a good guy and I know it's tough sitting out and not being on the field with the fellas ... But this game is a small piece of our life and you don't want to do anything to hurt that."
--The Panthers are really struggling on third downs, where they have converted just 11 of 59 attempts -- by far the worst in the league.
"You want to be great and be good in every category, and that's certainly something we'd like to improve on," quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "We had plays (versus Cleveland), we just didn't convert them. We were talking about it, and there was a game last year where I think we converted seven-of-10 third downs but lost the game. So I don't know (how much it means).
"We were pretty good on first and second down. I'd love to keep our defense off the field, and extend drives and make more plays. But we just have to keep working. I don't think there's ever a time to push the panic button in this League, because that's when you will really play poorly. We've done the same routine ever since I've been here and we've done okay on third downs. We just have to keep working and make more plays."
--Delhomme has thrown only one interception this season in 166 pass attempts.
"I've always been a believer that interceptions are going to occur, however they happen. Bad reads. Bad throws. Tips. You just never know, and you cannot play to not throw interceptions," he said. "That may sound strange. If you see it, you have to believe what you see and throw the ball. You have to take shots. And I think we are taking our shots when they're there. Maybe we're doing some different things the last couple of weeks trying to get rid of the ball and whatnot. We're just trying to play smart. I know winning the turnover battle has helped us win the last couple of games. I'm just trying to play consistent. I'm not doing anything differently. Just trying to be smart."
BY THE NUMBERS: 18.6 -- Carolina's third-down conversion rate, by far the worst in the league (11 for 59).
QUOTE TO NOTE: " That's how Denver played Monday night (Denver beat Baltimore, 13-3). Neither offense was going anywhere, and the weather had something to do with that, but Denver made a couple of plays and was able to get up on Baltimore and hold them off. That's kind of how it goes. When teams play our defense it's the same thing." -- Panthers QB Jake Delhomme on the importance of being patient on offense if things aren't going right Sunday against the Ravens defense.
Struggling running back Jamal Lewis seems indifferent about the possibility of sharing the ball Sunday against the Panthers.
Last season, Lewis complained on a frequent basis about his diminishing workload. But this week, he did not fight the idea of reduced carries.
Dividing up the carries in a crowded backfield has become an increasingly hot topic for the Ravens (4-1) after Lewis continued to struggled in the team's 13-3 loss in Denver and his backups -- Mike Anderson and Musa Smith -- looked much sharper.
Asked about the possibility of splitting carries, Lewis said Thursday, "It's all right with me, but it's hard really to get into a good tempo. But hey, it is what it is. I'm not the one to make that call. We just have to try to get it done."
In his past two games, Lewis has averaged 2.6 yards a carry. His longest run during that span has been 8 yards.
Meanwhile, Anderson had 31 yards on five carries (6.2-yard average) against Denver, and Smith has 28 yards on five carries (5.6) the past two games.
Ravens coach Brian Billick said he has no preference who is running the ball just as long as the rushing yards increase.
"We need to run the ball better," Billick said. "If we can (run) the ball up to 35 times a game, we'll be in good shape. I've said it a number of times -- and I don't mean to be insensitive -- I don't give a flip on who carries it as long as we get the productivity and as long as we get the number of runs out of the running game."
With the running game failing to click, the rushing attempts have been limited.
Although Lewis has accounted for 88 of the 119 carries by Ravens running backs, he has only received more than 20 carries once this season.
Lewis chalked up the lack of success the past two weeks to playing tough defenses (San Diego and Denver).
"I'm pretty much confident in the offensive line," he said. "We are doing things from the coaching staff on down to the players as far as trying to get this thing worked out and to find out what's the problem."
Anderson, who had to play in a running-back-by-committee situation when he was with the Broncos, said he is not frustrated by his current role.
"The best thing that you can do as a player is -- which is the process that I take and have been taking for years -- one day at a time, one week at a time and let the chips fall where they may," said Anderson, who led the Broncos in rushing last season.
Asked if he had any regrets about signing with the Ravens this offseason, Anderson said, "I would never do anything like that. You can't be like that. You can't be a guy who is a shoulda, woulda, coulda."
--Ravens Coach Brian Billick said he was trying to get the attention of the sideline official when he nearly took out the official midway through the second quarter of Monday night's game.
After the refereeing crew had missed what Billick believed should have been a pass interference call on a pass from quarterback Steve McNair to tight end Todd Heap on third-and-one from the Ravens' 30-yard line, Billick raced 15 yards down the sideline, slipped and slid for another 5 before nearly plowing into the official.
"I thought it was an inappropriate call, and I wanted to make sure he understood that was my perspective," Billick said. "Purely accidental of course, and he knew that. But he knew that I was coming, too. He was bracing himself."
--Several Ravens players on defense were upset with comments made by a couple of Denver Broncos after the Ravens' 13-3 loss on Monday night.
Both running back Tatum Bell and wide receiver Javon Walker seemed to question the accolades the Ravens defense had been collecting. Bell went so far as to say, "We built them up and gave them the respect, but they haven't played anyone yet."
"Who cares? He lucked up and got some yards on us," Ravens linebacker Bart Scott said. "Overrated? They had 210 yards of offense (actually, 222). What did they do? They had six yards passing before the half. Who cares what he thinks? Who is he?"
--Left guard Jason Brown received passing marks from offensive line coach Chris Foerster for his work in Monday night's loss to Denver.
Brown, who was making his second career start in place of Edwin Mulitalo (torn right triceps), drew mostly favorable reviews from Foerster.
"Jason had a solid game," Foerster said. "Early on, he had a few things that could've been better, but once he got out there for a few series, he settled down and played very well for the rest of the game. He had a solid first start."
BY THE NUMBERS: 5 -- Interceptions thrown by Steve McNair the past two games.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Our offense is not playing, plain and simple. It was evident in Game 1, Game 2, Game 3, Game 4 and very evident in Game 5. It's very, very disappointing and whoever tries to sugarcoat it, they don't need to be in this locker room -- coaches included. If you try to sugarcoat it, you might as well be playing somewhere else and coaching somewhere else. It's a problem and we have to fix it somehow, someway." -- Receiver Derrick Mason on the Ravens' struggling offense.
MATCHUPS TO WATCHPanthers RB DeShaun Foster vs. Ravens LB Ray Lewis -- Although Foster has recorded back-to-back 100-yard games, it came against the league's 23rd ranked run defense (New Orleans) and the 26th ranked run defense (Cleveland), so don't expect him to post a third triple-digit total this week. The Ravens rank third against the run despite facing some good rushing teams. Still, Foster will be Carolina's workhorse since the Panthers will be without backup running back DeAngelo Williams. If the Panthers keep pounding away, there's a chance the Ravens could wear down some in the fourth quarter given they're coming off a Monday night game.
Ravens RB Jamal Lewis vs. Panthers DT Ma'ake Kemoeatu -- Kemoeatu faces his former team and will be instrumental in Carolina's efforts to stop the running game this week. Lewis had an off week against Denver, but the Panthers are expecting him to smash away at their interior defensive line this week. Carolina has improved against the run over the past three games since moving Chris Draft to middle linebacker, but there's potential here for Lewis to have a big, big game. Kemoeatu doesn't have a lot of tackles, but he takes up room in the middle and seems to be getting pushed off the ball less than in the first three games of the season. Having played four seasons in Baltimore, Kemoeatu should have a good idea what he's up against.
Ravens RT Tony Pashos vs. Panthers DE Julius Peppers: Pashos is a liability in pass protection. Even though he'll likely be double-teamed, Peppers should have a major impact.
Ravens CB Chris McAlister vs. Panthers WR Keyshawn Johnson: The Ravens are expected to match up McAlister with Johnson because McAlister usually plays the bigger receivers. McAlister has been having one of his best seasons and teams are starting to notice. The Panthers might not test him, meaning Johnson's impact could be minimal.
Ravens run defense vs. Panthers RB DeShaun Foster: Because the Ravens respect Carolina's ability to pass the ball deep, the Ravens won stack the box. That means Foster might have a better game than what many expect. The Ravens have given up 90 yards rushing to a running back each of the past two games.