Baltimore Ravens' scouting report

5 CRITICAL QUESTIONS 1. Will the Baltimore Ravens continue their string of Monday night success and remain undefeated? Since moving to Baltimore, the Ravens are 4-2 in Monday night games.

They've won in impressive fashion, too, including a dramatic win over the Denver Broncos in 2002 that featured a 107-yard return of a missed field goal for a touchdown from cornerback Chris McAlister. In those six games, Baltimore has outscored its opponents 160-86, and 117-39 in their four wins. Now, they have to contend with a strong Denver team that finished 13-3 last season and just handed the New England Patriots a 17-7 defeat. This is probably the greatest challenge the Ravens have faced yet in terms of contending with a balanced opponent. Typically, the Ravens win the battle at the line of scrimmage against the smaller Broncos. They should have won last year in Denver, but took a 12-10 loss largely because of quarterback Kyle Boller's inexplicable three turnovers. This time, the Ravens are banking on improved play under center and a big-play defense capable of dominant showings. Expect another close contest.
2. Can the Ravens get off to a fast start? Quarterback Steve McNair certainly hopes so, and predicted a change from the previous two weeks where he had to engineer dramatic comebacks to overcome deficits created by defensive breakdowns and an ineffectual offense. The Ravens have had numerous opportunities, but haven't been able to capitalize. It's beginning to cause frustration around the team's training complex despite a perfect record. The concern is whether the team will be as competitive down the road against stiffer competition without more production on offense. Especially in the red zone.
3. Where's the running game? The key against the Broncos' defense is keeping them honest with a legitimate running game. There are several loud whispers around Baltimore about whether Jamal Lewis has lost explosiveness and his trademark burst. It hasn't been evident this season, and Lewis insists that he's been healthy for weeks. The Broncos' linebackers are hard to run against because of their speed, power and the sharp angles they take to the ball carrier.
4. Can the defense contain Jake Plummer? The streaky Broncos quarterback is capable of achieving great highs, and great lows. Defending Plummer, an atypical scrambler who has evolved into a solid pocket passer under Mike Shanahan, requires great discipline and sound technique.
5. Will the Ravens open up their playbook? Offensive coordinator Jim Fassel and Ravens coach Brian Billick have been extremely conservative so far in their play-calling. Against a fast defense, they'll need to create some openings through misdirection and deception. If not, the Broncos have the athletes to close down running lanes and passing windows to create turnovers.
WHO HAS THE EDGE?
OFFENSE
Total (28) Rushing (23) Passing (27)
Quarterback
How many tricks does Steve McNair have left in his last-minute magic act? The high-wire act has been working for Baltimore so far, but this will be the best secondary he's faced yet. It's hard to challenge Champ Bailey.
Running backs
Jamal Lewis has disappeared and there hasn't even been a hint of an effective running game. Lewis is going down on first contact, and his peripheral vision has been less than ideal, hurting his chances to evade tacklers. Receivers
This is clearly the best part of the offense, but Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton and Todd Heap aren't utilized often enough and involved in imaginative play-calls. It's been fairly predictable stuff so far.
Offensive line
With left guard Edwin Mulitalo out for the season, Jason Brown is on the spot. He should be all right, but center Mike Flynn and right guard Keydrick Vincent could have issues tracking down the Broncos' speedy linebackers.
DEFENSE
Total (2) Rushing (1) Passing (4)
Defensive line
This is Trevor Pryce's homecoming and he's eager to prove that Mike Shanahan was wrong to give up on him. Kelly Gregg is coming off a rare subpar game.
Linebackers
Bart Scott is quietly eclipsing Ray Lewis as the first linebacker in opponents' conversations. Lewis is still playing at a high level, but hasn't tackled nearly as well as Scott or made as many big plays as Adalius Thomas.
Secondary
Teams have been picking on Samari Rolle, but this veteran cornerback has a short memory. Chris McAlister hasn't played this well in several years. Ed Reed's timing seems to be off.
SPECIAL TEAMS
B.J. Sams ranks second in the league in kickoff return average and ninth as a punt returner, but his second DUI arrest in 14 months is a major concern. Matt Stover might be the most valuable player on the team, booting a franchise-record 29 consecutive field goals. He's tied as the second-most accurate kicker in NFL history.
OFFENSE
Total (15) Rushing (4) Passing (26)
Quarterback
Jake Plummer is a streaky passer who's coming off an impressive game against New England. Sometimes, he flashes back to his old undisciplined Arizona form, but usually he's under control.
Running backs
Tatum Bell has the speed to stretch the defense vertically with linebacker Bart Scott calling him a homerun hitter. Bell is averaging 5.1 yards per carry, but has yet to score a touchdown.
Receivers
Javon Walker represents an explosive downfield threat and has an 83-yard reception under his belt. He's beginning to develop a connection with Plummer. Finally after years of defying Father Time, Rod Smith is showing his age.
Offensive line
Matt Lepsis, Ben Hamilton, Tom Nalen, Cooper Carlisle and George Foster aren't household names, but they can definitely block and rank as one of the top offensive lines in the game. They play with a nasty streak and are technically sound.
DEFENSE
Total (17) Rushing (18) Passing (19)
Defensive line
It's Cleveland Browns West with Gerard Warren, Ebenezer Ekuban, Michael Myers, Courtney Brown and Kenard Lang populating this group. This is the weak point of a classic bend-but-don't break defense that could be an elite group if it had better playmakers upfront.
Linebackers
Ian Gold, Al Wilson and D.J. Williams are probably the fastest linebacking corps in the game, active and aggressive on virtually every play.
Secondary
Champ Bailey could garner Hall of Fame distinction one day. John Lynch is a heavy hitter at safety. Darrent Williams and former Terp Domonique Foxworth have been picked on at times with quarterbacks avoiding Bailey's side of the field.
SPECIAL TEAMS
Jason Elam remains one of the top kickers in the game in terms of accuracy and range. Punter Paul Ernster is averaging 44.6 yards per game. The return game is untested largely because of a lack of opportunities.
EDGES: Quarterback: Even; Running back: Denver; Receivers: Baltimore: Offensive line: Denver; Defensive line: Baltimore: Linebackers: Baltimore; Secondary: Even; Special teams: Baltimore.
INSIDE SLANT
Tight end Todd Heap has thrived under the spotlight of Monday night games, catching 19 passes for 232 yards and four touchdowns in four Monday night starts. Ten of those catches produced first downs, and the Ravens are 4-1 in Monday night games since drafting Heap in the first round. Since 2004, Heap has 22 catches for 249 yards and two touchdowns in the final two minutes of a game with 63.6 percent of those catches going for either first downs or touchdowns.
KEY MATCHUPS
TE Todd Heap vs. S John Lynch
Heap is one of the most athletic tight ends in the game and Lynch remains one of the most dangerous hitters, capable of delivering concussive blows to the head that often draw flags and fines. Heap has a clear edge in speed and youth, but Lynch is one of the best prepared, smartest safeties around.
CB Chris McAlister vs. WR Javon Walker
McAlister will likely draw this assignment against a big, strong, fast receiver who's averaging 22.7 yards per reception. So far, he has been the cornerback that offenses want to avoid with touchdowns completed the past two weeks in single coverage against Samari Rolle.
How the Ravens can win
1. Get off to a fast start. One major reason why Steve McNair has had to engineer consecutive fourth-quarter comebacks is Steve McNair. Baltimore is ideally built to play with a lead, but he hasn't generated any lately.
2. Pressure Jake Plummer. Plummer is an accurate passer who's smart enough to locate Javon Walker downfield if he has sufficient time. The Ravens have to penetrate a well-coached, technically-sound Denver line that specializes in chop blocks.
3. Run the football effectively. Even though the Denver linebackers are extremely fast, Jamal Lewis has to be a factor. If not him, then Musa Smith or Mike Anderson. The passing game isn't good enough to operate without a semblance of a running partner.
How the Broncos can win
1. Eat up the clock. The Broncos' zone running plays are textbook with Tatum Bell, and this offense can wear down defenses and get them so tired that they forget their keys and loosen up enough to surrender big plays.
2. Keep it up on defense. Shrewd coordinator Larry Coyer's unit has allowed only one touchdown this season, giving up no scores for its first 11 quarters. That meaningless score came late in a 17-7 win over New England.
3. Go after Samari Rolle. Why not test out a cornerback who might be bothered by a lingering foot injury suffered against Oakland and has allowed long touchdown passes in consecutive weeks? Perhaps veteran Rod Smith still has the legs to get deep.
Ravens Confidential
Three downs with …
Bart Scott
Ravens linebacker
1. On the Broncos' offense: "It's a different challenge for you. They are athletic linemen. They are not going to come off the ball and really blow you off the ball, but they are going to create angles for the backs to make their read.
"You can name the numerous backs that have put up 1,000 yards there. Tatum Bell is a homerun hitter. We have to stay on our feet and not get cut off on the back side. It's going to be a long day's work, but I think we'll be up for it."
2. On the team's goals: "We were a 6-10 team last year. We haven't earned the right to talk about anything but Week 5. I could see it if we were a team like the Seahawks coming off a defeat in the Super Bowl., but we haven't proven anything this year but that we can win four games."
3. On his success of undrafted players like himself: "It's good motivation because when you can see guys like that you have somebody you can use as a blueprint of the steps that they made. You can say, 'Hey, if they did it, then maybe I can do it. I can be the next one.'
"I'm sure a lot of guys in this league got their start like that. I look at a Tom Brady who has come back from playing behind Drew Bledsoe. Now, he's probably the most popular quarterback in the league right now."
Broncos Confidential Jake Plummer
Broncos quarterback
1. On preparing for the Ravens' defense: "Obviously the looks that they show can run trouble upfront for our offensive line and running backs and that is where those guys have to be on top of their game. For me, I've got to know when guys are coming through and if we are not protected.
"It causes a lot of trouble. It's hard to actually get a beat because sometimes they do the complete opposite of what you think they do and they have success doing it."
2. On facing former teammate Trevor Pryce: "I hope I don't see him much during the game. He's a great football player. We miss him here. I miss him.
"Hopefully the experience our guys had playing against him when he was here will play out for us. We know he is going to make some plays because that's the kind of guy he is."
3. On Ravens linebacker Bart Scott: "He's playing at a high level. As far as intensity goes, he's looking like a young Ray Lewis. Ray is still making great plays, but Bart is definitely making plays as well. The guy is playing at a high level, so that whole defense is playing well."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

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