Baltimore Ravens' scouting report

6 CRITICAL QUESTIONS 1. Will any touchdowns be scored today? The Baltimore Ravens sport a formidable defense, and the Carolina Panthers are headlined by All-Pro defensive end Julius Peppers as part of one of the most dominant front fours in the NFL.

While Baltimore's second-ranked defense has surrendered four touchdowns and Carolina has allowed eight, the Ravens' ineffectual, 29th-ranked offense makes this a surefire low-scoring contest.
Expect a field-goal war between kickers Matt Stover and John Kasay. Between two physical teams that pride themselves on controlling the line of scrimmage and with both teams chasing a playoff berth, this is certain to be an intense matchup. Carolina is riding the crest of a three-game winning streak and Baltimore is coming off its first loss. Both defenses tend to be stingy against the run and are capable of harassing quarterbacks and forcing miscues. The Panthers lack the big-play capability that the Ravens have in their secondary and linebackers, but their terrific defensive line is a great equalizer.
2. Can Steve McNair pick up his game, and can the Ravens protect him? Following a short week and a stinging loss to the Denver Broncos where McNair tossed a season-high three interceptions, the Ravens are dealing with their latest offensive crisis. His inaccuracy and erratic decisions are just one issue. With the exception of right defensive end Mike Rucker against left tackle Jonathan Ogden, the Ravens are outmanned in every other matchup. Especially right tackle Tony Pashos against Peppers. Since the Panthers don't have to blitz to generate a pass rush, they can drop seven defenders into coverage and are likely to bracket tight end Todd Heap between linebacker Thomas Davis and safety Mike Minter. McNair has to play smarter and more effectively for Baltimore to have a chance.
3. Can the Ravens run the football? Perhaps, but will it be with Jamal Lewis carrying the football? Lewis is still in the lineup despite averaging only 62 yards per game. He ranks 27th in the league. Mike Anderson and Musa Smith are pushing him hard for playing time and Brian Billick appears serious about platooning the backs if Lewis doesn't assert himself immediately. Patience is wearing extremely thin at One Winning Drive.
4. Can the Ravens contain Steve Smith and Keyshawn Johnson. Carolina will try to set up its deep passing game by lulling the Ravens to sleep with a steady diet of DeShaun Foster runs. Smith specializes in the double move, which always gives cornerback Chris McAlister trouble. Quarterback Jake Delhomme seems to have an innate sense for the right time to take a vertical shot. Smith has the speed and moves, and Johnson has the size and hands to hurt defenses. The Panthers are using a lot of seven-man protection schemes to buy Delhomme more time to throw.
5. Can the Ravens' offensive line deal with the Panthers' size. Carolina has two sumo-sized heavyweights inside with 350-pound tackles Maake Kemoeatu and Kris Jenkins. The Ravens want to set up cutback runs. But, to do that, they have to move all of that girth in one direction.
WHO HAS THE EDGE?
OFFENSE
Total (29) Rushing (24) Passing (28)
Quarterback
Steve McNair has been fairly unproductive all season, but is regressing in terms of his decision-making and carelessness with the football. He has become more inaccurate against better defenses, and his mobility and arm strength aren't what they used to be.
Running backs
Jamal Lewis is under the gun, and his playing time is likely to be shared more liberally with Musa Smith and Mike Anderson. If Lewis gets off to another slow start, he's pretty much assuring that this scenario will unfold.
Receivers
Derrick Mason has expressed frustration with this sputtering offense, and his involvement has become more and more limited along with Mark Clayton and Todd Heap. This team moves the ball best when it allows McNair to improvise.
Offensive line
They literally have their hands full, particularly offensive tackle Tony Pashos, with blue-chipper Julius Peppers. He's not the only problem. There's massive tackles to block in Kris Jenkins and Maake Kemoeatu along with end Mike Rucker, who's nearly as athletic as Peppers.
DEFENSE
Total (2) Rushing (3) Passing (3)
Defensive line
Terrell Suggs is coming off an impressive game against the Broncos despite playing hurt. Trevor Pryce was nondescript in his return to Denver. Nose guard Kelly Gregg and tackle Haloti Ngata have been stout against the run. Linebackers
Ray Lewis had some problems with Tatum Bell and now he'll face off with DeShaun Foster. Adalius Thomas was the only linebacker that played up to his usually high standard against the Broncos. Even emerging force Bart Scott was quiet for a change.
Secondary
Chris McAlister was having another terrific game until faltering in the final moments in the red zone against Rod Smith. Now, he'll face a much younger, faster Smith: Steve Smith. Samari Rolle might have issues with Keyshawn Johnson's superior size and strength.
SPECIAL TEAMS
Matt Stover has connected on his past 30 field goals, a personal-best and franchise-record. Return specialist B.J. Sams is coming off a solid, albeit unspectacular game and didn't appear distracted by his driving under the influence arrest.
OFFENSE
Total (23) Rushing (12) Passing (25)
Quarterbacks
Jake Delhomme is one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the league with his capacity to create plays downfield with his feet and wise decisions. His arm strength isn't great, but he gets the ball where it needs to go most of the time.
Running backs
DeShaun Foster is primarily a power runner, and he'll have to carry a greater workload this week with elusive rookie DeAngelo Williams out with an ankle injury.
Receivers
Steve Smith has the rare ability to back up his bold words. The undersized receiver is one of the most competitive, fast players in the league. Keyshawn Johnson has evolved as a possession receiver, but has actually threatened teams downfield more than in the past.
Offensive line
Center Justin Hartwig and offensive guard Mike Wahle are tough customers inside. The Panthers miss left tackle Travelle Wharton and had to move Jordan Gross over there.
DEFENSE
Total (18) Rushing (21) Passing (16)
Defensive line
This is probably the best front four in the NFL with speedy ends Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker along with space-eating tackles Maake Kemoeatu, the former Baltimore starter, and former University of Maryland standout Kris Jenkins.
Linebackers
They've been severely depleted with middle linebacker Dan Morgan out for the year because of chronic concussions and Will Witherspoon's offseason defection. Chris Draft is undersized, but has filled in capably for Morgan. Thomas Davis is their best athlete.
Secondary
Teams don't like to challenge cornerback Chris Gamble and usually go after Ken Lucas. Free safety Mike Minter is a big-time hitter. Strong safety Shaun Williams is a journeyman.
SPECIAL TEAMS
The Panthers have great stability with only one kicker in franchise history: John Kasay. He has hit 10 of 11 field goals. Punter Jason Baker, whom Baltimore pursued as a free agent, is averaging 46.4 yards. Kickoff returns will suffer without DeAngelo Williams' presence.
EDGES: Quarterback: Panthers; Running back: Panthers; Receivers: Panthers; Offensive line: Ravens; Defensive line: Panthers; Linebackers: Ravens; Secondary: Ravens; Special teams: Ravens
Ravens Confidential
Three downs with …
Ray Lewis
Ravens middle linebacker
1. On quarterback Jake Delhomme and the Panthers' offense: "Patience. Anytime you see Steve Smith make a big play, Jake is going to buy some time. That's one thing he does very well, he knows how to buy time for his receivers to get out of the routes and make a big play. Those are the things we have to stop.
"We also can't let DeShaun Foster get started. Going back and looking at the film, he's had some pretty good runs on the past few teams he's played. So, there are a lot of things. This is going to be a great test for our defense this week."
2. On how Steve McNair will respond to a poor outing: "I expect Steve McNair to respond the same way our defense needs to respond. Everybody is in the same game. We had the opportunity to win that game. OK, where can we get better? "That's the bottom line for Steve and for everybody else. How can we not make the same mistakes we make those same silly or crazy mistakes that we made and let's keep playing football?"
3. On responding to the team's first loss: "Win, lose or draw, we have one mindset: one game at a time. We didn't talk about going 16-0. What we talked about was trying to get to the playoffs, bottom line. If we do that, what we need to do is win the games we are supposed to win, split the games we're supposed to split and dominate at home.
"If we do those things, we'll be OK. To worry about anything outside of that is really a conflict of what the ultimate goal is, which is getting back to the playoffs and to the Super Bowl."
Panthers Confidential
Three downs with …
Julius Peppers
Panthers defensive end
1. On turning it around after an 0-2 start: "We had a slow start. The biggest reason for the turnaround is just working hard and getting better each week. After the first game we realized that we didn't play as good as we knew we could play and we weren't as good of a football team as we thought we could be at the time. We just had the mindset of getting better each week.
2. On his impressions of Steve McNair: "People say that they are struggling a little bit. I see the same Steve that I have seen over the years: a tough guy who can still play. He can still play the game. He can definitely beat you."
3. On running back Jamal Lewis: "He looks the same to me. He is more of a downhill runner. He will hit the hole and then get downhill, not really a lot of change of direction. He wants to get it, hit it and go.
"We've got to have guys ready to step up and not be scared to come up and have contact with him because he is all runner. We've got to get bodies on him."
How the Ravens can win
1. Contain Steve Smith and Keyshawn Johnson. Smith is an explosive deep threat, and Johnson is a consummate possession receiver. Together, they're capable of producing sustained drives with a string of first downs.
2. Reduce turnovers. Although the Ravens remain plus-7 in turnover margin, they have been slipping in this critical category as quarterback Steve McNair has been less and less precise and questionable in his decision-making.
3. Produce a semblance of a running game. In order to counteract Julius Peppers' pass rushing and keep Steve Smith and Jake Delhomme off the field, someone needs to grind out some yards. Brian Billick said he doesn't care who does it.
How the Panthers can win
1. Force McNair into miscues. When the Ravens' quarterback gets flustered and doesn't get any support from his running game, he tends to force throws into coverage.
2. Establish the run with DeShaun Foster. Ray Lewis looked awfully vulnerable at times Monday against Tatum Bell, who surprised many by running over the seven-time All-Pro middle linebacker.
3. Keep throwing. Many teams fall into the Ravens' trap and don't throw the ball often enough. This secondary has given up some long gains lately, and safety Ed Reed has yet to register many impact plays.
INSIDE SLANT
The Ravens' formidable tight end combination of Todd Heap and Daniel Wilcox has caught more more passes combined than any other set of teammates over the past two seasons. With 126 receptions, they rank ahead of the San Diego Chargers' Antonio Gates and Aaron Shea (120), Tennessee Titans' Ben Troupe and Erron Kinney (117) and Minnesota Vikings' Jermaine Wiggins and Jim Kleinsasser (113). Heap (three) and Wilcox (two) have combined for all of the Ravens' touchdown catches this season, collaborating for 31 total catches and 277 yards.
TODAY'S KEY MATCHUPS
CB Chris McAlister vs. WR Steve Smith
Smith is one of the most combustible downfield targets in the game, and McAlister is one of the most athletic cornerbacks and draws the toughest coverage assignments. Both have battled issues of maturity and temper, but McAlister has been calmer, for the most part, than in past years and is playing well each week.
OT Tony Pashos vs. DE Julius Peppers
This is clearly an athletic mismatch for Carolina, and Pashos will need major assistance against one of the NFL's most dynamic pass rushers and complete defensive ends in the past decade. Pashos has improved his conditioning and is one of the team's hardest workers, but he'll need his 'A' game to keep Steve McNair standing.

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