Baltimore Ravens' scouting report

5 CRITICAL QUESTIONS 1. Will Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick's 2006 play-calling debut create a spark for a dormant offense? Now that Billick has fired longtime friend Jim Fassel as the offensive coordinator, he's hoping his singular imprint of his adaptation of the West Coast offense will pay dividends beginning today against the NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints (5-1).

Baltimore (4-2) ranks fifth from the bottom of the league in total offense and has only finished in the top half of the NFL in that category once, ranking 14th in 2001. However, this is the first time since Billick's arrival in Baltimore in 1999 that he has been at the controls on a full-time basis. Several players have expressed excitement at Billick inserting himself into the offensive huddle, noting that he's more detail-oriented than Fassel, more open to their input and spends more time breaking down individual plays. If the offense has indeed been streamlined, the hope is that players will commit less mistakes and execute better. It's a novel concept, but it won't work unless the Ravens protect better, run better and throw better. It sounds simple enough, but obviously it's much easier said than done. There seems to be a heightened sense of urgency at the Ravens' training complex with the realization that, if this gambit doesn't work, Billick could be out of a job after the season along with his staff and, perhaps, several familiar faces on the roster.
2. Can Steve McNair snap out of his turnover-plagued funk? McNair has never been this error-prone in the past, a regression that can probably be accounted for by the following factors: a lack of adequate time to throw, lack of familiarity with a new offensive scheme, Fassel not playing to his strengths enough and a lack of a complementary running game. With seven interceptions and five touchdowns, McNair is well off last season's acceptable 19 touchdown, 11 interception ratio. The Ravens still have confidence in the three-time Pro Bowl passer, but the truth of the matter is he's playing even worse than erratic former starter Kyle Boller did last year. Boller was solid in relief with three touchdowns and one interception against Carolina when McNair was knocked out of the game with a Grade 2 concussion. There won't be a quarterback controversy, but McNair has to play much better for the Ravens to stay atop the AFC North and remain a viable playoff contender.
3. How will Baltimore's secondary respond to its worst game of the season? Cornerback Samari Rolle spent the majority of the bye week studying films after being burnt for two touchdowns against the Carolina Panthers as Jake Delhomme passed for a career-high 365 yards. He consulted with mentor Deion Sanders and met with defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. Rolle has been a standup guy about his recent struggles, and the former Pro Bowl cornerback is likely to split his time between matching up with Joe Horn and rookie Marques Colston. He's aware that teams will target him until he proves that he's back to his old standard of play. Meanwhile, safety Ed Reed, whose gamble contributed to Steve Smith's decisive touchdown after Rolle released him to the deep middle, only has one interception. Communication breakdowns contributed heavily to the unraveling against Carolina.
4. Will Jamal Lewis ever eclipse the century mark? The Ravens gave Lewis a $5 million signing bonus this spring and are paying him $6 million total this season, but haven't gotten much of a return on their investment yet. He has rushed for only 352 yards with an average of 3.6 per carry and is on pace to finish the season with just 938.6 yards. He hasn't rushed for 100 yards in a single game this season, and hasn't surpassed that mark since a 105-yard outing against Green Bay last December.
5. Can the Ravens' special teams contain Reggie Bush? Baltimore is only allowing 9.7 yards per punt return with a long gain of 33 yards. Bush is an ultra-dangerous speed merchant who already has a 65-yard touchdown return to his credit. The rookie from USC is capable of changing directions and executing high-degree of difficulty cuts in the open field. The Ravens will need starting linebacker Adalius Thomas and Bart Scott to pull double-duty to keep Bush boxed in.
Total (28) Rushing (26) Passing (25)
Steve McNair has been ice-cold lately, handing out interceptions like they're party favors. He acknowledged that he's been pressing, and Ravens coach Brian Billick has stressed a need for greater communication with him now that he's the offensive coordinator.
Running backs
With Jim Fassel no longer at One Winning Drive, the Ravens have discussed going back to their roots by emphasizing a smash-mouth running game. However, can Jamal Lewis pound the football effectively anymore?
What sort of grade will outspoken critic Derrick Mason give Billick after this one? The receivers are the most talented aspect of this offense, but Mason, Mark Clayton and Todd Heap are woefully underutilized.
Offensive line
It's imperative that they give Steve McNair more time and room to operate under, especially following a Grade 2 concussion that took him two weeks to recuperate from.
Total (3) Rushing (3) Passing (7)
Defensive line
Because Drew Brees gets the football out of his hand so quickly, Terrell Suggs and Trevor Pryce, who have been quiet lately, have to defeat man-to-man blocks and burst into the backfield.
Ray Lewis, Bart Scott and Adalius Thomas have been doing a nice job against the run, but havn't been called upon nearly as much in blitz packages lately by defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. That was extremely effective at the launch of the season.
Samari Rolle is trying to regain his confidence after being beaten for four touchdown passes in the past four games. Expect quarterbacks to pick on him and avoid Chris McAlister until he snaps out of it. Safety Ed Reed has been extremely quiet and needs to be more careful about gambling.
Matt Stover keeps getting better. In his 17th NFL season, he's converted all 10 of his field goal attempts and has made a personal-best 30 in a row for the longest streak in the league. Return specialist B.J. Sams' 10.9 punt return average since 2004 outranks Miami's Wes Welker and Washington's Antwaan Randel El. Sams is averaging 22.5 yards per kickoff return. Rookie Sam Koch is averaging 43.9 yards per punt.
Total (6) Rushing (17) Passing (6)
Drew Brees is the picture of calm, cool and collected. He rarely gets flustered, and his clutch play against Philadelphia to engineer a game-winning drive was a textbook example of how to play quarterback.
Running backs
The combination of Deuce McAllister grinding out the tough yards inside and Reggie Bush acting as a threat on sweeps and out of the backfield or split out as an extra receiver has been a luxurious complement.
Seventh-round pick Marques Colston out of Hofstra has been a revelation with his blend of size, speed and hands. Veteran Joe Horn remains dangerous as a vertical threat. Not having tight end Ernie Conwell due to a knee injury is no great loss.
Offensive line
Jammal Brown, Jamar Nesbit, Jeff Faine, Jahri Evans and Jon Stinchcomb aren't household names, but they've earned a lot of respect for keeping Brees standing. He's only been sacked six times. Brown, their left tackle, is impressive enough for Ozzie Newsome to contemplate trading up for him two years ago.
Total (12) Rushing (21t) Passing (9)
Defensive line
Will Smith is one of the fastest edge rushers in the game. Charles Grant is a polished, physical end. Inside, Eagles castoff Hollis Thomas is playing at a high level and, along with Brian Young, is capable of creating interior penetration.
Scott Fujita, Mark Simoneau and Scott Shanle were all discarded by their previous teams, but have thrived as reclamation projects in New Orleans. Somewhat undersized, they're vulnerable against hard-nosed running teams. They're athletic enough to get to the ball.
Mike McKenzie is the most accomplished member of a nondescript secondary. Teams have tried to pick on Fred Thomas, but have been unable to do so with any regularity. Safety Josh Bullocks is a hitter who lacks top-flight range and awareness.
John Carney is one of the clutchest kickers in the game. Rookie punter Steve Weatherford is averaging 44.8 yards and a net of 38.2 yards. Reggie Bush is one of the most electrifying return men in the game with a 65-yard punt return for a touchdown under his belt that represents his lone NFL score.
EDGES: Quarterback: New Orleans; Running back: New Orleans; Receivers: Even; Offensive line: New Orleans; Defensive line: New Orleans; Linebackers: Ravens; Secondary: Ravens; Special teams: Even.
Ravens Confidential
Three downs with ...
Bart Scott
Ravens linebacker
1. On the versatility of Saints running back Reggie Bush: "He's a running back? I thought he was a receiver. He's leading the league in receptions. He's a good talent and they have some great passes for him. He's a difficult matchup, but I think we have athletes on this team that can match up with him, and it will be a good test for us."
2. On Saints running back Deuce McAllister: "Deuce is good, Deuce is a strong runner. I have always had a tremendous amount of respect for him. He's a tough runner. He's downhill. He always falls forward for those positive yards, and he's coming back and he's having a great year for them.
"He's really been the engine that has really been establishing the run. That's setting up the play-action and everything else."
3. On Saints quarterback Drew Brees being sacked so seldomly: "I don't know if it's been so much that their protection has been great, other than he is getting the ball out fast and is making quick decisions. He is making a lot of short passes and a lot of quick decisions and getting the ball to his playmakers.
"Whenever a team does that, it's tough to get to him. We will have to really play well and play tight coverage to make him have to hold that football. Hopefully, we can get to him because that does send a message and sets the tempo for the game."
Saints Confidential
Three downs with ...
Drew Brees
Saints quarterback
1. On his initial reaction to his shoulder injury last year: "Right when it happened, I was scared to death. Of all the terrible things that could have happened that was about the worst. I just had a bad feeling it was going to be the last time I put on a Chargers uniform. The month of January was one of the worst moments of my life: having surgery, sitting around. It was a rough time.
2. On his decision to sign with New Orleans: "I had a lot of people tell me that I was crazy for even considering it, but I didn't even look at it like that. I looked at it as a fresh start for this city and this organization. I feel like it was my calling, like it was what I was meant to do. I believe everything happens for a reason."
3. On the Saints being called ‘America's team': "We have such grat fan support here in New Orleans, and I know aruond the country people want to see this region come back. For us as a team, it's football, but it's also more than football. We're winning not only for this organization, but for the people of this region. It's our way of giving back."
Inside slant
Stocky, undersized nose guard Kelly Gregg has registered 404 tackles, 11 1/2 sacks, four fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles. Only one nose guard has more sacks during that period (Dallas' Jason Ferguson), and Gregg has more tackles than any interior lineman in team history and only one Ravens lineman (Michael McCrary) has more tackles overall in a five-year stretch.
Today's Key Matchups
OT Jonathan Ogden vs. DE Will Smith
Ogden will use his superior experience, size and bulk to try to neutralize Smith's athleticism and upfield speed. Smith is one of the quickest pass rushers in the game, but he's outweighed by roughly 70 pounds and will need to counteract Ogden's brute strength.
S Ed Reed vs. QB Drew Brees
It will be a virtual chess match waged between two of the more cerebral NFL athletes. Brees' clutch throws, accuracy and intelligence will severely test Reed, a Louisiana native whose penchant for gambling cost the secondary dearly against Carolina.
How the Ravens can win
1. Disrupt quarterback Drew Brees' timing. Brees has only been sacked an NFL-low six times, using outstanding protection and three-step drops to complete the majority of his throws.
2. Open up the playbook. With Brian Billick installing himself to call the plays after firing Jim Fassel, the Ravens need to establish a more unpredictable, productive offensive identity.
3. Establish the run. For the Ravens to truly be respected on play-action and generate enough time for Steve McNair to locate receivers downfield, they're going to have to produce at least a semblance of a power running game.
How the Saints can win
1. Keep the Ravens off-balance. Drew Brees has a plethora of viable targets to spread the football around to, including Joe Horn, Marques Colston and Reggie Bush. Those options make his job much easier.
2. Get to McNair. The Ravens have become increasingly vulnerable against the pass rush, and the Saints have 18 sacks, including a dozen sacks from a front four that features talented ends Charles Grant and Will Smith.
3. Create turnovers. McNair has tossed three interceptions in his last dozen throws, and four in his last 38 attempts. He's been pressing in his zeal to make a difference, and that desire has been counterproductive to the team's cause.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

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