Two games ahead of their closest competition in the AFC North and in the driver's seat for the automatic playoff berth that goes with being a division title winner, the Ravens have to take the Titans seriously to get to the next step on their agenda: 7-2. Tennessee isn't a very good team, but it does have some very talented athletes like mercurial cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones. Besides wanting to advance to the postseason, the Ravens have another motivation: gaining a little payback after last season's humiliating 25-10 loss to the Titans in Nashville, Tenn., where they were brutalized at the line of scrimmage. Tight end Todd Heap made it extremely clear that he hasn't forgotten what happened and how it felt to have virtually no chance to do anything offensively. The Ravens didn't generate a first down until the third quarter and finished with a franchise-low 14 rushing yards. Now, they want to keep the momentum rolling and erase the sting of last year's humiliation.
2. Can Steve McNair maintain his composure? In an emotional return to Tennessee after a messy divorce, the former NFL Co-MVP will try to balance his job responsibilities against the obvious feelings this game will carry for him. He called this a business trip, but acknowledged that it's really not. This breakup got personal, and peope close to McNair say he wants to show the Titans he can still perform at a high level. He's too classy to rip the way his contract situation was handled.
3. Can the Ravens run the football? Probably so. It should be an altogether different equation. The Titans gave up 173 rushing yards to the Jacksonville Jaguars last week. The Ravens' power running game has been punishing people upfront even if it has left yards on the field with Lewis not reading or getting through holes quickly enough. The Titans sorely miss massive defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who's serving the last week of a five-game suspension for viciously stomping on the head of Dallas Cowboys center Andre Gurode.
4. Can the Ravens block Kyle Vanden Bosch? They couldn't stop the hard-nosed defensive end last year as he rolled up three sacks and was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week. Tony Pashos draws this critical assignment.
5. Will Ray Lewis play and how effective will he be? Lewis is liable to be a game-time decision because of his sore back, but he sounds inclined toward playing. If he doesn't, Mike Smith would start. If he's at any risk of further injury or immobile, the Ravens will probably want to rest him because of next week's showdown against Michael Vick.
6. How many interceptions will Vince Young throw? The rookie quarterback is gifted athletically, but has a lot of work to do on becoming a polished passer. He uncorked three interceptions against the Jaguars and posted a putrid 30.2 quarterback rating. The Ravens lead the NFL with 17 interceptions.
Don't rule out a big game by former Titans wideout Derrick Mason. He caught eight passes for 60 yards and a touchdown in last year's losing cause. Against AFC road opponents, Mason has caught 195 career passes for 2,517 yards and 13 touchdowns with 133 first downs and 20 receptions of 25 yards or more.
WHO HAS THE EDGE?
Total (25) Rushing (19) Passing (22)
Steve McNair is returning to the scene of the crime in a sense. His old employers coldly barred him from working out at their weight room due to a contract dispute. He's certain to be emotional today with all that's transpired and his rich history with the Titans, including an NFL Co-MVP season and leading them to a Super Bowl berth.
If Jamal Lewis can't muster major yardage against a depleted front seven that ranks one spot from the bottom in rushing defense, then he truly has declined.
The Ravens are wise to get youngsters Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams more involved, but it shoudn't come at the expense of veterans Todd Heap and Derrick Mason.
Right tackle Tony Pashos draws the most challenging assignment: blocking defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch. The Titans can be pushed around upfront as hot head Albert Haynesworth completes his five-game suspension.
Total (3) Rushing (2) Passing (13)
Trevor Pryce has quietly had a career resurgence. Terrell Suggs needs to make more noise. Interior linemen Kelly Gregg and Haloti Ngata are fairly unheralded, but are extremely valuable to Rex Ryan's defense.
Ray Lewis is a question mark with a back injury. Bart Scott and Adalius Thomas have emerged as forces on the blitz. Mike Smith can get the job done if Lewis is scratched. He's a hard-nosed tackler who plays the game with an edge. The Ravens would lose something in pass coverage and pursuit.
They solidified the back end against the Bengals for the most part, but collapsed in key junctures. Today, shouldn't be so hard. Not with Vince Young passing out gifts. Ronnie Prude has made up for Corey Ivy's absence. Safety Dawan Landry is the most consistent one.
Matt Stover has hit his past 34 field goals. B.J. Sams hasn't made an impact lately. Rookie punter Sam Koch is hard to complain about.
Total (28) Rushing (12) Passing (29)
Vince Young is experiencing a rude awakening in an NFL world where linebackers are faster than him. He has been reluctant to run much. His accuracy and decision-making have been suspect, which is understandable for even the most gifted rookie. The Titans and the league as a whole needs young guns like him to flourish.
Travis Henry is a bullish, stocky runner who can generate extra yards after first contact. Plus, rookie LenDale White represents a strong change of pace.
Drew Bennett is the most proven target, which means this is a nondescript unit that has been victimized by poor drafting by GM Floyd Reese. Tight end Ben Troupe has potential, but hasn't exceeded expectations.
Former All-Pro center Kevin Mawae provides leadership and grit for an unproven bunch that needs to grow up rapidly and protect Vince Young better. He has already been sacked seven times.
Total (32) Rushing (31) Passing (14)
Kyle Vanden Bosch is an intense technician with outstanding strength and speed. Robaire Smith is a solid interior pass rusher. Former Terrapins star Randy Starks needs to mature, but can disrupt the middle.
Keith Bulluck headlines a unit in need of an influx of speed and athleticism. Bulluck is a hard-nosed, high-level performer who never backs down from a confrontations. Peter Sirmon and David Thornton are unmemorable.
Former Steelers safety Chris Hope has intercepted three passes and stabilized the deep patrol. Pacman Jones is a mercurial star who se legal problems could ruin a promising career. Lamont Thompson is a hitter. Reynaldo Hill is a pesky journeyman.
Punter Craig Hentrich remains one of the game's best. Kicker Rob Bironas has only missed once. Pacman Jones is a big-time punt returner.
How the Titans can win
1. Lure McNair into turnovers. McNair hasn't thrown an interception in his past 54 throws, a two-game span without a turnover that, not coincidentally, has generated consecutive victories.
2. Score on special teams. Brash cornerback Adam "Pac-Man" Jones is off suspension and is one of the most dangerous punt returners in the game. He has already scored one touchdown this year.
3. Lob one to Drew Bennett. The converted former UCLA quarterback represents an inviting red-zone target.
How the Ravens can win
1. Don't get overconfident. Baltimore can't afford to take the Titans lightly even in their salary-cap reduced state. They have too many athletes like Adam "Pac-Man" Jones and Vince Young to account for.
2. Stay sharp. The Ravens can't afford to be so susceptible to the big play on defense. It's been a case of feast or famine lately, and it's beginning to wear on defensive coordinator Rex Ryan's nerves.
3. Confuse Vince Young. The rookie is ultra-confident, but there are so many things he hasn't experienced in the NFL. The Ravens' complicated schemes and aggression might be too much for him.
TODAY'S KEY MATCHUPS
Ravens OT Tony Pashos vs. Titans DE Kyle Vanden Bosch
Last year, three sacks propelled this intense edge rusher to a lucrative new contract as he victimized Orlando Brown and Pashos on occasion. Pashos is pass-blocking much better now, but will have his hands full with Vandenbosch's motor and speed.
Ravens NG Kelly Gregg vs. Titans C Kevin Mawae
For football purists who love to watch brutish technicians operate at the line of scrimmage, look no further than this encounter between two of the grittiest, most technically sound linemen ni the game. This should be an instant classic.
Three downs with ...
Ravens wide receiver
1. On whether the team chemistry is different because of a 6-2 record: "Yes, of course. Everyone is more upbeat. The atmosphere is a little less stressful. Little less tension in the air because when you're 2-6, you're always pressing to try to make something work. When you're 6-2, you're not relaxing, but everything just seems to come easier. At 2-6, it's like, ‘Man, we've tried every play and it seems to not be working.' Your natural instinct is to kind of be tense."
2. On whether last year's lopsided defeat at Tennessee still affects the team: "No, it's over with. Last year was last year. We were not a good team last year on record. This year, we are a much better team on record. So, what happened last year is what happened last year. We're not going to use that as a motivational tool for us.
3. On if it's hard to watch his old team struggle: "In a sense, yeah. I know the type of character they have and the coaches they have are tremendous. You kind of feel for them, but I've got to like the position we're in. Jeff Fisher will get that team turned around. Do I feel a little bit for them? Yeah, but if we feel sorry for them, we might walk out of that stadium with a loss. So, we've got to go in there and play as if they are 8-0."
Three downs with ...
1. On the Titans' growing pains: "We're working on our chemistry right now as a team. We're young. Guys are getting better each week. To me, we continue to make a lot of progress and we can win on any given Sunday, but we've got to keep using our efforts, keep bringing a lot of effort to the game on Sunday."
2. On facing veteran defenses as a rookie quarterback: "I don't know what they are going to try to do to me. We can just go off what they are showing on film. We've got to wait until the game starts to see what they try to do to me. We've got the mindset that we are going to go out there to play our game."
3. On the challenge of rebuilding after salary-cap upheaval: "I just feel like what goes on business-wise is not our business. Basically, our business is down here in this locker room, out there on that field and trying to win ballgames. I feel like the team is working hard and we've just got to do some things to overcome some of the things that go on for us to deal with these losses, these two or three players, that hurt us a lot in the long run."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.
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