Baltimore Ravens' scouting report

5 CRITICAL QUESTIONS 1. Can the Baltimore Ravens contain the Cincinnati Bengals' explosive passing game? Heading into tonight's potential AFC North title clincher for the Ravens (9-2) at Paul Brown Stadium, Baltimore has to be wondering if the Bengals (6-5) have evolved since absorbing a 26-20 loss at M&T Bank Stadium on Nov. 5.

The Bengals have averaged 34 points and 439 yards since that defeat with quarterback Carson Palmer tossing nine touchdown passes with two interceptions. The Ravens' defense spearheaded a 27-0 shutout of the Pittsburgh Steelers last week with nine intimidating sacks. Now, it has to face off with an extremely dangerous offense centered around gifted wide receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Motivation won't be in short supply as the Ravens have their sights set on becoming the second earliest team to clinch a playoff berth since the NFL went to an eight-division format in 2002 and claim their second AFC North title. The Ravens haven't qualified for the postseason since 2003. Plus, Houshmandzadeh keeps insisting that the Bengals are the better team despite the outcome of the last meeting.
2. How much of an edge does Jamal Lewis have against the Bengals' run defense? The Ravens controlled the football 14 minutes longer than the Bengals in the last encounter, and they are likely to use another ball-control philosophy to try to keep the Bengals' offense on the sidelines. Lewis is beginning to resemble at least a shadow of his former self, running with violent, high-knee action with his elbows, shoulders and helmet jutting into defenders. The Bengals' linebackers are unlikely to be physical enough to contain him. They look like easy marks.
3. Will Steve McNair be a big factor? The three-time Pro Bowl passer is facing off with the NFL's last-ranked pass defense, a secondary of castoffs and misfits. He finally appears fully comfortable in this offense and is now audibling adeptly. The Bengals have struggled to contain athletic tight ends like Todd Heap, who caught a touchdown last week off a double-move after being split out wide. Pass protection hasn't been an issue lately for Baltimore and that shouldn't change tonight.
4. Will Rudi Johnson get untracked? Traditionally, running backs don't thrive against the Ravens' formidable front seven. However, the Bengals still might pound Johnson up the middle to try to force rookie strong safety Dawan Landry to force the issue at the line of scrimmage. That could potentially set up intermediate and sideline throws to sizable targets like Chris Henry.
5. Can the Ravens pressure Palmer consistently? The Ravens have produced 14 sacks in the past two weeks. However, Palmer has a quick release and has demonstrated great command of the offense. Especially when offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski has gone no-huddle. He completed 25 of 32 passes last week for 275 yards and three touchdowns before leaving the game early last week against the Cleveland Browns. His arm strength and pocket presence are major strengths for the Bengals. Palmer has progressed significantly since his poor outing against Baltimore.
WHO HAS THE EDGE?
OFFENSE
Total (24) Rushing (23) Passing (17)
Quarterback
Steve McNair has expertly managed games over the past five games, throwing six touchdowns with two interceptions for a nearly 100 passer rating. When the Ravens have needed him in the clutch, he has delivered consistently.
Running backs
Jamal Lewis should be sufficiently rested up after an intentionally reduced workload against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He's licking his chops about going up against the Bengals' soft linebacking corps.
Receivers
Tight end Todd Heap is having a Pro Bowl caliber season, ranking first on the team with 51 receptions for 535 yards and a team-high six touchdowns. Meanwhile, wide receivers Mark Clayton and Derrick Mason have been consistent downfield targets.
Offensive line
Since the Ravens began starting youngsters Jason Brown and Chris Chester at the guard spots, the downfield blocking has improved. All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden is having a banner season. Right tackle Tony Pashos is trying to earn a new contract.
DEFENSE
Total (2) Rushing (2) Passing (9)
Defensive line
Kelly Gregg is one of the most active nose guards with 72 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks and two forced fumbles. Trevor Pryce has four sacks in the past two games. Terrell Suggs is coming off a two-sack, eight-tackle outing along with six quarterback hits.
Linebackers
Bart Scott won ESPN's Jacked-Up segment for his vicious hit on Ben Roethlisberger. Ray Lewis made it through his first game since injuring his back, but appeared somewhat hesitant. Adalius Thomas scored his fifth career touchdown.
Secondary
Cornerback Samari Rolle is playing better since being torched for the majority of the season. Chris McAlister leads the team with four interceptions. Safety Ed Reed hasn't generated many big plays since signing a $40 million contract.
SPECIAL TEAMS
Kicker Matt Stover has converted 19 of 20 field goals this year. Return specialist B.J. Sams didn't exactly thrive against a subpar kick coverage unit last week. There were way too many penalties on special teams against Pittsburgh.
OFFENSE
Total (8) Rushing (21) Passing (5)
Quarterback
Since throwing two interceptions in a 26-20 loss to Baltimore on Nov. 5, Carson Palmer has thrown nine touchdowns passes with two interceptions as Cincinnati has averaged 34 points and 439 yards per contest.
Running backs
Rudi Johnson is one of the most hard-nosed runners in the game, but hasn't done much against Baltimore lately. He has rushed for 890 yards and eight touchdowns, but lacks a capable backup with Chris Perry out for the season.
Receivers
Chad Johnson and T.J. Houhsmandzadeh comprise one of the most potent receiving tandems in the league. Factor in third receiver Chris Henry's big-play capabilities, and the Bengals represent a matchup nightmare for most secondaries.
Offensive line
Shorthanded again without Levi Jones and Bobbie Williams, the Ravens' defensive line could have a field day. Especially if center Rich Braham is out again or limited in terms of mobility.
DEFENSE
Total (31) Rushing (18) Passing (32)
Defensive line
Justin Smith is an active, intense defensive end with excellent speed and strength. Former Ravens defensive tackle Sam Adams is an absolute disaster with his sloppy girth. Since dropping weight, end Robert Geathers' quickness is impressive.
Linebackers
Brian Simmons is pretty much the last man standing in a unit decimated by David Pollack's broken neck and Odell Thurman's season-long suspension for violating the NFL substance-abuse policy. Caleb Miller is far too undersized.
Secondary
Cornerbacks Deltha O'Neal and Tory James have been consistently burnt to a crisp. Safety Kevin Kaesviharn is contributing heavily over the past few games and leads the team with six interceptions. Former Maryland safety Madieu Williams is the bright spot of a bad bunch.
SPECIAL TEAMS
Kicker Shayne Graham has converted 18 of 21 field goals. Kickoff returner Chris Perry was placed on injured reserve Tuesday. Punter Kyle Larson is averaging 43.7 yards per boot.
EDGES: Quarterback: Cincinnati, Running back: Cincinnati; Receivers: Cincinnati; Offensive line: Baltimore; Defensive line: Baltimore; Linebackers: Baltimore; Secondary: Baltimore; Special teams: Baltimore.
Ravens Confidential
Three downs with …
Trevor Pryce
Ravens defensive end
1. On the Ravens' outlook: "I do get a good feeling, but you have to reserve that about this team until the season ends and you see where you wind up in the playoff picture. A lot of the guys are just now getting used to all the attention and the eyes of people saying we're the best team in football. You have to take all that with a grain of salt, because the next week, if something goes bad, you could be the worst team in football."
2. On not buying into the hype: "It's very easy. If we don't read our press clippings too much, then we'll be all right and keep that same focus. What you have to do is block out the good and the bad. Just like you block out the bad when things aren't going well, you block out the good when things are going well, because it all takes away from what you have to accomplish to get where every NFL team wants to get."
3. On the Ravens' defense: "It terrifies a lot of people -- especially when you have a Corey Ivy, who is really a pit-bull with two legs, or Adalius [Thomas], who is 270 pounds that nobody blocks because it's pointless -- getting to the quarterback. It's frightening to me just to watch it. Somebody's going to get hurt. I'm not laughing. When you get to the quarterback enough times, yeah, the quarterback's eyes will get wide. Every quarterback does that, no matter who he is."
Bengals Confidential
Three downs with …
Marvin Lewis
Bengals head coach
1. On the Bengals beginning to hit stride: "We've got to play better football all the way down. In order to be a playoff team, you've got to beat teams like this that are winning the division right now and playing the best football in the AFC right now. You've got to play good football. It's a great team."
2. On the importance of protecting Carson Palmer: "You have to protect every week in the NFL or else they'll knock your quarterback out. That's the way you play defense in the NFL. You know the owners don't like that guy behind center getting knocked around, nor do the head coaches. That's something you've got to do each and every week is you always make sure you protect the quarterback first."
3. On the challenge of the short week: "I think it is probably the physical challenge: to make sure that you keep your freshness but be alert. They obviously present a lot of looks, so our offense and so forth have our work cut out for us that way. We've got to present them with some new looks and don't let them stay in their comfort zone."
INSIDE SLANT
Dating back to 1996, the Ravens have scored 32 defensive touchdowns, including five this season on four interception returns and one fumble return, in 31 games. The Ravens are 27-4 when they score on defense. Even in games where the Ravens haven't pulled out a win after scoring on defense, the average margin of victory has been 2.5 points. Since 2003, no other NFL team has totaled as many defensive touchdowns as the Ravens' 19. In those games, Baltimore is 16-2. The next closest scoring defense in the past four seasons is the Chicago Bears with 13 touchdowns.
TODAY'S KEY MATCHUPS
CB Samari Rolle vs. WR Chad Johnson
With assistance from safety Ed Reed on Nov. 5, the oft-targeted Rolle intercepted a pass and contained Johnson to four catches for 31 yards. Will the Bengals go after him again?
LB Jamal Lewis vs. LB Caleb Miller
Lewis has a major size and strength advantage over Miller, one of the most undersized middle linebackers in the NFL at barely 225 pounds. Lewis has capitalized against tougher tacklers than Miller over the past month.
How the Ravens can win
1. Harass Carson Palmer. An aggressive defense has generated 14 sacks over the past two weeks, but can't falter against Palmer. He has one of the quickest releases and strongest arms in the game.
2. Check Chad Johnson. Since Baltimore shut him down three weeks ago, Johnson has caught 24 passes for 573 yards and five touchdowns. They'll need extremely effective double-coverage schemes.
3. Pound the Bengals inside to set up the pass. Cincinnati lacks athleticism in the middle and running back Jamal Lewis has powerfully grinded out yards lately. The Bengals have the NFL's worst pass defense statistically.
How the Bengals can win
1. Air it out. The Ravens' lone defensive weakness is their susceptibility to the deep ball. They have given up 10 touchdown passes along wiht an average of 13.0 yards per reception.
2. Create turnovers. Cincinnati generated five turnovers against Cleveland last week, and needs extra scoring opportunities against a very stingy Baltimore defense.
3. Stop the run. With thunderstorms in the weather forecast, the Ravens are liable to keep the ball on the ground a lot unless Cincinnati proves it can contain Jamal Lewis.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

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