Baltimore Ravens' scouting report

5 CRITICAL QUESTIONS 1. Will the Baltimore Ravens be able to exploit Trent Dilfer? As the Ravens (2-2) take on the San Francisco 49ers (2-2) today at Monster Park, they'll be taking aim at their charismatic former Super Bowl quarterback whom they unceremoniously dumped to sign enigmatic free agent Elvix Grbac.

While it would be an intriguing story line if Dilfer was able to vanquish his old team after being snubbed six years ago, it seems to be an unlikely scenario given that he's 35 years old and directing the NFL's worst offense behind a shaky offensive line that just lost its starting left tackle due to personal issues. Dilfer, who hasn't started since 2005 and completed just 12 of 33 throws last week for 128 yards, two interceptions and five sacks, is a pocket passer and is likely to be targeted heavily by a dormant pass rush that's looking for a revival against a beleaguered 49ers line that will be missing Jonas Jennings due to personal reasons.

2. Can the Ravens contain Frank Gore?

It doesn't seem to matter what sort of runner this defense is squaring off with. They always shut them down. Gore is an excellent feature back with the capability to break tackles and burst into the secondary. However, the former University of Miami star does have a tendency to fumble. The Ravens have allowed only one touchdown run, and Cleveland Browns runner Jamal Lewis' score isn't considered to be above-board by most neutral observers.

3. Will Steve McNair snap out of his funk?

McNair has lost three of his past starts dating back to the Ravens' 15-6 playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts. He has produced a 73.6 passer rating in his past five games with two touchdown passes and five interceptions. He completed only 4 of 8 throws in the red zone against the Browns as Baltimore scored a touchdown on just one of four scoring opportunities. His lack of accuracy, sailing throws due to a groin pull, is directly affecting the Ravens' No. 27 red-zone attack. Despite 418 yards of total offense and 26 first downs last week, Baltimore stalled near the goal line.

4. Will the Ravens avoid Nate Clements?

The 49ers' expensive shutdown cornerback intercepted his first pass last week. Perhaps it was a sign of things to come. He's likely to match up with wide receiver Derrick Mason (33 catches), who has emerged as McNair's favorite target again reminiscent of their Tennessee Titans days.

5. Will Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott notch their first sacks?

Neither Pro Bowl linebacker has recorded a sack, and Suggs' last sack was on New Year's Eve last year. They combined for 19 sacks a year ago, but have sorely missed injured defensive end Trevor Pryce's upfield presence. The pass-rushing drought is akin to the hot summer Maryland just endured. The 49ers' offensive line is suspect, having already allowed 15 sacks.

Who has the Edge?

Offense

Total (8t) Rushing (14t) Passing (9)

Quarterback

Steve McNair's accuracy and mechanics have suffered due to his nagging groin pull, continually throwing off his back foot and not delivering the football on time to his chosen targets. The public clamor for backup Kyle Boller is predictable, but a change under center is extremely unlikely barring a major injury setback for McNair.

Running back

Willis McGahee has been underutilized so far. He's running with solid power and above-average shiftiness. He could increase his opportunities by improving his tackle-breaking ability and vision in the red zone, where he's gained just 42 yards for a 2.8 average, well below his 4.7 average per carry.

Receivers

Wide receiver Derrick Mason is tied for second in the NFL with 33 receptions, but isn't even averaging 10 yards per catch. Quinn Sypniewski is the lone healthy tight end. Demetrius Williams hasn't gotten the football often enough or deep enough, and Mark Clayton has been hampered by injuries.

Offensive line

It doesn't look like Jonathan Ogden is going to return this week. Right tackle Marshal Yanda struggled in pass protection last week as the Cleveland Browns kept bringing blitzes in his direction. Quietly, rookie Ben Grubbs is taking more and more playing time away from starter Chris Chester at right guard.

Defense

Total (10) Rushing (3) Passing (2)

Defensive line

They sorely miss end Trevor Pryce. Since there's no interior pass rush from run-stoppers Kelly Gregg and Haloti Ngata, it's up to rush end Terrell Suggs and Pryce's replacement, Dwan Edwards, and situational rusher Antwan Barnes to make something happen. Edwards has had a nonexistent impact since becoming a starter. Suggs' last sack was on New Year's Eve last year. Linebackers

Middle linebacker Ray Lewis has been critical of the scheme and cornerback Chris McAlister this week, but hasn't taken any brunt of the blame for the defense's slow start. Bart Scott's blitzing has been cut to virtually nil due to his increased pass-coverage responsibilities. Jarret Johnson has been stout against the run.

Secondary

Chris McAlister should rebound from getting burnt by Braylon Edwards. Typically, he has the requisite short memory. Safeties Ed Reed and Dawan Landry aren't tackling nearly as well as last year. Corey Ivy has held up decently in Samari Rolle's place. The same can't be said, though, for nickel back Derrick Martin, who has struggled. Where is David Pittman?

Special teams

Matt Stover hasn't missed multiple field goals in a game since the start of the 2005 season. He's never missed on eight career attempts against the 49ers. Return specialist Yamon Figurs came down to earth last week with a lost fumble and no long returns. He has to be more careful with the football. Sam Koch should be well-rested. He didn't punt once last week.

Offense

Total (32) Rushing (20) Passing (32)

Quarterback

Trent Dilfer, have you paid your health insurance premiums? It would be a great revenge plotline if the former Ravens Super Bowl quarterback was able to outduel Steve McNair today, but it's unlikely to happen because of Dilfer's age and skill set, shaky offensive line and thin receiving corps.

Running back

Frank Gore is an elite runner, but he has a tendency to fumble, a likelihood increased by his broken hand during the preseason. Gore represents the 49ers' top chance to compete, but the Ravens remain stingy against the run regardless of who's carrying the football.

Receivers

Darrell Jackson and Arnaz Battle don't scare too many viable secondaries. Former University of Maryland star tight end Vernon Davis is sidelined with a knee injury. The 49ers are averaging just 118 passing yards per contest with one touchdown catch in four games.

Offensive line

Journeyman Adam Snyder will take Jonas Jennings' place protecting Dilfer's blindside today with Jennings out for personal reasons. Rookie right tackle Joe Staley was coveted by the Ravens, but Mike Nolan leapfrogged them to grab the Central Michigan blue-chipper with the 28th overall pick. Right guard Justin Smiley is a tough customer, but prone to penalties. Larry Allen is old, but nasty.

Defense

Total (20) Rushing (25) Passing (11)

Defensive line

Bryant Young is seemingly ageless with four sacks. He's a true technician. Former Ravens defensive lineman Marques Douglas provides leadership and quickness upfront with 28 tackles. Former Baltimore reserve nose guard Aubrayo Franklin is starting and holding up fairly well.

Linebackers

They miss athletic outside linebacker Manny Lawson, who's out for the year. Rookie middle linebacker Patrick Willis is a fast, aggressive tackler who strikes ball-carriers. He has 4.4 speed at 242 pounds. Derek Smith is a steady, but unspectacular starter.

Secondary

Nate Clements is a true shutdown cornerback. Most quarterbacks avoid his side altogether. Walt Harris has a nose for the football. Safety Michael Lewis is a hard hitter. Mark Roman isn't a very good athlete, but he's tough. Special teams

Joe Nedney hasn't missed a field goal this year, hitting all seven. Punter Andy Lee is averaging 42.6 yards. The return game is undistinguished with Maurice Hicks and Michael L. Lewis.

EDGES: Quarterback: Baltimore; Running back: San Francisco; Receivers: Baltimore; Offensive line: Baltimore; Defensive line: Baltimore; Linebackers: Baltimore; Secondary: Baltimore; Special teams: Baltimore.

Three downs with ...

49ers coach Mike Nolan

1. On coaching the team his father coached: "It means a lot. Having lived here for a length of time, a lot of my early memories as a child were here. My love for the game originated here by being around the locker room and the players that were here. So, a lot of my memories go back to that.

"In trying to restore the 49ers, it is something that when I took the job was a huge challenge and it still is. We're in the process. We're getting ever so close all the time. I guess just because of so many memories, so many great memories I have in coming back to the area are what make it special as much as anything."

2. On his familiarity with Brian Billick: "I think that Brian knows me and my philosophies about certain things, and I feel I know the same about Brian's, not only because I worked with Brian, but probably because I competed against him as a coordinator before. There's a lot of history between the two of us. I know that I've got tremendous respect for Brian, as well as Rex Ryan on the other side of the ball.

"In some cases, that gets overrated because it does get down to players on players. It's a physical game and it's a game of physical matchups. Brian and I obviously aren't going to have a physical matchup to determine the outcome of the game. But our decisions that we make, whether it be to run the ball, pass the ball, blitz, something in the special teams, anything like that does affect the game."

3. On the Ravens' offensive progression: "It looks to me like they have more weapons than they may have had when I was there. The line is young, but it looks like a talented group of guys. I've always had a tremendous amount of respect for Steve McNair.

"I think he's an outstanding leader and I think he's a guy that not only the offense believes in, but the defense players do as well. Looking at their offense, I just see them as the same tough unit that they were before, but with a very competitive guy pulling the trigger."

Three downs with ...

Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis

1. On his memories of Trent Dilfer: "He was just the ultimate team player. I think you just love playing with Trent because no matter what Trent went through, Trent always kept it positive. Just being able to play with Trent, no matter what happened in the course of a practice or a game, Trent was always able to just come back."

2. On playing on the road: It's you, all 53 men and your coaches that you go out there with, that's all you have. You can't look for anybody to help you. You can't look for any enthusiasm. You've got to create your energy because everything is going to be hostile. That's why we enjoy playing at home, because it's a very hostile environment. Anytime you go on the road, it's always going to be tough."

3. On the 49ers' last-ranked offense: "I know they've got a good running back over there in Frank Gore. I know they like getting him the ball, whether it's running, screens, checkdowns, whatever. He is a football player.

"He's a great young player. I think the main challenge for us right now is just going in and trying to deal with another running back. We take pride in it. So, it's going to be another good challenge for us."

How the Ravens can win

1. Pressure Trent Dilfer. Dilfer was sacked five times during last week's loss to the Seattle Seahawks and isn't known for his mobility. The 49ers' last-ranked offense will be without starting left tackle Jonas Jennings today due to an excused absence for personal reasons.

2. Establish the run with Willis McGahee. He has rushed for 376 yards despite only carrying it 80 times for a 4.7 average. The 49ers have been somewhat hapless at stopping the run, surrendering 130.0 rushing yards per contest to rank 25th overall.

3. Capitalize in the red zone. Baltimore has only five touchdowns in 14 trips inside opponents' 20-yard line, a 35.7 percentage.

How the 49ers can win

1. Tackle Willis McGahee. There's a strong sense around the team that McGahee is extremely close to breaking a long run, especially after last week's creative 28-yard cutback run that left the pursuit behind as he reversed field.

2. Blitz Steve McNair. McNair's not as spry as usual due to a lingering groin pull, and he has been developing a bad habit of throwing off his back foot.

3. Make the Ravens respect the pass. San Francisco has the worst passing game in the league and running back Frank Gore can't do it all by himself. Former Ravens starter Trent Dilfer needs to have a respectable game, unlike last week's debacle.

INSIDE SLANT

The connections between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers start at the top. Ravens coach Brian Billick used to be the 49ers assistant director of public relations in 1979, and 49ers coach Mike Nolan was the Ravens' defensive coordinator from 2002 to 2004. 49ers quarterback Trent Dilfer, who ended a long-held grudge this week against Billick for the team dumping him following Super Bowl XXXV, went 11-1 for Baltimore during the 2000 season. 49ers assistant head coach Mike Singletary coached the Ravens' linebackers for two years, and San Francisco secondary coach Johnnie Lynn coached the Ravens' defensive backs for two seasons.

Two of the 49ers' starting defensive linemen -- end Marques Douglas and nose guard Aubrayo Franklin -- used to play in Baltimore. Plus, injured 49ers tight end Vernon Davis starred at the University of Maryland, where San Francisco reserve quarterback Shaun Hill led the Terrapins to an Orange Bowl berth in 2001. Wide receiver Demetrius Williams attended high school in Northern California and backup quarterback Kyle Boller played collegiately at Cal-Berkeley. Ravens running back Willis McGahee and 49ers running back Frank Gore were high school rivals and later teammates at the University of Miami.

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

Ravens Insider Top Stories