Baltimore Ravens' scouting report

5 CRITICAL QUESTIONS 1. Will it be Steve McNair or Kyle Boller under center? As the Baltimore Ravens (3-2) host the winless St. Louis Rams (0-5) today at M&T Bank Stadium, McNair is a question mark due to a tight back and a nagging groin pull.

Just as the groin was starting to improve markedly, McNair, 35, incurred the back injury possibly because he was overcompensating on his throwing delivery. Now, the Ravens appear primed to give Boller his second start of the season. The timing for this scenario is fairly good considering that the Ravens are two weeks separated from their bye week and are playing against a reeling opponent that has been outscored to 89-27 after halftime in five games. Boller was effective in relief against the Cardinals, engineering a game-winning drive, and was turnover-free as he started and won against the New York Jets. Considering McNair's age, the coaching staff has to be extremely careful with his health.

2. Could this be the day the Ravens solve their red-zone problems? The Ravens rank 28th in red-zone production as their running game hasn't been rugged enough to bust into the end zone and McNair has been inaccurate in confined quarters. There have been some assignment breakdowns along with unimaginative play-calling on the part of head coach/offensive coordinator Brian Billick. The whispers about his approach are growing louder around town and inside the Ravens' training complex.

3. How will Marshal Yanda fare against Leonard Little? This is a challenging assignment for the rookie right tackle as he'll be paired opposite the Rams' most accomplished pass rusher. Little has 74 career sacks and a wealth of pass-rushing moves at his disposal. Yanda will counter with his trademark toughness and technique. Just in case, the former pig farmer from Iowa will get some chip-blocking assistance from tight ends and running backs.

4. What will be the Ravens' answer to the no-huddle offense? Cornerback Samari Rolle is likely to return today after missing the past three games with an undisclosed illness. However, his presence might not be enough to shut down the Rams' no-huddle passing attack led by veteran quarterback Gus Frerotte. Frerotte can be streaky, throwing three touchdowns and three interceptions last week with starter Marc Bulger out with broken ribs. Any quarterback with Torry Holt at his disposal qualifies as dangerous. Chris McAlister needs his 'A' game today.

5. Will the Ravens run some longer pass patterns? Apparently, not. McNair and Billick have made it abundantly clear that they are reluctant to force anything deep and will continue to utilize a ball-control approach to the passing game. The Ravens are averaging only 5.81 yards per pass attempt with just five passes between 20 and 39 yards.

Who has the Edge?

Offense

Total (11) Rushing (14) Passing (10)

Quarterback

Steve McNair is a question mark due to a tight back and will be a game-time decision. Perhaps it would be a smart idea for him to rest his 35-year-old body, which is ailing with a nagging groin pull and the back injury, and insert backup quarterback Kyle Boller. That's why you pay your backup: to play when the starter isn't 100 percent.

Running back

Willis McGahee is on pace for a 1,484-yard rushing campaign, which would represent the second-highest mark in franchise history behind Jamal Lewis. It's questionable strategically why the coaching staff continually rests him just as he's starting to build some momentum. There are no apparent stamina issues.

Receivers

Derrick Mason is on pace for an NFL-record 141 receptions. Todd Heap is coming off a hamstring pull, but should be all right. Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams' long-distance efforts have been hampered by McNair's inaccuracy, their lingering injuries and a conservative scheme.

Offensive line

The youth movement is officially afoot with left tackle Jared Gaither primed to make his first NFL start and join fellow rookies Marshal Yanda and Ben Grubbs in the lineup. With Jonathan Ogden, Adam Terry and Mike Flynn sidelined with injuries, the average age of the offensive line is 23.5 years, giving the Ravens the youngest offensive line in the NFL. They didn't allow a sack a week ago.

Defense

Total (4) Rushing (2) Passing (12)

Defensive line

They woke up from their slumber last week, at least Kelly Gregg and Haloti Ngata did with several big plays. However, Dwan Edwards remains silent with no sacks. Terrell Suggs is struggling to generate pressure as a rush end with Trevor Pryce out with a broken wrist.

Linebackers

Middle linebacker Ray Lewis already has 60 tackles and has been pursuing sideline to sideline. Bart Scott notched his first sack and may be used more in blitz packages. Jarret Johnson ranks third on the team in tackles and is tied for first two sacks. Plus, he leads the defense with two forced fumbles.

Secondary

Samari Rolle is slated for nickel responsibilities after missing the past three games with an undisclosed illness. Corey Ivy is scheduled to start. Cornerback Chris McAlister has been burnt for a touchdown the past two games. He didn't want to talk about his breakdowns. Ed Reed leads Baltimore with three interceptions.

Special teams

Kicker Matt Stover is tied with the Houston Texans' Kris Brown for the NFL lead with 13 field goals. Return specialist Yamon Figurs is over his left shoulder injury that limited him last week and said he will return punts and kickoffs today. Punter Sam Koch is averaging 42.5 yards per punt.

Offense

Total (27) Rushing (21t) Passing (23)

Quarterback

Gus Frerotte is a streaky passer who can get on a hot streak. He's especially dangerous operating the no-huddle offense and has excellent chemistry with coach Scott Linehan, who has wrested play-calling duties from his offensive coordinator.

Running back

With Steven Jackson sidelined, the Rams are without the services of one of the NFL's premier runners. Rookie Brian Leonard is no slouch, though, gaining 181 yards on 38 carries with a long run of 31 yards. The former Rutgers star has also caught a dozen passes. Receivers

Torry Holt is on the mend from a knee injury and remains an explosive threat. Along with possession receiver Drew Bennett, he'll have to carry the workload because Isaac Bruce, Dante Hall and Dane Looker are all out with injuries. Randy McMichael is an above-average tight end with enough speed to stretch the secondary.

Offensive line

They sorely miss All-Pro tackle Orlando Pace as Alex Barron is extremely soft at left tackle. Right guard Richie Incognito is a penalty machine. This is an ordinary unit that has allowed 13 sacks.

Defense

Total (27) Rushing (27) Passing (13)

Defensive line

Leonard Little is having an off-year with no sacks, but his combination of strength and speed represents a stiff test for rookie right tackle Marshal Yanda. Rookie nose guard Adam Carriker has vast potential. Veteran nose guard La'Roi Glover doesn't generate as many big plays as he used to.

Linebackers

Middle linebacker Will Witherspoon is undersized, but extremely active in pursuit. Outside linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa, also known as "Hawaii 5-0," has excellent speed. Brandon Chillar is a smart player.

Secondary

The Rams are finally healthy and suspension-free at cornerback with Tye Hill and Fakhir Brown formulating a potentially impressive tandem. Safeties Oshiomogho Atogwe and Corey Chavous lack ideal speed, but are heady, reliable tacklers who know their limitations.

Special teams

Kicker Jeff Wilkins has only converted 9 of 13 field goals, but is traditionally a reliable sort. Left-footed punter Donnie Jones is averaging a whopping 50.6 yards. The Ravens are fortunate that return specialist Dante Hall is out with an ankle injury. Converted quarterback Marques Hagans will take his place.

EDGES: Quarterback: Even; Running back: Baltimore; Receiver: Baltimore; Offensive line: Baltimore; Defensive line: Baltimore; Linebackers: Baltimore; Secondary: Baltimore; Special teams: Baltimore.

Three downs with ...



Ravens linebacker Bart Scott

1. On whether he feels the Rams have the ability to beat the Ravens: "Whenever you've got Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt over there, you always have a chance because they're definitely a vertical threat. Drew Bennett put up some good numbers against us last year.

"So, they've got a great one-two, maybe three-receiver threat out there. But the good thing is no Orlando Pace helps you out a little bit because he's one of the best to ever play that position."

2. On the impact of not having defensive end Trevor Pryce: ""Trevor Pryce is the pressure. He is able to demand a double-team. He's going to get upfield pressure inside the pocket to force the quarterback to not be able to step up in the pocket, and that allows us some time, the outside blitzers and the outside rush guys, to keep that quarterback at five steps or seven steps to be able to have a chance to strip the ball out or get a sack."

3. On whether the defense has been hesitating: "No, not at all. We're still just trying to get our feet underneath us. That last game was a building block for us, and, hopefully, we can take another step this week. Like I said, we'll poke our head up at the end of the season and see where we're ranked.

"We want to come up there and we always want to finish No. 1 in the NFL. But the most important thing is winning. Hopefully we can get some turnovers and start putting the ball in the end zone."

Three downs with ...

Rams quarterback Gus Frerotte

1. On this matchup: "It's going to be a physical game. We just have to come out and battle. You have to give it your all. You have to dig down deep.

"These are the kind of things you always dream of. You're in the NFL and you have to go play hard and it's going to be a physical game and all 11 of us and whoever else plays have to step up to the challenge."

2. On running the no-huddle offense. "No-huddle is good. It's fast-paced. It's uptempo. It's a lot of poise by the offense, it's putting a lot of pressure on the defense. Sometimes, it quiets a defense down that likes to do a lot of blitzing, a lot of moving around.

"Sometimes, it doesn't if they're a good, solid defense and they have veteran players who know what they're doing. It doesn't always work, but it worked real well last week and it gave us an improvement on offense. We were able to keep the ball uptempo and keep moving down the field. It gave us a lot of opportunities to make big plays."

3. On the mentality of being 0-5: "When you get behind and you're 0-5 and haven't won a game and you've been close but you haven't been able to make that step, it has been difficult. We just have to have that energy. Energy has to come whether you're winning or losing.

"You have to have those guys that are positive all the time. We're going to need those leaders. Even though it's tough to come to work because things are going poorly and guys are saying, 'Oh, this is going to be another hard day,' it doesn't matter. You're still in the NFL and you have to do your job."

How the Ravens can win

1. Avoid overconfidence. The Ravens can't afford to fall into the trap of taking a winless football team lightly. That kind of arrogance has no place on a team that struggles so much offensively.

2. Improve in the red zone. After slumping to 28th in the league in red-zone offense, something has to change or Brian Billick's computers will explode.

3. Contain Torry Holt. Holt represents the Rams' most dangerous downfield threat, and the Ravens have proven to be susceptible to deep strikes. They must contain him.

How the Rams can win

1. Play with reckless abandon. At this point, what have they got to lose? It's time to empty out the playbook, executing the gadget plays and every bit of trickery Scott Linehan has.

2. Keep running the no-huddle offense. Baltimore has proven that they're vulnerable against this strategy due to its lack of depth in the defensive backfield and an inconsistent pass rush. Just reference the Cardinals and Jets' respective game plans.

3. Tackle Willis McGahee. St. Louis ranks 27th overall against the run, surrendering 146.0 rushing yards per contest, and must get him on the ground.

INSIDE SLANT

Baltimore Ravens running back Willis McGahee ranks second in the NFL in all-purpose yardage with 607 yards gained, trailing behind only Miami Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown's 712-yard output. At this current pace, the former Pro Bowl selection would wind up with 1,942 yards of total ofense for the second most in Baltimore franchise history behind Jamal Lewis' 2,271 yards during his NFL Offensive Player of the Year campaign in 2003. McGahee has generated 464 rushing yards and 143 receiving yards. He ranks third in the NFL in rushing yards, on pace for 1,484 rushing yards, which would rank behind Lewis' 2,066 yards. His 102 attempts ranks third overall, putting him on pace for 326 carries for the year. Plus, he's averaging 5.2 first downs per game, putting him on pace for 83 for the year, behind Lewis' 93 in 2003. Heading into this weekend's game against the St. Louis Rams, McGahee is 6-0 all-time against NFC West opponents with 606 rushing yards on 136 carries with eight touchdowns.

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

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