Baltimore Ravens' scouting report

5 CRITICAL QUESTIONS 1. Can the Baltimore Ravens bounce back? As the Ravens (4-4) take on the Cincinnati Bengals (2-6) at M&T Bank Stadium today, it's a matchup of two desperate, downtrodden teams. The Ravens are coming off a 38-7 stink bomb of a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers that marks the worst in coach Brian Billick's nine-year tenure.

All week, the team has emphasized solidarity, not turning the ball over so much, utilizing sounder technique in the secondary and not committing so many penalties. However, their problems appear so vast that it's hard to believe everything could be rectified during a short week of preparation against a team they've already lost against once to open the season. The Ravens are up against the wall, physically and psychologically. They absolutely need a victory to keep this disappointing season from degenerating into something even uglier: a second half with no hope and virtually nothing to play for except for pride and job security.

2. How will Steve McNair respond?

Despite a month to recuperate from back and groin injuries, McNair turned in one of the worst games of his 13-year career. His arm strength, mobility, decision-making, accuracy and how he holds the football have all become hot-button issues. If McNair doesn't play better, Ravens coach Brian Billick may have no choice but to turn toward once-derided former starter Kyle Boller. McNair, 34, is looking his age, and his string of bad or mediocre outings is uninterrupted dating back to Dec. 31, 2006. Something has to change under center soon.

3. Is the secondary in for another long day at the office?

The Ravens could be missing as many as three starters today six days removed from allowing five touchdown passes to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as safety Ed Reed (head, neck) and cornerback Chris McAlister (knee) are game-time decisions and cornerback Samari Rolle (undisclosed illness) has already been ruled out. Derrick Martin certainly didn't look like the answer with how he waved at the football sailing over his head in giving up several touchdowns against Pittsburgh in his first NFL start

4. Will the Ravens be able to pressure Carson Palmer?

They need to obviously because Palmer has owned the Ravens lately. In his past seven games, he has completed 148 of 234 passes (63.2 percent) for an average of 267.1 yards per contest with 12 touchdowns for a 92.7 average passer rating. His favorite target has been T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who has caught 64 passes for 834 yards and six touchdowns in 10 career games against Baltimore.

5. Could Todd Heap's return spark the offense?

Quite possibly. Especially considering that the Pro Bowl tight end has traditionally thrived against the Bengals with 43 career catches or 551 yards and three touchdowns in a dozen games against them. The Bengals have struggled to contain tight ends all season.

Who has the Edge?

Offense

Total (23) Rushing (19) Passing (24)

Quarterback

Steve McNair is undergoing a midseason career crisis, struggling with his ball security, accuracy, arm strength, mobility and decision-making. He looked as if he was playing in slow motion Monday night in a 38-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, fumbling twice, intercepted once and sacked five times. The mob is yelling for Kyle Boller to be reinserted. Who would have thought that would ever happen?

Running back

Willis McGahee is quietly having the second-best rushing season in franchise history. He's on pace to run for 1,387 yards, topped only by Jamal Lewis' 2066-yard campaign in 2003. The Ravens don't make enough use of the former Pro Bowl runner, though.

Receivers

Derrick Mason is tied with the Cincinnati Bengals' T.J. Houshmandzadeh with 62 receptions for the most catches in the NFL, and is on pace for 124 catches, second only all-time to the Indianapolis Colts' Marvin Harrison's 143 receptions. Tight end Todd Heap is expected to return today from a hamstring strain. Young wideouts Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams' anticipated breakthrough seasons haven't materialized.

Offensive line

Jonathan Ogden was exposed on speed rushes by former Ravens linebacker James Harrison, who notched AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors with three 1/2 sacks, nine tackles, three forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and an interception. The steadiest player on the line right now is rookie right guard Ben Grubbs, the team's promising first-round draft pick.

Defense

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

Defensive line

Trevor Pryce missed a few sacks because he was unable to tackle properly due to a cast to protect his left wrist. He might shed the cast today. Kelly Gregg and Haloti Ngata were stout against the run inside, but didn't create penetration.

Linebackers

Terrell Suggs' tackling was subpar against Pittsburgh and his hits were often late on Ben Roethlisberger. Bart Scott remains hopping mad at how Hines Ward laid him out on national television, threatening the scrappy wide receiver. Ray Lewis called out the offense again, but what else is new? Jarret Johnson has been a steady performer as Adalius Thomas' replacement.

Secondary

The scorched-earth philosophy applies here. Derrick Martin and David Pittman were toasted several times by the Steelers. There's a possibility that the Ravens could be without three starters today since cornerback Samari Rolle (illness) has already been ruled out and cornerback Chris McAlister (knee) and safety Ed Reed (head, neck) are question marks.

Special teams

Kicker Matt Stover is recovering well from a right leg injury, and will likely yield to Rhys Lloyd on kickoffs again today. Cory Ross might be needed to step in on punt and kickoff returns due to Yamon Figurs' knee injury. Linebacker Gary Stills is having another banner year in kick coverage, as is fullback Justin Green.

Offense

Total (7) Rushing (28) Passing (5)

Quarterback

Carson Palmer is one of the most precise, big-armed pocket passers in the league. He has owned the Ravens lately. He has rarely been sacked and usually takes advantage of whatever passing lanes are available to him. He has the advantages of excellent personnel outside and a solid offensive line.

Running back

Rudi Johnson has been splitting time with Kenny Watson since returning from a hamstring injury. This isn't vintage Rudi, though. The Bengals' running game is suspect and neither back is a popular pick with wise fantasy football owners.

Receivers

T.J. Houshmandzadeh has supplanted Chad Johnson as the Bengals' go-to guy. Although Johnson remains dangerous, it's Houshmandzadeh that's the more reliable, clutch target. The return of troubled wideout Chris Henry after an eight-game suspension should provide a boost to this already-formidable receiving corps.

Offensive line

Willie Anderson is out this week, which could give Trevor Pryce an opening on the right side. Left tackle Levi Jones usually wins these matchups against former college teammate Terrell Suggs. Inside, Andrew Whitworth is a mauler at left guard.

Defense

Total (31) Rushing (28) Passing (28)

Defensive line

Robert Geathers is the headliner, displaying loads of athleticism. However, he's a marked man by opposing blockers. Justin Smith is a high-octane motor guy opposite Geathers. Inside, Domata Peko has been collapsing pockets.

Linebackers

Landon Johnson is an underrated performer, but they miss Ahmad Brooks' girth and tackling at middle linebacker. Caleb Miller has excellent quickness. Rashad Jeanty is an ordinary player.

Secondary

Former University of Maryland star Madieu Williams has had a disappointing season. Deltha O'Neal's best years are behind him. Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall are rising young stars outside.

Special teams

Shayne Graham has connected on 12 of 13 field goals this year. Punter Kyle Larson is averaging 42.3 yards per punt. Glenn Holt had an electrifying 100-yard kickoff return last week. Skyler Green has been a disappointment as a punt returner.

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

How the Ravens can win

1. Generate a pass rush. If the Ravens can harass Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer sufficiently into hurries or sacks, then they can go a long way toward protecting a vulnerable, shorthanded secondary.

2. Execute a ball-control attack. The Ravens need to eat a lot of clock with running back Willis McGahee to keep T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Chad Johnson and Chris Henry sidelined.

3. Call a Cover 2. A secondary that's already missing Samari Rolle with Ed Reed and Chris McAlister hobbled and expected to be game-time decisions definitely needs to play conservatively. That means more zone coverage and very little isolating of anyone in man-to-man schemes, especially not Derrick Martin.

How the Bengals can win.

1. Throw deep. The Ravens proved again Monday night against the Steelers that they are highly susceptible to vertical strikes.

2. Blitz Steve McNair. The offensive line struggled markedly against Pittsburgh, allowing five sacks. McNair's mobility and decision-making have been shaky.

3. Dare Baltimore to throw deep. McNair hasn't displayed much arm strength or accuracy. Overloading short routes to take away his preferred passing lanes is the smart call against a regressing offense.

Three downs with ...

Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs

1. On if a bad performance can linger: "Yeah, but you've got to do more than just hope it doesn't happen again. You can't let it happen again. Especially playing like that, you might get blown out every week, especially in this league.

"You can't hope that you never play like that. You've got to do everything in your power to make sure that you don't play like that again."

2. On the AFC North teams that have defeated the Ravens coming to Baltimore: "Payback, definitely. I think it's a Japanese proverb that said, ‘Revenge is a dish best served cold.' We have played our best at M&T Bank Stadium. I love that we got all those teams that have beat us have got to come play us here."

3. On finger-pointing: "We win and lose together as a team. Both sides of the ball had some miscues, so you can't just say, ‘You did this, you did that.' When you point the finger, you've got four fingers pointing right back at you. We don't point the finger.

"A coward can point fingers and say, ‘They did this, they did that.' But you've also got to take a look at yourself. We're a team. The day when we all play perfect, then this definitely should not be an issue."

Three downs with ...

Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer

1. On his team's woeful season: "Extremely disappointed. Very surprised that we're where we are. The only reason we're here is because we put ourselves in this position. We didn't take care of business when we stepped on the field, and have hurt ourselves in a number of instances.

"Now we kind of feel like our back is against the wall. It's nothing like some adversity to see what kind of guys we've got on this team, and I'm confident and very fortunate to have the guys we have to fight our way out of this."

2. On playing for a 2-6 team after having so much success at USC: "We went through a point where we didn't win a game for five or six weeks, with our bye. We're not at all a team that accepts it, or is OK with it. We realize where we are.

"Like I said, we need to fight our way out of this and we've got guys that don't accept losing, that are frustrated all week long after a loss, and can't wait to get to the next game." 3. On what he expects from the Ravens: "You just know they're going to come out hungry. They're going to come out fired up, feel like they've got something to prove.

"When you get embarrassed on national television, it's easy to go into that next week fired up to play, excited to play and go and prove you are who you are. Defensively, they're as good as it gets in this league, and they're going to be trying to prove that this week after last week's loss."

INSIDE SLANT

Baltimore was recently named "America's Best Football Tailgating City," according to a survey conducted DirecTV. The survey factored in Stadium parking lots, overall tailgating environment, fan enthusiasm and the sales of tailgating-oriented accessories. The rankings were compiled after four years of traveling to every major sports franchise city in the country and attending a home game of each team. Denver ranked second in the final standings followed by Houston.


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