Baltimore Ravens' scouting report

5 CRITICAL QUESTIONS 1. Will the Baltimore Ravens snap their four-game losing streak? As the reeling Ravens (4-6) travel to the edge of the Pacific Ocean today to take on the equally disappointing San Diego Chargers (5-5), this is a clash between two former AFC superpowers who had the top records in the conference a year ago.

Now, last year's AFC North champions are on the cusp of a potential franchise low that has no precedent: five losses in a row. The Ravens have virtually no shot at making the playoffs. The combined winning percentage of the remainder of their schedule is .600. And they're coming off a bizarre, frustrating 33-30 overtime loss to the Cleveland Browns. Will the Ravens' true colors show? Will this team's competitive streak manifest itself despite the decreasing motivation?

Ravens coach Brian Billick believes he already has the answer despite entering a three-week stretch against the Chargers, New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts, who sport a combined record of 23-7. "I'd be very surprised if they don't have the appropriate focus and energies towards their preparation," Billick said. "It would seem that's not likely conventional thinking, but this group will because they've shown me nothing to indicate that they won't."

2. Will the Ravens exterminate the turnover bug?

With a total of 26 turnovers, the Ravens are tied with the Houston Texans for the NFL lead with 17 fumbles and nine interceptions. The Ravens are on pace to commit 41 this season, which would set a team record. In their six defeats, opponents have converted 84 points off the Ravens' turnovers for an average of 14 points a game. Quarterback Kyle Boller was intercepted twice and fumbled once against Cleveland with one of his picks returned 100 yards for a touchdown.

3. Will the Ravens be the latest defense to contain LaDainian Tomlinson?

The reigning NFL Most Valuable Player rushed for 62 yards on 16 carries in a 24-17 loss last week to the Jacksonville Jaguars, 76 yards on 21 attempts in a 23-21 win over the Indianapolis Colts and just 40 yards on 16 carries in a 35-17 loss to the Minnesota Vikings over the past three games.

San Diego coach Norv Turner doesn't seem to believe in Tomlinson nearly as much as Marty Schottenheimer did. Meanwhile, the Ravens' third-ranked rushing defense doesn't believe in allowing 100-yard rushers with the league's longest streak of 13 games in a row without an opposing runner hitting the century mark.

Baltimore allows just 78 rushing yards per game.

4. Is the offensive line going to allow more sacks today against an accomplished front seven?

One week after allowing six sacks to the last-ranked Browns defense that entered the game with just 11 sacks, rookie Marshal Yanda could be reinserted at right tackle. Teams have discovered the blueprint on how to rattle Boller: bring blitz pressure directly up the middle. Chris Chester and Adam Terry had particularly rough games against a nondescript Cleveland defensive line. Now, they have to contend with aggressive outside linebackers Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips along with Jamal Williams, who's arguably the best nose guard in the league.

5. How will cornerback Samari Rolle fare after returning from another bout with epilepsy?

Rolle is bound to be rusty after missing the past three games following his third seizure this year. The one-time Pro Bowl defensive back feared for his career. With proper medication, his condition appears to be under control. The Chargers' top receivers are Chris Chambers and Vincent Jackson. Not to mention Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates.

Who has the edge?

Offense

Total (22) Rushing (18) Passing (21)

Quarterback

Which Kyle Boller will show up today as he returns to his native Southern California? Will it be the lost individual who was intercepted twice and fumbled once or the gunslinger who led an impressive fourth-quarter comeback? The Ravens need to know as soon as possible.

Running back

Willis McGahee has outrushed a distinguished group of runners in every game in his inaugural season in Baltimore, including Rudi Johnson twice, Thomas Jones, Edgerrin James, Jamal Lewis twice, Frank Gore, Marshawn Lynch and Willie Parker.

Receivers

Devard Darling, where have you been hiding? He's coming off a career breakthrough with four catches for 107 yards and a touchdown. Derrick Mason ranks second in the NFL with 72 catches behind T.J. Houshmandzadeh's 76 receptions. There are growing concerns that tight end Todd Heap could miss the remainder of the season with a strained hamstring.

Offensive line

Marshal Yanda is expected to get back into the mix at right tackle today, possibly as a starter. Jonathan Ogden's body language told an interesting story last week. The 10-time Pro Bowl selection looked completely disgusted. He's got to be regretting his decision not to retire.

Defense

Total (6) Rushing (3) Passing (13)

Defensive line

Haloti Ngata has been a destructive force inside. The Ravens are lobbying for nose guard Kelly Gregg to make his first Pro Bowl, but the fan voting and his team's record could work against him. The Ravens will sorely miss defensive end Trevor Pryce, who was placed on injured reserve this week with a torn pectoral.

Linebackers

Ray Lewis flexed his softball-sized biceps last week, recording 23 tackles and returning an interception 35 yards for a touchdown. It's official: Bart Scott is having an off-year. Jarret Johnson could be a big factor today in trying to contain LaDainian Tomlinson.

Secondary

The Ravens get a shot in the arm today with cornerback Samari Rolle's return from another bout with epilepsy, the condition he revealed that was bothering him all season. Chris McAlister rested all week. Will his knee hold up and will he need surgery after the season? Safety Ed Reed's body is starting to betray him.

Special teams

They could be in trouble again in kick coverage, facing off with Darren Sproles. Matt Stover showed that the inactivity of the previous three weeks was no problem, nailing a potential game-winning 47-yard kick. Punter Sam Koch can't shank kicks the way he did to give Cleveland's Josh Cribbs a short field to operate.

Offense

Total (20) Rushing (16) Passing (23)

Quarterback

Philip Rivers has been streaky this year, an unexpected development considering coach Norv Turner's reputation. Rivers has an unorthodox delivery, but he has a lot of ability.

Running back

LaDainian Tomlinson leads the NFL with nine rushing touchdowns, but ranks seventh overall in rushing yards. Norv Turner has been limiting his carries. Tomlinson's production has suffered for the past three weeks. The Ravens usually shut down star runners without having to crowd the line of scrimmage with extra defenders.

Receivers

Tight end Antonio Gates is a great athlete who can stretch the field. Chris Chambers has provided a deep threat. Vincent Jackson is a big downfield target.

Offensive line

When healthy, this is a really good group. Center Nick Hardwick could return today from a foot injury. Offensive tackles Marcus McNeill and Nick Olivea are a solid tandem.

Defense

Total (26) Rushing (23) Passing (25)

Defensive line

Big, strong and nasty, this is a tough unit led by nose guard Jamal Williams. They're shorthanded without Luis Castillo. Igor Olshansky plays nearly as imposingly as his name sounds.

Linebackers

Shawne "Lights Out" Merriman, the former University of Maryland star, has made less of an impact this year and looks noticeably smaller in his upper body and even his face, prompting rumors that he didn't bulk up naturally. Not to mention last year's four-game suspension for violating the league's steroid policy. Shaun Phillips is really fast on the other side. Stephen Cooper and Matt Wilhelm are reliable inside linebackers.

Secondary

Antonio Cromartie should be starting. Drayton Florence could be headed for big dollars as a free agent. Should Baltimore take a look? Quentin Jammer hasn't lived up to expectations. Marlon McCree is an ordinary safety. Rookie Eric Weddle should supplant him by next year.

Special teams

Kicker Nate Kaeding has only made nine field goals. Darren Sproles is a dangerous kickoff and punt returner, notching touchdowns in both categories.

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

How the Ravens can win

1. Stop the run. The Chargers feature one of the top running backs in recent NFL history in LaDainian Tomlinson, and everything San Diego tries to accomplish offensively begins with him. Jamal Lewis gashed a usually stout Baltimore run defense several times a week ago.

2. Run the football. Running back Willis McGahee is beginning to hit full stride and has outrushed every opposing rusher this season. He's the Ravens' most reliable offensive option. The Chargers have been susceptible against the run despite a deep, imposing front seven headlined by linebacker Shawne Merriman and nose guard Jamal Williams.

3. Avoid turnovers. The Ravens are averaging nearly three turnovers per game (2.6), with only the New Orleans Saints ranking below them in turnover margin, minus-10 to the Ravens' minus-9. Of the 17 touchdowns allowed by the defense, the average starting position has been the Ravens' 49-yard line.

How the Chargers can win

1. Blitz Kyle Boller. Boller still gets unhappy feet when he feels pressure, particularly up the middle. He committed three turnovers last week. Remember, this San Diego defense intercepted Peyton Manning six times a few weeks ago.

2. Establish the run. Although the Ravens have a 13-game streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher dating back to Larry Johnson gaining 120 against them last December for the longest streak in the league, LaDainian Tomlinson managed to rack up 98 yards in a 16-13 Baltimore win a year ago.

3. Block Ray Lewis. The All-Pro middle linebacker is tied for the NFL lead with 92 tackles, although the Ravens credit him with 139 stops, including 23 tackles against the Cleveland Browns a week ago where he returned a 35-yard interception for a touchdown.

Three downs with ...

Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis

1. On moving on from a controversial loss: "I don't think you worry about it at all. I just think you keep moving. That's the beauty of this business. Win, lose or draw, you've just got to keep going. The bottom line is if you want to show people how you deal with things, every time you strap on your cleats you go 110 percent.

"And when the day is done, you'll be able to hold your head high. That's where we are right now. You've got to out and play every game like that's the last game. Bottom line, win, lose or draw, you've just got to keep playing football."

2. On playing the Chargers: "San Diego, wow, big challenge. I think we're two teams who know each other very well. They've dropped a couple, we've dropped a couple.

"So, I think it's desperation for both teams. It's going to be a pretty good game. Like I said, once again, both teams need wins." 3. On where he ranks Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson: "L.T. is a football player. L..T. is one that when you strap your helmet on, you know you better come play football. They're going to make sure he touches the ball over 30 times.

"I think that's what all the papers are talking about now that that's what he's saying: He's not getting enough touches. It's going to be a great challenge for us with him coming back and touching the ball as many times as he's going to touch it."

Three downs with ... San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers

1. On being disappointed on the season: "I think, obviously, through 10 games, the season didn't go as you had hoped. There's some disappointment, but, at the same time, the outlook is very positive. The goal that we set for ourselves is still out there.

"We haven't been playing the way we want to, but certainly, we get that goal. We see signs of it, starts of it. We just haven't put a complete game together yet. Hopefully, it's going to get going soon."

2. On embattled Chargers coach Norv Turner: "I think anytime you lose, unfortunately the way it goes, the head coach is going to take a lot of heat. Obviously, like I said, the record is not where we had all hoped coming off a 14-2 season. That's the way it goes, whether it's deserving or not.

"I think us as players have to look within ourselves. We haven't watched a game tape yet where we've said, ‘Hey, we did all we can do. Why didn't we win?' Every time we watch the game tape of something we lose, there are plays out there that we didn't make."

3. On Shawne Merriman's critical comments: "I think we've moved past all that. We're 1-4 on the road. We haven't been playing well. You get reporters that are in the locker room 10 minutes after the game, and there's all kind of stuff that's flying through our head.

"We just put it out on the line. We all know how hard we all play each and every game. One thing you can never question is our effort. Sometimes that isn't enough to win, obviously. But I think the mindset of this team is fine."

INSIDE SLANT

The Baltimore Ravens' turnover problem is having a severe impact on the league's sixth-ranked defense. On the 17 touchdowns allowed by Baltimore's defense, the average starting field position for opponents has been the 49-yard line. Of those scores, nine of the touchdowns have started at the 50-yard line or in Ravens territory with an average starting position of the 31-yard line. Ten of the 19 touchdowns scored against Baltimore have been off turnovers, including a fumble return for a score by Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Landon Johnson during the season-opener and a 100-yard interception return by Cleveland Browns safety Brodney Pool a week ago.

Of the 43 total scores allowed by the Ravens' defense this season on 17 touchdowns and 26 field goals, the opponents' average starting field position is their own 45-yard line. Bottom line: Lots of short fields, and lots of defeats for a team that used to usually win the turnover game. Baltimore is 43-0 during the nine-year Brian Billick era when posting a plus-2 turnover ratio and 61-5 with a plus-1 margin. However, Baltimore is 8-45 under Billick when it has a negative turnover ratio.

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

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