Baltimore Ravens scouting report

5 CRITICAL QUESTIONS 1. Will the Baltimore Ravens end this awful season with a victory? Perhaps, the reeling Ravens (4-11) will snap a franchise-record nine-game losing streak today at M&T Bank Stadium against the AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers (10-5), who have dwindling motivation and are planning to rest several players, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

The Steelers are already assured of a playoff berth and the Ravens are assured of sole possession of last place in the AFC North for the first time since 1997. Pro Bowl running back Willie Parker is out with a broken leg, and hard-hitting safety Troy Polamalu is likely sidelined with a swollen right knee.

Alas, Baltimore will be without middle linebacker Ray Lewis, running back Willis McGahee, starting cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle and all three of its top tight ends, including Todd Heap. While the score is certain to be closer than the 38-7 rout Baltimore endured last month in Pittsburgh, the Steelers still owe the Ravens for last season's pair of humiliating beatdowns.

Although the Ravens have beaten Pittsburgh four consecutive times in Baltimore, they have also lost their past four home games. The Ravens would love to finish this dreadful season with a win. The Steelers just want to get through their regular-season finale unscathed and prepare for the AFC wild-card round.

It's a rivalry game, but this game lacks any spice or stakes. Ultimately, it will come down to which team's set of reserves is superior and that basically makes it a tossup.

2. How will rookie quarterback Troy Smith fare during his second NFL start?

Smith demonstrated poise and arm strength during his debut a week ago, but his accuracy and decision-making need to improve for him to become a viable starter. That said, he displayed promise and potential and seemed to energize a dead huddle. At least the Ravens are discovering some things about Smith during actual games rather than guessing next season whether he's a contender for the job.

3. Will the secondary be exposed again by the Steelers' wide receivers?

They're unlikely to surrender five touchdown passes before halftime again, especially considering that Roethlisberger is taking a break and his replacement, Charlie Batch, has completed just one of five passes for 14 yards, one interception and a zero quarterback rating this year. That said, Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes and Heath Miller are more than capable of having a field day against this injury-riddled bunch.

4. Is this going to be Brian Billick's final game as coach?

It depends on who you believe. Billick has said he's confident he'll be back and has informed the team that he's been assured by team owner Steve Bisciotti that he'll be retained. And team officials have said that Bisciotti will explain Wednesday why Billick will return for a 10th season.

Still, there are private rumblings that Bisciotti might change his mind, and that's his right to do so. If Billick is willing to give up play-calling duties and let the new offensive coordinator execute his own independent game plan, then he's likely to come back.

Plus, Bisciotti owes Billick $15 million over the next three years of the contract extension he gave him only a year ago. Money is always a consideration as well as what kind of replacement the team is able to hire. Firing a coach without knowing who you want to replace him doesn't make any sense.

5. Will this mark the end for offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, center Mike Flynn and other older veterans?

For Ogden, what he thinks about the direction of the team and the offensive leadership will determine his decision as much as his health as far as whether he'll opt in for a 13th season. The Ravens still seem to need Flynn as Chris Chester hasn't had a quick development as his understudy. If Ogden is out, then his close friend, Flynn, could likely be gone, too. Time marches on.

Who has the Edge?

Offense

Total (23) Rushing (18) Passing (22)

Quarterback

Troy Smith had a solid, albeit unspectacular starting debut that included some erratic moments. His mobility buys him time, but he short-armed some throws and was inaccurate on others. His top moment was a 79-yard rainbow touchdown to Derrick Mason. Grade: Incomplete. And he gets another chance to audition for the Ravens' brass today against the NFL's top-ranked defense.

Running back

With Willis McGahee out with fractured ribs, Musa Smith will make his first NFL start as he concludes his fifth season in the league. Smith is only averaging 3.4 yards per carry and has never carried the ball more than seven times in a regular-season contest. He has to contend with the Steelers' third-ranked run defense that allows just 83.9 yards per game. However, they struggled against Fred Taylor and Steven Jackson over the past two games.

Receivers

Derrick Mason ranks third in the NFL with 97 receptions and eclipsed the 1,000-yard barrier, but his 67.7 receiving yards per game ranks 27th in the league. And with the Ravens' top three tight ends -- Todd Heap, Daniel Wilcox and Quinn Sypniewski -- all out with injuries, converted defensive end Lee Vickers might have to make his first NFL start. At least Troy Polamalu might be out today for the Pittsburgh secondary.

Offensive line

The offensive line was exposed again last week against the Seattle Seahawks, failing to wall off Patrick Kerney and Julian Peterson. This week, they have to contain Steelers Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison after he had 3 1/2 sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception against Baltimore in a 38-7 rout last month. However, Pittsburgh hasn't registered a sack in four consecutive games. This could be left tackle Jonathan Ogden's final game as he's pondering retirement.

Defense

Total (7) Rushing (2) Passing (22)

Defensive line

Despite defensive tackles Haloti Ngata and Kelly Gregg's stout efforts a week ago, Baltimore was unable to keep one of the NFL's worst running games from piling up 144 yards for the most surrendered by the NFL's second-ranked run defense this year. Although the Steelers won't have Pro Bowl running back Willie Parker due to a broken leg, the Ravens still have to contend with power back Najeh Davenport.

Linebackers

The Ravens sorely missed middle linebacker Ray Lewis against Shaun Alexander. Now, Bart Scott, Terrell Suggs and Nick Greisen have to shut down Najeh Davenport, who rushed for 123 yards last week in Willie Parker's absence. Suggs is likely to become the Ravens' franchise player if they are unable to strike a long-term deal with the Pro Bowl alternate pass rusher.

Secondary

Missing starting cornerbacks Samari Rolle and Chris McAlister during the first meeting with Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger picked on Derrick Martin, Corey Ivy, David Pittman and Ronnie Prude to throw five touchdown passes out of his 13 completions. Today, they'll likely face off with backup Charlie Batch. They'll still need to improve markedly to compete with Hines Ward and Co.

Special teams

Kicker Matt Stover hasn't attempted a field goal in six of his past nine games. For his career against Pittsburgh, he has hit 45 of 54 field goals and all 56 extra-point attempts. Stover is the NFL's fourth all-time leading scorer with 1,813 points behind Morten Andersen, Gary Anderson and George Blanda. Rookie return specialist Yamon Figurs ranks 10th in the NFL with a 25.3 kickoff return average.

Offense

Total (17) Rushing (3) Passing (25)

Quarterback

Ben Roethlisberger is wisely taking the day off to rest his sprained right ankle for the AFC wild-card round. Charlie Batch is a seemingly decent replacement, but he's unlikely to strike nearly as much fear in the Ravens' secondary as Roethlisberger does. Batch has completed one of five passes for 14 yards this season for a zero quarterback rating.

Running back

Najeh Davenport is a polar opposite to Willie Parker. He's a big, strong runner at 6-foot-1, 247 pounds, lacking Parker's sprinting ability, but making up for that with power running. Davenport gained 123 yards a week ago with Parker out with a broken fibula.

Receivers

Whenever the Ravens haven't had both Samari Rolle and Chris McAlister in the lineup, they have given up a dozen passing touchdowns. That doesn't bode well for their chances today against Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes and Heath Miller. Plus, the Ravens' defenders need to keep their heads on a swivel for Ward's crack-back blocks, which are traditionally vicious and sneaky.

Offensive line

The Steelers are experiencing a crisis at left tackle with Marvel Smith out and Max Starks a shaky replacement. Alan Faneca is a stalwart at guard. Willie Colon is an emerging force at right tackle.

Defense

Total (1) Rushing (3) Passing (3)

Defensive line

The sack numbers are down, but this remains a top-flight unit led by bulky nose guard Casey Hampton and versatile defensive end Brett Keisel. They miss gritty injured defensive end Aaron Smith.

Linebackers

Middle linebacker James Farrior is the leading tackler, but has fewer than four tackles in two of the past three games. James Harrison is a major pass-rushing threat, a true disruptive force. Larry Foote and Clark Haggans are still decent players. The slow development of rookie first-round draft pick Lawrence Timmons has prevented this from becoming a special defense.

Secondary

Troy Polamalu might be out today with a swollen knee, which means that Anthony Smith would start. Ike Taylor and DeShea Townsend are solid cornerbacks.

Special teams

Kicker Jeff Reed is the most accurate (92 percent) in the league this year on a 23 of 25 conversion rate. The Steelers have the third-worst punt return defense, allowing a nine-yard average and one touchdown to opponents. Allan Rossum is a dangerous return specialist.

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

Three downs with ...

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Troy Smith

1. On making his second NFL start: "It's definitely a better situation as far as getting a rhythm, getting a beat on the game, or with the team. My first time, so to say, was a challenge, and I think from here on out is going to be a challenge. You have to respect your opponent with the utmost respect, and I definitely do that.

"When you're in the film room, the X's and O's stay on the board, they stay exactly where you put them. When it's out there on the field, it's something totally different. Everybody is moving. They're showing you different looks than what they're actually going to do. But that is expected. I pretty much have an understanding of what's going on."

2. On what he feels he needs to improve: "Decision-making. My whole process as a quarterback is going to be how fast and how well I can make decisions on the fly. Baby steps, because I believe anything and everything in life happens for a reason. Anytime you get too excited about a situation, it's never going to happen the exact same way that you want it to.

"So I figure, if I take small increments along the way of getting better as a quarterback – decision-making, more completions, converting on third downs, first-and-longs, etc.. I'll get better as a player, and the team will get better."

3. On the challenge of facing a 3-4 defense: "Not much. I think through the course of the week when you go about learning what exactly a 3-4 is, and the different problems that it can bring, you learn how to counteract that, and that's what the staff does. They come up with incredible game plans. I kind of have an easy job, and that is to go out and execute."

Three downs with ...

Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin 1. On how he would evaluate his performance and the pressure of coaching in Pittsburgh: "Incomplete. We're still playing, of course. We're glad to be in the playoffs, but we want to live that to the fullest. I don't want to pass any judgment on our performance or my performance, particularly at this point."

"I don't worry about pressure. I'm a competitor. I love the high standards that this organization has. I love the high standards that our fans hold us to; I embrace that as I'm sure our players do. It's not about pressure, it's about competition."

2. On potentially resting players today with a playoff berth already clinched: "It's a pretty complicated equation because there are a lot of variables, but it's not unlike anything that other people in our position have to do at this time of year. We'll make those decisions with the team's best interest at heart.

"We've got a game this weekend, we're going to play it to win as I'm sure the Ravens are, and we've got some things that lie ahead as well that we need to be prepared for, and we understand that."

3. On if he expects linebacker James Harrison to duplicate his breakthrough game against Baltimore: "James has been very consistent for us. He's played at a high level. His peers recognizing him and electing him to go to the Pro Bowl and be a Pro Bowl starter is indicative of that.

"A lot of times, quality play doesn't show up in statistics. He's played at a high level for us all year. It showed up in that stat column in that game, but we haven't been displeased with anything that he's done thus far this year. He's had those types of performances pretty consistently for us."

How the Ravens can win

1. Contain the Steelers' passing game. A secondary that gave up five of its 25 touchdown passes during a 38-7 loss to Pittsburgh earlier this season must improve markedly today to try to finish the season on a winning note.

2. Get rookie quarterback Troy Smith throwing on the move. The former Heisman Trophy winner is much better when he's rolling out or dishing out waggle passes. Last week's game plan wasn't nearly imaginative enough.

3. Go after Charlie Batch. Since Ben Roethlisberger is unlikely to play this week while he rests a sprained ankle for the AFC wild-card round, the Ravens should take some blitzing shots at his backup. What do they have to lose besides a 10th consecutive game?

How the Steelers can win

1. Throw deep. Between Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, Heath Miller and Nate Washington, the Steelers have plenty of firepower to exploit the Ravens' injury-riddled defensive backfield.

2. Run the football. In middle linebacker Ray Lewis' absence, the Seattle Seahawks pounded Baltimore up the middle for a season-high 144 rushing yards. Najeh Davenport is a brutish power runner at 6-foot-1, 247 pounds. Buckle your chinstraps.

3. Confuse Troy Smith. The former Ohio State star has never encountered a 3-4 defense and the complicated alignments devised by veteran defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. James Harrison is haunting the Ravens' offensive line after his breakout game in the last encounter. Someone needs to try to block him this time.

INSIDE SLANT

Expect Wednesday's scheduled press conference with Baltimore Ravens team owner Steve Bisciotti, general manager Ozzie Newsome and coach Brian Billick to be an anticlimactic affair. Billick has already been given assurances that he'll return in 2008, although probably not as offensive coordinator. He has already informed the players he'll be back. And the press conference is being billed internally as an explanatory one with Bisciotti discussing his reasons for retaining Billick, who signed a four-year contract extension last year worth $5 million annually.

Anticipate a lot of discussion of injuries, age and turnovers with few concrete answers about what the team is specifically going to do about the quarterback problem other than a committment to work hard to improve the team next season.

Continuity is bound to be a buzzword, both concerning the coaching staff and in the personnel on the field. Although fan discontent is running high, that's unlikely to be a major factor affecting the team's decision-making process.

There's a lot of work to be done to fix this team, so it's roll-up-the-sleeves time for Newsome and the scouting department. Senior Bowl, NFL scouting combine and free agency signing period, here the Ravens come.

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


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