Baltimore Ravens' scouting report

NICKEL PACKAGE 1. Can the Baltimore Ravens run roughshod over the Houston Texans? As the Ravens (5-3) take on the Texans (3-5) today at Reliant Stadium in a game rescheduled due to Hurricane Ike's wrath, Baltimore may be gearing up for a run-first approach.

The Texans' soft run defense lost its leading tackler for the season when linebacker Zac Diles broke his leg in a freak accident at practice this week. Houston has the NFL's 23rd-ranked run defense, allowing 126.8 yards per game. The Ravens feature the NFL's fifth-ranked running game, averaging 148.8 yards per contest. It's likely that offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will want to pound the football with Ray Rice, Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain doing the heavy lifting. Rice is coming off a breakthrough game with 154 rushing yards against the Cleveland Browns. The Texans are also going to be without starting defensive tackle Amobi Okoye. Houston has already allowed a dozen rushing touchdowns.

2. Can the Ravens expose Texans quarterback Sage Rosenfels?

Rosenfels is a streaky player prone to turnovers with two interceptions and two lost fumbles in his six quarters this season. He is under center due to a knee injury to starter Matt Schaub. Rosenfels' numbers are respectable, with three touchdowns, two interceptions and a 67.7 completion percentage for 470 yards and a 92.8 rating. He has a tendency to force the action, a major flaw. He threw three interceptions in a game against Baltimore three years ago when he was with the Miami Dolphins.

3. Can the Ravens contain Andre Johnson?

The Ravens' injury-riddled secondary will have its hands full with Johnson, a blue-chip wideout who leads the NFL in receiving yardage per game with a 104.3 average and ranks second overall with 60 receptions. The Ravens may have to employ some Cover 2 schemes to keep him from breaking free. Double-coverage tactics and jamming the 6-foot-3, 223-pounder at the line of scrimmage was relatively effective for the Minnesota Vikings in a 28-21 victory last week. Although cornerback Samari Rolle (neck surgery) is expected to return today, the player most suited to guard Johnson is sidelined because of a chronic right knee injury: cornerback Chris McAlister. Reed will have to help out over the top, whether it's Rolle or Fabian Washington who draws this tough assignment.

4. Can the Ravens win the pass-rush battle?

Baltimore outside linebacker Terrell Suggs appears primed for a big day. He's facing rookie left tackle Duane Brown, who allowed three sacks to the Pittsburgh Steelers' James Harrison earlier this season and another two to Vikings defensive end Jared Allen last week. Suggs leads the Ravens with five sacks and has scored two touchdowns on interception returns over the past three games. Meanwhile, Ravens left tackle Jared Gaither has his work cut out for him against Texans star defensive end Mario Williams. He ranks seventh in the NFL with eight sacks, and has forced three fumbles. Williams has prototypical size, strength and speed and has recorded 20 sacks in his past 20 games.

5. Will the Ravens' special teams rebound?

The Ravens' kick coverage was awful against the Cleveland Browns as Joshua Cribbs had 237 return yards, including a 92-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Now, they have to contend with Texans punt returner Jacoby Jones. He has two punt returns for touchdowns this season and is averaging 12.9 yards per return. The Ravens have to do a better job of maintaining discipline in their coverage lanes and a cleaner job of tackling in the open field. Look for some different faces on the coverage teams.

INSIDE SLANT

KEY MATCHUP

Ravens LT Jared Gaither vs. Texans DE Mario Williams

Gaither is tasked with protecting rookie quarterback Joe Flacco's blindside. He'll need to adeptly counter Williams' impressive array of pass-rushing moves, including a formidable bull-rush, spin move and speed rush. Williams has 20 sacks in his past 20 games, and leads the Texans all-time with 26 1/2 career sacks. Gaither is slightly hobbled with a neck stinger and a knee injury, but should probably be up to the task of containing or at least slowing down Williams. At 6-foot-9, 330 pounds, Gaither has the requisite size and footwork to match Williams, a sculpted physical specimen at 6-6, 283 pounds who was drafted first overall in the 2006 NFL draft. Williams recorded 14 sacks a year ago to rank third in the league, and has eight sacks this season with three forced fumbles.

KEY MATCHUP

Ravens CB Fabian Washington vs. Texans WR Andre Johnson

If this critical assignment doesn't fall to Samari Rolle as he's expected to return from a neck injury that required surgery, then Washington will likely draw the matchup of guarding this dominant downfield target. Johnson leads the NFL with 834 receiving yards, ranking second overall with 60 receptions. No receiver has averaged more yards at home than Johnson, who is averaging 148.3 yards at Reliant Stadium. At 6-foot-3, 223 pounds, Johnson is simply bigger, stronger and faster than opposing cornerbacks. In Washington's case, he'll just be bigger and stronger. Washington will likely need plenty of assistance from linebackers to jam Johnson at the line of scrimmage and over the top from free safety Ed Reed. Johnson has caught 120 passes for 1,685 yards and 11 touchdowns in his past 17 games.

THREE DOWNS WITH …

Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason

1. On if he's surprised at the 5-3 start: "Yeah, I am surprised we're 5-3. If you look at it, our record could be a little better than what it is. But, honestly, no, I'm not surprised because we have a very good team. I think our depth is a lot better than it was last year.

"We have some guys down, but we have some guys that are able to step up and make plays on this team and play a big role in what we're trying to do as an offense and a defense and special teams. I'm not surprised. I'm just surprised that our record is not better than the 5-3 record that we have now."

2. On the significance of road wins: "That we're focused. That we're determined as a team to stick together, regardless of what the situation is. It's easy in this league to win at home. It's hard to win on the road. For whatever reason, I don't know, but it's hard to win on the road.

"Any time you can go into anybody's home and beat them, then it's good. I think it speaks volumes up to this point, what we've been able to do on the road."

3. On rookie coach John Harbaugh: "He's not a rookie. I think he's accepted this challenge as being a first-year head coach, and everyone bought into what the coaching staff is preaching around here. I think any time you have 53 – or however many players there are – buying into one thing, then you're going to have success.

"That's what guys are doing. We're buying in to what coach Harbaugh is preaching, and we're staying the course, and that breeds success."

THREE DOWNS WITH …

Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak

1. On plugging in quarterback Sage Rosenfels with Matt Schaub out: "We went through the same thing last year. We lost Matt for a period of time and Sage came in and started for us and played very, very well. He's a guy who even though he's been a backup throughout his career, he does have a great deal of snaps here with this football team the last two years.

"We've got a lot of confidence in him, and he came in last week and played real well for us and gave us an opportunity. To be honest with you, they're a lot alike."

2. On wide receiver Andre Johnson: "As a worker, he reminds me of Jerry Rice. I was in San Francisco with Jerry and watched how he went about his business every day and how he practiced. That's the way Andre works, whether it's the offseason, regular season, Wednesday, Friday, it doesn't matter. Andre is the same speed, the same effort every day. Usually, when you run across those great players like that, they usually have that in common."

3. On the recovery from Hurricane Ike: "They've been tremendous. Everybody here in town had their problems for about a three-week, four-week span. I'd say probably 60 percent of our team was out of electricity for at least three weeks. So it was a difficult time to work through because you're trying to continue to do your job and you've got family problems at home.

"Our guys did a good job of working through it. As far as our city, 30 miles down the road, Galveston was devastated, and, of course, the city took a big hit. But, it's recovered. I think life is pretty much back to normal and everybody's been very resilient and held up well."

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


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