Baltimore Ravens' scouting report

NICKEL PACKAGE 1. Do the Baltimore Ravens have to worry about overconfidence today against the hapless Cincinnati Bengals? As the Ravens (7-4) take on the Bengals (1-9-1) today at Paul Brown Stadium, they'll do their best to ignore Cincinnati's horrible record and focus on their weapons.

Despite not having quarterback Carson Palmer in the lineup and having dipped to last in the NFL in total offense and ranking near the bottom in virtually every offensive category, the Bengals' offense still has some bite left because of the dangerous receiving tandem of T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chad "Ocho Cinco" Johnson. In particular, Houshmandzadeh, who's on target to catch 100 passes for the second consecutive year, has repeatedly hurt the Ravens. In a dozen career games against Baltimore, he has averaged 6.1 catches for 76.9 yards.

He has scored six touchdowns. He jokingly requested that defensive coordinator Rex Ryan not employ double-coverage against him today, but it's unlikely that he'll get his wish. Houshmandzadeh has caught 77 passes for 746 yards and four touchdowns. Johnson, who was benched last week for insubordination toward the coaching staff, has had a disappointing season with 41 catches for 383 yards and four touchdowns.

2. Will the Ravens be able to run the football effectively?

The Ravens feature the league's fourth-ranked rushing attack and fullback Le'Ron McClain is coming off a career-high 88 yard game against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Bengals are hurting upfront with defensive ends Robert Geathers and Frostee Rucker out with injuries. Baltimore should be able to pound the football and keep the Bengals' offense off the field by eating up the clock. While the Bengals haven't defended the run well all season and rank 24th in rushing defense, they have surrendered approximately 68 rushing yards in each of their past two home games.

3. Can the Ravens' banged-up offensive line hold together?

Left tackle Jared Gaither has a painful AC right shoulder sprain. Right tackle Adam Terry has a sprained ankle and is coming off a concussion. Willie Anderson has a sprained ankle. If the starters are unable to play through pain one more time, then reserves like Chad Slaughter, David Hale or Oniel Cousins would be forced to play extensively. That could spell problems for the Ravens' ability to protect rookie quarterback Joe Flacco.

4. Can the Ravens avoid turnovers again?

The Ravens usually win behind a positive turnover margin, reducing mistakes and forcing their opponent to give away the football. Cincinnati, though, has tied for the most turnovers forced with 203 since Marvin Lewis. However, Baltimore is tied for fifth in the NFL in turnover margin with a plus-six differential built by a league-high 19 interceptions. The Bengals are tied for 23rd with a minus-four margin with 11 interceptions and nine lost fumbles and just eight interceptions and eight fumble recoveries.

5. Will the Ravens' sack drought end?

The Ravens haven't registered more than two sacks in each of their past four games. The Bengals have had trouble protecting Fitzpatrick, who has been sacked 29 times in eight games.

INSIDE SLANT

KEY MATCHUP

Baltimore Ravens WR Derrick Mason vs. Bengals CB Leon Hall

Despite a painful dislocated left shoulder, Mason has gutted it out and continues to thrive against press coverage. Combining quickness, awareness and excellent hands, Mason is the consummate possession receiver. And he has played particularly well on the road, averaging 6.5 catches and 92.1 receiving yards and scored both of his touchdowns this year away from home. The Bengals have been giving up significant yardage to shifty wide receivers like Mason, allowing five catches for 84 yards to the Pittsburgh Steelers' Santonio Holmes last week and seven catches for 64 yards two weeks ago to the Philadelphia Eagles' Kevin Curtis. The Bengals have allowed six passing touchdowns in five home games. Hall is a big, fast former first-round draft pick from Michigan whose game has improved steadily. He may be able to muscle Mason at the line of scrimmage if he's fast enough to get to his shoulder pads.

KEY MATCHUP

Baltimore Ravens FS Ed Reed vs. Cincinnati Bengals QB Ryan Fitzpatrick

The Bengals have the last-ranked offense in the league largely because of starter Carson Palmer's elbow injury that may eventually require surgery. Fitzpatrick has filled in decently and has a penchant for running when he doesn't get the opening he's looking for downfield. The Ravens have just 22 sacks this year and only sacked Palmer twice in a season-opening victory. However, their pressure leads to interceptions with four of the 19 picks returned for touchdowns, including Reed's 107-yard score against the Eagles last week. Fitzpatrick is a smart quarterback. He went to Harvard. And he'll be mentally ready for what Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan throws at inexperienced quarterbacks. Yet, he hasn't faced a cerebral, game-changing defender like Reed. If Baltimore can exploit Fitzpatrick to force him into miscues, then this game could get out of hand quickly. To Fitzpatrick's credit, he has two dangerous targets to throw to in T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chad Johnson.

THREE DOWNS WITH ...

Baltimore Ravens free safety Ed Reed

1. On his neck injury: "I still wonder about that. My neck still has pain in it and it's still something I'm dealing with. I'm still taking it day by day. It's not something that's weeded out, so to say. It's still something that's lingering on.

"Not being in total football shape actually it took a toll as weeks went by with my hamstring, and I'm dealing with that still. But that was not really a worry. It was just a matter of being in true sync with your defense."

2. On Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh calling him the best safety in the NFL: "It's an honor and it's a respect thing because I respect Houshmandzadeh's game also. He's one of the best receivers in the league. He's proven that with his consistent play.

"I appreciate it, man. I think it comes from guys who play with their heart and understand this game because it wouldn't be a respect factor to him if I didn't understand that he knows how to play the game."

3. On Ray Lewis: "Ray is the leader of this defense, he's one of the leaders of this franchise. When you talk about Baltimore, you speak defense. And when you're speaking defense, you're speaking Ray Lewis. That's football in general.

"Everybody listens. I hope that they listen because I know how much Ray puts into this game. I know how much work Ray puts into it and to see him do it and know that he's doing it, man, shoot, I'm listening."

THREE DOWNS WITH ...

Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh

1. On Bengals coach Marvin Lewis: "You know, he's frustrated, but he's the head coach so he can't show his frustration outwardly towards us because I don't know how that will rub off on us. You k now he's frustrated. Anybody that gets in this profession, coaches down through players, everybody wants to win.

"But when you're the head coach you can't really show your frustration. I think maybe you go home and tell your wife, but you can't really bring it to the players as much. You're frustrated after the game when you lose, but when you come in the next day you have to get over it because if we see that he's still frustrated, it might start to rub off on guys and you don't want that."

2. On his impressions of Ray Lewis: "When I didn't know him and I'd watch him do interviews. I was like, ‘Why's this guy talking like this, man? Quit acting.' And I'm sure a lot of guys think that, but when you sit down to actually talk to Ray, he's passionate like that in just a regular conversation. And then, don't talk football with him.

"The passion and the love and the how he talks and acts about the game, man, is ridiculous. It's not too many guys that have that passion. You can tell the guys on the defense, how they've picked up mentally things Ray has taught them."

3. On what the Bengals are playing for: "Pride. Just pride, man. You play for pride. I love to play. When I tell you I love football, I watch football all day, every day. You play for pride, you want to compete, you don't want the guy across from you to beat you, and that's how I look at it.

"I don't want the guy covering me to cover me, he's not going to cover me. I'm not scared. I'm going to block, because it's fun and it's because I want to win. You play for pride at this point in the season when you have the type of record we have."

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


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