Texans (3-2) @ Ravens (3-1)
In a match-up of 3-win teams, the Texans roll into M&T Bank Stadium Sunday to take on the Ravens. Houston will be without their star players on both sides of the ball, WR Andre Johnson on offense and DE/OLB Mario Williams on defense. Matt Bowen of the National Football Post put together a piece last week on how he would attack the Texans on defense without Johnson. Here, I’ll look at how the Ravens are able to comply, personnel and scheme-wise, with his points:
- Drop a safety into the box. Use the SS (or the FS with a weak side rotation) to create an eight-man front. The Texans want to see a 7-man front and ride RB Arian Foster, but I’m not going to let that happen. Bring the safety down to limit the production in the downhill running game. If Schaub wants to challenge my secondary, that’s fine, because I’m not going to let Foster consistently move the sticks. Instead, play the run and force Houston into adverse down and distance situations.
So far, so good for the Ravens. They are currently the #2 rush defense in the NFL, holding opposing teams to just 72.5 yards per game. Chris Johnson of the Titans had the most success against them so far this season with his 76 yards on the ground. With Tom Zbikowski likely to miss the game after suffering a concussion two weeks ago, former Texan Bernard Pollard will fill in at his strong safety spot. Pollard is a run-stuffing and blitz specialist, and does his best work down in the box. On top of that, he’ll be eager to “crush some bones” of running back Arian Foster and his other former teammates.
- Play press-coverage on the outside with a single-high safety in the middle of the field (Think Cover 1 here). I’m going to tell my corners to play with an outside shade, get hands on the WRs at the line of scrimmage and challenge them to beat press-looks. Without Johnson in the game to convert routes down the field, I have no issue playing aggressively vs. Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones. Funnel the WRs to my help in the middle of the field.
While it would have been nice to have Jimmy Smith, the Ravens’ only prototypical press corner, back on the field, he will miss his fourth straight game. I was encouraged to see both Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams playing a lot of press against the Jets though, and they should be able to have success against Walter and Jones. Ed Reed is obviously the best single-high safety to have back there; that is, as long as he stays disciplined and doesn’t gamble too much, leaving Williams or Webb exposed against the speedy Jones.
- Use the blitz fronts—both zone and man. With Johnson on the field, you can get caught if the blitz doesn’t get home. Here, I’m going to take some risks. And when I get into some third and medium situations (3rd and 4-7), I might have to play some Cover 0 (blitz-man with no safety help). Align the corners with an inside shade (in an off-man position) and send seven and eight-man pressure. Plus, when I go zone pressure, use some CB “Cats” (CB blitz) and get creative.
Think Chuck Pagano likes to blitz? Ever since the first touchdown his defense allowed this season, on a play where they used the Mattison 3-man rush against Pittsburgh, the first year defensive coordinator has chosen to err on the side of pressure more often than not. He’s had two weeks to draw up some creative new blitzes, and Matt Schaub will hardly recognize the defense he sees Sunday compared to the one he faced last December at Reliant Stadium. He’s much tougher to rattle than the Jets’ Mark Sanchez, and Houston’s offensive line is one of the best in the game though. This will be a key battle. If the Ravens are able to get pressure and force turnovers and 3-and-outs, they’ll win handily. If Schaub continually beats their blitz, we could have another shootout on our hands.
- Take away the TE position. This is where I expect Schaub to work the ball. If I see production, then I bring my sub package on the field (nickel) and use an extra corner on Owen Daniels. Take away the short to intermediate route tree inside of the numbers. Even without Johnson, the TEs in Houston still can cause issues vs. a safety or a LB in coverage. Might have to make an adjustment there.
This is where I worry most about the Ravens’ defense against the Texans’ offense: Daniels and fellow tight end Joel Dreesen against the Baltimore linebackers, who are great against the run and when bringing pressure, but suspect in coverage. Ray Lewis especially, but Jameel McClain nor Dannell Ellerbe do much to inspire confidence either. Daniels is a mismatch whether the Ravens put a linebacker, safety, or cornerback on him. On the other hand, I completely expected Jets’ tight end Dustin Keller to have a field day in B’More as well, and he was totally shut down. Again, here it’s going to come down to pressure. Don’t give Schaub time to find his tight ends, just as we saw with Sanchez and Keller.
- Have to play some coverage. I am looking at 2-Man and even some Tampa 2 when I have the Texans in 3rd and long situations. This is where you will see the deep dig, some combination routes and vertical concepts to move the sticks. Daniels can work the middle of the field vs. Tampa 2, so I am going to lean towards 2-Man. Underneath man-coverage with the defender playing inside with a trail-technique.
The Ravens aren’t a Tampa 2 team. Ray Lewis doesn’t have the speed to get deep enough any more for this type of scheme (not that it was ever really his specialty). Instead, I expect to see big blitzes on most of Houston’s 3rd-and-long situations. If Schaub beats the blitz a couple times, we could see some 2-Man, but as mentioned above, Pollard is at his best when he is moving downhill, not backpedaling.
Since this preview is already over the 1000-word mark (Thanks, Matt Bowen!), just some brief comments on the Ravens’ offense. If Schaub won’t recognize the defense he sees Sunday, Flacco certainly will not either. The Texans, who had the league’s 31st ranked defense when the Ravens went to Houston last season, now boast the #7 D in the league under new coordinator Wade Phillips. The blitzing 3-4 scheme, though, is very similar to the ones Flacco faces against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and in practice every day.
The status of both Lee Evans and Ben Grubbs is very much up-in-the-air for Sunday, a disappointment given that most expected these two back on the field after the bye week. Andre Gurode has played well in Grubbs’ stead, but the Ravens’ running game is still limited without the former Auburn Tiger. After exploding against the St. Louis Rams, Torrey Smith was marooned on Revis Island two weeks ago, catching just one pass for one yard. If Evans can’t go, Smith needs to have a bounce back game.
Flacco faces his old nemesis, former Cincinnati cornerback Jonathan Joseph, who has intercepted Joe in three of the last four games. Joseph will likely be shadowing Anquan Boldin all afternoon. As always, Ray Rice needs to be the centerpiece of the Ravens’ attack, both in the running and passing games. While Houston held Oakland running back Darren McFadden to only 51 yards, the Raiders still averaged 4.3 yards per running play. Let’s hope Cam Cameron spent the bye week doing some soul-searching, and doesn’t stubbornly continue to try to force the pass if it’s not working.
As we discussed earlier this week, the Ravens have been very reliable coming off of bye weeks under John Harbaugh. Add to that their home dominance since 2008 (21-5) and playing in front of a rapid purple crowd that hasn’t seen football in two weeks, and the Ravens should be too much for a depleted Texans roster to handle.
Ravens 24 Texans 13
P.S. Oh yeah, I almost forgot. Derrick Mason is back again. LOL.