Sunday, November 9, 2008

Ravens-Texans Preview: How to Win on the Road

The Ravens look for their 4th straight win as they try to put away the Houston Texans in a repeat of their aborted Week 2 matchup. With the hardest 2nd half schedule of any AFC club with a winning record, it will be of top importance to win the games they should win in case they lose a game they shouldn’t win. I know playoffs aren’t the goal this season… but why not? Prior to a close loss last week at Minnesota, the Texans had won 3 straight (albeit against the Lions, Bengals, and a last second comeback against the Dolphins) and are still a solid football team. They have dangerous playmakers on both sides of the ball and don’t want the Ravens to be the ones that finally put the death blow on their playoff hopes. In the AFC, even 3-5 teams still have hope.

What I’m Wondering:

Is it Joe Flacco or is it the Running Game?

Over the last 3 games, Joe Flacco has gone without an interception while throwing 4 touchdown passes, showing more poise than previously in the season and being surprisingly responsible with the football. This has led many to wonder whether the rookie QB has already turned a corner and is showing Ravens fans that he can be the future. However, in those three contests the running game has also been churning out yards at a consistent pace, rushing for well over 125 yards as a team in each of those three games. In fact, the worst performance the Ravens had on the ground in that span was against the Raiders, in which the Ravens dominated for the entire course of the game on both sides of the ball. Is Flacco maturing under center or is the effectiveness of the running game giving him the time he needs to make smarter decisions? The furious comeback he helped orchestrated leans me begrudgingly towards the former, but will he prove it against the abysmal Texans D?

Which Sage Rosenfels will the Ravens see today?
I remember the first time I watched Sage Rosenfels play; it was against the Ravens a couple years back when Rosenfels was with the Dolphins. Kelly Gregg intercepted his pass at the 8 yard line and ran it back to the endzone. When the defensive tackle gets a pick-6, you remember it. Last season Rosenfels came in for an injured Matt Schaub (back before it was a trend) and went on to start 9 games for the Texans that season, throwing 15 touchdowns to 12 interceptions en route to a 84.5 passer rating. In fact there were some fans (few, but they were there) clamoring for Rosenfels to start this season. I doubt the Ravens will be seeing the same quarterback they faced in Miami those years ago, and he no doubt will be out to prove to Houston that he belongs as the starter. The longer Matt Schaub has consistent injury problems the more likely the team will turn to Rosenfels. Will the Ravens be able to take advantage of his tendency to turn the ball over and force the Texans into an early hole? Will Rosenfels be able to react under pressure- he couldn’t against the Colts earlier this season…

Is this the game the Texans D comes alive?
The Texans defense sports a couple of former Ravens who might be interested in getting a shot in on their former team- Will Demps starts for them at free safety while Tony Weaver takes on the defensive end spot opposite World-Destroyer Mario Williams. Williams is on pace for 16 sacks this season despite playing for a defense that has allowed a horrific 26.6 points per game. The last time the Ravens faced a top flight defensive end… Indy happened. It will be interesting to see whether the Ravens offensive line has truly taken a step forward or if they are still can’t contain an upper echelon pass rusher. However, it is important to note that Mario Williams accounts for more than half of their sacks this season. If the Texans can’t get someone else involved in the pass rush, the Ravens will double-team Williams and ignore everyone else. Then again everyone else has tried that, and he still has 8 sacks. Will the Texans be motivated by the presence of their former team and the prospects of facing an inexperienced o-line?

My Mildly Informed Analysis:

The Texans offense can be very effective, but in fits and spurts more than a consistent attack. Andre Johnson is on pace for 1600 yards this season, and has been the only major downfield threat this season. Samari Rolle, returning to action this week from injury, has had problems in the past with faster, younger receivers blowing by him on their way to wide open touchdowns. Rosenfels will be dialing up for Johnson whenever they are in need of a big play. While this makes the Texans capable of a major offensive output on any play, it also makes them somewhat predictable. The Ravens will have to bracket Johnson with a safety above and a linebacker to cover over the middle to prevent the easy first down. This might cut down on the possibility for turnovers by paying a great deal of attention to a single wideout, but if you can shut down Andre Johnson, you cut the Texans offense in half.

The Ravens will have to dictate the pace of this football game from the very beginning. The Texans are a team waiting to be broken, and if the Ravens can run effectively away from Mario Williams they can keep the home team at arms length and wear them out for the fourth quarter. Despite the comeback last week the Ravens have to try to ensure that the pressure is not on Flacco to have to make a play at the last minute. The Texans defense allows 126.8 yards per game, but even that is inflated by the presence of Mario Williams. I don’t care who is running the football, they should be productive from the first whistle- this isn’t really all that proven, it is just a feeling I have. I think this team is ready to break on the ground, and the Ravens are just coming into their own.

However, the Texans have a running game of their own. Rookie Steve Slaton is gradually taking carries away from veteran Ahman Green, and they, like the Ravens attack, are entirely different types of backs. Slaton, as Maryland fans will remember despondently from his time at West Virginia, is an incredibly fast slashing running back who has the potential to break any run into a 50 yard touchdown. Green is a workhorse who spent his time in Green Bay running headfirst into defensive tackles for the last 10+ seasons. This provides the Texans with an excellent change of pace system in which has served them well, though Slaton has started to become a more well-rounded back as the season has wore on. While Houston only averages a little more than 111 rushing yards per game as a team, this is an attack that is getting better every week and is primed to come into its own. The Ravens D will have to hold the running game to under 100 yards to keep Rosenfels on his back foot all day.

Oh, and Owen Daniels is a very very dangerous tight end. While Johnson is the big play receiver, Daniels does a great job of sneaking out on his routes and getting the necessary 1st down, a la Todd Heap several years ago. Covering him might take some pressure off of the pass rush, but if I have to choose I will take the coverage; the Texans o-line still isn’t good enough to stop the Ravens front 4.

The Rundown

I am not gonna lie, I am rather bullish on the Ravens today. It seems as though the weaknesses of the Texans fall rather squarely on what the Ravens do well, and what the Ravens do poorly the Texans do even worse. The Texans are not a bad team by any stretch, but it is hard to imagine Cam Cameron not taking advantage of a pass rush that only tends to hit home from one side of the field, and it is also hard to imagine the Ravens not rattling a quarterback who orchestrated the most epic 4th quarter collapse in franchise history and already had turnover problems beforehand! The Ravens offense has scored over 25 points in each of their last 3 games. They do it again and do it early. The Texans offense won’t go down without a fight however, and they will score late to make things interesting.

The nod goes to the Ravens, 29-21

Photo Credit: (Baltimore Sun: John Mackely)

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