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Steve McNair has been ice-cold lately, handing out interceptions like they’re party favors. He acknowledged that he’s been pressing, and Ravens coach Brian Billick has stressed a need for greater communication with him now that he’s the offensive coordinator.
With Jim Fassel no longer at One Winning Drive, the Ravens have discussed going back to their roots by emphasizing a smash-mouth running game. However, can Jamal Lewis pound the football effectively anymore?
What sort of grade will outspoken critic Derrick Mason give Billick after this one? The receivers are the most talented aspect of this offense, but Mason, Mark Clayton and Todd Heap are woefully underutilized.
It’s imperative that they give Steve McNair more time and room to operate under, especially following a Grade 2 concussion that took him two weeks to recuperate from.
Total (3) Rushing (3) Passing (7)
Because Drew Brees gets the football out of his hand so quickly, Terrell Suggs and Trevor Pryce, who have been quiet lately, have to defeat man-to-man blocks and burst into the backfield.
Ray Lewis, Bart Scott and Adalius Thomas have been doing a nice job against the run, but haven’t been called upon nearly as much in blitz packages lately by defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. That was extremely effective at the launch of the season.
Samari Rolle is trying to regain his confidence after being beaten for four touchdown passes in the past four games. Expect quarterbacks to pick on him and avoid Chris McAlister until he snaps out of it. Safety Ed Reed has been extremely quiet and needs to be more careful about gambling.
Matt Stover keeps getting better. In his 17th NFL season, he’s converted all 10 of his field goal attempts and has made a personal-best 30 in a row for the longest streak in the league. Return specialist B.J. Sams’ 10.9 punt return average since 2004 outranks Miami’s Wes Welker and Washington’s Antwaan Randel El. Sams is averaging 22.5 yards per kickoff return. Rookie Sam Koch is averaging 43.9 yards per punt.
Total (6) Rushing (17) Passing (6)
Drew Brees is the picture of calm, cool and collected. He rarely gets flustered, and his clutch play against Philadelphia to engineer a game-winning drive was a textbook example of how to play quarterback.
The combination of Deuce McAllister grinding out the tough yards inside and Reggie Bush acting as a threat on sweeps and out of the backfield or split out as an extra receiver has been a luxurious complement.
Seventh-round pick Marques Colston out of Hofstra has been a revelation with his blend of size, speed and hands. Veteran Joe Horn remains dangerous as a vertical threat. Not having tight end Ernie Conwell due to a knee injury is no great loss.
Jammal Brown, Jamar Nesbit, Jeff Faine, Jahri Evans and Jon Stinchcomb aren’t household names, but they’ve earned a lot of respect for keeping Brees standing. He’s only been sacked six times. Brown, their left tackle, is impressive enough for Ozzie Newsome to contemplate trading up for him two years ago.
Total (12) Rushing (21t) Passing (9)
Will Smith is one of the fastest edge rushers in the game. Charles Grant is a polished, physical end. Inside, Eagles castoff Hollis Thomas is playing at a high level and, along with Brian Young, is capable of creating interior penetration.
Scott Fujita, Mark Simoneau and Scott Shanle were all discarded by their previous teams, but have thrived as reclamation projects in New Orleans. Somewhat undersized, they’re vulnerable against hard-nosed running teams. They’re athletic enough to get to the ball.
Mike McKenzie is the most accomplished member of a nondescript secondary. Teams have tried to pick on Fred Thomas, but have been unable to do so with any regularity. Safety Josh Bullocks is a hitter who lacks top-flight range and awareness.
John Carney is one of the clutchest kickers in the game. Rookie punter Steve Weatherford is averaging 44.8 yards and a net of 38.2 yards. Reggie Bush is one of the most electrifying return men in the game with a 65-yard punt return for a touchdown under his belt that represents his lone NFL score.
EDGES: Quarterback: New Orleans; Running back: New Orleans; Receivers: Even; Offensive line: New Orleans; Defensive line: New Orleans; Linebackers: Ravens; Secondary: Ravens; Special teams: Even.