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1. Can the Ravens avoid complacency? Heading into today’s game against the reeling Tennessee Titans (2-6), the Baltimore Ravens (6-2) are in an enviable position. Two games ahead of their closest competition in the AFC North and in the driver’s seat for the automatic playoff berth that goes with being a division title winner, the Ravens have to take the Titans seriously to get to the next step on their agenda: 7-2. Tennessee isn’t a very good team, but it does have some very talented athletes like mercurial cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones.
Besides wanting to advance to the postseason, the Ravens have another motivation: gaining a little payback after last season’s humiliating 25-10 loss to the Titans in Nashville, Tenn., where they were brutalized at the line of scrimmage. Tight end Todd Heap made it extremely clear that he hasn’t forgotten what happened and how it felt to have virtually no chance to do anything offensively. The Ravens didn’t generate a first down until the third quarter and finished with a franchise-low 14 rushing yards. Now, they want to keep the momentum rolling and erase the sting of last year’s humiliation.
2. Can Steve McNair maintain his composure? In an emotional return to Tennessee after a messy divorce, the former NFL Co-MVP will try to balance his job responsibilities against the obvious feelings this game will carry for him. He called this a business trip, but acknowledged that it’s really not. This breakup got personal, and people close to McNair say he wants to show the Titans he can still perform at a high level. He’s too classy to rip the way his contract situation was handled.
3. Can the Ravens run the football? Probably so. It should be an altogether different equation. The Titans gave up 173 rushing yards to the Jacksonville Jaguars last week. The Ravens’ power running game has been punishing people upfront even if it has left yards on the field with Lewis not reading or getting through holes quickly enough. The Titans sorely miss massive defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who’s serving the last week of a five-game suspension for viciously stomping on the head of Dallas Cowboys center Andre Gurode.
4. Can the Ravens block Kyle Vanden Bosch? They couldn’t stop the hard-nosed defensive end last year as he rolled up three sacks and was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week. Tony Pashos draws this critical assignment.
5. Will Ray Lewis play and how effective will he be? Lewis is liable to be a game-time decision because of his sore back, but he sounds inclined toward playing. If he doesn’t, Mike Smith would start. If he’s at any risk of further injury or immobile, the Ravens will probably want to rest him because of next week’s showdown against Michael Vick.
6. How many interceptions will Vince Young throw? The rookie quarterback is gifted athletically, but has a lot of work to do on becoming a polished passer. He uncorked three interceptions against the Jaguars and posted a putrid 30.2 quarterback rating. The Ravens lead the NFL with 17 interceptions.
Donâ€™t rule out a big game by former Titans wideout Derrick Mason. He caught eight passes for 60 yards and a touchdown in last yearâ€™s losing cause. Against AFC road opponents, Mason has caught 195 career passes for 2,517 yards and 13 touchdowns with 133 first downs and 20 receptions of 25 yards or more.
WHO HAS THE EDGE?
Total (25) Rushing (19) Passing (22)
Steve McNair is returning to the scene of the crime in a sense. His old employers coldly barred him from working out at their weight room due to a contract dispute. Heâ€™s certain to be emotional today with all thatâ€™s transpired and his rich history with the Titans, including an NFL Co-MVP season and leading them to a Super Bowl berth.
If Jamal Lewis canâ€™t muster major yardage against a depleted front seven that ranks one spot from the bottom in rushing defense, then he truly has declined.
The Ravens are wise to get youngsters Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams more involved, but it shoudnâ€™t come at the expense of veterans Todd Heap and Derrick Mason.
Right tackle Tony Pashos draws the most challenging assignment: blocking defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch. The Titans can be pushed around upfront as hot head Albert Haynesworth completes his five-game suspension.
Total (3) Rushing (2) Passing (13)
Trevor Pryce has quietly had a career resurgence. Terrell Suggs needs to make more noise. Interior linemen Kelly Gregg and Haloti Ngata are fairly unheralded, but are extremely valuable to Rex Ryanâ€™s defense.
Ray Lewis is a question mark with a back injury. Bart Scott and Adalius Thomas have emerged as forces on the blitz. Mike Smith can get the job done if Lewis is scratched. Heâ€™s a hard-nosed tackler who plays the game with an edge. The Ravens would lose something in pass coverage and pursuit.
They solidified the back end against the Bengals for the most part, but collapsed in key junctures. Today, shouldnâ€™t be so hard. Not with Vince Young passing out gifts. Ronnie Prude has made up for Corey Ivyâ€™s absence. Safety Dawan Landry is the most consistent one.
Matt Stover has hit his past 34 field goals. B.J. Sams hasnâ€™t made an impact lately. Rookie punter Sam Koch is hard to complain about.
Total (28) Rushing (12) Passing (29)
Vince Young is experiencing a rude awakening in an NFL world where linebackers are faster than him. He has been reluctant to run much. His accuracy and decision-making have been suspect, which is understandable for even the most gifted rookie. The Titans and the league as a whole needs young guns like him to flourish.
Travis Henry is a bullish, stocky runner who can generate extra yards after first contact. Plus, rookie LenDale White represents a strong change of pace.
Drew Bennett is the most proven target, which means this is a nondescript unit that has been victimized by poor drafting by GM Floyd Reese. Tight end Ben Troupe has potential, but hasnâ€™t exceeded expectations.
Former All-Pro center Kevin Mawae provides leadership and grit for an unproven bunch that needs to grow up rapidly and protect Vince Young better. He has already been sacked seven times.
Total (32) Rushing (31) Passing (14)
Kyle Vanden Bosch is an intense technician with outstanding strength and speed. Robaire Smith is a solid interior pass rusher. Former Terrapins star Randy Starks needs to mature, but can disrupt the middle.
Keith Bulluck headlines a unit in need of an influx of speed and athleticism. Bulluck is a hard-nosed, high-level performer who never backs down from a confrontations. Peter Sirmon and David Thornton are unmemorable.
Former Steelers safety Chris Hope has intercepted three passes and stabilized the deep patrol. Pacman Jones is a mercurial star whose legal problems could ruin a promising career. Lamont Thompson is a hitter. Reynaldo Hill is a pesky journeyman.
Punter Craig Hentrich remains one of the gameâ€™s best. Kicker Rob Bironas has only missed once. Pacman Jones is a big-time punt returner.
How the Titans can win
1. Lure McNair into turnovers. McNair hasnâ€™t thrown an interception in his past 54 throws, a two-game span without a turnover that, not coincidentally, has generated consecutive victories.
2. Score on special teams. Brash cornerback Adam â€œPac-Manâ€ Jones is off suspension and is one of the most dangerous punt returners in the game. He has already scored one touchdown this year.
3. Lob one to Drew Bennett. The converted former UCLA quarterback represents an inviting red-zone target.
How the Ravens can win
1. Donâ€™t get overconfident. Baltimore canâ€™t afford to take the Titans lightly even in their salary-cap reduced state. They have too many athletes like Adam â€œPac-Manâ€ Jones and Vince Young to account for.
2. Stay sharp. The Ravens canâ€™t afford to be so susceptible to the big play on defense. Itâ€™s been a case of feast or famine lately, and itâ€™s beginning to wear on defensive coordinator Rex Ryanâ€™s nerves.
3. Confuse Vince Young. The rookie is ultra-confident, but there are so many things he hasnâ€™t experienced in the NFL. The Ravensâ€™ complicated schemes and aggression might be too much for him.