Baltimore Ravens’ scouting report

Street Talk Baltimore Ravens’ scouting report

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1. Can the Baltimore Ravens win a pivotal football game against a quality opponent?

As the Ravens (4-3) prepare for Monday night’s critical AFC North clash against the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-2) at Heinz Field, the entire nation will be watching whether the reigning division champions are capable of defeating one of the league’s elite teams. Plus, the Ravens have been struggling in prime-time games recently with losses in their past four high-profile encounters dating back to last season. The stakes are incredibly high with a chance to tie for the division lead on the line. This is the beginning of the Ravens’ arduous road toward trying to earn a postseason berth as they have the NFL’s fourth-toughest schedule over the next nine weeks. Every opponent either leads a division or has already defeated the Ravens. Those teams have a combined record of 39-26 for a .600 winning percentage.

Baltimore’s current record comes against teams with a combined mark of 15-36. In the Brian Billick era, though, the Ravens have won their past five games following a bye.
 
2. Can the Ravens stop the Steelers’ running game? 
A year ago, Baltimore absolutely shut down Pro Bowl running back Fast Willie Parker, negating his 4.3 speed by hitting him in the backfield repeatedly as he gained a combined 51 rushing yards on 23 carries. Last season, the Ravens held Pittsburgh to a grand total of 84 rushing yards on 29 attempts for a 2.9 average as Baltimore outscored the Steelers by a combined 58-7 margin. Parker has already gained 726 yards to rank second in the NFL in rushing.
 
3. Will the secondary be able to hold up against a diverse receiving corps?
The Ravens will sorely need to manufacture a pass rush to rival last season’s 14 sacks against Pittsburgh as defensive end Trevor Pryce makes his return from a broken left wrist. If quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has all day to throw, he has plenty of viable downfield targets to choose from between Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes and Heath Miller.
 
4. How will Willis McGahee fare against the NFL’s top-ranked defense?
McGahee hasn’t really been tested this season against a blue-chip defense, and the Steelers qualify as such. They’re allowing a league-low 256.9 yards of total offense this season and 77.7 rushing yards per contest. The Steelers have forced a dozen fumbles. This is the kind of game where McGahee, a $40 million former Pro Bowl runner, needs to step forward and prove himself.
 
5. Is Steve McNair truly healed up?
 
McNair has proclaimed himself rejuvenated from back and groin injuries and will make his first start under center since an Oct. 7 victory over the San Francisco 49ers. The Ravens need a vintage McNair performance in order to be competitive in this one. Traditionally, he excels against the Steelers with an 11-4 all-time record against Pittsburgh with 21 touchdowns.
 
Who has the Edge?
 
Ravens Offense
Total (15) Rushing (16) Passing (16)
  
Quarterback

Steve McNair will need to recapture his youth against an aggressive, mobile Steelers defense operating under some unpredictable schemes crafted by veteran defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. There’s little McNair hasn’t seen on a football field, but questions remain about his mobility, health and arm strength.
Running back
Willis McGahee has to provide more staying power than he did against the Buffalo Bills where he tired himself out on a long touchdown run and needed IV fluids to recover. Proper rest and work habits are critical for an NFL running back.

Receivers
Derrick Mason leads the NFL with 56 receptions and the entire league with 20 third-down catches, including 13 for first downs. He needs some help, though, from Mark Clayton, Demetrius Williams and tight end Todd Heap, all of whom have been slowed by injuries during the first seven games. In particular, the Ravens need Heap to emerge again as a red-zone threat for a struggling offense.
Offensive line
This is the healthiest the Ravens’ offensive line has been since the season-opener. Jonathan Ogden, Adam Terry and Mike Flynn are all expected to start. They should be able to provide McNair sufficient time to throw if they’re truly recovered from their respective injuries.
 
Ravens Defense
Total (2) Rushing (2) Passing (9)
 
Defensive line
With the return of four-time Pro Bowl defensive end Trevor Pryce, the Ravens are hoping to create a pass rush and some openings for blitzing linebackers Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs. With Pryce out for the past five games, the pass rush has been practically nonexistent except for against the winless St. Louis Rams. Nose guard Kelly Gregg and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata have been stout against the run.
 
Linebackers
Ray Lewis has second-guessed Brian Billick’s play-calling. Can he withstand similar scrutiny? Although Lewis has recorded a team-high 92 tackles and is on pace for 210, he has made little impact in games. Scott’s impact has been negated at times by needing to be called upon more in pass coverage. In a contract year where team officials continue to negotiate with his agent, Terrell Suggs has been extremely quiet with just two sacks.
Secondary
Ed Reed leads the team with four interceptions, and his personal chess match with Ben Roethlisberger is of paramount importance. With cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle out, Corey Ivy will need to have a big game as he’ll likely be isolated in single coverage against Hines Ward. In his first NFL start, Derrick Martin could be matched opposite Santonio Holmes.
 
Special teams
Kicker Matt Stover has converted 18 field goals. He ranks only behind Mike Vanderjagt with a .839 percentage. Since 1996, no one has made more field goals than Stover with 318 out of 374 kicks for an 85 percent clip. Special-teams ace Gary Stills leads the team with 11 special-teams tackles.
Steelers Offense
Total (4) Rushing (1) Passing (21)
 
Quarterback
One year after a scary motorcycle accident, two concussions and an emergency appendectomy, Ben Roethlisberger has reinvented himself as a scrambler. His decision-making has been sound and his interceptions are down to six after leading the league in that category last season.
 
Running back
Fast Willie Parker got his nickname for recording a 4.29 in the 40-yard dash. He’s not very physical between his tackles, but has home-run capabilities.
Receivers
This might be the best receiving corps outside of the Arizona Cardinals that the Ravens have faced. Between Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes and tight end Heath Miller, the Steelers don’t seem to have any weaknesses outside.
 
Offensive line
They’ve allowed 16 sacks, but have provided plenty of time to throw for the majority of the first seven contests. Marvel Smith and Alan Faneca are the headliners on a technically-proficient, roll-up-the-sleeves bunch.
 
Steelers Defense
Total (1) Rushing (4) Passing (5)
 
Defensive line
Nose guard Casey Hampton is a load inside at 330 pounds. He can bench press nearly 600 pounds. Aaron Smith is ailing with a knee injury, but is expected to start at defensive end. Brett Keisel occasionally lines up at outside linebacker and drops back into pass coverage.
 
Linebackers
James Farrior remains one of the top inside linebackers in the game. Clark Haggans seems to miss Joey Porter’s presence. Larry Foote is undersized and underrated. James Harrison is a free-agent find that Baltimore let slip away.
 
Secondary
Safety Troy Polamalu’s tackling intimidates receivers. Ike Taylor has gained a lot of confidence outside. Anthony Smith is a big-time hitter opposite Polamalu. DeShea Townsend can be picked on.
 
Special teams
Jeff Reed is a reliable kicker, converting 10 of 11 field goals despite the gusty winds that typify conditions at Heinz Field. Lefty punter Daniel Sepulveda is averaging 44.1 yards. The return game is in excellent hands with Allan Rossum  already having a 98-yard kickoff return to his credit.
 
EDGES: Quarterback: Pittsburgh; Running back: Pittsburgh; Receivers; Pittsburgh; Offensive line: Even; Defensive line: Pittsburgh; Linebackers: Baltimore; Secondary: Even; Special teams: Pittsburgh.

 

 
Photo by Sabina Moran

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Aaron Wilson

About Aaron Wilson

Aaron Wilson covers the NFL for National Football Post as well as the Baltimore Ravens for The Carroll County Times and Ravens24x7.com. He has previously covered the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans and has covered the NFL since 1997.  He has won several regional writing awards, including, most recently, Best Sports News Story for the state of Maryland in voting conducted by the Associated Press managing editors.  More from Aaron Wilson

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