1. Isolate the outside backers
Although much of the focus of Houston’s pass rush has turned to their down linemen, the edge rushers – Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed – can’t be overlooked. The Ravens should not only look to neutralize these two backers, but to attack them.
Barwin and Reed are athletic, but they are better moving forward than backward. The Ravens have the right personnel to isolate these two defenders in space, forcing them to drop and run.
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron should look to use some delayed routes and chip plays for his tight ends, as well as tailback Ray Rice, and target the edge rushers as much as possible.
2. Draws and delays
After putting on a pass-rushing show last Saturday against the Bengals, one has to believe that defensive ends Antonio Smith and J.J. Watt have the Ravens’ undivided attention. The ends showed that they can be disruptive by penetrating and getting off blocks in a hurry.
One of the best ways to keep these rushers honest is to use more delays and draws. If the ends charge too hard to hit quarterback Joe Flacco, Rice might have some room to maneuver through the vacated gaps.
One thing is for sure, these ends have to be slowed down for the Ravens to be effective.
3. Target the slot receivers
As was the case in the first matchup, Flacco should have some favorable matchups to work with against pass defenders not named Johnathan Joseph.
With Anquan Boldin back in the lineup, along with the emergence of tight end Dennis Pitta, the team has two viable slot receivers who can work the middle of the field. While Joseph is a shutdown corner, the remainder of the secondary can be had.
If Boldin and Pitta are used as the slot receivers, they will have ideal matchups to work with against nickel back Jason Allen or even strong safety Glove Quinn, who tends to hover in the box area. With enough protection, and all of his weapons back, Flacco should be in line for another solid performance against the Houston secondary.
1. Don’t get caught in the wash
What makes the Houston rush attack so difficult to defend is that the front-side line movement puts tremendous pressure on the backside defenders to maintain their gap responsibilities. The backside is normally controlled by the contain defenders. In the Ravens’ case, this means linebackers Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson, along with their cornerbacks and crashing safeties.
This group did an outstanding job of staying true to their edge responsibilities in the first matchup. As a result, tailback Arian Foster found little room cutting back to the perimeter.
The onus will remain on Johnson and Suggs to set the edge, and “not get caught in the wash” of the front-side stretch movement. If they can maintain their C-gap responsibilities, Foster will have to stay on the inside track.
- Force Yates to pass on third-down
For the Ravens, this game will boil down to how well they can nullify the run on early downs. If they can’t prevent Foster and Ben Tate from gaining more than 2.0-2.5 yards a clip on first and second down, it’s going to be tough sledding on third down.
On the other hand, if the defense can keep Foster and Tate contained, they’ll be able to turn rookie quarterback T.J. Yates into a passer on third-and-long.
Clearly, the Ravens want to force Yates into as many obvious passing situations as possible. But they won’t be able to accomplish this goal unless they win the early down battle.
- Man coverage
In order to slow down the Houston ground game, safety Bernard Pollard will be an active cog as a box defender. This means that more pressure will fall on Ed Reed to man the middle of the field in Cover One coverage situations.
Reed has done a nice job all season of handling the lone ranger duties, especially when Pollard plays close to the line-of-scrimmage. But the big challenge against Houston will be preventing receiver Andre Johnson from getting behind the secondary.
If Reed shifts to Johnson’s side to provide outside help, it will be up to the other corners, linebackers, and defensive backs to win their one-on-one battles in the open field.
All in all, given the focus of stopping the Texans from running the ball, the Ravens may take more chances with their coverage, and the pass defenders must hold up.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch
Duane Brown versus Terrell Suggs: This matchup will be equally important for the run and the pass. Brown is a technically sound player who can get out into space, and he will sustain his blocks. Suggs is a complete player who does a great job of defeating blocks to stop the run. However, there have been a few times when he’s flowed too hard inside, allowing backs to dash through off-tackle lanes. He can’t afford those missteps against Brown on Sunday.