WHEN ON OFFENSE
Receivers Imitating Tight Ends
Once Ed Dickson dropped the first pass attempt of the game, and Dallas Clark was rocked on a third down pass later in the drive, the tight ends completed disappeared from the game plan against Cleveland.
Instead, offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell wisely redirected the passing game to his receivers. In the second half, the wideouts ran crossers underneath to defeat Cleveland’s blitz. In particular, Torrey Smith made his presence felt on over-the-middle routes. Quarterback Joe Flacco clearly had more trust in his receivers to hold onto the ball and they delivered in big third-down conversion situations.
Against an aggressive Houston defense that likes to bring extra defenders—especially on third-and-long—the receivers should continue to be counted as the go-to blitz beaters. And with a receiver like Smith, if he gets enough open space to run through, he’ll be off to the races.
Change the Launch Point and Snap Count
In last year’s blowout loss to Houston, the Texans’ front smothered Baltimore’s snap count and offensive rhythm. They deftly anticipated when Flacco was going to throw the ball and that led to an eye-popping 11 tipped passes in the game, five of which came from their front seven.
The Baltimore offensive coaches would do well to learn from that meltdown and give Flacco and the line more help with their play-calling. Flacco needs to have the freedom to vary the snap. Playing at home will help, as the crowd noise won’t be a factor.
There should also be a steady mix of three and five step drops. And perhaps most important, Flacco should have chances to move and throw on the run away from the reigning Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.
Without a changeup in Flacco’s positioning within the pocket, the tip drill will be in full effect once again.
Dictate the Down and Distance
It’s easy for defenders to bat away the football when they know it’s a pass play all the way. The Ravens were so miserable moving the ball on first and second down that the Houston front was rarely challenged to defend the run on third down.
If the Ravens are to keep Houston off balance, they need to be productive on early downs, and they must pass the ball more often than not on first down. With Houston being such a live and aggressive front, the best chance to pick up positive yards on those downs will come from quick-hitting, easy pass completions.
WHEN ON DEFENSE
Double Johnson; Man Up the Rookie
The Texans come into this game ready to show off their new toy: DeAndre Hopkins. The rookie looks like a legitimate sidekick to the venerable Andre Johnson, as he’s a dangerous deep threat in his own right.
However, Johnson remains the epicenter of the Houston pass offense. Despite having some tread on his tires, he is still capable of confounding defenses with his tremendous route-running and power-receiving skills. He simply bullies defensive backs to attack the ball midair.
The Ravens’ best bet to contain Johnson is to keep a deep safety to his side. They will have to take their chances by singling Hopkins. After weeks of preparation, this is the game in which corner Lardarius Webb should renew his role as their top shadow and follow the first-year receiver all over the field.
The foundation of the Houston offense is their devastating running game. Their zone-stretch blocking scheme puts defenses on roller skates. The key to its execution is that virtually every run looks identical and that is a credit to the offensive line working in concert. Moreover, the tailbacks, Arian Foster and Ben Tate, are also excellent in their ability to make one cut and find the open lane.
Those open lanes can often be found on the backside of the play. If the front line chases too far down the line, the back will simply find the cutback lane and there will be ample room to run.
Defending this attack, especially on early downs, will be the ultimate challenge for the newly minted Baltimore front. Penetration can kill these plays before they get started. The down linemen need to pick their spots and fire into the backfield.
Don’t Be Fooled
Quarterback Matt Schaub is among the best ball-handlers in the league, and he uses the zone-stretch blocking scheme to mask his run-action fakes to perfection. In fact, the Texans’ coordinated play-action passing attack is so good that it’s opened up many wide open pass completions down the field.
If the running game is smoked out early, that should mitigate the Texans’ highly creative play-action plays. However, if the Texans get Foster and Tate going, Schaub’s fakes will have even more bite and the back end will be in trouble.
ONE-ON-ONE BATTLE OF THE WEEK
J.J. Watt versus Marshal Yanda
The two Pro Bowlers square off once again, with Watt winning the last matchup in a landslide. The dynamic defensive end plays with an incredible leverage, tenacity, and energy on every snap. He also combines his physical prowess with a combination of moves to leave linemen spinning. Yanda is up to the task to control Watt, but he’ll have to play tough and maintain his balance, especially in passing blocking situations.