1. Protect the front
Believe it or not, without Super Mario, the Houston edge rush remains a concern. The Texans present a challenge to the Baltimore line – especially backed by defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ bag of tricks.
Between outside linebacker Connor Barwin, and defensive ends J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith, Phillips has a group of up-field rushers that can split gaps and disrupt plays in the backfield.
The task for the Baltimore offense will be to find a way to slow down these rushers.
The Ravens used an assortment of quick-hitting screens against the St. Louis Rams, incorporating their backs and their receivers. However, those plays weren’t in the plan against the Jets.
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will need to dust those plays off, and also turn to some misdirection plays to keep the Houston front honest and guessing. Look out for some fake reverses, some back-side passes and other fakes to take advantage of an aggressive rush.
2. Isolation blocks
The heart of the Houston defense goes through the middle with inside backers DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing roaming from sideline-to-sideline. The duo might be the best in the league. While Ryans gets by on tremendous instincts and a feel for the game, Cushing is a tremendous athlete who can drop and chase. Both linebackers are playmakers and do a good job of finding the ball.
For the Ravens to have success running the ball, they’ll need to find a way to get a hat on these two tackling machines.
The first part of the job will fall on center Matt Birk, who needs to handle nose guard Shaun Cody one-on-one. If Cody is blocked, there is a good chance that the guards and fullback Vonta Leach will have a chance to take on Cushing or Ryans.
Leach might have plenty of cracks at his old teammates, and if he can have a clean lean to lead the way for Ray Rice, big plays could be sprung up the gut. There should also be a steady mix of offset formations, giving Leach a direct path to block off-tackle for Rice.
3. Play-action passing attack
The Ravens should get back to more of their base formation looks against Houston, especially with a renewed emphasis on pounding the ball. As a result, there should be some prime opportunities to mix in play-action passes on early downs, once the running game has been established.
While the Houston defense has greatly improved, they are still susceptible to giving up some significant pass plays. Play-action should especially be used to test the inexperienced outside linebackers. If they bite, there might be room for the tight ends and receivers to operate on perimeter routes.
Given that Houston also plays a lot of man-to-man coverage, expect to see some major voids open up, especially if the linebackers are over-aggressive in cheating up to stop the run.
1. Keep the safeties active
Two weeks ago against the New York Jets, defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano turned to some three-safety formations early in the game. Given that cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams were so sound in single coverage against New York wideouts Santonio Holmes and Plaxico Burress, the safeties were free to play close to the line as blitzers and run-stuffers.
With strong safety Tom Zbikowski a question mark for this game, Pagano won’t be able to use as many three-safety alignments. However, that doesn’t mean that safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard – the last two safeties standing – can’t be involved as run defenders.
Pollard would be very useful in this game to help the front line take on running back Arian Foster and the Houston stretch, zone scheme. Pollard’s ability to diagnose this tricky scheme, which the Ravens themselves run, could be an asset in this matchup.
Also, the Ravens should be able to play man coverage on the outside in the same way that they handled the Jets. Williams has size to match-up with receiver Kevin Walter; Webb has the smooth backpedal to turn and run with speedster Jacoby Jones.
The key player will be Reed, who might have to play a lot of centerfield when Pollard plays up in the box. He needs to play with discipline.
2. Maintain gap integrity
Considering that the Texans execute the stretch running scheme with Foster leading the way, the Ravens must make sure that they don’t get caught too far inside or out of place, because Foster will burn them.
The stretch scheme places a lot of pressure on the front seven to stay front-side but not get caught flowing too hard, or gaps will open up for the back to cut through.
With a back like Foster, he is outstanding at cutting back in an instant and finding daylight.
Again, if the defenders stick with their gap responsibilities and are able to take away Foster’s lanes, it’ll be tough sledding for him. But if they make mistakes, he has the ability to gain yards in chunks.
3. Tight end check
Daniels is a guy who can stretch the field further and does most of his damage over the middle. The Texans are known for running a lot of crossing routes featuring Daniels.
The linebackers have to play well in coverage if the defense is to contain these two receiving tight ends. In a game like this, Pagano might be better served to play linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo — who is the best cover linebacker the Ravens have — on first and second downs on top of his normal third-down role.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch