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1. Running off the edges: Carolinaâ€™s strength is its pass rush. The front four of Julius Peppers, Maake Kemoeatu, Kris Jenkins and Michael Rucker is perhaps the most dominant rush unit in the league. Peppers and Rucker do a nice job of forcing quarterbacks to step up in the pocket. It will be important for the Ravens to try to negate their effectiveness by forcing the duo to defend the run. While Peppers has improved as a run defender, he still tends to play high at times, and can be had by a more physical right tackle. On the other side, Rucker has good quickness and lateral movement, but going up against Jonathan Ogden will be a tough assignment for Rucker to handle. Ogden has a lost a step, but he still moves reasonably well in space and could be quite effective on pull runs off the left side. The Ravens can either draw these ends up the field by running the ball out of obvious pass formations, or they can try to use counter plays to get the ends to give up their backside or playside pursuit.
2. McNair on the move: In five games, Air McNair has yet to make his debut. The Ravens offense has been led by Steve â€œthe managerâ€ McNair. And in Mondayâ€™s loss to Denver, McNair failed to manage the game properly, throwing two costly interceptions in crucial scoring situations. Thus far, McNair has played erratically, completing just 56% of his pass attempts. Even though he has traditionally been an accurate pocket passer, there have been times when McNair has held the ball too long to wait for a route to develop, and that has affected his aim and delivery, especially on deep throws. The Ravens should try to get McNair back into rhythm by moving him in and out of the pocket by running more waggle and bootleg passes off of play-action. McNair has proven that he can still move and throw well on the run, so limiting his game by keeping him in the pocket, even on three and five step drops may not be the best way to use him, especially against a fierce Carolina pass rush.
3. Attacking Lucas: Although Ken Lucas was lauded at the beginning of the season as one of the premier shutdown corners in the league, he has been nothing more than a major disappointment for Carolina since then. Lucasâ€™ play has dropped off so much that he was benched in favor of Richard Marshall against the Saints. Although Lucas still possesses the physical skills and instincts to return to his Pro Bowl form, right now he is not a reliable defender for the Panthers; which is why the Ravens should try to attack his side of the field and avoid Chris Gamble. Lucas has struggled to maintain his technique in coverage, so the Ravens should experiment with some double move routes using Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton. Both receivers run with great suddenness cutting in and out of their routes, so they should be able to sell the initial fake to get Lucas moving in the wrong direction.
1. Accounting for the misdirection: One of the reasons that Carolina runs such an effective offense is because the offensive coaches like to use a lot of misdirection plays, whether that means using Steve Smith or their backs as decoys. On these misdirection plays, the Panthers look to get a fast defense out of place so it can counter with an effective play on the vacated side of the field. Sometimes these plays work to perfection and other times they blow up, resulting in lost yardage. With the ball in Smithâ€™s hands, the Panthers feel confident that he can make a play in any circumstance. By the same token, look for the Panthers to use Smith as a decoy so they can free up some of their other offensive weapons. The front seven, especially the linebackers, need to play with discipline, and take the proper angles when pursuing on these plays so they donâ€™t get caught out of position.
2. Double covering Smith: All through the season, Ed Reed has played center field in the secondary, staying back to help defend some of the best big play receivers in the game. Reed usually shades to Chris McAlisterâ€™s side, as McAlister usually matches up against the opponentâ€™s top receiver. But there are also times when Reed hovers in the inside pockets of coverage, and that is when he helps against a top notch tight end or slot receiver. In this game, Steve Smith is â€œtheâ€ player to watch. Aside from LaDainian Tomlinson, Smith is the most explosive offensive player the Ravens will have to deal with this season. Smith is tough to cover because he is not just a speed demon who can run past a corner. He is also capable of snagging jump balls and catching passes with little space to work with. It will be important that Reed and McAlister do a good job of coordinating on their short and deep responsibilities in coverage against Smith all day long. At worst, Smith should gobble up yardage underneath, but is held in check down the field.
One-on-One Battle to Watch: Jason Brown versus Kris Jenkins: It has taken two seasons, but Kris Jenkins is finally healthy after suffering two season-ending injuries in 2004 and 2005. That means that first year starting guard Jason Brown will have his hands full. Jenkins is tough to block because he is quick and agile, and he does a superb job of disrupting plays in the backfield. Brown will need to match Jenkinsâ€™ quickness off the snap and play with great anticipation if he is to win this battle in the trenches.