1. Will the Baltimore Ravens be able to exploit the San Diego Chargers’ secondary?
The Ravens’ suddenly prolific passing game has an attractive matchup this week against a San Diego team that ranked second from last in the league in passing defense a year ago. The Chargers’ porous secondary wasn’t much better against the Oakland Raiders to open the season as quarterback JaMarcus Russell picked them apart repeatedly with deep strikes down the middle of the field. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has to be licking his chops to target Chargers safety Clinton Hart. Hart was particularly susceptible to fly patterns on Monday night. Of course, Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera is expected to make some adjustments to account for Hart’s weaknesses. Flacco can counteract those measures by continuing to spread the football around as he did against the Kansas City Chiefs when he threw for a career-high 307 yards and three touchdown passes. He threw at least two passes to seven different receivers against Kansas City.
2. Will the Chargers’ offensive line be able to hold up against the Ravens’ front seven?
This is beginning to shape up as a mismatch since Pro Bowl center Nick Hardwick (ankle) and starting offensive guard Louis Vasquez (knee) are both expected to miss this game. The Ravens could take advantage of an injury-riddled offensive line with defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and nose guard Kelly Gregg dominating the line of scrimmage. The middle of the line of scrimmage could become a no-crossing zone today.
3. How will the Ravens’ defensive backs fare against Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers?
The Ravens had some notable breakdowns against the Chiefs with Brodie Croyle as Mark Bradley struck deep on a 50-yard play and Dwayne Bowe had his moments. This time, the quarterback is vastly superior to Croyle. And he has a collection of riches downfield to throw to, including Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates and imposing wide receiver Vincent Jackson. The Ravens have struggled in the past against Gates. In a 2007 win over Baltimore, he caught six passes for 105 yards and two touchdowns.
4. Will the Ravens be able to contain Chargers pass rusher Shawne Merriman?
Merriman has nine tackles and two sacks against the Ravens, and that was against future Hall of Fame left tackle Jonathan Ogden. Although Merriman had a quiet game against Oakland, he’s expected to be revved up for this matchup. The Ravens usually don’t use chip-blocking assistance for left tackle Jared Gaither, but he might need occasional help. Rookie right tackle Michael Oher has his hands full with Shaun Phillips on the other side.
5. Are the special-teams units ready for elusive Chargers returner Darren Sproles?
This represents a huge test of the Ravens’ kick coverage. Sproles ranks second in the NFL in kickoff return average with a 34-yard average after one game. He has racked up 170 kickoff return yards, including returns of 66 and 59 yards. He ranked eighth in the league last year with a 26.1 average last season. Sproles is only 5-foot-6 and 185 pounds, but his strength allows him to shrug off tackles. And his speed and change of direction are rapidly becoming legendary in NFL circles.
Baltimore Ravens OT Jared Gaither vs. San Diego Chargers OLB Shawne Merriman
Merriman was sidelined last season due to two torn knee ligaments and was a bit hesitant in the opening game, but has a strong track record against Baltimore with nine tackles and two sacks. He’s usually stronger and faster than the blockers tasked with slowing him down. Gaither has the size, wingspan and quickness to cut Merriman off at the pass as the two former University of Maryland players clash today. When properly motivated, Gaither is capable of shutting down pass rushers. His commitment is always the question.
Baltimore Ravens S Dawan Landry vs. San Diego Chargers TE Antonio Gates
The last time the Ravens squared off with Gates, they couldn’t contain him. He caught six passes for 105 yards, including two touchdowns. And he caught five passes for 83 yards to open the season against the Oakland Raiders. Most of the time, the Ravens are capable of containing opposing tight ends with the majority of them catching three or less passes over the past year. Gates’ athleticism as a former college basketball power forward is impressive. Landry is fast and physical enough to stay with Gates, but may need some help from instinctive free safety Ed Reed and the linebackers.
THREE DOWNS WITH …
Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice
1. On if it’s eating at him to get his first touchdown: “I haven’t really thought about it. I guess I’ve got to get one that counts. At the end of the day, I’m trying to get the win. I still get to carry those balls that I used in the preseason and scored. These are ones when it counts. If I get in, I get in."
2. On Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman: "He’s a force to be reckoned with. He’s not a guy where you can look at that side of the ball and not recognize him. He’s a force to be reckoned with. If he gets his motor going, he’s tough to stop. Our line, we have just the men for the job. We play against guys like that every day."
3. On Chargers running backs LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles: "When he is playing against other teams, you want to see him do well because he deserves it. I can’t say that I want him to do good this week because he’s playing against us. I’ve got much respect for him, much respect for what he’s done in his career. You’ve got to look up to a guy like that and just admire what he’s done, not for his team but for the game, for all the running backs that played this game. He’s up there with the best of the best.”
THREE DOWNS WITH …
San Diego Chargers outside linebacker Shawne Merriman
1. On if it means anything extra to play against the Ravens: "Yeah, I know a bunch of guys on the team, and it is a team that’s hometown to me, or sort of hometown. More Washington Redskins than Baltimore, but it’s still a hometown team. I know a bunch of people back home will be watching.”
2. On what concerns him about the Ravens: "They fight. They fight for all 60 minutes, and they’ve got guys on the team who have a bunch of talent. They have a talented offensive line. They have a good combination of backs. Even Le’Ron McClain, who plays fullback, is still looked at as an H-back/fullback kind of a runner, so he’s still a threat.”
3. On if Ray Lewis is a mentor to him: "In a bunch of different cases. He’s a guy that’s been through not just every aspect of football and business and the business of football, but every aspect of life. He’s always a great resource for me to pick up the phone and call any given time.”