The Ravens hardly seem like the same team that caught fire during the 2012 playoffs and captured the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Numerous frontline players for Baltimore were lost in the offseason, primarily to the vagaries of free agency.
General manager Ozzie Newsome had to trade Anquan Boldin and still have enough in the till to sign quarterback Joe Flacco to one of the richest contracts in league history. Since then, injuries have taken tight end Dennis Pitta and wide receiver Jacoby Jones out of circulation, increasing Flacco’s reliance on new No. 1 receiver Torrey Smith.
Ed Dickson proved to be an inadequate alternative to Pitta. Therefore, 34-year-old Dallas Clark had to be rescued from the scrap heap, along with the oft-concussed Brandon Stokely, whose effectiveness playing wide receiver at age 37 is debatable.
The departures of linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger were nicely offset with the additions of Elvis Dumervil and Daryl Smith. The aging, but irreplaceable, Ed Reed signed with the Texans and Michael Huff was brought in to fill the hole at free safety.
Will all this personnel turnover affect how the Texans go about attacking the Ravens?
While there may be a bevy of new faces on the Baltimore roster, the immovable Haloti Ngata still anchors the defensive line and running back Ray Rice has supplied 38 percent of the Ravens' offense since his rookie season of 2008.
Offensive Game Plan
The Texans use the same plan regardless of the opponent. The difference from one game to another is the balance and timing of the pass versus the run.
Head coach Gary Kubiak is not as run-obsessed as many believe. Houston ran the ball 47.8 percent of the time in 2012, less than 10 percent above the league average of 44 percent. Since they have been trailing most of the time in 2013, the Texans have had to pass on 64 percent of their plays.
The Ravens do not appear to be the best team to face in trying to nurse a running game back to health. The Denver Broncos and Cleveland Browns could only muster an average of three yards per carry against them, and neither scored a touchdown on the ground.
Then again, the Broncos had no need to run because Peyton Manning was busy tying the single-game record of seven passing touchdowns, and the Browns are the Browns, after all.
The Texans managed 181 rushing yards in their 43-13 annihilation of the Ravens last season, largely because of their 29-3 first-half lead. They gained 80 of those yards by running right at Terrence Cody.
In the top portion of the image on the right, guard Ben Jones has Cody halfway to the ground, as Arian Foster breaks off a nine-yard gain. In the bottom portion, Texans center Chris Myers has his hands locked on to Cody’s jersey as he powers the nose tackle out of the way so that Foster can get down to the Baltimore one-yard line.
Cody is a starter on the defense of a team that won a championship. Surely, this was just an off-day for him.
A couple of plays from the Ravens’ 14-6 win over the Browns shows nothing has changed since the Texans' win. Trent Richardson may have been on the losing team, but he was the leading rusher in the game and had his best gains of the day running at, and over, Cody.
The top portion shows Browns center Alex Mack easily getting Cody off-balance before driving him to the turf. In the bottom portion just two plays later, Mack pushes Cody (No. 62) one step back and immediately has him off balance on his way to landing upon his ample midsection.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required for Premium Stats) had Cody rated 65th among all defensive tackles in 2012. He is the definition of a two-down lineman and can be taken out of the play at any time.
The Texans should use that fact to rejuvenate their running game. Once they get the run established, Schaub can “play-action” the Ravens into submission.
The only decent defensive back is Lardarius Webb, and he is still getting his feet under him after sitting out most of 2012 with a torn ACL. Michael Huff is particularly vulnerable to athletic tight ends like Julius Thomas of the Broncos.
We know the Texans can throw the ball, as six of their seven touchdowns this season have come through the air. The time and opportunity has come to rebalance the offense to a more sustainable ratio.
Defensive Game Plan
Look up the offense for the Ravens at Pro Football Reference and it is listed as Air Coryell. In the simplest terms, it is a vertical passing offense and one that likes to spread the ball around on routes that exploit seams in the coverage.
Flacco is known for his arm strength and makes full use of it. In 2012, he ranked sixth in passes of 20 yards or more and third in passes in excess of 40 yards, per NFL.com Statistics.
These plays can often be slow to develop and above-average pass protection is necessary to make it all work.
The Ravens took the unusual step of juggling their offensive line late last season. They moved Bryant McKinnie to left tackle and paired him with Kelechi Osemele at left guard.
It worked so well that Flacco did not throw a single interception in the 2012 playoffs. McKinnie and Osemele were such a potent combination, that the normally unstoppable Justin Smith of the San Francisco 49ers was a non-factor in the Super Bowl.
Right now, this duo, along with the rest of the line, is a flop in this young season. Osemele sometimes seems at a loss as to who he is assigned to block.
Here we have Shaun Phillips of the Broncos tipping off his stunt through the “A” gap with his first step before the snap.
For some reason, Osemele has locked in on defensive tackle Malik Jackson. Phillips comes through untouched and Flacco goes down.
In this instance, McKinnie doesn’t do any better. Outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard of the Browns had gotten the jump on the left tackle and tries out a swim move on him.
Being 6’8”, McKinnie cannot lower his pads by bending his legs and hips and just bends over. Sheard shoots by and completes the sack with the help of defensive tackle Desmond Bryant.
The prospect of going up against outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus and defensive end Antonio Smith definitely tilts the advantage to the Texans. Add in the improving Earl Mitchell at nose tackle and Flacco may be under pressure most of the afternoon. Pro Football Focus has the stats to show he has not liked being under pressure in 2013:
With a dwindling cast of receivers and Rice battling a hip strain, according to Garrett Downing of BaltimoreRavens.com, the Ravens' QB can at least be consoled by the $35.8 million he was awarded in the first year of his $120.6 million contract, per Spotrac.com.
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