Oh, and there may be a smidge of emotion throw into the mix…
You may have heard that there is a certain retired Raven returning, and that there is a certain Ballhawk returning, but in the visitor’s uniform. M&T Bank Stadium should be super-charged.
All throughout this week, there has been much written about the return of Ed Reed. There has been also a fair amount written about Ray Lewis entering the Ring of Honor. Two legendary and impactful players for the Ravens’ franchise, and their paths intersect in such a peculiar fashion this Sunday. I can’t wait to see how this emotional plotline plays out.
This plotline deserves an entire post unto itself. But, sometimes it is better to wait and reflect on such magical moments. I will post my reflections later this weekend. It certainly deserves it.
Compartmentalizing the emotional angle for a moment, there are enough plotlines within the lines of play for us to analyze.
This is, by far, the biggest test for the front the seven. They need to help control a powerful running game, which features two excellent runners in Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Both players fit the Texans’ zone blocking scheme to a tee. The defensive line and linebackers need to be patient and disciplined, not over pursuing the ball carrier and making sure that they are responsible for their gap alignments.
Not only is the run game a concern, but the linebackers also need to help contain another talented tight end combination of Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham. Because the Texans are so adept at play action, inviting the second level to the line of scrimmage, the Ravens’ linebackers need to be incredibly disciplined.
Protecting the Pocket
If you have read me consistently, you know that I have been quite critical of the offensive line. They have had great struggles in the run game, with only a moderate of success in protecting quarterback Joe Flacco.
I have observed much better footwork and awareness on the part of Flacco this season. He has seemed to pick-up where he left off last year in his ability to slide in the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield. If the line can protect and give him time against a creative defensive scheme and a talented pass rush, I think the receivers will find holes in the different zone coverages, and I think the receivers can beat their men in man coverage.
But, as usual, it all starts with the line making overall progress.
Battle on 3rd Down
Both the Ravens and the Texans are in the middle of the pack when it comes to converting on 3rd down, with the Ravens having a slight edge. Thus far, the Ravens have been more content with longer sustained drives rather than being a big strike offense like last year. The Texans, while they still take shot plays off play-action, are still a running offense who likes to control the clock. The Texans controlled the ball for a staggering 38 minutes in last year’s encounter.
Most games are won or lost on third down. But because of the way both of these teams are constructed, the battle on third down is a major plotline for this game.
Outthinking Ed Reed
Reed knows Flacco. Flacco knows Reed. More importantly, the Ravens’ coaches know Reed. You have to expect that the Ravens have installed some wrinkles to the offensive gameplan in order to use Reed’s game study instincts against him. This is an opportunity for Flacco to outthink the defense in a way we have rarely seen him do, and it is opportunity for the Ravens to make some big plays down the field, possibly kick-starting the shot play on offense.
Unsung Player to Watch, aka the “Corey Graham Award (a new name is still in question)”
In lieu of a prediction of the score of the game, I will pick a Raven player each week that I think will have an impact on the game. I won’t pick an obvious player (like Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Terrell Suggs, etc.), but a player that flies a bit under the radar. Think of this as the “Corey Graham Award.” Who would have predicted that Graham would have been last year’s postseason-player-of-the-game in Denver?
Last week, Brandon Stokley and Joe Flacco started to get in synch with one another—with timing and trust becoming integral. I think this continues, and Stokley makes a few key drive sustaining receptions. In fact, he may even find the end zone.