After two unconvincing performances, the Baltimore Ravens need to beat the Houston Texans to prove their mettle as defending Super Bowl champions. That’s no easy feat, as the Texans are one of the AFC’s most complete teams and have an abundance of talented playmakers.
Houston has yet to lose, but they have needed to mount comebacks in both of their games against lesser teams: the San Diego Chargers and the Tennessee Titans. As a result, both teams have improvements to make and are looking for a convincing win.
Here are the keys to the Ravens’ game plan on offense and defense for Week 3.
Establish the Run
Regardless of whether or not Ray Rice plays on Sunday, Baltimore must stick with the run early. The Texans have a solid run defense, so it may result in a couple of three-and-outs, but the Ravens need to trust their personnel.
The running backs are the strength of the offense, and Bernard Pierce is capable of carrying the load if Rice is inactive. In addition, the defense is coming off a tremendous performance against the Cleveland Browns and will be able to prevent the game from getting out of hand in the first half.
The last time these two teams faced off, Baltimore’s game plan was to come out throwing. The result was a 43-13 blowout defeat where Joe Flacco attempted 43 passes, threw two interceptions and was sacked four times (once for a safety).
Houston was the more physical team by far on that day, and they bullied the Ravens en route to a dominating victory. That can’t happen again, and the game plan has to emphasize the run early.
One of the reasons for the Texans' dominance in Week 7 of 2012 was the outstanding play of their pass rush. That unit is still excellent and led by J.J. Watt, who had two sacks and four QB hits last week.
Last week, the Tennessee Titans guards struggled against the Texans front as Watt and Antonio Smith ran wild. Chance Warmack gave up two sacks and three hurries, and Andy Levitre allowed a sack and five hurries.
The play of Kelechi Osemele will be a huge factor in protecting Joe Flacco, since Marshal Yanda is consistently one of the best players at his position.
Use the No-huddle
You can bet that offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell paid attention to the success that the Titans had when they ran a no-huddle offense against Houston in Week 2. Flacco has long been a proponent of the hurry-up offense and was ecstatic when the Ravens started to incorporate it last year, according to ProFootballTalk.
For Baltimore to effectively use the no-huddle in Week 3, they need to make plays on third down and stay on the field. If they can do that, they will challenge the Texans’ conditioning and discipline.
Test the Cornerbacks
The Houston cornerbacks have been a weakness so far. Kareem Jackson and Brice McCain have both been picked on in the first two weeks of the year, so Joe Flacco should have no reservations about testing them in coverage.
They have been at least partially responsible for five of the six passing touchdowns the Texans have allowed, either through poor coverage or by missing tackles.
Johnathan Joseph will probably draw the assignment of covering Torrey Smith, but Marlon Brown and Brandon Stokley will be matched up with the aforementioned Houston corners. Both receivers could be in for good games if Jackson and McCain continue their current form.
Stop the Run
The Houston Texans are a run-heavy team. Matt Schaub is a very capable quarterback and Andre Johnson is an elite receiver, but they are first and foremost a running team.
They were fourth in the league in rushing attempts last year and led the league in 2011. They will continue to pound the football with their talented tandem of Arian Foster and Ben Tate, and the Ravens need to maintain their strong play against the run.
Baltimore will need to do so without overcommitting, since Schaub uses the play-action fake so well.
Discipline Against the Play Action
According to ProFootballFocus, more than a quarter of Schaub’s pass attempts in 2012 came after play-action fakes (subscription required). He threw 10 touchdowns and had a passer rating of 108.1 on these plays, and he’ll be looking to take advantage of the Ravens’ rookie strong safety Matt Elam.
With big-play receivers like Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins on the outside and Owen Daniels working the middle, both safeties will need to be extremely disciplined against the play action to avoid getting burned.
Below is an example of a play-action fake the Texans used against the San Diego Chargers. The entire offensive line blocks left as if they were blocking for Foster, but Daniels runs a crossing route to the right (purple).
The threat of Foster's rushing abilities is so great that the defense bites on the fake, and all of the linebackers shade over to the left in an attempt to get to Foster (red).
When Schaub keeps the ball, Daniels is completely open in the middle of the field, with no defender within 20 feet of him.
Rush Matt Schaub
In Week 2, Matt Schaub had an outstanding passer rating of 136.3 when he had a clean pocket to throw from. When he was hurried, ProFootballFocus calculated that his passer rating was a not-so-stellar 11.1.
ProFootballTalk reports that starting left tackle Duane Brown is not practicing and is questionable for the game with turf toe. His absence would give the Ravens pass-rushers (specifically Terrell Suggs) an excellent opportunity to put pressure on Schaub.
Even if Brown plays, he was abused by Dwight Freeney in Week 1 and gave up a sack, two hits and five hurries to the San Diego Chargers.
The Ravens pass rush has been great so far, tied for second in the league with eight sacks through two games. There are vulnerabilities on the Texans offensive line to exploit, and Baltimore's pass-rushers should have the chance to get after Schaub.
Beware of Owen Daniels in the Red Zone
In both games so far, the Ravens have had issues with opposing tight ends. The Denver Broncos Julius Thomas exploded onto the fantasy football scene with a monster performance in Week 1, and then Jordan Cameron was the best weapon that the Cleveland Browns had in Week 2 against the defense that kept them out of the end zone.
Things don’t get any easier as Daniels comes to M&T Bank Stadium. Daniels is an established receiving threat and one of the primary beneficiaries of Houston’s excellent play-action game. On this play, the play-action fake on the goal line results in Daniels being left wide open in the end zone for the easy touchdown pass.
He is one of Schaub’s go-to targets in the red zone and already has three touchdowns this season, so accounting for him in the red zone will be crucial.
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