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Ravens are underdogs but should run over Texans

So what happened to the Houston Texans against the Pittsburgh Steelers? And can the Ravens -- who happen to be 4 1/2-point underdogs -- lose this game that has been moved to Monday night because of the threat from Hurricane Ike?

Those are interesting questions.

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The Texans, according to some observers, were supposed to be among the NFL's more improved teams this year. Although they were in the bottom quarter of team defense last year, that was supposed to be an improved part of the team with young stars such as Mario Williams, Amobi Okoye and DeMeco Ryans all on the ascent. And on offensive, quarterback Matt Schaub is considered to be the real deal, assuming he stays healthy.

So then how to explain Pittsburgh 38, Houston 17 last Sunday.

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More importantly, how did the Steelers' Willie Parker run free for 138 yards and three touchdowns against a defense that is supposed to have all the ingredients of size, speed and youth going for it. Schaub's statistics were deceivingly decent: 25-for-33 for 202 yards and a TD. But he threw two interceptions and failed to get the first down on a quarterback sneak near midfield on Houston's first possession. That gave Pittsburgh the momentum it never lost.

Houston's defense was so inept at stopping the run that Ben Roethlisberger threw just 14 passes and had just one incompletion. Meanwhile, in playing catch-up all day, the Texans ran for just 75 yards.

For the Ravens all this is good news and bad news.

The good news is that coming off last Sunday's 17-10 win over Cincinnati (that could have easily been 31-3), the Ravens appear similar to the Steelers in that they were effective offensively in running the ball and effective defensively in stopping the run. So if it worked for the Steelers, it should work for the Ravens, right?

Maybe, but certainly the Texans will come out with greater resolve and perhaps better defensive schemes to stop the run. That means that Baltimore rookie quarterback Joe Flacco may have to move the ball and score points, other than sprinting for 38-yard touchdowns on impromptu naked sweeps around right end.

So can the Ravens lose this game? Anyone who answers, "No," must have been in Antarctica when Baltimore played oh-and-13 Miami last year. Of course they can. As we mentioned, they're 4 ½-point underdogs in Las Vegas.

So, what gives them their best chance of winning? Mainly, doing what they did against Cincinnati.

* No. 1, protect the football. Last week, rookie QB Joe Flacco's most important contribution (other than the TD run and a decent block on a double-reverse that also went for a touchdown) may have been not throwing interceptions. As always, the Ravens, in general, and Joe Flacco, in particular, need to protect the ball. Cam Cameron's play-calling has as much to do with that as Flacco's decisions in the pocket.

* Sticking with the run, even occasionally on third-and-long (with a rare exception). Houston will see that the Ravens went 6-for-6 on third-and-shorts against the Bengals. They'll also see the Ravens first down play ratio as nearly 4-to-1 in favor of run. So, Houston will be determined to sell out on the run. At some point, the Ravens may judiciously try play-action. But the chess game of field position worked last week and the Ravens have to resolve to do it again.

* On defense, continue to stop the run first and try to shut off the passing lanes with free runners occasionally teeing off on Schaub. Now that two suspended Ravens DBs have rejoined the team, they should have some depth in the secondary.

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