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The Baltimore Sun

Ravens tight ends Todd Heap and Daniel Wilcox vs. Raiders linebackers Kirk Morrison, Sam Williams and Thomas Howard

George Kokinis, the Ravens' pro personnel director, sizes up a critical matchup against the Raiders:

The players

In his sixth season, Heap is one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the NFL, making a career-high 75 receptions last year. Wilcox, who joined the Ravens in 2003 as a free agent, signed a three-year contract extension this offseason. He's a versatile performer, recording 45 catches and 26 special teams tackles over the past two seasons.

Morrison, the Raiders' new middle linebacker, led the team in tackles as a rookie while playing on the outside. Williams is a full-time starter for the first time in his career after missing all of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Howard, a rookie second-round pick from Texas-El Paso, is just as untested as Williams.

What to watch

All three of Oakland's linebackers are talented and can run. For the Ravens to establish their off-tackle running game, they need to neutralize the linebackers because of their ability to get to the football. The Ravens have to be able to cut down the linebackers' pursuit.

Morrison is smart and instinctive. He anticipates well and looks like a player who understands the game at a young age. Howard, who showed a lot of speed at the NFL combine, is a rookie who can really fly to the ball. He might lack experience but can make plays because of his recovery speed. Williams has good size and can run for a long, tall guy. He has good arm extension to get off blocks. Heap and Wilcox both understand the importance of being able to block. Coming off a [healthy] offseason, Heap got into the best shape of his career. Improving his blocking is something he focused on in the offseason, and he has made tremendous strides in that area.

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