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Nickel package: Five things to watch in Ravens at Saints

Nickel package: Five things to watch in Ravens at Saints
Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith. (Kim Klement, USA Today Sports)

As the Ravens (6-4) prepare to play the New Orleans Saints (4-6) on Monday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, here's Baltimore Sun reporter Aaron Wilson's checklist of things to watch:

1.  What's the plan against Jimmy Graham?

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The Cincinnati Bengals effectively stopped Graham a week ago, limiting the Saints' All-Pro tight end to three receptions for 29 yards.

They did so by roughing him up early in the game, albeit with an illegal hit by safety George Iloka that was celebrated by coach Marvin Lewis. Regardless of the method, the results were effective as Graham looked scared to go across the middle for the remainder of the game after the hit shook him up and gave him a sore shoulder.

The Ravens' strategy is expected to heavily involve coverage from safety Will Hill, who has experience playing against Graham from his days with the New York Giants. The Ravens are also expected to use rookie linebacker C.J. Mosley in coverage situations against Graham because of his size and athleticism.

Besides the physical approach, the Bengals didn't exactly have novel concepts in terms of defensive schemes against the Saints as they simply pressured quarterback Drew Brees and bottled up running back Mark Ingram.

"Bengals played some two-man versus Saints, quarters and man coverage," said former NFL safety Matt Bowen, who writes about the NFL for Bleacher Report. "Nothing really unique. Problem with Saints is they couldn't run the ball at all, and they could throw the ball down the field. Really limited."

The Saints also have lost standout rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks, an extremely quick slot presence, for the season because of a broken thumb that required surgery. That leaves Brees to throw to Graham and wide receivers Marques Colston and Kenny Stills.

"Losing Cooks could be big," Bowen said. "He was a deep-ball guy."

For the Ravens to contain Graham and Brees, they'll need an unpredictable approach for an overhauled secondary that lost top cornerback Jimmy Smith with a season-ending Lisfranc foot injury that required surgery.

The Ravens will go with Lardarius Webb -- who has struggled with a lower-back injury all season -- at cornerback, along with converted safety and special teams contributor Anthony Levine, who will make his second NFL start.

Hill is starting to get comfortable after returning from his six-game NFL suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. Darian Stewart has been quiet all year with no big plays at the other safety spot.

Rookie safety Terrence Brooks delivered a hit on Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie Walker that caused a concussion, and he could be on the verge of earning more playing time.

"Switch up the looks versus Graham, that's the key," Bowen said. "Don't give the coverage away to Brees."

2. Should the Ravens pound the football?

The Saints run defense looks vulnerable. They had trouble tackling Bengals rookie power back Jeremy Hill a week ago. Now, they'll attempt to slow down a different style of back, the Ravens' Justin Forsett and his elusiveness.

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In a career breakthrough season, Forsett has rushed for 721 yards to rank seventh in the NFL. He has scored five touchdowns and is on pace to finish the season with 1,153 yards.

At 5 feet 8, 197 pounds, Forsett lacks size, but he's a determined runner who has done a lot of damage late in games, with 218 yards gained and 6.6 yards per carry in the fourth quarter. Forsett is averaging 5.42 yards per run, the top average in the NFL among running backs.

With the Ravens struggling to be consistent in the passing game lately, there's a good chance that they may rely on the running game in the final six games of the regular season -- especially with Forsett being so effective behind a big offensive line.

"Anytime people say that, I love that," Forsett said. "I want to be able to run the ball. I'm excited about the opportunities, and I feel like we're going to get a lot of chances to do that."

3. Will Steve Smith break out?

Smith, the five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver, has been extremely quiet lately after getting off to a fast start this season. He has caught just 11 passes for 88 yards over the past three games and hasn't scored a touchdown since a blowout win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Oct. 12.

Smith had a season-low 17 yards on three receptions against the Titans before the bye week and has struggled to break tackles or make defenders miss after the catch lately.

Smith has traditionally dominated the Saints, though, from his days with the Carolina Panthers in the NFC South. In 23 games against the Saints, he has 99 career receptions for 1,493 yards and 10 touchdowns.

That's the most he has scored against any NFL team in his career. It's also the most touchdowns any active NFL player has scored against the Saints.

4. Blocking Cameron Jordan

Left tackle Eugene Monroe is trying to regain his old mobility and blocking form as he works his way back after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery earlier this season.

Monroe acknowledged that he'll have his hands full with his latest assignment: blocking Saints Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan, who is one of the most disruptive young players at his position in the game.

Jordan, who combines strength, quickness and a diverse repertoire of pass-rushing moves, had a career-high 12.5 sacks last season. So far this year, he has five sacks, 38 tackles and a fumble recovery. Jordan has 26.5 sacks since entering the NFL as a first-round draft pick in 2011 out of California.

Monroe has gotten into trouble this season when he fails to anchor at the line of scrimmage by kick-stepping wide enough to set his base and get a sound hand punch at the snap. He faltered against the Pittsburgh Steelers' James Harrison when he didn't react quickly enough to the outside linebacker's combination of power and quickness off the edge.

It's imperative that Monroe fare well in this key matchup to provide quarterback Joe Flacco with enough time to go through his progressions.

5. Will Justin Tucker be a big factor indoors?

Last season, Tucker secured his Pro Bowl selection when he kicked six field goals, including the game-winner with a franchise-record 61-yard conversion, to beat the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on Monday Night Football.

It was an epic performance, but it wasn't the first time that Tucker has excelled indoors.

Heading into his fourth career indoor game Monday night, Tucker has made all 10 field goals he has attempted in those games, including two in his last game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome during the Ravens' Super Bowl XLVII victory over the San Francisco 49ers.

awilson@baltsun.com

twitter.com/RavensInsider

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