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The memory of last year’s 43-13 thrashing is still on the Ravens’ minds as they welcome the Houston Texans to Baltimore for an important early-season showdown in the AFC and an opportunity to exact revenge.
The Ravens are still trying to find their identity on each side of the football while Houston feels fortunate to be 2-0 after earning victories on the final play of each game, including an overtime win over the Tennessee Titans last week.
Sunday will be an emotional day at M&T Bank Stadium as future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis will be inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor while longtime safety Ed Reed returns to Baltimore as a member of the Houston Texans after departing via free agency in the offseason.
It’s time to go on record as Baltimore and Houston meet for the seventh time in the regular-season series with the Ravens holding a 5-1 edge. These teams met in the 2011 postseason with the Ravens winning a 20-13 final as the No. 2 seed in the AFC.
Here’s what to expect as the Ravens play the Texans for the fourth straight year in the regular season …
1. Bernard Pierce will grind out 75 tough yards on the ground against a physical Texans front seven and find the end zone once. The expected absence of running back Ray Rice hurts the Ravens offense with his ability to catch passes out of the backfield not at their disposal, but Pierce’s physical running style is better suited against a physical Houston defense that surprisingly ranks 18th against the run (99.5 yards allowed per game) through two games. However, the Ravens’ ability to run the ball will be much more about their offensive line as Baltimore is averaging just 2.8 yards per carry so far this season. Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell saw the need to stick with the run in the second half against Cleveland and will use a similar approach against the Texans, but Pierce’s yards per carry average won’t be much better than last week’s 3.0 on 19 carries.
2. The Ravens defense will struggle to cover tight ends for the third straight week as Owen Daniels catches a touchdown from Matt Schaub. Houston wide receivers Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins will keep cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith busy on the outside, but Texans tight ends have caught five touchdown passes in two games this season. It’s no secret that Ravens linebackers and safeties have struggled immensely to cover the middle of the field and Broncos offensive coordinator Rick Dennison and Schaub will be aware of the deficiency. The expected absence of rookie linebacker Arthur Brown — who played in the nickel last week before suffering a pectoral strain — only hurts the Ravens’ ability in that department as Daniels finds the end zone. Backup tight end Garrett Graham is questionable with a groin injury, but he will need to be watched carefully as well if he plays.
3. With Texans left tackle Duane Brown unlikely to play and the right side of the Houston offensive line suspect, Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil will each collect a sack. Brown is listed as questionable, but all indications from Houston indicate he will not be able to play on Sunday, giving the Ravens an opportunity to put significant heat on Schaub. The Baltimore pass rush and front seven overall will compete nicely against the Texans upfront, keeping the Ravens in the game throughout the day against a unit that will try to run the football with Arian Foster and Ben Tate and move the chains with the intermediate passing game. Suggs matching up against backup left tackle Ryan Harris and Dumervil going against right tackle Derek Newton will add up to another big day for the pass-rushing duo and the third straight game in which they’ve each collected a sack.
4. Reed won’t make a significant impact, but the Houston defense will be in Joe Flacco’s face too much on Sunday. I’d be surprised if Reed didn’t play on Sunday, but a 35-year-old safety coming off his second major hip surgery in four years and acknowledging that he’s not 100 percent shouldn’t create much fear in Flacco’s mind as long as the quarterback doesn’t sleep on Reed’s cerebral presence in the secondary. However, the Ravens need their offensive line to begin playing like it did in last year’s postseason with the shortage of offensive weapons at Flacco’s disposal. Left tackle Bryant McKinnie and left guard Kelechi Osemele both struggled in Week 2, and the challenge is only greater for the line this week against the likes of left defensive end and 2012 Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt — who will also move around on the defensive line — as well as other pass rushers all over the place in Wade Phillips’ defense. The Texans were just too fast for Flacco and the Ravens offense in last year’s blowout and the offensive line will have a major challenge once again on Sunday. Pressure upfront will only help a Houston pass defense that’s thrived early this season against underwhelming offenses.
5. With Rice and Jacoby Jones sidelined, the Ravens will simply lack enough offensive firepower to overcome a balanced Texans team in a 21-16 loss. As difficult as it is to bet against the Ravens in Baltimore, nothing about their offense through two weeks suggests they’re ready to beat one of the big boys in the conference and the absence of Rice and Jones significantly hurts their speed on offense. A strength last season, the vertical passing game has been nonexistent with Torrey Smith facing bracketed coverage, and rookie Marlon Brown won’t find life as easy against the cornerback duo of Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson. The defense is certainly good enough to make some stops and limit the Texans’ scoring opportunities to keep the Ravens in the game, but the offense just won’t produce enough big plays with Flacco facing pressure and unable to rely on enough targets in the passing game.