On Sunday, the Texans will live and die with running back Arian Foster, who rushed for 1,224 yards this season but was held to only 49 yards on 15 carries in their Week 6 loss in Baltimore. Despite finishing the season with the second-ranked rush offense in the NFL, Houston was forced to rely on the right arm of Shaub, who threw 37 times for 220 yards and a touchdown in a losing effort.
It’s not a position in which the Texans want to find themselves again, this time with a green-eared rookie in the frying pan.
“He’s a very young player, and this is a tall task for him,” Texans head coach Gary Kubiak said, “but we’ve tried to kind of build our team a little differently here over the course of those last two months so that hopefully we could continue to be successful and find ways to win games. I think in the process, he has grown, and he’s gotten better. He’s making mistakes, but he finds a way to correct them.”
Making mistakes is exactly what the Ravens would like to force Yates to do, pressuring the quarterback in the pocket and forcing him to make throws into tight coverage. And if they do that, the rookie won’t have the opportunity to correct them, as the Texans will likely be going home and the Ravens advancing to the conference championship.
Yates will have the luxury of a healthy impact receiver in Johnson, who appears fully recovered from a hamstring injury that plagued him for a majority of the season. The 6-foot-3 receiver will present a matchup problem in the secondary if the Ravens give Yates too much time in the pocket.
Providing an AFC-leading 48 sacks in 2011, the defense will feed off the emotion of 71,000 screaming fans in Baltimore as it always does, only this time with the stakes much higher.
“Our crowd, when it’s 12:45, they lose their minds,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “We definitely know – not hope – that the energy in the stadium is going to be at its max. We’ve worked to get the home playoff game, so let’s take advantage of it.”
It will be a scene unlike anything Yates has experienced since fate put him at the helm of the Texans offense. With less experience from which to draw and possessing fewer tools, it will be a far steeper climb for the Houston rookie to navigate than it was for Flacco three years ago.
Unlike the Dolphins in 2008, the Ravens are a battle-tested, hungrier bunch that knows exactly what’s needed to survive and advance. In their minds, Houston is the next obstacle in a path to the Super Bowl in Indianapolis. Meanwhile, the Texans are playing with house money after winning their first ever playoff game at home last Saturday with their third-string quarterback enduring the pressure for one week, at least.
But the Ravens aren’t the Cincinnati Bengals, and Baltimore is as tough a place to play as any city in the league.
And for that reason, it’s hard to envision Yates and the Texans being able to stop them.