RAVENS RUN OFFENSE VS. TEXANS RUN DEFENSE: Fullback Vonta Leach, who spent four seasons with the Texans, has undoubtedly given his Ravens’ teammates and coaches plenty of advice on how to run the ball against Houston. The Texans’ rush defense is surrendering 105.8 yards a game, which puts it 12th in the NFL. Houston did slow the Oakland Raiders’ Darren McFadden last week, holding him to 51 yards on 16 carries. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said that that team talked extensively this week about its identity, and maintaining an aggressive approach. Expect that to include a heavy dose of Ray Rice, who rushed for only 54 yards against the Texans last season but did catch eight passes for 66 yards. The Ravens are ninth in the league in rushing, averaging 123.8 yards per game. They got their ground game going late in the victory over the New York Jets, running on 11 straight plays at one point. The Ravens could get a boost if left guard Ben Grubbs returns after missing three weeks with a toe injury. Linebackers Brian Cushing and DeMeco Ryans are the Texans’ top tacklers.
RAVENS PASS OFFENSE VS. TEXANS PASS DEFENSE: The Texans’ pass defense that Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had his way with last season, throwing for 235 yards and two touchdowns, has been upgraded considerably . After allowing a league-high 4,280 passing yards last season, the Texans signed cornerback Johnathan Joseph and safety Danieal Manning. The two, along with cornerback Jason Allen, have solidified a pass defense which is currently ranked sixth in the NFL. Allen and Joseph each have two interceptions while the Texans pass rush has taken some pressure off the secondary. The Texans’ retooled 3-4 defense has 15 sacks, though five of them are by Mario Williams, who is out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Flacco enters the game having misfired on 21 of his 31 pass attempts against the Jets. The Ravens’ pass offense is ranked 18th in the NFL, and Flacco is second to last in the league with a 49.3 completion percentage. Anquan Boldin was held to one catch last week, but he’s performed well against Houston, catching 18 balls for 256 yards and a touchdown in three games.
TEXANS RUN OFFENSE VS RAVENS RUN DEFENSE: Texans running back Arian Foster is one of the most dynamic offensive players in the league and the reigning NFL rushing champ after totaling 1,616 yards on the ground last year to go along with 604 yards receiving. His primary backup, Ben Tate, rushed for over 100 yards in Weeks One and Two with Foster sidelined with a hamstring injury. Despite rushing for just 70 yards against the Raiders, the Texans are still fifth in the NFL, averaging 132.8 yards per game on the ground. But the Ravens’ run defense has allowed very little, giving up just 72.5 yards per game. That’s the second-lowest total in the league. The Ravens held the Jets to just 38 rushing yards in their last game, while also shutting down the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Rashard Mendenhall and the Tennessee Titans’ Chris Johnson earlier this year. The Ravens have allowed just eight 100-yard rushers in their last 88 games and the last running back to do it was Foster last December. Houston may be without their starting fullback James Casey.
TEXANS PASS OFFENSE VS. RAVENS PASS DEFENSE: The Ravens vividly remember how Texans quarterback Matt Schaub tore them apart last season, throwing for 393 yards and three touchdowns. Schaub’s top target, Andre Johnson, is expected to miss the game with a hamstring injury. Johnson caught nine balls for 140 yards and two touchdowns against the Ravens last season. Still, Schaub has plenty of other weapons as he proved against the Raiders, when he threw for 416 yards without Johnson on the field. The Texans love to run play-action, and Schaub will look to big and athletic tight end Owen Daniels (21 catches, three TDs), sure-handed receiver Kevin Walter (two TDs) and Foster out of the backfield. The Ravens’ pass defense is allowing 212 yards per game, the eighth lowest total in the NFL. Cornerbacks Cary Williams and Lardarius Webb have played well, but it is the Ravens pass rush, led by Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata, that has given opposing quarterbacks the most trouble. In the last five quarters, the Ravens’ defense has four touchdowns, one on an interception return and three on fumble returns.
SPECIAL TEAMS: One concern for the Ravens has been kickoff coverage as they’ve allowed an average of 41.3 yards per return, a number inflated by Joe McKnight’s 107-yard return two weeks ago. The Texans’ kickoff return man, Manning, is fourth in the AFC, averaging 27.5 yards per return. Houston’s Jacoby Jones is also fourth in the AFC in punt returns, averaging 12.1 yards per return, and returning one 79 yards for a touchdown. No AFC player has more punt return yards since 2007 than Jones. The Ravens are hoping that the potential return of David Reed will boost their return game. Reed, who missed the last two weeks with a shoulder injury, had a 103-yard touchdown return versus Houston last year. Both kickers are solid (Houston’s Neil Rackers is 12-for-13 while the Ravens’ Billy Cundiff is 9-of-11). On paper, the Ravens have the punting advantage with Sam Koch averaging 45.3 per punt, and Texans rookie Brett Hartmann averaging 42.7.
INTANGIBLES: The Ravens have beaten the Texans in all four meetings and only one of them has occurred in Baltimore, where the team enjoys one of the best home-field advantages in football. The Ravens have won 12 of their last 13 games at M&T Bank Stadium and are 21-5 there under coach John Harbaugh. The Ravens have also proven tough following their bye week, having won eight of their past nine in such situations, including a 3-0 record under Harbaugh. The Texans, meanwhile, are coming off a 25-20 home loss to the Raiders in a game that ended on a Schaub interception in the end zone. Houston has lost seven of its last eight road games dating back to last season. They’ve been hurt by injuries on both sides of the ball as 18 different players were cited on Wednesday’s injury report. The Texans’ offense is ranked third in the AFC in yards per game, and new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has helped improve a much-maligned defense, but both units are without key members Sunday.
PREDICTION: As they showed last year, the Texans have the talent on both sides of the ball to match up well with the Ravens. However, it’s impossible to dispute that that the Ravens are catching Houston at a good time. Not only will the Texans be without Williams and Johnson — two of their best players — but the Ravens benefited from a bye week and are expected to get several of their key performers back. In yet another game that could preview a playoff meeting, the Ravens’ defense will continue to force turnovers and control the opponent’s biggest weapons, and the Rice-led offense will put together a couple of long scoring drives. It has the potential to be a closer game than the Ravens’ three previous victories, but the fresher and healthier team, along with the more proven one in certain areas, should prevail.
RAVENS, 26-16Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times