DID YOU KNOW… …Baltimore went 0-8 on the road during the 2005 regular season?
SCOUTING THE RAVENS
Quarterbacks Baltimore hasn't had consistent play at the quarterback position for years, but the Ravens are hoping that changes when former Tennessee Titans signal caller Steve McNair lines up under center for them on Sunday. His best years are behind him, but McNair, 33, is coming off an impressive preseason (completed over 70 percent of his passes) and has fared well in three career games vs. Tampa Bay, completing 24-of-39 passes for 353 yards and tossing one touchdown and one interception. The Bucs defense can't afford to let McNair get comfortable in the pocket or make plays with his feet.
Running Backs Despite the fact that they added McNair to their offense, the Ravens still will attempt to pound away at the Bucs' undersized defensive front seven by giving the ball to 5-foot-11, 245-pound running back Jamal Lewis. He's coming off of a sub-par season where he rushed for just 906 yards (3.4 avg.) and three touchdowns, but Lewis, who rushed for 2,066 yards in 2003, still remains a serious threat to break things open in the running game. The Ravens will work former Denver back Mike Anderson into the rotation, but the powerful and speedy Lewis will be the player the Bucs must contain Sunday.
Wide Receivers Baltimore feels it can better utilize its receivers now that they have a reliable veteran quarterback in McNair. Even more dangerous for the Buccaneers defense is the fact that McNair is reunited with his former Titans teammate, wide receiver Derrick Mason, who joined Baltimore last year. Mason had a strong debut as a Raven, catching a team-high 86 passes for 1,073 yards (12.5 avg.) and three touchdowns in 2005. Mason could have a tough time getting himself open when he lines up against Bucs Pro Bowl cornerback Ronde Barber, who recorded a team-high five interceptions in '05. McNair likes to spread the ball around, especially to his tight end. The Ravens have one of the league's best at that position in Todd Heap, who hauled in 75 passes for 855 yards and seven touchdowns last season. With Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin likely to give Barber and the team's linebackers some help in coverage vs. Mason and Heap, Bucs CB Brian Kelly will have to hold his own in some one-on-one matchups with Ravens second-year WR Mark Clayton, who caught 44 passes for 471 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie.
Offensive Line Baltimore's offensive line has some weaknesses that Tampa Bay's defensive line, which features three former first-round draft picks, must exploit on Sunday. Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice, who led the team in sacks (14) last year, will have a hard time getting around Ravens left tackle Jonathan Ogden, who has went to nine straight Pro Bowls. The rest of Baltimore's O-line, which features left guard Edwin Muutalo, center Mike Flynn, right guard Keydrick Vincent and right tackle Tony Pashos, doesn't match up well vs. Tampa Bay's D-line. Bucs defensive tackles Chris Hovan and Anthony McFarland should be able to use their speed to dominate inside the trenches, and they'll need to get off the ball quickly on passing downs. Last year, the Ravens surrendered 42 sacks. Because of the threat Mason and Heap pose in the passing game, the Bucs must rely on their front seven to contain Lewis and pressure McNair.
Defensive Line Baltimore lost two key defensive linemen (Tony Weaver and Maae Kemoeatu) this offseason, but made a big splash in free agency by signing former Denver defensive end Trevor Pryce, who notched 60 career sacks with the Broncos. It added more talent to its defensive line by spending a first-round pick on DT Haloti Noata, who will start at nose tackle on opening day. Tampa Bay's offensive line faces a real challenge in this contest, but tackles Anthony Davis and Kenyatta Walker have the most to worry about. Davis will be charged with the difficult task of holding off speedy DE Terrell Suggs, who recorded eight sacks and two interceptions in 2005. Walker, who missed a significant amount of playing time in training camp and preseason due to a knee injury, will have to fight off Pryce, who is better against the pass than he is the run. The Bucs can't afford to have quarterback Chris Simms drop back to pass too often because of the pass-rushing ability of Pryce and Suggs. That said, Tampa Bay's offensive line, which likely will be aided by plenty of two-tight end sets, must help open up holes for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Cadillac Williams.
Linebackers The Ravens have a talented group of linebackers that features one of the league's best – middle linebacker Ray Lewis. Lewis has struggled with injuries in recent years, but he shows up for Tampa Bay games, evidenced by the 33 tackles he's notched in two career games vs. the Bucs. Ravens strongside linebacker Adalius Thomas is an athletic and versatile defender. He led the Baltimore defense with nine sacks and four forced fumbles while lining up at linebacker and defensive end last year. Tampa Bay would be wise to attack weakside linebacker Bart Scott in the running game since he is the weakest link of this group. The good news for the Bucs is a good chunk of their running yards came off the weakside behind Davis and left guard Dan Buenning, who is battling an ankle injury, last year.
Secondary If Simms throws more than 30 passes in this game the Bucs offense could be in trouble. Simms will have to get the ball out of his hand in a hurry, but he also has to be careful with the football. Ravens cornerbacks Chris McAllister and Samari Rolle are solid in coverage. They only combined for two interceptions in 2005, but they also combined for 25 passes defensed. Free safety Ed Reed is a serious threat in the running and passing game, but the Bucs might be able to exploit a potential weakness in the Ravens secondary by attacking strong safety Dawan Landry. Simms likely will look for Joey Galloway and Michael Clayton, who will be covered by Rolle and McAllister, respectively. But Simms' best bet of moving the chains via the passing game might be hitting tight end Alex Smith in the short-to-intermediate part of the football field, and even down the seam, where he could find himself in some favorable one-on-one matchups with Landry, a fifth-round rookie safety out of Georgia Tech.
Special Teams In a game that likely will be dominated by the defenses, special teams play could be the determining factor in this contest. Ravens kicker Matt Stover is one of the league's best. He made 30-of-34 (88.2 percent) field goals last year. The 17th-year veteran is almost perfect when kicking inside the 40-yard line. Sixth-round pick Sam Koch will handle punts for the Ravens. Tampa Bay punt returner Mark Jones and kickoff returner Michael Pittman must help the Bucs offense establish favorable field position. Bucs kicker Matt Bryant drilled 21-of-25 field goals last year and finished the 2006 preseason strong. Punter Josh Bidwell will play a integral role in this game. He averaged 45.6 yards per punt return and pinned 24 of his 90 attempts inside the 20-yard line last year. Baltimore will have B.J. Sams returning punts and kickoffs on Sunday. Sams averaged 22.7 yards per kickoff return and an impressive 12.2 yards per punt return in 2005. However, Sams' hands are at times unreliable, and if he puts the ball on the ground the Bucs must capitalize on the turnover opportunity.
FLYNN'S FORECAST: Buccaneers 13 Ravens 10
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