- Gary Horton, Scouts Inc.
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After watching a lot of film on both the Ravens and Broncos and talking to coaches and scouts, here are some key things to watch in their Monday night game (ESPN 8:30 p.m. ET).
• Although the Ravens are certainly not hitting on all cylinders offensively, you have to be impressed with the poise and leadership of QB Steve McNair, especially late in games. He has orchestrated game-winning drives the last two weeks and you can just sense the confidence his teammates have in him.
He is cool under pressure, can still take a big hit and still has the feet and quickness to either buy extra time for his receivers or tuck the ball and run. With his defense, McNair does not have to put up a lot of points.
• This could be a decent game for the Ravens' running game. Denver's defensive linemen are active, but not very big and less effective when you run right at them. The Denver LBs (D.J. Williams, Al Wilson and Ian Gold) have excellent speed and range, and they are very effective against run games that like to go wide. The Ravens need to establish a North/South ground game.
• If Baltimore is able to lure the aggressive Denver safeties (Nick Ferguson and John Lynch) into the box, it will open up excellent play action opportunities over the middle -- especially for TE Todd Heap.
• The Ravens' offensive line has struggled the last couple of games and is getting beaten physically upfront. The unit is not getting much of a push or creating holes, and now it has lost LOG Edwin Mulitalo for the season with a triceps injury. Denver's defensive line is not overly physical, but the linebackers are fast and fill quickly.
• Speaking of the Ravens' run game, Jamal Lewis really looks sluggish and lacks any kind of burst. He can still run inside with some power at times, but he doesn't seem to be able to create seams. He also cannot bounce it outside, and if he gets on the second level he can't run away from defenders.
Playing behind an offensive line that is not opening holes for him has rendered Lewis almost a non-factor. With the speed and open-field tackling ability of the Denver LBs, it's going to be tough for Lewis to get anything going, but the Ravens must attack this defense between the tackles and at least try to control the line of scrimmage.
• When you study the Ravens' defense on film, you realize how physical it is. The Ravens love to isolate blockers in one-on-one matchups, then simply try to out-physical those blockers with their downhill attack schemes. It is also an unselfish defense and the big plays (17 sacks in four games) come from everybody.
Last week versus San Diego, MLB Ray Lewis did a great job of stepping up and attacking the back assigned to pick up the blitz, which freed up his other LBs to come on the blitz. On a lot of plays, you will see a defender occupy a blocker to let his teammate come free.
• Although we no longer think of McNair as a scrambler, he still has good movement skills in the pocket. He has a knack for moving around the pocket and feeling the rush and he has excellent footwork. A lot of his successful passing plays are a direct result of this movement, which gives his receivers another second or two to get open. Denver needs to collapse the pocket from the inside to make him more uncomfortable throwing outside the pocket.
• Penetration is a buzzword in this matchup. Baltimore's defensive linemen and LBs are big and physical, and they do a great job of attacking the line of scrimmage, taking on blockers and shooting gaps. Denver has an athletic, but small offensive line and its ability to hold up inside will be critical to the success of its running game. If Baltimore disrupts the inside run game, it makes it tougher for Jake Plummer to establish bootlegs and play action opportunities.
• WR Derrick Mason will likely have his hands full with Denver CB Champ Bailey, but there are a couple of other interesting matchups to watch. CB Chris McAlister vs. Denver WR Javon Walker and S Ed Reed vs. Denver QB Jake Plummer. In a close game, one or two big turnovers could be the difference and they may come from these matchups.
• Opposing offenses are almost refusing to attack CB Bailey in the passing game. He is so good that QBs are attacking his counterpart, Darrent Williams. The Broncos could counter by moving Bailey around to match up on the opposition's best WR, but that's not their style. They like to keep him on the left side and it is leading to a lot of quiet days for Bailey. Although it could be an attractive matchup, don't look for Bailey to match up versus Steve McNair's favorite target -- WR Derrick Mason.
• Jake Plummer needs to play a mistake free game against the league's most aggressive defense. With an attacking defensive front seven, the Ravens' DBs love to jump routes and take chances, which has led to a league-high eight interceptions. Plummer must be smart with his eyes and not lead the Ravens' DBs to the ball by locking in on one receiver. The Ravens can lock up its corners man-to-man with the Denver WRs, allowing them to blitz freely and forcing Plummer into mistakes.
• The Broncos' pass rush is very suspect, as Denver only has four sacks on the season, 31st in the league. However, the Broncos are resisting the urge to blitz more and take chances to create more pressure. Instead, they have actually simplified their defensive package with less blitzes and mostly four-man rushes.
As a result, this has become a bend, but don't break defense that doesn't give up a lot of big plays, and its identity is tied to an athletic trio of LBs (Williams, Gold and Wilson) and a shutdown corner (Bailey). The Broncos will try to get to McNair with a four-man rush and force him to make tight throws into small passing windows with defenders in coverage.
• Denver has the best red zone defense in the NFL, but it is followed closely by Baltimore, who is ranked second. The Broncos have only allowed one TD in nine offensive trips, and the Ravens have only allowed one TD in seven trips. Both of these defenses can play tight man-to-man schemes as the field shrinks, and it will be tough for either one of these offenses to convert TDs rather than FGs, when they get close.
• A big problem area for the Broncos is the state of their kicking game. Their return game is non-existent in both punt returns and kickoff returns, their punting game has been mediocre and their coverage teams have been inconsistent. The only constant in this area is PK Jason Elam, who is 5 for 6 on FGs and continues to be Mr. Reliable. This group gives up too much field position, and special teams could eventually cost them a game. They are playing a Ravens' team that is solid in the kicking game and doesn't give up a lot of big plays.
• It wouldn't be a shock if Plummer saw a 4-4-3 alignment from the Ravens, who showed that scheme last week versus San Diego. With eight defenders in the box, they can concentrate on stopping the run, but also having enough defenders to contain Plummer on the perimeter. If he sees this look, he will have good one-on-one matchups on the perimeter, but he can withstand the blitz and make enough accurate throws versus good man to man cover corners. Baltimore may decide to dare Plummer to beat them through the air.
• Will the Broncos take a page out of the San Diego playbook, and run some no-huddle schemes versus this aggressive Ravens' defense like the Chargers did last week? It would be a little out of character for Denver, but the no-huddle would force this attack defense to play more vanilla, and it limits its ability to pressure and change defensive packages.
• Defensive tackles Gerard Warren and Michael Myers, MLB Al Wilson, and safeties Nick Ferguson and John Lynch are all playing very well right now and all are excellent run defenders. Getting good production between the tackles in the run game will be tough for Baltimore, but they must stay committed to the run. Even though Jamal Lewis is not off to a great start, the 15 carries he had last week versus San Diego is not enough. They need to attempt to wear out this Broncos' defense.
Gary Horton, a pro scout for Scouts Inc., has been a football talent evaluator for more than 30 years. He spent 10 years in the NFL and 10 years at the college level before launching a private scouting firm called "The War Room."
After watching a lot of film on both the Ravens and Broncos, Gary Horton picks out some key points to watch in Monday night's game.