The Texans advanced to the Divisional round of the NFL playoffs for the fifth time in the history of the franchise. The Texans 45-14 win over the Browns in Super Wild Card Weekend propelled them into the top eight of the NFL and, for the second time in five games, the Texans will travel to M&T Bank Stadium to tangle with the Baltimore Ravens.
Oh, M&T and the Ravens, the Texans' white whale. The Texans have made seven trips to play the Ravens in the history of the franchise. Those trips resulted in seven losses to the Ravens. Furthermore, over the last four trips, the Texans have lost by an average of 19.5 points per game, including in 2019 when the Texans took their last playoff team to M&T and got hammered 41-7. That was an afternoon I'd LOVE to forget, in addition to the other two I witnessed in person in 2017 and 2023.
This is a different Texans squad, however, than ANY of the other Texans' squads that have taken the field in Baltimore. It's closer in mindset, chemistry and belief to the 2011 team, with a wunderkind leading them in C.J. Stroud. In his first playoff game, Stroud had nearly a perfect rating and threw three touchdown passes in the first half against the Browns. The problem, though, is that this Ravens team is clearly the best team in the league at the moment, with soon-to-be MVP Lamar Jackson and a nasty top five defense, playing at home throughout the playoffs.
So, yet again, head coach DeMeco Ryans will lead the Texans into the proverbial lions' den and his squad MUST bust the 800 lb monster right in the mouth. If not, it's going to be as long a day as the other seven trips to Baltimore have been. Now, I don't know about you, but I'm all for times to be a changin' on Saturday afternoon at M&T.
With all of that in mind, let's get to know the Texans' opponent (again) for this all-too-important divisional round game - the AFC's #1 seed - the Baltimore Ravens
2023 Schedule (13-4)
Week 1 - W Houston Texans 25-9
Week 2 - W @ Cincinnati Bengals 27-24
Week 3 - L Indianapolis Colts 22-19
Week 4 - W @ Cleveland Browns 28-3
Week 5 - L @ Pittsburgh Steelers 17-10
Week 6 - W @ Tennessee Titans 24-16
Week 7 - W Detroit Lions 38-6
Week 8 - W @ Arizona Cardinals 31-24
Week 9 - W Seattle Seahawks 37-3
Week 10 - L Cleveland Browns 33-31
Week 11 - W Cincinnati Bengals 34-20
Week 12 - W @ Los Angeles Chargers 20-10
Week 13 - BYE
Week 14 - W Los Angeles Rams 37-31
Week 15 - W @ Jacksonville Jaguars 23-7
Week 16 - W @ San Francisco 49ers 33-19
Week 17 - W Miami Dolphins 56-19
Week 18 - L Pittsburgh Steelers 17-10
Divisional Round - Houston Texans
Ravens OFFENSE in 2023
Rushing Yards Per game - 156.5 ypg (1st in the NFL in 2023)
Passing Yards Per game - 213.8 ypg (21st)
Total offense per game - 370.4 ypg (6th)
Turnovers lost - 19 (12 Fumbles lost,7 INT)
Expected Ravens starting offense for the Divisional Round
QB - Lamar Jackson
RB - Gus Edwards
WR - ZAY FLOWERS
WR - ODELL BECKHAM JR.
WR - Rashod Bateman
TE - Mark Andrews (designated for return last week) and/or Isaiah Likely
LT - Ronnie Stanley
LG - John Simpson
C - Tyler Linderbaum
RG - Kevin Zeitler (injured since Week 17) or Ben Cleveland
RT - Morgan Moses
*FB - Patrick Ricard
Key Offensive Non-Starters
RB - Justice Hill
TE - Isaiah Likely
TE - Charlie Kolar
WR - Devin Duvernay (designated for return last week)
WR - NELSON AGHOLOR
WR/PR - Tylan Wallace
OL - Patrick Mekari
Italics - Rookie
ALL CAPS - New to team in 2023
Keys to winning v. the Ravens Offense
- Eight Ball - In the game of pool, the focal point of the entire game is the eight ball. There is a danger in its presence on the pool table on every shot until it's time to sink it to win it. Perhaps it's not all that surprising then that Ravens QB Lamar Jackson wears number eight. Every snap he takes, it's that much closer to danger for an opposing defense. In week one when the Texans faced Jackson in his first action since an injury mid-way through the 2022 season, it was clear that Jackson was just scratching the surface in the new Todd Monken-led offense. I remembered leaving Baltimore that day thinking that the Ravens were going to be a problem, a big one, as Lamar got more comfortable in that scheme. The last time that we saw Jackson on the field was on New Year's Eve when he, and his offense, TORCHED the Miami Dolphins 56-19. Vertical shots. Accurate deep over routes. Lamar was dialed in all day long. THAT was the offense, and that was the QB, that I knew we wouldn't see in week one, but thought teams would see late in the season. Jackson provides so many avenues to break a defense's heart and now he's got the right guy pulling the strings for this offense in Monken. I was hoping the marriage would go sour, but it's been a great one for both Jackson and Monken. So, how do you attack it? Play your game. Rush intelligently. Be physical when he runs. Stay consistent in coverage and no blown assignments in coverage.
Then, tackle as if your life depends on it, most importantly on Jackson.
- ZAY, all day!- Having studied former Boston College WR Zay Flowers a ton for the 2023 NFL Draft, I was hoping that in week one of the NFL season, he wouldn't be much of a factor. You know, the burning in phase, just working himself into the offense, all that noise. But, in week one against Houston, Flowers destroyed the Texans with his start/stop change of direction abilities and flat out speed in space. And, he's gotten better and better throughout the season. There's not a great answer for Flowers other than to eliminate the run after catch situations to the best of the defense's ability. He did get behind the Dolphins secondary for big plays in the week 17 win to clinch the AFC's #1 seed but the Texans can send help over the top to take that away. It's going to be imperative for the Texans linebackers and safeties to not make it easy to cross the field on over and shallow routes and then rally, in a hurry, to the ball when #4 gets his hands on it.
- Expose ANY weakness and finish - Ravens' offensive weaknesses are few and far between, honestly. It's evolved as a unit that can adapt to whatever defenses throw at it. But, one area that was exploited a bit in week one, and not been appreciably better throughout the season, was Lamar Jackson's pass protection. The Texans had some success in week one with its pass rush. Will Anderson Jr. and Jonathan Greenard both had sacks in the opener and generally put a ton of pressure on Jackson in the pocket (WAJ set a rookie record with six pressures in said opener). Furthermore, the Ravens were middle of the pack in the NFL yielding 41 sacks during the regular season. The Texans pass rush had some struggles when Will and JG were off the field for a couple of weeks in December, but with them both on it AND with Derek Barnett and Myjai Sanders, it was relentless in its pressure of Browns QB Joe Flacco. Now, the Ravens tackles are a much better duo than what Cleveland put on the field. But, if there's anything close to a weakness, it might be the pass pressure the OL allows and the Texans pass rush must expose it and then FINISH with sacks of Lamar Jackson.
Ravens DEFENSE in 2023
Rushing Yards Allowed Per game - 109.4 ypg (14th in the NFL)
Passing Yards Allowed Per game - 191.9 ypg (6th)
Total offense Allowed per game - 301.3 ypg (6th)
Turnovers generated - 31 (18 INT, 13 Fumble recoveries - Ravens are +12 in TO margin in 2023)
Expected Ravens starting defense for the Divisional Round
DE - JADEVEON CLOWNEY
NT - Michael Pierce
DT - Justin Madubuike
OLB - Odafe Oweh
ILB - Roquan Smith
ILB - Patrick Queen
OLB - KYLE VAN NOY or LB - Malik Harrison
CB - Marlon Humphrey
S - Geno Stone
S - Marcus Williams
CB - Brandon Stephens
S/Nickel - Kyle Hamilton
Key Defensive Non-Starters
Nickel - ARTHUR MAULET
CB - Ronald Darby
CB - ROCK YA-SIN
NT - Travis Jones
DE - Broderick Washington
LB - TRENTON SIMPSON
OLB - TAVIUS ROBINSON
Italics - Rookie
ALL CAPS - New to team in 2023
Keys to winning v. the Ravens Defense
- Can you find Roquan, part two?- Okay, so we meet again, for the third time in just over 16 months and it's not been a fun meeting the first two times. Playing middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears in September 2022, Ravens LB Roquan Smith single-handedly destroyed the Texans offense - 16 tackles, 2.0 TFL and a game-ending pick in the fourth quarter. After being traded to Baltimore in mid-2022, Smith was locked and loaded for the Texans in week one of the 2023 season - 16 tackles, 1.0 sack, 2.0 TFL and one QB hit. I mean, WHAT? The Texans just couldn't get a hat on him at all in week one and what worries me even more is that the Texans struggled to get a hat on Browns LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah last week in the Super Wild Card Weekend win over the Browns. What they DID do was use JOK's aggressiveness against him at times and gashed the Browns in the run game as a result. Smith is that much better because he can temper his aggressiveness to stay consistent in his run fits and his pass coverage responsibilities. The run game becomes that much more effective if, IF, the Texans can block #0 THIS time, as opposed to the two previous matchups.
- It's NOT ALEXANDER HAMILTON! it's Kyle and that's scarier - Heading into the 2022 NFL Draft, I was uber-confident that Ravens S Kyle Hamilton was the best player in that class and number one in the Harris 100. It was not a QB-heavy class but that didn't matter to me as Hamilton struck me as a 10-12 year future All-Pro. His 40-time at the Combine had people scoffing at my declaration, but after two years in Baltimore, Hamilton has proven those detractors wrong and has been EVEN better than I thought he would be. He's already a 1st Team All-Pro in his second season and has become the focal point for a defense loaded with front seven talent. The Ravens use him just as I hoped his future NFL team would - move him around the formation, tap into his explosive, varied skill set and let Hamilton ball. The Texans offense must account for him in different ways throughout the game. If he's near the box, they might have to treat him as a LB so he doesn't run through unaccounted for in the blitz game. In coverage, he has such great instincts, especially in the red zone, to take away what opposing passing games do extremely well. C.J. Stroud will have to use his eyes well to keep Hamilton well away from where Stroud would like to throw the ball. If not, Hamilton will take the ball away quickly and often.
- Introducing… - My gut tells me that there are very few people throughout the country that know the name Justin Madubuike. I do expect there are some Texans fans that do because they double as A&M fans. Madubuike was a game-wrecking DL for the Aggies a few years ago and when the Ravens drafted him in the COVID Draft of 2020, I thought it was the PERFECT situation for him. There are just certain players that fit the Ravens profile and Maudbuike was one of those guys. Lo and behold, he's EVEN better than the Ravens, or anyone else for that matter, expected. He has been dominant throughout the season - 13.0 sacks, 12 TFL, a whopping 33 QB hits, a Pro Bowl berth and 2nd Team All-Pro honors. His power is evident from the first snap, but his first step, my goodness. For an interior guy too? My gosh, SOOOO quick. That's the issue. He can be the Ravens Aaron Donald, demanding double teams throughout the game, which frees up space for others to exploit, like Jadeveon Clowney and newly acquired Kyle Van Noy. He's a major problem inside for the Texans interior unit.