The top-seeded Baltimore Ravens will host the fourth-seeded Houston Texans on Saturday to kick off divisional-round weekend action. While it is a rematch from Week 1 when the two teams faced off for the 2023 season opener, neither are the same, they both have come a long way in terms of growth and inevitable attritions. They are both division winners and were two of the hottest teams during the regular season.
Although there are likely a few things to glean from their first matchup, it might as well have been last season given how each has adjusted and evolved over the course of the year. Examining performances and injury updates will be much more insightful in ultimately deciding who comes out on top.
This article breaks down how the Ravens Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald’s elite unit can attack a Texans offense led by sensational rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud.
Prioritize limiting impact of Nico Collins
The third-year pro is the last man left standing among the top threats at wide receiver for the Texans, with standout rookie Tank Dell already lost and veteran Noah Brown having just been placed on injured reserve earlier this week. He had a career year in 2023 with more catches (80), receiving yards (1,297), and touchdowns (eight) than his first two seasons combined. Collins is coming off a strong performance in the Wildcard round in which he caught six of his seven targets for 96 receiving yards and a touchdown and took his yards from scrimmage total to the century mark with a four-yard carry.
With three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey officially ruled out with a calf injury that kept him out of practice all week, the primary responsibility for covering Collins will fall to third-year pro Brandon Stephens and ninth-year veteran Ronald Darby. It will be important for both players to play over top of him and not try to focus so much on gaining inside leverage just in case a time comes when they find themselves in one-on-one coverage with no safety help. That way, they’ll be less susceptible to double moves or giving up big plays. Thankfully, both Stephens and Darby are aggressive corners who can press and challenge physical big-bodied receivers down the field and at the catch point.
The Texans will try a myriad of ways to try to get Collins the ball in space and with a head full of steam, including with screens and bringing him across the formation in motion so that he can’t get jammed at the line of scrimmage. Getting off blocks and tackling him in the open field before he can get going or pick up a first down will be paramount—both of which the Ravens have excelled at executing this year at all three levels.
Bring the heat with creative pressure packages
In the Wildcard round last week, the Texans offensive line did a great job in pass protection against the vaunted Cleveland Browns defense headlined by five-time Pro Bowl pass rusher Myles Garrett, who was held without a sack, pressure, or even tackle for loss. Stroud wasn’t sacked, was hit just once the entire game and had ample time to throw opportunities throughout.
Houston will have their hands full with a whole different challenge and type of pass rush this week in Baltimore going up against the unit that led the league with 60 sacks in the regular season. Unlike the Browns who try to apply pressure with traditional four-man rushes and blitzes, the Ravens utilize simulated pressures to confuse opposing pass protectors. Macdonald schemes up free rushers and creates favorable one-on-one matchups to generate consistent pressure on the quarterback.
Against the Texans in their first matchup back in Week 1, the Ravens sacked Stroud five times including a crucial strip sack. All five came from different players and came as a result of blitzes from depth by both off-ball linebackers, a nickel blitz by slot cornerback Ar’Darius Washington, and both interior and edge pressure. Over the course of the season, they have had 16 different defenders record a sack and use deceptive coverages that change post-snap to make opposing quarterbacks hold the ball longer and give their rush more time to apply pressure.
Stroud takes care of the ball extremely well, having thrown the fewest interceptions of all qualifying starting quarterbacks and even a handful of backups that played for stretches with just five in 16 games including the playoffs. If the Ravens, who tied for the league in takeaways with 31, can’t force him to turn the ball over through the air, they’ll have to do their best to force a fumbles with Stroud in the pocket.
Keep ball in front and limit yards after catch
Texans first-year Offensive Coordinator Bobby Slowik hails from the Kyle Shanahan coaching tree where they specialize in getting their playmakers the ball in space and in stride. The Browns did a poor job of tackling in the open field and took poor angles on several big plays, both were full display on the 76-yard catch and run touchdown by third-year tight end Brevin Jordan on his only catch of the game.
Making sure the ball stays in front of them at the second and third levels will be key to limiting big gains. As the game goes on and the All-Pro inside linebacker tandem of Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen get a better feel of where Stroud is trying to attack over the middle of the field, they’ll be able to adjust the depth of their drops accordingly to take away routes and spots in zone coverage that may have been open earlier in the game or make plays on the ball that could result is tips, overthrows and even turnovers.
Continue to clamp down in red zone
Although the Ravens didn’t lead the league in fewest yards given up, they led in arguably the more important defensive statistic: fewest points allowed per game with 16.5. That is in large part due to their impressive ability to cause opposing offenses to bog down and stall out once they get inside the 20-yard line.
Macdonald’s unit finished the season with the second-best red zone defense in terms of conversion rate at just 40.8 percent which is the best mark of the remaining playoff teams. While they may allow opposing teams to go on extended drives at times, by forcing them to settle for field goals or forcing turnovers, they’re able to keep their opponents from matching their own potent offense blow for blow.
In their Wildcard win over the Browns last week, the Texans were able to score from outside of the 20 twice on long catch and run scores of 30-plus yards and were 2-of-3 on red zone opportunities. Once the field gets more condensed, the Ravens’ defense will have less ground to cover so they will be able to close in on ball carriers and break on passes quicker, which will be key going against a quarterback that likes to get the ball out quick to skill players in space.