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Divisional Round Preview: How to attack the Texans’ defense

The Ravens are poised to have success against an ascending Houston unit on Saturday.

NFL: Houston Texans at Baltimore Ravens Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

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 and 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 Ravens Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken and soon-to-be two-time league MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson can attack a Texans defense fresh off a dominant Wildcard round outing where they scored as many points as they let up with 14 courtesy of a pair of pick-sixes.

Continue to play into and highlight strengths

The Ravens offense under Monken spent the first half of the season trying to find a rhythm and establish its groove. Not only did it evolve but it terraformed into a highly adaptable and efficient machine that best suits and sets up available personnel for tremendous success.

No matter who has gone in or out of the lineup, who has been lost for stretches or the entire season with a minor to a major injury, or who they’ve gone up against, the Ravens have been able to move the ball on any and everybody. They’ve been highly efficient throwing the ball on early downs during the second half of the season thanks in large part to play action which is a direct result of their punishing rushing attack.

Despite the emphasis they put into improving their passing attack and the resources spent upgrading the pass-catching weapons at Jackson’s disposal—both of which paid outstanding dividends, they still led the league in rushing attempts (541) and yards (2,661).

Even though they’ll be going up against an elite Texans’ run defense that allowed the second-fewest yards per carry in the regular season at 3.5 which is the lowest mark among current playoff teams, the Ravens can’t and won’t be afraid to strive for balance and establish their ground game.

Houston held them to just 110 rushing yards in Week 1 which wound up being their third-lowest total of the season. They get contributions from all three levels when it comes to run support but their front seven, in particular, plays aggressively downhill, and both fit and fill gaps quickly, almost as soon as they open at times. Thankfully, the Ravens run game is multi-dimensional and can gash teams with a myriad of run concepts not just gap scheme or just power so the Texans will have to stay on their toes and be prepared for either on any given play.

Attack the middle of the field relentlessly

Houston’s defense was able to take over and essentially put away their Wildcard victory over the Joe Flacco-led Cleveland Browns with a pair of interceptions returned for touchdowns on back-to-back drives in the third quarter. However, the tape from the entirety of that game both before and even after it got out of hand revealed a fatal flaw in their scheme that will play right into the strength of the Ravens’ passing attack.

On several occasions throughout the game, they vacated windows and sometimes even gaping holes in the middle of the field between their second and third-level defenders that Flacco took advantage of numerous times to pick up first downs and generate big plays through the air.

Through a combination of shallow depth from their off-ball linebackers and deep drops from their safeties who appeared to be determined not to get beat deep at all costs, they wound up getting carved up at times—especially early on. They gave up big plays throughout to pass catchers who were left wide open to get the ball in stride or with room to run after securing the catch.

Jackson has historically and especially this year, been at his best throwing the ball over the middle of the field where he feasts on intermediate passes that fit between linebackers and safeties, squeezes into tight windows, and hits the intended targets with pinpoint precision.

The Ravens have several wide receivers that are dangerous threats in the open field after the catch who can take a slant to the house or make multiple defenders miss is space to generate big plays. Expect to see standout rookie Zay Flowers and three-time Pro Bowler Odell Beckham Jr. run a lot of posts, digs, and crossing routes while third-year pro Rashod Bateman and ninth-year veteran Nelson Agholor get loose on deep to intermediate curls.

Lean into two-tight end sets

Even though the Ravens won’t have three-time Pro Bowler Mark Andrews back for this game, they should still deploy multiple tight ends in the passing game either way to take full advantage of the Texans’ potentially fatal defensive flaw.

The Browns’ longest and best offensive plays resulted in a tight end streak across the middle of the field or down the seams. David Njoku and Harrison Bryant were Cleveland’s leading receivers last week and combined for 11 catches for 158 receiving yards and they both had a catch and run of 45 or more yards.

While Andrews won’t be able to make his long-awaited return on Saturday, the Ravens still have a pair of second-year pros at the position that could still prove to be a lot for the Texans to handle. Isaiah Likely has produced like a top-10 player at their position in the former First-Team All-Pro absence with five touchdowns in his last six games to go along with several impressive contest catches and yards after catch plays. Charlie Kolar was taken before Likely in the fourth round of the 2022 NFL Draft and has shown he can also threaten vertically dating back to his time as a prolific seam-stretcher in college at Iowa State.

Put edge defenders in conflict with pre and post snap movement

The Texans were able to sack Jackson four times in the season opener in what was a rough game for Ravens starting offensive tackles Ronnie Stanley and Morgan Moses. Since then, the two of them have missed time and struggled to play with injuries. However, they both appeared to have been looking healthier in the final weeks of the regular season and certainly benefited from having additional time to heal during the bye week.

In that game and early on in the season, Monken was often leaving his tackles on an island in one-on-one pass-blocking situations. While they held up most of the time, there were glaring moments when they didn’t that resulted in a drive-ending or stalling sack or holding penalty if Jackson wasn’t able to escape and even when he was which negated long or just clutch scrambles for first downs.

One of the key adjustments he made in addition to occasionally keeping extra blockers in to max protect was to routinely put edge defenders in conflict with movement before and after the snap. By bringing a receiver, running back, tight end, or 300-pound fullback Patrick Ricard across the formation in motion, it caused the defender responsible for setting the edge and keeping contain pause momentarily instead of charging upfield.

Monken also dialed up plays that put Jackson on the move postsnap on play action that froze edge defenders because he still had the ball and posed a threat to run. However, he was often really just buying time for one of his underneath targets to get open, gain enough depth to pick up a first down or uncover late for a bigger gain.

These kinds of adjustments take pressure off both the tackles and the quarterback while also expanding the passing game and putting the defenders at a disadvantage. The Texans have a pair of potent edge defenders in standout first-round rookie Will Anderson and breakout fourth-year pro Jonathan Greenard. They each recorded a sack in the first matchup between the two teams and have combined for 19.5 this season.

Both players have been dealing with ankle injuries that have limited their ability to practice and stay on the field for sustained drives. Being able to slow them down even more by making them stop and think will be key because often by the time they react, it’ll be too late to take action.

Let Dalvin Cook but don’t forget about good old boys

There’s been a lot of hype building up in anticipation of the four-time Pro Bowler’s debut which Head Coach John Harbaugh officially announced will be taking place against the Texans on Saturday. After all, he has relatively fresh legs considering he only carried the ball 67 times during his short-lived tenure with the New York Jets and caught just 15 passes.

While the 28-year-old’s numbers that he posted for the first 15 games of the regular season were below pedestrian and don’t inspire confidence in some, they should be looked at with some context. First of all, Cook didn’t sign with the team until training camp was already underway. Second of all, he was sparsely given touches which for a running back that averaged 21.6 touches a game over the previous four seasons, makes getting into any semblance of a rhythm difficult.

Third of all, the Jets’ offensive line and scheme for that matter was bad all season long. Even second-year pro Breece Hall who was their starting running back and bell cow once he was fully recovered from his torn ACL became a boom-or-bust big-play threat with that blocking unit and finished with just three games of 100-plus rushing yards.

All that being stated, the Ravens should not forsake Gus Edwards and Justice Hill just to try to get Cook going because the roles they’ve carved out for themselves in this offense are significant and they perform them at a highly efficient level.

With Nick Chubb having missed most of the season after going down in Week 2, Edwards was the best short-yardage and goal-line running back in 2023 and a key reason why Jackson’s passing touchdowns were astronomical but the Ravens’ red zone conversion rate improved tremendously compared to recent years. The sixth-year veteran averaged fewer than five yards per carry for the first time in his career but set career highs with 198 carries, 810 rushing yards, and a team-leading 13 touchdowns.

Hill is still the best pass protector of the bunch by far and has shown that he is a dangerous all-purpose weapon who can help offset some of the explosive elements in both the running and passing game that the team lost when electric undrafted rookie Keaton Mitchell went down with a season-ending torn ACL. The fifth-year veteran posted career highs across the board including carries (84), rushing yards (387), rushing touchdowns (three), targets (39), receptions (28), receiving yards (206), and his first career receiving touchdown.