NFL Preview - Houston (3-2) at Baltimore (3-1)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Houston Texans have come up empty in each of their previous four meetings with Baltimore. Perhaps the addition of a former Raven can get them into the win column in this series.
The Texans could have wide receiver Derrick Mason on the field this Sunday when they draft to get the better of the Ravens, a task easier said than done given the AFC North leaders' usual play at M&T Bank Stadium.
Following a 25-20 loss to the Oakland Raiders last weekend -- a game in which the Texans played without star wide receiver Andre Johnson -- Houston sent an undisclosed draft pick to the New York Jets on Wednesday for Mason, a 14-year veteran with 937 career catches and over 12,000 receiving yards.
Mason had spent his previous six seasons in Baltimore, going over 1,000 yards receiving in four of those years, before signing with the Jets this offseason following a 61-catch, 802-yard campaign in 2010. The 37-year-old made 13 catches for 115 yards in five games with the Jets.
Houston head coach Gary Kubiak hopes that Mason can help fill the void left by Johnson, who is unlikely to play again this weekend after sitting out the Oakland loss with a hamstring injury.
"I'm going to do whatever I need to do to play Sunday, and not just because it's Baltimore or just because I want to be out there," said Mason. "I'm a football player. I want to be out on the field."
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh isn't worried about his former receiver giving the Texans any extra insight.
"I don't think he'll give them much that way," he said. "It's been a while. He may have something. But for all these guys, when you get away from that scheme ...he may have something on the players, maybe, kind of his insights. But he's been working on the Jets' system and learning that system. That stuff leaves you after a while and things change."
Houston certainly could have used Mason last weekend after failing to hold a two-point lead heading into the fourth quarter. Quarterback Matt Schaub had one last chance to get his team a win, but his pass into the end zone as time expired was intercepted.
The loss gave the Texans a split of a two-game homestand and was their second in three games since starting 2-0. It also featured a season-ending pectoral injury to linebacker Mario Williams, who had five sacks after making the move from defensive end.
"I feel so bad for Mario because he's been such a heck of a player, and what we're doing to me is really going to blossom his career from now on," said Kubiak. "I think he'd really taken to the position he's playing. He was improving every day at practice, improving in every game and really enjoying [it]."
Schaub, meanwhile missed practice on Wednesday due to shoulder and thigh ailments, but he is expected to play this weekend.
Houston will need him given the absence of Williams and Johnson, though the Ravens, who are coming off their bye week, aren't going to take the Texans lightly.
"It just doesn't really matter to us," said Harbaugh of Houston's injuries. "We've got to get ready to play. That team is a really good team. I told our team before we left on the bye week that we'd be playing the best team in the AFC next week -- the team that was playing the best.
Baltimore is aiming to improve to 4-1 for just the fourth time in team history and for a second straight year after besting the Jets, 34-17, before the bye. Though the Ravens' offense struggled, the defense contributed a team-record three touchdowns off returns, taking a pair of fumbles and an interception to the end zone.
The victory was the Ravens' 12th in their last 13 games at M&T Bank Stadium, while quarterback Joe Flacco improved to 21-5 at home in his career.
While Mason could line up against his old team for the second time this year, Houston will face a pair of former faces for the first time in Baltimore safety Bernard Pollard and fullback Vonta Leach. Pollard spend the previous two seasons with the Texans, while Leach had been with the club since 2006.
As previously mentioned, the Ravens have won each of the four previous meetings between the teams, including a wild 34-28 overtime victory in Houston during Week 14 of last season in which the Texans scored 21 straight second-half points to force the additional session. Houston will be making only its second appearance at M&T Bank Stadium, having been handed a 16-15 setback there in 2005, and has lost twice to Baltimore at home in addition to last season's matchup. The Ravens came through with a 23-19 win at Reliant Stadium in 2002 and recorded a 41-13 road rout during the 2008 campaign. That game was initially scheduled to be played in Week 2, but was pushed back into November due to the arrival of Hurricane Ike.
Harbaugh owns a 2-0 career record against Houston, while Kubiak has lost both of his two prior encounters with both the Ravens and Harbaugh.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
Oakland was unable to fend off the Texans last weekend despite 473 yards of offense for Houston, including 416 passing yards from Schaub (1377 passing yards, 9 TD, 5 INT). The quarterback completed 24 of his 51 pass attempts, getting picked off twice while throwing touchdown passes to tight end Joel Dreessen (8 receptions, 1 TD) and wide receiver Kevin Walter (9 receptions, 2 TD). Schaub extended his own team record of 13 straight games with a touchdown pass and helped Houston feature four players with at least 80 receiving yards in a game for the first time in team history. Running back Arian Foster (256 rushing yards, 10 receptions, 1 TD) led the way for Houston's eighth-ranked offense with his first 100-yard receiving game, logging 116 yards on five catches and another 68 yards on the ground over 22 carries. Dreessen and Walter both had five catches, with the tight end logging a career-high 116 yards and Walter having 81. Tight end Owen Daniels (21 receptions, 3 TD) added 89 yards on a team-leading seven receptions. Fullback James Casey suffered a pectoral injury in the game and is day-to-day. Lawrence Vickers would start in his place if he can't go.
The Texans could struggle to overcome the loss of Johnson (25 receptions, 2 TD) again this weekend, given that the Ravens rank third in total defense at 284.5 yards allowed per game and are yielding an NFL-low 14.3 points per contest. Turnovers have been key for Baltimore, which leads the league in takeaways per game and have scored 55 points off mistakes this year. Twenty-one of those came versus the Jets, with linebackers Jameel McClain (11 tackles, 1 sack) and Jarret Johnson (8 tackles) both returning fumbles for scores and cornerback Lardarius Webb (27 tackles, 2 INT) adding a 73-yard pick-six. Safety Ed Reed (17 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) and tackle Haloti Ngata (13 tackles, 1 sack) logged sacks in that win, while cornerback Cary Williams (23 tackles) had eight tackles. Linebacker Ray Lewis (30 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) added five stops and needs 28 more interception yards to pass Derrick Brooks (530) for the most all-time by a linebacker, while Reed is 20 interception yards shy of the all-time record held by Rod Woodson (1,483). Lewis also needs just another half-sack to become the first player ever with 40 sacks and 30 interceptions. Safety Haruki Nakamura missed Baltimore's last game with a knee injury and Tom Zbikowski (14 tackles) left the Jets contest with a concussion. Both are questionable after being limited in practice.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
Baltimore's offense will look to move on from the Jets game after logging only 267 yards of offense. The Ravens rank 14th in total offense (358.5 ypg), but are still scoring at a healthy 29.8 points per game clip. Dual threat Ray Rice (297 rushing yards, 16 receptions, 4 total TD) had over 100 yards of offense versus the Jets, notching 66 yards on 25 carries with the lone offensive touchdown for the Ravens, and compiling another 64 through the air on a pair of catches. The back is averaging 134.8 yards per game from scrimmage. Flacco (973 passing yards, 7 TD, 3 INT) completed only 10 of his 31 passes for 163 yards two weeks ago and was picked off once without a touchdown pass. He was also sacked twice, bringing his season total to eight. Flacco tried a number of times to get the ball to tight end Ed Dickson (16 receptions, 1 TD) in the team's last game, targeting him 12 times. Dickson came up with four catches for 45 yards, while receivers Anquan Boldin (15 receptions, 1 TD), Torrey Smith (6 receptions, 3 TD) and LaQuan Williams were held to one catch each. Baltimore hopes a few offensive pieces got healthy over the break, with guard Ben Grubbs and receiver Lee Evans both practicing on a limited basis this week. Grubbs has missed the last three games with a toe injury, while Evans has sat out two straight due to an ankle issue.
Houston's defense ranks seventh in the league with an allowance of 314 yards per game, thanks in part to a much-improved secondary that is yielding only 208.2 passing yards per game that ranks sixth. The Texans will be looking to hold an opponent under 20 points for the fourth time in 2011, but will look to do so with rookie linebacker Brooks Reed replacing Mario Williams. The Texans still have two other playmakers at the position in Brian Cushing (36 tackles, 1 sack) and DeMeco Ryans (21 tackles), however. The former matched cornerback Jason Allen with eight tackles against the Raiders to go along with a sack, while Ryans had four stops. Allen (25 tackles, 2 INT) had an interception for a second straight game and will try to log three picks in a row for the first time in his career. Defensive end Antonio Smith (10 tackles, 4.5 sacks) logged a half-sack against the Raiders, leaving him 1 1/2 shy of his career high set in 2007. Smith and rookie end J.J. Watt (15 tackles, 1 sack) will try to get more pressure on Flacco in Williams' absence, while corners Kareem Jackson (13 tackles) and Johnathan Joseph (15 tackles, 2 INT) will try to add to Houston's season interception total of five.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The Ravens will be looking to prevent another quick start by the Texans, who have scored 24 points and posted 348 yards on their five opening drives this season. On the other side, Houston's defense is also the only unit in the league that has forced five punts on their opponents' first drives.
Schaub and company will need to hold onto the ball, as the Ravens own a plus-37 turnover ratio at home since 2008. That ranks second in the NFL over that span.
Let Mason be your guide. The veteran should do wonders for Houston's locker room, and his main focus should be on telling the rest of the Texans not to worry about their past history versus the Ravens.
The task in front of the Texans is no small one, given that the Ravens are coming off a bye and have had the club's number in the past. Not having Andre Johnson only makes things more challenging, but Houston should have three healthy backs to turn to in Foster, Ben Tate and Derrick Ward for the first time in a while. That may take some pressure off of Schaub's shoulders, which is good considering that Lewis and Reed will be looking to put him on his back all game. The Ravens showed two weeks ago that they don't need an above-average showing from the offense to win, and should be able to grind Houston down.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 17, Texans 13
10/13 16:54:26 ET