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Deep Steel Blueprint: Can The Cushingless Texans Stop Baltimore's Ray Rice?

Hopefully, there won't be any photos like this from Sunday's AFC Showdown.

Larry French

In last week's Deep Steel Blueprint, I spelled out a plan to defeat the Packers of Green Bay. Everything I said the Houston Texans should do got flipped on its head. Suddenly, the Packers knew how to protect quarterback Aaron Rodgers and stop those zone-stretch runs outside. It was as if someone developed a Greenprint and gave it to them.

As the Texans have, hopefully, learned from their shortcomings on Sunday night, I too have learned from my shortcomings last week. I should not have stopped at a weakness. Instead, I should have considered how the Packers would compensate for such glaring weaknesses. It is as if I designed a visually-appealing house, but I forgot to consider the practical applications.

With the Battle for American Football Conference Dominance looming this Sunday, it would be easy to focus in on the impact of the
Baltimore Ravens losing inside linebacker Ray Lewis (torn triceps) and cornerback Lardarius Webb (torn ACL) for the season while suffering from some significant injuries that may slow down safety Ed Reed (torn labrum) and defensive end Haloti Ngata (shoulder, MCL) and the lack of Terrell Suggs (even if he does return on Sunday, I expect him to be a non-factor). I could easily talk about the defense, except it really has not mattered.

The Ravens' defense has been nothing more than reputation this year. They are
26th in yards allowed per game and 11th in points allowed per game. The Ravens have not seen a defense like this since 2002, when they finished 19th in points allowed per game and 22nd in yards allowed per game. The difference is that Baltimore fans are being treated to the second-best offense in franchise history. The Joe Flacco-led unit is currently ninth in points per game and eighth in yards per game.

Everyone knows about
Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin, but Flacco is only 12th in passing yards per game (241.8), 11th in touchdowns (8), 18th in completion percentage (61.7%), and 24th in sacks (14). To his credit, Flacco is sitting third in yards per attempt (8.1) and eighth in interceptions (4), so he is hitting the home run ball and not making mistakes with his deep ball. Still, I would feel much better if Joe Flacco had to win the game for Baltimore since there are ways to stop him (e.g., the pass rush). He is not the danger.

The danger is clearly
Ray Rice. Among all non-quarterbacks, Rice is second in yards from scrimmage per game (119.2) and is averaging 5.9 yards per touch - a big part of why he is also second in the NFL with 37 first down conversions. Given those numbers, it is not too much of a stretch to say that Rice has been the best running back in the league this season. Advanced analytics are not too far off, as he is second in rushing DVOA.

The most dangerous part of Rice is that there is no one to key in on him. This is where the loss of inside linebacker
Brian Cushing could loom large on the field. Cushing was someone who could make the one-on-one tackle in the running game, especially as Rice has hit the middle of the field on nearly one-fifth of his runs for an average of 5.5 yards per carry while still covering him when he breaks out in a route. There is a significant question of who should 'spy' on Rice from the Houston defense.

Since Baltimore will not stretch the Houston defense as much as Green Bay or New Orleans might and prefers to run Rice behind fullback
Vonta Leach, Tim Dobbins should see the field more on Sunday. Of the Cushing replacements, Dobbins is the best run-stuffer and is adept at reading and filling the interior gap. After all, Dobbins, pre-Cushing injury, usually came in on goal line defenses and 3rd-and-short scenarios.

On passing downs, Houston's dilemma is who gets Rice. I imagine one of the safeties will help bracket Torrey Smith while the other accounts for tight end
Dennis Pitta. Nickel cornerback Brice McCain should often match-up with slot receiver Jacoby Jones, which leaves Rice containment, from a strict man-to-man sense, in the hands of a linebacker. Dobbins and Bradie James both lack the quickness and athleticism to stick with Rice or close on him. To me, that leaves one choice.

As much as I do not like pulling a pass rusher off, outside linebacker
Connor Barwin may be the best bet to stick on Rice, the Ravens' third-most targeted receiver. Barwin is quick with good jumping ability, and Rice has caught 17 of his 23 receptions behind the line of scrimmage, with 18 at the tackles or outside. Rice is often in the flat when he does his damage (averaging 9.7 yards per reception, eighth-best among running backs with 10-plus receptions). Barwin, and to a lesser extent Brooks Reed, should think Rice first before the rush. This would theoretically allow defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to mix in more interior rushes and stunts with James and/or Dobbins to hopefully work at preventing Flacco from having a spot to step up into, particularly on attempted deep balls.

It may run counter-intuitive to traditional think to put the crosshairs on a running back as opposed to a Torrey Smith, but Rice is being targeted as a receiver more and moving the chains more. The Texans stand a better shot on Sunday if the defense can key in on and contain Rice while the offense does its part to score touchdowns and move the Ravens away from handing the ball to Rice. Houston's chances of winning increases as Rice's impact decreases, according to this week's Blueprint.

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