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NFL Preview - Baltimore at Tampa Bay

NFL Preview - Baltimore at Tampa Bay


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Raymond James Stadium will be the site of Steve McNair's formal debut as a Baltimore Raven, as the three-time Pro Bowl selection leads his new team into action against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.


The 33-year-old McNair was acquired by the Ravens in June, in an attempt by Brian Billick's team to revive its long-dormant passing game. Offensive struggles helped lead Baltimore to a 6-10 finish in 2005, the worst mark of Billick's seven-year tenure.


McNair, who threw for 27,141 yards and 156 touchdowns in 10 seasons with the Titans/Oilers franchise, was deemed expendable when the team used the No. 3 overall selection in the April draft on University of Texas quarterback Vince Young. The selection of Young was in part inspired by McNair's almost constant injury problems, which had resulted in 10 missed starts over the past two seasons.


The ex-Alcorn State star will have a tough assignment in Week 1, as he goes up against a Tampa Bay defense that finished the 2005 regular season ranked No. 1 in the league. The Buccaneers' defensive proficiency helped fuel last year's 11-5 mark, which came complete with an NFC South title and the franchise's first trip to the postseason since 2002.


SERIES HISTORY


Tampa Bay has won its only two series meetings against the Ravens, scoring a 22-10 home victory in 2001 and notching a 25-0 win in Baltimore in 2002.


Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden is 1-2 in his career against the Ravens, including a 16-3 home loss for his Raiders in the 2000 AFC Championship. Ravens head coach Brian Billick is 0-2 in his career against the Bucs, and is 1-1 head-to-head against Gruden, including the AFC title game win.


RAVENS OFFENSE VS. BUCCANEERS DEFENSE


Sunday's game should mark a reunion between McNair (3161 passing yards, 16 TD, 11 INT) and wide receiver Derrick Mason (86 receptions, 3 TD), who were teammates from 1997 to 2004 in Tennessee. Mason, who is expected to play despite being listed as questionable with a thigh injury, comes off his fifth consecutive 1,000-yard season and first as a Raven. Other McNair targets will be No. 2 receiver Mark Clayton (44 receptions, 2 TD), who showed glimpses of greatness as a rookie despite struggling with an ankle problem, and tight end Todd Heap (75 receptions, 7 TD), who remains one of the league's best over- the-middle pass-catchers. A major question for the Ravens in 2006 will be the work of an offensive line that was awful for much of 2005, allowing 42 sacks and countless hurries. The right-side duo of guard Keydrick Vincent and tackle Tony Pashos is believed by many to be the offense's most notable Achilles heel.


McNair will have his hands full in avoiding a Tampa Bay pass rush led by end Simeon Rice (14 sacks), and will also have to navigate the football over and around a talented secondary guided by cornerbacks Ronde Barber (99 tackles, 5 INT, 2 sacks) and Brian Kelly (4 INT). Rice comes off his fifth straight double-digit sack performance, and the eighth of his 10-year pro career. Greg Spires (4 sacks) will again start opposite Rice. Barber, who led the team in picks and was third in tackles a year ago, comes off the third Pro Bowl appearance of his career. Rounding out the secondary will be holdover safeties Jermaine Phillips (61 tackles) and Will Allen (3 INT).


Seeking to bounce back from a horrendous 2005 is Baltimore running back Jamal Lewis (906 rushing yards, 32 receptions, 4 TD), who was rewarded for the worst season of his pro career with a new, lucrative contract in the offseason. Lewis, who was embroiled in a contract dispute with the team throughout last season, averaged only 3.4 yards per carry, posted just two 100-yard games, and endured constant questions about his toughness and desire. If he fails to show up again, the Ravens have a solid plan B in ex-Bronco Mike Anderson (1014 rushing yards, 18 receptions, 13 TD with Denver), who was acquired in the offseason after putting together the second 1,000-yard campaign of his career in 2005.


The Buccaneers were sixth in the NFL against the run last season, and return all of the principles that helped post that statistic. Middle linebacker Shelton Quarles (129 tackles) and weak side man Derrick Brooks (125 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) have 20 years of NFL experience between them, and were 1-2 on the team in stops last season. The third linebacker will again be Ryan Nece (76 tackles, 2 sacks), the son of Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott who started 14 games on the strong side last season. Setting the tone up front are tackles Anthony McFarland (27 tackles, 2 sacks) and Chris Hovan (45 tackles), who will be attempting to halt Lewis' progress at the point of attack.


BUCCANEERS OFFENSE VS. RAVENS DEFENSE


The key to the Tampa Bay offense in 2006 figures to be running back Cadillac Williams (1178 rushing yards, 6 TD, 20 receptions), the league's reigning Rookie of the Year and a player who was credited with helping morph the Bucs from a bottom-feeder into a playoff team. Williams, the No. 5 overall pick out of Auburn in the 2005 draft, posted six 100-yard outings in 14 starts as a rookie. Also vital to the attack are Michael Pittman (436 rushing yards, 36 receptions, 2 TD) and Mike Alstott (80 rushing yards, 25 receptions, 7 TD), who will both appear on a situational basis. Pittman ranked among league leaders with 6.2 yards per rush last season, and Alstott scored his most points (44) since 2001 while serving as the team's short-yardage and goal-line back.


Baltimore was very good against the run in 2005, ranking ninth in NFL rushing offense, but expects to again become dominant in that area this season. Six- time All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis (46 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) appears to be healthy again after missing the final 10 games of last season with a thigh injury, and will be at the heart of a linebacking corps that also includes standout Adalius Thomas (84 tackles, 9 sacks, 2 INT) and blossoming talent Bart Scott (92 tackles, 4 sacks). Thomas, who can also line up at defensive end or even safety, led the Ravens in sacks last season. Following Ray Lewis' public complaints about the state of the team's d-line during the offseason, the Ravens used its first-round pick on defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (Oregon), a 6-4, 340-pound space-eater who will line up alongside reliable holdover Kelly Gregg (60 tackles, 2 sacks).


Set to begin his first season as Tampa Bay's unquestioned No. 1 signal-caller is Chris Simms (2035 passing yards, 10 TD, 7 INT), who is 7-5 as a starter in parts of the past two seasons. Simms, who was ordained the starter when the since-departed Brian Griese went down with a season-ending injury five games into 2005, posted a solid 81.4 passer rating a year ago. The fourth-year pro will look often to No. 1 wideout Joey Galloway (83 receptions, 10 TD), who last year established career single-season-highs in catches and receiving yards (1287) at the age of 34. Other top targets will include Michael Clayton (32 receptions), who is trying to bounce back from a subpar second NFL season, and tight end Alex Smith (41 receptions, 2 TD), who finished second on the team in catches as a rookie a year ago. A Tampa line that allowed 41 sacks last season has been reconfigured, though projected starting guard and first- round draft choice Davin Joseph (Oklahoma) could be absent due to a knee injury sustained in practice earlier this week.


Patrolling the Baltimore secondary and looking to make Simms pay for any mistakes will be free safety Ed Reed (37 tackles, 1 INT), yet another Ravens player attempting to rebound from a substandard 2005 showing. One season after notching a league-high nine interceptions, Reed was severely limited by a high ankle sprain last year, missing six games and looking like a shadow of his former self in several others. When healthy, Reed (who shifts from strong safety) will combine with corners Chris McAlister (1 INT) and Samari Rolle (1 INT) to form one of the most talented secondary units in the league. The newcomer to the starting group is strong safety Dawan Landry, a fifth-round draft choice out of Georgia Tech who picks up a first-string job following the free agent defection of Will Demps to the Giants. Anchoring the Baltimore pass rush will be ends Terrell Suggs (8 sacks, 2 INT) and Trevor Pryce (4 sacks with Denver). Pryce comes to the Ravens after amassing 63 sacks in nine seasons with the Broncos.


OVERALL ANALYSIS


McNair looked comfortable running the Ravens offense during the preseason, but Tampa Bay's zone defense has a way of making a quarterback feel uncomfortable pretty quickly. Expect the new Baltimore signal-caller to make a key mistake or two in his debut as a Raven, and expect the Bucs to punch in a few important scores off of short fields. Baltimore's road losing streak, which dates back to the 2004 season, will swell to 12 games.


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