Sunday's AFC showdown between the Houston Texans and Baltimore Ravens features the return of safety Ed Reed to Baltimore. Reed went to nine Pro Bowls during his 11 seasons with the Ravens and was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2004. He has missed the first two games of the season because of his surgically repaired hip and would make his Texans debut if he plays.
While there will be plenty of attention placed on the reunion with Reed, this game will factor into how the balance of power in the AFC shakes out. The Texans (2-0), one of five undefeated teams in the AFC, are the first team since the merger in 1970 to win each of their first two games of a season on the final play of the game. The Ravens (1-1), the defending Super Bowl champions, are trying to get back on track after getting routed by the Denver Broncos and struggling to beat the Cleveland Browns.
Texans team reporter Tania Ganguli and Ravens team reporter Jamison Hensley discuss how this emotional and pivotal game will unfold.
Hensley: The big storyline heading into this game is whether Reed will play. Like Ravens coach John Harbaugh, I would be surprised if Reed sat out this reunion game. But it was only three years ago when Reed underwent a procedure on his hip while with the Ravens and missed the first six games of the season. When Reed returned, he picked off two passes in his first game and eventually led the NFL in interceptions despite playing just 10 games. If Reed plays, how much of an impact can he make in his first game with a new team and a new defense?
Ganguli: Anything can happen when Reed plays. He’ll have a lot of free rein when he returns, as he’s helped not just his teammates but also given coaches advice. The Texans are being cautious with him. He had a blood-spinning procedure done three weeks ago that has a range of results in patients. Reed said it helped his hip feel better. He also said this hip injury feels more mild than the surgery he had three years ago. He practiced more last week than he did before the Texans’ season opener against the San Diego Chargers, so he is progressing toward playing.
Texans coach Gary Kubiak said last week that if Reed does play, the Texans don’t plan on starting him in his first game back. They’ll use him in certain defensive packages and continue to start Shiloh Keo. Asked about it this week, though, Kubiak said he would listen to Reed’s evaluation of his health.
Reed isn’t the only legacy gone from the Ravens’ defensive roster. How has that changed Baltimore’s defense?
Hensley: The two longtime faces of the Ravens defense will be there at M&T Bank Stadium, but both won't be wearing purple. Reed is on the other sideline, and Ray Lewis will be inducted into the Ring of Honor at halftime. The Ravens have seven different starters from the defense that lined up against -- and got beaten up by -- the Texans last October.
The biggest improvement has been the Ravens' run defense, especially with Daryl Smith in the middle. This is key because the Ravens gave up 98 yards and two touchdowns to Arian Foster in the last meeting.
Baltimore also upgraded its pass rush with Elvis Dumervil, but there are questions in the secondary. The Ravens have already benched cornerback Corey Graham and safety Michael Huff and replaced them with cornerback Jimmy Smith and safety Matt Elam.
Talking about new looks, how much has rookie receiver DeAndre Hopkins -- whom the Ravens liked in the draft -- helped the Texans passing game?
Ganguli: Hopkins had a breakout game in Week 2, catching seven passes for 117 yards and scoring the game-winning touchdown. He wears size 3X gloves, only one size smaller than J.J. Watt, who is four inches taller and 70 pounds heavier than Hopkins. Those big hands give him the confidence to catch with his hands and not worry about bringing the ball into his body. Because of that, Hopkins is excellent on contested catches.
Getting to the heart of your question, though, Hopkins’ impact will be big this season. He finally gives the Texans a complementary threat to Andre Johnson. Quarterback Matt Schaub became more confident in Hopkins through the game, especially when Johnson left with a concussion and he had to. That trend will continue during the season. The Texans threw to Johnson more than all their other wide receivers combined last year, and that will surely change this season.
Sticking with offense, what would be the impact of not having Ray Rice if his injury prevents him from playing?
Hensley: Rice injured his hip toward the end of the Ravens' not-so-thrilling win over the Browns. He will likely be questionable for Sunday's game against the Texans. He's always been a big factor in the Ravens offense. Rice was one of three running backs last year (with Doug Martin and C.J. Spiller) to produce more than 1,000 yards rushing and 400 yards receiving. The Ravens are 37-6 when Rice gets at least 15 carries.
The problem is the offensive line hasn't opened many holes for Rice, who is averaging 2.9 yards per carry. Backup running back Bernard Pierce has been the more physical back and has broken more tackles than Rice this season. The Ravens need to establish the run because they've lost too many weapons -- wide receiver Anquan Boldin was traded, tight end Dennis Pitta is on injured reserve and wide receiver Jacoby Jones is sidelined -- to rely solely on the passing game. Any chance the Ravens' ground game can come to life against the Houston front seven?
Ganguli: The Texans’ front seven has played inspired football in spurts this season, especially inside linebacker Brian Cushing, whose play is showing just how much he missed being out there for most of last season. The Texans gave up an 80-yard touchdown drive to start the third quarter against the San Diego Chargers but contributed to the biggest comeback in franchise history by allowing just 10 yards the rest of the game. In Week 2, Chris Johnson had only five rushing yards in the third quarter and 19 in the second half.
On one hand, the Texans defense hasn’t put together a complete game yet. On the other hand, it's been excellent with halftime adjustments. Even if the Ravens get going early, there’s a strong chance that won’t last.
A big part of that is Cushing, who has resumed his position as a leader on the defense. We talked about the on-field differences on the Ravens defense, but has anyone filled the leadership void?
Hensley: The Ravens' leadership in the past came from the veterans, like Lewis, Reed and Boldin. This team is going to rely on the likes of Terrell Suggs, Dumervil and Lardarius Webb. Suggs has taken over Lewis' role as the vocal leader, and I can see Webb becoming a more behind-the-scenes influence like his mentor Reed. The Ravens offense has strong character players such as Rice and wide receiver Torrey Smith.
Suggs and Dumervil have made a similar impact on the field. Last year against the Texans, Suggs played his first game since tearing his Achilles. Now, fully recovered, Suggs looks even better than before because he is in the best shape of his career. Dumervil has been just as disruptive and destroyed right tackle Mitchell Schwartz last week. They've each had a sack in the first two games. How are the Texans tackles going to hold up against these Ravens' edge rushers?
Ganguli: That will be an interesting thing to watch in this game. Derek Newton is new as the Texans’ starting right tackle this year, and left tackle Duane Brown thinks he could be a game-time decision after suffering a turf toe injury against the Tennessee Titans. Losing Brown would be damaging to the Texans, who rely on him to win one-on-one matchups. Another matchup to watch is the kicking game.
Hensley: One of the biggest surprises last season was the consistent kicking from Justin Tucker, who hit 30 of 33 field goals. The biggest surprise Sunday was Tucker's inconsistency, missing twice wide right after only missing once in Baltimore as a rookie. Tucker isn't worried, and a short but strong body of work doesn't have the Ravens panicking either. But given all the injuries on the Ravens offense, they can't afford for Tucker to be off his game. It seems like the Ravens aren't the only team having a problem with a kicker.
Ganguli: Randy Bullock has struggled in his first two games, making only one of five attempts. They haven’t been easy attempts, none shorter than 40 yards and three longer than 50, but the Texans know he has the leg for making those. It might help his confidence if he was put in the position to kick shorter field goals. Though fans are upset, the Texans aren’t giving up on him. Why would they? He’s only two games into his NFL career, having spent his rookie season on injured reserve.