1. Johnathan Joseph
I hope you’re sitting down when you read this. Kareem Jackson was the best cornerback on the Texans defense against the Packers and Jets. That’s a sentence I never dreamed I’d say. And I doubt you ever thought you’d read it. But it’s true.
Joseph’s strained groin has turned him from a shutdown Pro Bowl caliber cornerback into a vulnerable target. The Texans have tried to protect him by resting him as much as possible in practice, but I suspect he’ll be on the field at less than one hundred percent again on Sunday. This could be a problem.
Normally, Joseph lines up across from the opposing team’s best receiver. But a hobbled cornerback is no match for Torrey Smith, Joe Flacco’s favorite target, and one of the fastest deep threats in the league. The Texans instead could choose to match up Joseph on Anquan Boldin, more of a possession receiver at this point. But that leaves Jackson on Smith.
The last thing the Texans want to do is put Jackson on Smith, who they often target deep downfield. While Jackson has improved greatly the last couple seasons, he still struggles with ball awareness with his back to opposing quarterbacks. If Joseph’s groin doesn’t allow him to cover Smith, the Texans may get beat at 2-3 times on downfield fly routes or get flagged for pass interference with Jackson struggling to cover the deep ball.
2. Andre Johnson
The Ravens once-vaunted defense has been gashed for 440 combined rushing yards the last two weeks. That would suggest that Arian Foster and Ben Tate could be in for big days. But Baltimore will do everything it can to correct its problems on run defense and keep Foster from following suit. That should leave more 1-on-1 matchups in the secondary with the Texans #1 receiver.
Add in the fact that the Ravens lost their top cornerback, Lardarius Webb, to a season-ending knee injury last week, and you have a recipe for a big day for Johnson. Jimmy Smith, who will likely draw #80 in coverage, is a big, physical cornerback. But he’ll be overmatched against the equally physical Texans receiver. Cary Williams, their other cornerback, is a liability in pass coverage. Look for the Texans to target both of them in a bigger than expected day for Matt Schaub.
3. Tim Dobbins
The Ravens offense has opened up considerably this season. But it still revolves around their All-Pro running back, Ray Rice. Rice may be the smallest man on the field for Baltimore but he’s the toughest running back, pound-for-pound, in the NFL.
This is where Dobbins and Bradie James come in. Dobbins is a terrific run stuffer thrust into a fulltime role with Brian Cushing’s absence. But he’s not a good pass defender. Look for the Ravens to try and get Rice out in space with one of the overmatched Texans linebackers covering him. If Baltimore is successful, it could be a long day for the Texans linebacking corps.
Follow Robert on Twitter: @SportsRadioRH