DE Michael Johnson vs. T James Hurst
The Baltimore Ravens will likely be without left tackle Eugene Monroe on Sunday, who missed last week's game and has missed all three practices this week. That leaves them with undrafted free agent James Hurst at left tackle. Undrafted free agents tend to struggle, as has James Hurst -- he was regularly and quite easily beaten by Bjoern Werner last week, especially on speed rushes.
Time for Michael Johnson to do the same thing.
Johnson hasn't been the most dominant defensive end since the start of the season, but he hasn't been useless, either. Hampered by an ankle injury through the first three games, he managed two sacks in game four and played reasonably well against the Saints last week.
One aspect standing in the way of his dominance: he is more of a power and length rusher, like William Gholston, than he is a speed rusher. And Hurst has struggled most against speed rushes, and has done best against power rushes. Still, Johnson should be able to handle an undrafted rookie. Right?
CB Johnthan Banks vs. WR Steve Smith, Sr.
Smitty has undergone a career resurgence in Baltimore. With 463 yards and three touchdowns through five games, he's having as good a season as he's had in his long career. He's now more of a savvy veteran than the explosive presence he was early in his career, but he's just as capable of producing long plays and beating cornerbacks with regularity.
That should scare the hell out of Johnthan Banks and Bucs fans. Banks has been a minor disaster this year, giving receivers massive cushions and looking out of place in a Tampa 2 defense that was supposed to fit him like a glove. While his play improved in recent weeks, it still wasn't up to snuff -- and that was before he had to sit out two practices with an injury this week.
Incidentally, if Banks can't play his replacement is Crezdon Butler. A fourth-year player who hasn't gotten on a field outside of special teams play.
There is a chance the Bucs match up Alterraun Verner with Steve Smith, something they've done intermittently. That would leave Torrey Smith on Banks/Butler though, which really isn't much of an improvement for either player.
LB Mason Foster vs. Running game
The Baltimore Ravens don't have a single dominant running back. Instead, they've been running by committee, and doing it really really well. That's in part because of their offensive line, which despite a number of injuries has remained productive every game.
One problem the Bucs have had in recent weeks, especially at the end of last game, is stopping the run. In a 4-3, one-gap defense like the one the Bucs run, those problems are almost always linked to a lack of gap discipline: defenders jumping out of their gaps when they don't need to. Dane Fletcher has been especially prone to doing this.
Thankfully, the Bucs get Mason Foster back this week. Which means we won't see the gap discipline issues. Which in turn means that we should see the run defense tighten up again. Or rather, for the first time this year: the only time the Bucs' opponents did not run for at least 100 yards was in week four, against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Slightly less than comforting is the fact that the Bucs' defense featured Mason Foster in two of those games.