Sunday, September 21, 2008

Ravens-Browns Preview: Great, Now Try it Against a Pass Rush

Well, I hope everyone got all that offensive enthusiasm out of their system with the Terps beat down of the EMU Eagles today, because it isn’t likely we will see much offense today. After a an unexpected bye week in which the Ravens were forced to practice for a game that didn’t happen, they now have to switch gears to face the trendiest preseason pick to take the AFC North crown from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Luckily for the Ravens, the Browns have looked like anything but a playoff team. They look more like, well… the Browns. Will that change this week in Baltimore?

The Browns look like a team trying to recapture the offense of last year’s prolific scoring machine, anchored behind former Raven draft choice Derek Anderson. Anderson, in his two starts this season has only mustered 280 yards and 1 touchdown to 2 interceptions, but has not been aided much by his supporting cast. Number 1 wideout Braylon Edwards had 5 drops last week against the Steelers and is questionable for tomorrow with an apparent shoulder injury. In every sense of the game the Browns look like a team completely lost- poor quarterback play, a secondary that has been absolutely abhorrent without Leigh Bodden to solidify the corner position, and a rushing offense that ranks 27th in the league despite an occasionally stellar Jamal Lewis.

What I’m Wondering:

Will Baltimore Still be Wacko for Flacco?
Joe Flacco is universally adored among Ravens fans for his serviceable performance that led the Ravens to a victory in week one- he managed the game and made very few mistakes against a defense not known for forcing many (the Bengals showed that against the Titans last week). This game will present a completely different challenge against a defense that has loaded up the interior of the defensive line with the acquisition of Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams. The line has only forced 2 sacks in the first two games, but that is unlikely to continue over the long term. Will Flacco be able to make the necessary plays with his arm and read the blitz against this staunch defensive line?

Will the Ravens be able to “run” away with this one?

Two weeks ago the lone question mark had to be the running game, most notably in the form of Ray Rice’s struggles. While he was given the majority of the carries, he gained only 64 yards and failed to reach 3 yards per rush. La’Ron McClain was more successful, providing a greater burst and an excellent change of pace in the passing game. How will the running back situation shake up with Willis McGahee returning from injury? Will he be able to perform as the every down back in Cameron’s offense? Bear in mind, Rice and McClain were running against arguably the most porous run defense in the NFL- how will that change against the interior of the Browns D?

Is that old school Ravens D here to stay?

I am very curious about this one. Sure the D looked great against the Bengals, but the Bengals struggled almost as much against the Titans and look generally to be an awful team. With Kelly Gregg out for at least a couple weeks, it will be up to Justin Bannan to continue to anchor the defensive line and make sure that Jamal Lewis is hit at the line of scrimmage, if not before. Lewis, as Ravens fans know, has the capacity to dominate when he is able to get a head of steam before churning out the yards after contact he is guaranteed to get. Will the D be able to force Anderson to put the ball in the air and make a mistake against an opportunistic secondary? I see Ed Reed in your future, Derek.

My Mildly Informed Analysis:

I wanted to put my analysis right in the questions, but I just had to hold back. I am excited for this one- I know too many bitter Browns fans not to be. However, this game is about far more than rivalry. It is about one team struggling to reach expectations against another team hoping to win every game but not expected to win many. Make no mistake- the Browns are determined not to go 0-3. Moreover, do not make the mistake of thinking this is a bad football team. They began the season against the best team in the NFL in Dallas (until they lose try to tell me otherwise) and then against the Steelers who they lost both games against last season. This may still be the team that went 10-6 last year, but hasn’t had the opportunity to show it.

The Ravens Offense vs. the Browns Defense
The Ravens offense could be very interesting this week. Fans should expect to see less of Ray Rice but still a good amount of La’Ron McClain, particularly receiving out of the backfield. The one element that Willis McGahee lacks is a consistency in the receiving game, and Cam Cameron will not hesitate to put multiple backs out there who can catch the football. McClain also offers Flacco a safety valve that he has not enjoyed yet from his tight ends or receivers outside of Derek Mason. In 2006 Sean Payton employed a similar strategy with Mike Karney, amounting to several unexpected touchdown catches and just one more weapon for Drew Brees to employ. I am not suggesting that this offense is like the Saints, but only that Flacco could use all the weapons he can get.

And he will have plenty of chances to use them. This Brown defense has its moments, but only when it is able to apply pressure on the quarterback. On paper it boasts one of the best defensive lines in the league, but beyond that it leaves quite a few questions to be answered. If either the running game can wear down the tough interior of that line or the offensive line can continue their dominating performance from the Bengals game, Flacco could get into a rhythm against their secondary. However, one must recall that the dominating offensive line performance was against the worst defensive line in the NFL. With an extra week of practice to gel as a unit, the line could manage some success- particularly with Crennel’s hesitation to blitz.

The Ravens Offense vs. the Browns Defense
On defense, it will be all about turnovers. Make no mistake, this Browns offense is capable of moving the football. Derek Anderson will be out to prove his worth against the wave of criticism thrust upon him since the end of last season. Jamal Lewis always runs hard against his former team. All numbers aside, this team is due an offense output like last season’s. Donte Stallworth may join Edwards on the sideline tomorrow (also listed as questionable), leaving Kellen Winslow as the lone receiving threat- though mismatches may be possible as Winslow runs more like a wide receiver than a tight end. Even so, the Ravens coverage will be able to play closer to the line with the top two “big play” threats essentially neutralized. Aside from this general overview, it is hard to make any determinations about the Browns offense because they have looked embarrassing in their first two games.

The Rundown
This is not the day the Browns turn it around. The Ravens are lighthearted, they are enjoying success but are not burdened by expectations just yet. The Browns are a good team, but even they know they aren’t good enough to make the playoffs after starting 0-3. Cleveland’s defense will be unable to apply consistent pressure- a front four will only be effective when aided by a blitz, which will enable Flacco to engage a worse secondary than most of his 1-AA competition. The Ravens defense will wear down as the season goes on and injuries pile up, but today they will take advantage of a Cleveland team pressing for points and making critical errors down the stretch. They will move the ball between the 20’s, but I don’t expect the Browns to capitalize with touchdowns.

The nod goes to the Ravens, 17-9

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