Sunday, November 2, 2008

Ravens-Browns Preview: Which Browns are These?

Sorry for the lack of Free Kicks this week, I know y’all were desperately awaiting my post World Series analysis and general musings about all thing sports (or otherwise). However, I think everyone had to be satiated by last night’s wild finish by Texas Tech. You just knew it would be Crabtree, right? Me too. I have no idea what would have happened if they’d had to leave it to their field goal kicker. I love the Matt Williams story, but I don’t trust any Tech kicker to win it against the #1 team in the country. More on Tuesday, but first we have the Ravens.

This game is not about the 4-3 Ravens against the 3-4 Browns. This game is about two teams that are suddenly hot and out to keep their division hopes alive. If the Browns lose this one they could see their comeback hopes dashed for this season. If the Ravens lose they fall back into the “mediocre” category and out of the playoffs. Playoffs? Hey, I don’t expect it either- but keep hope alive, kids. There are a million questions going into this one, I wish I had more than three to ask. Will Jamal continue to have success against his former team? Will the secondary treat Anderson like they did Russell? Will the return of the Browns skill position players from injury mean a great offensive output than in Week 3? Stay tuned, this game will be a good one.

What I’m Wondering:

Will Flacco make it three in a row without a pick?
Joe Flacco appears to be making some strides against some bad teams, which is exactly what he should be doing this season. Like all 32,000 Ravens starting quarterbacks before him, his job will be to not turn the ball over and make just enough plays to win the game. When he is throwing 2 or 3 interceptions a game, that isn’t in the gameplan. He is still completing 62% of his passes, but I would not mind that number going gown if it meant he wouldn’t throw the ball into dangerous windows. Flacco has a rocket for an arm, but he should remember that he has the Ravens defense to rely on and he does not have the weapons he should have right now with Demetrious Williams out for the season and rookies as his 3rd and 4th wide receivers. It could get dicey for Joe if he tries to live dangerously- keep it conservative and this Browns defense might wear down. Will Flacco continue to pare down his gunslinger tendencies to play within the gameplan?

Will the Wildcat continue to be successful with Troy Smith?
I love it when a new college offense shows up and all the prognosticators say that it can’t be run in the pros. They said the speed is too great on defense for the Wildcat offense to be effective in the NFL. At that time I wondered, “Aren’t the offensive players running it faster too?” With the Miami Dolphins stunning the Patriots earlier this year and the Ravens incorporating it slowly into their offense, it appears that it can be successful- especially when the player running the Wildcat can throw the ball better than any running back. Make no mistake, having Troy Smith back there gives the Ravens a unique edge over other Wildcat formations, a double threat that allows him to take advantage of whatever the defense gives him. The Wildcat will never be a staple offense for any team, but a few plays a game can force the opposing defense to spend an inordinate amount of time preparing for just a few dynamic plays. Will the Ravens be able to build on their success in this formation or was it just a surprise gimmick that happened to work?

Has Derek Anderson turned it around?
Well the “Start Brady Quinn” signs have been put away in Cleveland at least temporarily as Derek Anderson has found a way to return to some semblance of his performance at the beginning of this year. Over his last 4 games he has thrown only 1 interception to 5 touchdowns after throwing 5 picks in his first 3 games! In his game against the Giants he sported a passer rating of over 120 while completing passes to 8 different receivers. Ravens fans should understand this game as not one against a team that is 3-4, but a team that is 3-1 in its last 4 games and beginning to return to form. This could be bad news if Anderson is able to string together 2 strong passing performances for the first time this season. Anderson is playing with more confidence, will that lead to a successful outing against a battered Ravens secondary?

My Mildly Informed Analysis:

The Ravens have to be able to run the football, period. The three headed monster of McClain, McGahee and Rice is intriguing but has to show consistent success to keep Joe Flacco out of 3rd and long situations that will force him to make a poor decision. It is amazing what impact a strong running game will have on a young quarterback. Cam Cameron will be able to open up the playbook significantly if they can rely on the fact that on a 2nd and 8 they can still afford to run the ball. But the need for a running game is a given.

How about that Wildcat? It is a great way to get Troy Smith on the field, but will defenses catch on? Survey says probably not, if you take Miami’s example. Sure, the formation with Ronnie Brown under center has not been as effective as it was against the Patriots, but it has been a consistently successful formation for them this season, and their offense has taken a big step forward just by having it as a threat. Every time Brown is on the field the defense has to wonder if it is going to him or if the formation will suddenly change. Unfortunately Troy Smith can’t be used as a running back too often, and he isn’t a regular part of the offense outside the Wildcat as Ronnie Brown is. However, as long as only a few teams are doing it, it will be tough to combat. But this is a copycat league- in 4 or 5 years half the teams in the league will have a Wildcat. For now though the Browns might find it a tad confusing to deal with.

The secondary as always is shaky- for the 3rd week in a row both McAlister and Rolle will be out of the picture and it will be left to Frank Walker and Fabian Washington to head up the top two cornerback spots. This group of DBs did not look good against either Indy or Miami, allowing Chad Pennington to throw for almost 300 yards and complete almost 70% of his passes. Against Oakland they were terrific, but who isn’t? Derek Anderson will be looking to test Walker particularly from the very beginning and take advantage of whomever is lined up against a resurgent Braylon Edwards.

The Browns will also attempt to take the bite out of the Ravens pass rush by utilizing Kellen Winslow Jr. as a safety valve receiver. He has never been the best blocker but if the Browns can dish the ball out to Winslow when Anderson is feeling pressure it will force the Ravens to leave an extra man back to cover Winslow or limit the amount of blitzing altogether. With a steady dose of Jamal Lewis up the middle it will be essential that the Ravens get pressure with a four man front or this Browns offense could find itself in a rhythm early on.

The Rundown:

I have no idea what team(s) I expect to see today. It could very well be the Browns of ’07 as this year’s edition appears to be finding its way after handing the defending champion Giants their one and only loss 4 weeks ago. If so, the Ravens could be in for a long day as they have been able to beat up on poor competition but not against the better teams of the NFL. However, the Ravens too are starting to get into a groove. Flacco isn’t turning the ball over as much and Cam Cameron has not stopped finding new and unique ways to utilize the talent on this roster. In the end the Browns won’t be able to show the Ravens anything they haven’t seen before; the Ravens on the other hand are brand new. Oh yea, and they have the Ravens D.

The nod goes to the Ravens, 24-20

Photo Credit: (Baltimore Sun: Gene Sweeney Jr.)

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