Thursday, September 24, 2009

Ravens-Browns Preview: Everything Coming Together for Baltimore

The Ravens escaped with a win over the Chargers, there is no other way to slice it. Yes they stood firm in the Red Zone, but the bolts had the Ravens secondary from the first snap and it was only the incredible play of Joe Flacco & the gang that kept Baltimore ahead. Many pieces have been written on Ray Lewis’ big tackle to seal the game (that will go on his highlight video in Canton), but San Diego carved up the defense for much of the afternoon despite missing their center and future Hall of Fame running back. For the second week in a row, I am wondering about the Ravens defense. If they are exploited on Sunday, it is time to get concerned.

The Browns are returning comfortably to the Browns of old after starting the season 0-2 and mustering a whole of 1 offensive touchdown. Against what was one of the worst defenses in the league last year in Denver, this team garnered only 6 points, 54 yards rushing, 161 yards passing, and had to throw the ball 31 times. What might be even more alarming is the defense, which sacrificed 27 points to a Bronco squad that only barely beat Cincinnati’s defense and was sending out a quarterback who admits that he is having trouble throwing anything beyond a short pass.

What I’m Wondering:

Will the Ravens cornerbacks recover this weekend?
If not, it won’t be because of an explosive quarterback or multiple receiving threats. If the secondary struggles this week then it will be time for Ravens fans to start to panic. I have never been sold on these cornerbacks (an Oakland flameout and a 3rd round pick who was traded for a 6th round pick and then cut), and this will be the week they have to prove themselves. Braylon Edwards, with his size and speed will pose a significant challenge for whichever corner is matched up against him, but after Edwards the talent pool gets much shallower- more on that later. Brady Quinn is only the starter right now because he is the fan favorite, and has done little to prove himself so far. This is the time for the secondary to shine.

Which offense will the Ravens show this weekend?
Both. Against Kansas City this team elected to air it out and make big plays down the field. Against San Diego they took a more deliberate, smashmouth approach. So far neither team has been able to stop either strategy, and with New England coming up in a week, I see no reason to show anything new on Sunday. Then again, that’s what I said against Kansas City and look what happened. Shaun Rogers is a force up the middle… and yea. There we go. Cam will have something up his sleeve as always, but I hope he doesn’t show too many of his cards.

Are the Browns this bad?
It is hard to say actually. They played well in the first half against Minnesota in Week 1, but since then they have been about as awful as everyone expected them to be. I am loathe to question a team too much after just two games, but I haven’t see anything to indicate that there is a hidden wealth of talent on the roster waiting to break out. I mean, when Hank Poteat is on your 2-deep at corner you have problems. However, it think their defense has the potential to be good this season- but the offense seems hopeless with the skill position players they have.

My Mildly Informed Analysis:

However you scheme it, the Browns lack talent on the offensive side of the ball. Apart from Braylon Edwards (who Cleveland hopes has stopped dropping catchable balls), their receiving corps consists of a poor man’s Devin Hester (Joshua Cribbs) being converted to receiver and a serviceable 3rd down possession receiver in Mike Furrey. I like Furrey a lot, but he is not an elite level receiver (there is a reason the Lions let him walk). Their tight end, following the trade of Kellen Winslow to the Buccaneers, is Robert Royal, who isn’t much of a receiving threat but has great blocking ability to lead the way for Jamal Lewis.

And that, my friends, is where we find the heart of the Browns offense. Jamal Lewis makes or breaks this attack, and for Cleveland he has performed admirably over the last few seasons. Behind a Pro Bowl left tackle in Joe Thomas, Lewis has rushed for at least 1000 yards in each of the last two seasons since coming to the Browns. He is as Ravens fans will remember him- runs right into defenders, over them and through them, a throwback running back from the 1970’s and 80’s. He is one of the few backs in this league who welcomes 30 carries a game- no, he expects it, and performs better the more carries you give him. But without a passing game, Lewis has struggled this season, mustering a paltry 95 yards through the first two games of the season. Tossing out the incredibly tough run defense of the Vikings, Lewis had only 14 carries for 38 yards against the Broncos, who had one of the league’s worst run defenses in the league last year.

With an erratic Brady Quinn under center, look for the Browns to give it to Jamal at first and when he is stuffed by Kelly Gregg and Haloti Ngata (and he will be eventually), they will be forced to put it in the air. This is where the game will be determined. If Edwards manages to out-leap and out-play Washington or Foxworth on a consistent basis, this game will be close. Quinn has an arm and if Braylon can catch a few long passes to keep drives alive, the defense will be gashed eventually up the middle by Jamal. I expect the Ravens to bracket Edwards with Ed Reed if Edwards is foolish enough to line up on his side of the field, and with Landry even closer if he is on the other side. Greg Mattison can’t let the Browns lone big play receiver be free one-on-one unless he is confident that Foxworth or Washington can handle him. As for Cribbs, this is where Washington’s and Foxworth’s speed is so important- Joshua Cribbs is a wonderful return man, but he is an unpolished receiver. As long as the cornerback can keep up with him, Cribbs does not have the technique to make a great play on the ball yet. Stay on his hip pocket and run with him, and he will not burn you.

As for the Ravens, I have no idea what to expect. With the way this team has attacked the defenses they have faced in weeks 1 and 2, there is nothing this team could try on Sunday that would surprise me. However, I will attempt a few guesses at what will be more effective against this Cleveland defense. Aside from Rogers at the nose tackle spot, the Browns boast two talented linebackers in former Terrapin D’Qwell Jackson and Kamerion Wimbley. Both have the ability to rush the passer and will likely be in full attack mode to try to slow down the Ravens passing game. One of the major reasons Joe Flacco has been so successful is the performance of his offensive line, without which he lacks the time to pick apart the defense. The Browns haven’t been known as much of a pass rushing team in the past, but they won’t have a choice but to send the house on the second-year signal caller. Look for Baltimore to isolate Shaun Rogers with multiple blockers and run draw plays with Rice and McGahee- that will keep the pass rush at bay or open up wide lanes for the quick-footed Ravens running backs.

Alternatively, I have no doubt that this team can still pound the ball with the best of them, and can probably simply run over the Browns if they need to. However, I think that with the lack of talent in the Cleveland secondary (Eric Wright is their only threatening corner, and even that is debatable) I think that Flacco will be able to hit receivers wherever he wants them. In sum, while Cleveland will throw everything into alternately stopping one or another part of the offense, they do not have the talent or personnel to shut it all down for the entire game. With the impotence of the Browns offense, the Ravens will have plenty of opportunities.

The Rundown

Why so much attention on Cleveland’s bad offense? That is the only way the Browns win this game- they will have to score more than the one offensive touchdown they have been able to muster so far this season. Brady Quinn will need to channel his Notre Dame days (and the Ravens would have to pretend they are a service academy) for this team to be successful. I don’t see the Ravens scoring as many points as they did in the first two weeks simply because I have trouble believing that this team just flipped a switch and now has an explosive offense- there have to be chinks in the armor somewhere.

The nod goes to the Ravens, 27 – 13.

UPDATE ON GAMEDAY (From Falco): Jamal Lewis has been ruled out for this game. Backup James Davis will be seeing many carries. Kicker Phil Dawson is also out; he will be replaced by Billy Cundiff.

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