The battle lines have been drawn on the gridiron for Sunday's game between the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns. Heading into this divisional contest, the storyline should read: "Can the Browns offense rekindle its fire against this Baltimore defense?
Baltimore, coming off a 34-15 thrashing at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers cannot afford to lose consecutive divisional games to start the season. Despite an offense that is predicated on running the football, the Ravens failed to feature running back Jamal Lewis. Starting the season with rookie Kyle Boller at quarterback, Ravens head coach Brian Billick has placed his Ravens in a precarious situation, and Sunday's game borders on a must-win situation for Baltimore.
Billick knows the Ravens will have their fair share of struggles on the offensive side of the ball, and looks to his defense to keep his team close. In essence, it is the defense that should be the driving force to keep putting W's on the board for this young team.
The vaunted Ravens defense, known for their ability to get after the quarterback and their aggressive nature, were shells of themselves against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Starting linebacker Ray Lewis was a non-factor, the pass rush could only muster two sacks against a very ordinary Pittsburgh offensive line, and the defensive backfield suffered breakdown after breakdown.
Many of the Ravens issues in the defensive secondary occurred after starting cornerback Corey Fuller was forced to exit the game with a strained quadriceps. Gary Baxter slid over from his safety position to fill in for Fuller, but the undoing of the Baltimore defense doesn't just lie with him.
Chris McAlister, the Ravens noted shutdown cornerback, also struggled against Steelers' wide receivers Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward. A good sign for the Ravens is that the defensive backs were not beaten over the top. Most of the damage done against the secondary was on vertical crossing routes. This problem can be rectified in practice.
Lining-up against the Browns on Sunday, the challenge posed to the Baltimore defensive backs may be greater than the one they faced with the Steelers. Cleveland possesses as deep a wide receiver corps as there is in the game today, though Cleveland may not have two-starting receivers of the quality of Burress and Ward.
The Browns depth in numbers may become a factor against the Ravens if a revamped Cleveland offensive line can provide quarterback Kelly Holcomb time to throw the football. While the Ravens may finally have their full compliment of defensive backs healthy and ready to play, they will have some problems with the Browns passing game if the Ravens cannot generate a consistent pass rush.
Much like last week in Pittsburgh, the Ravens defense can be expected to control the Browns' inconsistent ground attack. Cleveland will look to open-up the run off the passing game, if they can expose any weakness in the Ravens run defense.
At the quarterback spot, Pittsburgh's Tommy Maddox and Cleveland's Kelly Holcomb are similar in many ways. Both waited a long time for the opportunity to start in the NFL. Both have shown the ability to recognize a defense and aggressively attack a weakness, and both thrown the slant and crossing routes well. The Browns like to throw the fade and post routes off play-action, the Ravens are expected to come in overly aggressive and playing like they have something to prove Sunday.
These routes will be attacked by the Browns on Sunday. If the Ravens cannot improve upon the lapses from a week ago, Sunday may be another long day in Baltimore.