After an 0-2 start at home, the Browns are facing one of their most difficult stretches of the season with 4 of the next 5 games being on the road. The Ravens got an unexpected but much needed week off due to Ike's effects on the gulf coast. The unexpected layoff gives rookie QB John Flacco not only more time to work on his own game but also time to study the Browns defensive approach. The Browns will be looking for their third straight win over the Ravens, while the Ravens are looking to go 2-0 and keep pace with the Steelers.
The injury excuse has been thrown around to justify the horrendous play of the offense but that excuse does not hold water. This unit lacks discipline, confidence and leadership. Winning can cure the lack of confidence. Discipline is cured with attention to detail in practice. Leaders emerge in the face of adversity. This team, for whatever reason, withers in the face of adversity and that must change if the Browns are to change the course of this season.
Quarterback Derek Anderson is struggling in large part due to the approach of opposing defenses. The game plan is simple - take away the deep ball and blanket WR Braylon Edwards. The deep ball is where Derek has made his living and he has become so focused on getting Edwards involved that he is struggling to look beyond the prolific receiver. When a quarterback develops tunnel vision, he is already doing what the defense wants him to do and that is taking away receiving options.
The Ravens have a ball-hawking secondary and it is imperative that Anderson not only looks off the defense but also uses the pump fake to get them moving away from his intended target. A pump fake to Edwards will open up the opposite side of the field. Just let the game come to Braylon Edwards and do not try to force it just to appease the talented receiver.
With Jamal Lewis and the running game struggling in part due to injuries, the Browns must get Jerome Harrison involved in this offense as a runner and also as the safe dump down option. Giving Anderson a true safety valve with big play potential will help keep the aggressive defense of the Ravens in check.
The status of Browns LG Eric Steinbach is in doubt. The chemistry between Steinbach and LT Joe Thomas has been instrumental in the success of the unit. If Steinbach is unable to go on Sunday, Seth McKinney will likely get the start. In order for the Browns to have any success the Browns offensive line must step up to the challenge especially with their communication along the line.
The Ravens are a very difficult team to run on but you can't abandon the run either. Mix up when you run the football. The Browns should use the draw play on 3rd down to keep them guessing. You can also use the rollout backside screen to slow their defensive aggression.
TE Kellen Winslow is the most talented player in this offense. Winslow is
capable of taking over games when you keep him involved in the offense. With
teams focusing so much on Edwards, Winslow should be having a career season.
Rex Ryan is the most creative defensive coordinator in football today. Age and injuries have slowed the Ravens defense but Ryan has managed to keep this unit at or near the top in virtually every defensive category. Expect this to be Ryan's last year as defensive coordinator for the Ravens, as he is likely to become a head coach in 2009.
What makes Ryan special as a coach is his ability to think outside the box when game planning for an opponent. He will ask his linebacker to get out and jam receivers at the line. He will drop his defensive linemen back into coverage and blitz from any given position. It is all about keeping the offense guessing and unable to gain a great pre-snap read.
The Ravens defensive front is quick and explosive off the line with Trevor Pryce, Haloti Ngata at the end positions and Kelly Gregg (unlikely to play) at nose tackle. Ngata has emerged as one of the best run stuffing ends in the game today. His leg drive combined with tremendous upper body strength commands the double on nearly every play.
Linebacker play is the heart and soul of the defense. While Ray Lewis is no longer wreaking destruction all over the field, he remains instrumental in the success of the Ravens. Ray has become a very cerebral player using his instincts and quick reads instead of relying on his quickness. Combined with Bart Scott, this is a formidable tandem in the middle.
Terrell Suggs is one of the most dominant outside linebackers in the game today, and is capable of taking over games with is ability to get to the quarterback. Although his sack numbers have been in steady decline over the years, he is a much better linebacker. Whether it's dropping into coverage or sealing the edge to force the run back inside, Terrell will find a way to make a huge impact in the game.
The Ravens secondary has been hit with the injury bug but everyone appears to be healthy enough to play. Led by cornerback Chris McAllister and safety Ed Reed, this is as good of a group as you will find. It is a secondary built upon good tackling and making plays on the football.
The Browns lost defensive end Robaire Smith for the season due to an Achilles tendon injury. This injury hurts not only due to Smith's underrated play but also the depth up front took a huge hit. The Browns must find someone to fill that void in their four-man rotation.
The Browns raised eyebrows when not only did they trade Leigh Bodden and a third round pick for Shaun Rodgers but also gave the underachieving Rodgers an extension. Thus far, that move is proving to be a good one. Rogers is playing like a man possessed. He is not only forcing the double but he is often beating that double and making plays in the backfield. The Browns must keep the big man fresh and that is why finding the fourth man will be the challenge for the Browns.
Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson has been a bit of a disappointment for the Browns. The poor play of the line contributed to those struggles and also contributed to bad habits. Jackson however appears to be shedding those bad habits as he is starting to show signs of why he was drafted. He was run over by Willie Parker last week and did not have a great week on the stat sheet but he clogged holes and forced the play outside on a consistent basis. Gap integrity is a must and it will be even more vital this week with the speed of McGahee and Rice. If you miss an assignment against that kind of speed, it will likely result in 6 points.
OLB Willie McGinest has battled injury and ridicule this season. The aging linebacker has struggled to produce. Rookie Alex Hall could be asked to make his first start. Hall's quickness and long arms will be an asset facing the monster RT Adam Terry. Terry can engulf defenders but he can also struggle with raw speed and quickness. It should be one of the more exciting individual battles to watch on Sunday.
SS Sean Jones is likely out for another four weeks but the strong safety position was not a weakness as Brodney Pool played his best game as a Brown. Pool appears to have found a home away from free safety. His blanket coverage on the tight end was something rarely seen for the Browns and he also came up with several big hits and big stops in run support. Pool will be in for a serious challenge as he goes head-to-head with TE Todd Heap and the potent running game of the Ravens.
The Browns corner tandem of Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald is talented
but far too inconsistent at this point. The inexperience has shown but they
must take their lumps this year and look to improve every time out. This is
a game where they will likely be asked to play more press coverage. They are
much better in press than in zone. They will likely be asked to jam the
receivers and keep an eye on the backfield as the Ravens will look to get
their backs outside.
The Ravens offense has been placed in the hands of Cam Cameron. To get an idea of Cam's offense look no farther than the Browns offense. Browns OC Rob Chudzinski worked under Cameron in San Diego and while each has their own preferences, the schemes are very similar.
QB John Flacco is also very similar to the Browns Derek Anderson although Flacco has shown more proficiency in the short game than his counterpart. John has tremendous size and arm strength with a bit more mobility than advertised. The most impressive aspect of the young quarterback is the plays that he has not made. He has shown a willingness to throw the ball away and not force the ball.
Flacco is blessed with a pretty good offensive line and a trio of talented backs at his disposal. The Ravens have completely overhauled this line and while the chemistry is a work in progress they are working well together especially with their run blocking.
RB Willis McGahee will likely make his first start of the season due to injury. Willis is willing to run it inside but has the speed and nimble feet to bounce it outside. Ray Rice is all about speed and vision. He doesn't like to make a lot of moves but he can be very elusive especially with his quick one cut and off to the races approach.
The Ravens receiving corps may not receive the accolades for receiving the ball but this group is vastly underrated. They are terrific at blocking. Not only are they willing to block defensive backs but they will come up and hit linebackers and defensive linemen if it means freeing up the back. They also do a great job at rubbing defenders on those quick slants.
Whenever these two teams face off there always seems to be excitement with the special teams unit. Whether its returns for touchdowns, fumbles on returns or controversial kicks, special teams will once again play a huge role in this contest.