The 4-3 Baltimore Ravens will visit the 3-4 Cleveland Browns Sunday. The Browns literally threw the game away in the first meeting. The Ravens are just one game behind the Steelers and they understand the importance of this game for both teams. This one has all the ingredients to be a classic, filled with the hard hits, intrigue and violence you would expect when these two teams face off.
The Ravens play the run as good if not better than anyone in the league. They do this by not getting themselves out of positions despite the shifting and movement. Rex Ryan's defense is organized chaos. The scheme is there to confuse the reads of the quarterback, and also by the center.
In the last meeting, QB Derek Anderson made the incorrect read on numerous occasions. On every play in which he made a bad decision, the opportunity was there for the huge play. The Ravens confusion worked to perfection, but the tape doesn't lie and the Browns will look to take advantage of the mismatches in the secondary. To make maters worse for the Ravens, this secondary is riddled with injuries.
Baltimore must protect their banged-up secondary if they are to have any success. The key to protecting that secondary will be providing enough of a pass rush to force Derek Anderson into throwing the ball quickly. That job will fall on the likes of OLB Terrell Suggs.
Suggs is off to a terrific start having produced 5 sacks in just 7 games. This number equals his sack total from a year ago. Suggs may be known for his ability to get to the quarterback, but he is also stout in run support and has become a terrific coverage linebacker. He has mastered the art of disguising his intent as he shows blitz and drops into coverage.
Look for the Browns to come out throwing early and often despite that same philosophy costing them the first game. I expect to see a more vertical passing game in this contest as the Ravens did a terrific job in the first meeting of jumping those quick slants and hot reads.
The Browns offensive line is playing at an extremely high level. This line is led by arguably the best left tackle in the game today, Joe Thomas. Joe will be facing off against Suggs. This should be one of the best individual battles this contest has to offer. Look for the Browns to run often behind Thomas as they look to slow down his pass rush and also to wear the speed linebacker down as the game progresses.
One area of the running game that is struggling is short yardage and goal-line situations. Part of the struggle is the inability of the line to create a solid push, especially in the middle, but there has also been hesitation by running back Jamal Lewis when the hole has been open. Jamal is a better back as the season progresses but, facing the fierce run defense of the Ravens, he may not get as many opportunities to run the ball as he would like.
This could, however, be a great week to get "The Ghost" Jerome Harrison involved in this offense. Harrison has the ability to shoot through the gap with incredible speed and when facing the Ravens the holes are not open for long. It is also Halloween weekend and who better to show up with a monster game than "the Ghost".
Anderson is the definition of inconsistency. The good Derek is as good as any quarterback in the game today. The bad Derek is the worst quarterback in football. In order for the Browns to reach that next level the bad Derek must be replaced with average Derek. This leaves you with the great quarterback or an average quarterback and that is good enough to put Derek and the Browns in the Super Bowl.
The Browns receiving corps is starting to come together at the right time for the Browns. WR Donte Stallworth has disappointing numbers for the Browns but his presence is making a difference. WR Braylon Edwards appears to be working his way out of the drop zone. The difference is the receiver looking the ball into his hands on a more consistent basis. He is making the catch before looking to see where the defense is sitting.
WR Syndric Steptoe is also starting to come of age. This remarkable young receiver is maturing right before our eyes. His routes are crisper and he is playing with confidence. You can see it in every part of his game. He may be the ideal slot receiver the Browns have been searching for.
TE Kellen Winslow II will return this week following his one-game suspension that wasn't really a suspension. Kellen gives it everything he has when he is on the field and look for that passion to be on full display during Sunday's contest. Kellen should have a huge game this week if the Browns choose to use him to deep down the middle.
The Ravens offense line has gone through a metamorphosis. A year ago, I felt this was arguably the worst line in football and now they are in my opinion top 10. The run blocking, is impressive but even more impressive is the fact that they are providing solid pass protection for a rookie quarterback that is getting everyone's best blitz package. This week they face a Browns team that is certain to blitz from every angle.
RT Adam Terry will be in for a tremendous challenge as he faces rookie OLB Alex Hall. Terry has missed the last three games due to an injured knee and remains questionable for this one. Terry has a size advantage but Hall's quick feet and long arms could be the difference in this one, especially if Terry doesn't have full mobility due to the knee injury.
Rookie QB Joe Flacco has been exactly what you expect from a rookie quarterback, and that is inconsistent. Part of this is due to the lack of quality receivers and especially lack of a big receiver that can just go up and fight the ball away.
It also doesn't help that TE Todd Heap has been banged up all season. Heap when healthy is a terrific pass-catching tight end and a tremendous safety valve-type receiver, but injuries the last two seasons have brought his production down to that of a run-blocking, one-dimensional tight end. If the Ravens are going to have long term success this season, they must get Heap healthy or find someone else to be that over-the-middle threat.
The Browns defense is improving every week. This week they will be looking to send a message that they failed to send in the first meeting. As defensive coordinator Mel Tucker has become more accustomed to his position, he is also becoming more aggressive as his confidence grows in this young secondary.
This secondary featuring two second-year corners and a safety many had written off as a bust is changing the way everyone looks at the Cleveland defense. FS Brodney Pool has completely overhauled his game. No longer is he hesitating and looking lost. He has become instinctive and aggressive and the more the defense asks him to do the more he impresses. Combined with Sean Jones, this safety tandem is as good as any you will find.
The play of CB Brandon McDonald and CB Eric Wright is allowing the safeties to play closer to the line and more aggressive. Their play is also allowing the front 7 to play the pocket. Whether it's getting to the quarterback or stopping the run, having confidence in the corners is allowing the front 7 to get after the pocket.
Getting into the pocket is looking easy for NT Shaun Rodgers. Despite being double- and triple-teamed on every play, Shaun is dominating the opposition. Everyone hoped Rodgers would make a difference but few imagined he would make this much of a difference. His play alone is enough to give general manager Phil Savage job security despite the inconsistent play of the Browns.
The Browns will look to turn the front seven loose this week and really get after the quarterback and running back. Look for the Ravens to face 7- and 8-man fronts throughout this contest. The two quarterbacks should decide the outcome of this one.