Offensive Game Plan
1.) Using the two-back set in order to open up play-action: Clearly, Cleveland's main focus on defense is to slow down the Ravens' vaunted rushing attack headed by last year's rushing champion: Jamal Lewis. How the Browns go about accomplishing this goal is a crucial issue to discern. In last year's season series, the Browns used eight and nine man fronts to create unbalanced blocking situations for Raven blockers to deal with. However, when the Raven blockers were able to get a hat on a hat on a given down, and Lewis had a clean crease that he could barrel through in order to get five or six yards past the line of scrimmage, he was able to enter the second level of the field without facing resistance. And as Cleveland knows all too well, once Lewis gets past the first line of defense, he's got the finishing speed to score a touchdown.
If Cleveland uses the same hit or miss defensive scheme in Sunday's match-up, Lewis will continue to hit on a couple of big plays because the Baltimore line has the capability of overpowering the Cleveland defensive front seven at the point of impact. What the Browns' coaches may do is to play things safer using just a seven or eight man front to stop the run. The downside of using this type of front to stop the run is obvious; instead of ripping off a couple of 20-to-40 yard back breaking gains, Lewis would have the chance to gain four and five yards consistently up the middle, which would set up favorable conversion situations for the Ravens' offense. However, the plus for Cleveland would be forcing the Ravens offense to march up and down the field instead of scoring quickly.
Either way, the Ravens can expose the Browns in the running game if they stay in a power formation: two backs, one tight end, two wide receivers. The emphasis for using this formation is to keep Alan Ricard on the field. Ricard is a tough isolation blocker who can consistently win his encounter with any of the Cleveland linebackers.
The other reason for staying in this set is to create a more biting play-action passing game. After all, if Ricard is in the game, it's usually a good indication that the Ravens are attempting to run the ball. Kyle Boller wouldn't even need to sell the run fake that well, as Cleveland defenders will be prone to cheating up field to stop Lewis. If the Brown defenders are too aggressive when reading the handoff, and don't stick with their coverage assignments, space will be opened up down the field for Raven receivers to work with.
In addition, the Ravens can use play-action to bait Cleveland defenders into moving towards the play side of the formation, while Boller would roll out to the opposite side in order to throw the ball on the run.
2.) Motioning Heap: Todd Heap is not only one of the game's best all-around tight ends, but you could argue that he is the most versatile. Heap can line up at three different positions: split out wide, out of the slot or in the backfield. Given that type of versatility, the Raven coaches should flex Heap in motion as much as possible. Moving the Pro-Bowl tight-end out of a certain spot on the field will create a mismatch for him to work with or create a mismatch for the other receivers to take advantage of once the defense declares its formation, and slides with Heap.
3.) Sticking with the run: Perhaps the most crucial point of emphasis in this match-up for the Ravens is to stay with the ground attack no matter how ineffective it may be in the beginning stages of the game. This is the same goal that all good running teams preach every week, but often times a team can be deterred from continuously pounding the ball because it hasn't had any success.
Against Cleveland, it is especially important to run the ball at least 30 times, unless the game gets out of hand right away and the Ravens offense is forced to play catch up. By consistently ramming the ball at Cleveland's front seven, the Browns undersized front should eventually wear down from hitting Lewis for the better part of three quarters.
Defensive Game Plan
1.) Using the Nickel formation: One thing we pretty much know for sure is that the Browns cannot line up in a power formation, and run the ball right at the Ravens' front. They will attempt to spread out the Ravens using a three-wide, one tight end and one back set. After all, the strength of the Browns' offense, maybe the entire team, is its receiving core led by Kellen Winslow Jr.. Receivers Andre' Davis, Quincy Morgan and Dennis Northcutt are nice complementary players to Winslow because they can exploit man-to-man coverage if Winslow attracts a double team.
Indeed, the Ravens should anticipate seeing this formation quite frequently on Sunday. To be in better position to defend it, the Ravens would be better off exclusively lining up in a nickel package. This would be a 3-3-5 formation in which Ed Hartwell would be substituted for Deion Sanders. Using this formation would leave the Ravens exposed up front, but better protected against the pass. With an extra defensive back on the field, the Ravens would have more flexibility to double team Winslow.
2.) Stopping Garcia: The addition of Jeff Garcia in the off-season was a big move for Cleveland. Although the former 49er has been injury prone over the last two seasons, and is on the downside of his career, he is still capable of putting together a Pro Bowl season or two. Garcia should fit well in Cleveland's offense because he can gain yardage running the ball or throwing the ball while on the move. In fact, Garcia is at his best when the pocket is breaking down and he has the chance to improvise. Where Garcia struggles is when he has to make deeper throws while sitting in the pocket. He loses accuracy on these pass attempts because he lacks the arm strength to deliver the ball down the field.
When the Ravens faced Garcia and the 49ers last season, they were able to successfully contain him in the pocket by blitzing less than they normally do. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan had his linebackers drop into coverage to squeeze the windows that Garcia could throw through, so he would have to be pinpoint accurate in order to get the ball to his receivers. Nolan's game plan worked, as the Ravens forced Garcia into throwing four interceptions.
A similar game plan should be used again this year, except that the Ravens might be able to afford blitzing off the perimeter, forcing Garcia to step up in the pocket instead of moving laterally. The key, though, is that the Raven linebackers cannot be too aggressive when they blitz, giving Garcia the chance to slash through an open crease. The goal has to be creating a net around Garcia that he can't escape out of.
One-on-One Battle to Watch
Kellen Winslow versus Ed Reed: The Raven coaches don't usually rely on any given defender to shadow a dangerous tight end, so it's doubtful that Ed Reed would exclusively cover Winslow. That said; Reed will get enough chances to line up against his former Miami Hurricane teammate. Winslow is a wide receiver trapped in a tight end's body. He possesses the speed to run past safeties, even some cornerbacks, and the leaping ability to grab jump balls. Winslow is also adept at gaining yards after the catch. Containing him will be perhaps the Ravens' biggest priority in this upcoming game.