Ravens looking for an edge in the AFC North

OWINGS MILLS - If the football gods were indeed angry at the Baltimore Ravens, as coach Brian Billick suggested upon an injury to tight end Todd Heap, it looks like they've made an atonement. <br><br> Despite the loss of their top downfield threat, the Ravens (1-1) appear to hold edges in critical matchups for Sunday's game against the Cincinnati Bengals (1-1) at Paul Brown Stadium.

Jamal Lewis sports a sterling track record against the Bengals and is hungry for a breakout game plus his blockers own a distinct size advantage over the Bengals' defensive front.

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's blitz-oriented defense gets a rare encounter with an opposing quarterback less experienced than Kyle Boller. And cornerback Chris McAlister is coming off a rare shutdown of talkative, talented Bengals receiver Chad Johnson.

"Let's bang it out," offensive tackle Orlando Brown said. "Let's hit 'em."

That aggressive approach is likely to start with testing out Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, who's entering his third NFL start after watching Jon Kitna operate for his entire rookie season.

"That's the conventional thinking," Billick said. "Everybody says, 'Oh, I've got a young guy, let's blitz him.' Our philosophy -- old, young, it doesn't matter -- let's blitz him. There's certain things you're going to test a young player with that you might be a little more cautious with a veteran, but we're not going to be imprudent about it."

There are no visible signs of overconfidence in the Baltimore locker room. Not against a Marvin Lewis team that the one-time architect of the Ravens' Super Bowl defense boosted to 8-8 respectability last season. Certainly not in a road game the Ravens have lost two of the past three years in a stadium where the once-hapless Bengals have won six of their past seven games.

"I'm going to let Cincinnati pull their own chains," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said. "Marvin's done a great job trying to turn them around, but when you have so many missing pieces at so many places...They have to start jelling. When they do, they're going to be a team that's a force. Right now, they're still going to be a team that has to figure some things out here and there."

Defensively, the Ravens don't seem concerned about a Bengals running game that traded away disgruntled tailback Corey Dillon to New England and replaced him with unsung Rudi Johnson. Johnson has gained 134 yards on 45 carries for a 3.0 average.

"They have Rudi Johnson, who's made a couple of plays here and there, but I don't know if I'd put him up there with Corey Dillon yet," Ray Lewis said. "Missing Corey's going to be big."

McAlister held Johnson to a season-low two catches for 15 yards in the Ravens' 31-13 win in Baltimore last December. Afterward, Johnson admitted that 7-11, his self-appointed nickname, got shut down.
Baltimore doesn't have to ponder its offensive philosophy much: run the football a lot and remain selective through the air when Boller is dared to throw.

The Bengals' defense features multiple fronts to cause confusion. But there's only so much a defensive line that averages 284 pounds can do against a Baltimore offensive line that averages 319.2 pounds with four starters who weigh 340 pounds and above, including 6-foot-9, 345-pound All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden.

"They move around a lot, slant guys, but they ain't real big," Brown said of a Cincinnati front led by end Justin Smith.

With 119 yards, Lewis' production is well off his pace from a year ago when he ran for a league-high 2,066 yards. At this rate, he would finish the season with a career-low 952 yards. Yet, he's gained 100 yards or more in all six meetings against the Bengals with 281 yards and three touchdowns against them last year.

The reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year's longest run is 12 yards, but he appears due. The running game got warmed up a week ago in a 30-13 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers as Lewis scored twice and backup Chester Taylor gained a career-high 72 yards.

"People expect a lot more out of you because that's the way you set your standard," Jamal Lewis said. "It will come. I'm a patient guy. I'm not really worried about yards as long as we win and we put points on the board. I hope they put 12 guys on stopping me. If they key on us like that, we should be able to hit some passes over the top with the wide receivers."

The Ravens will need Boller to duplicate last week's turnover-free outing while making Cincinnati pay downfield if they overload the box.
Boller's only career 300-yard passing game was in last year's 34-26 loss at Cincinnati. He posted a 104.2 rating with two touchdown passes, but threw an interception and fumbled twice.

"I remember I was in critical situations with field position and lost the ball," Boller said. "I'm going to make sure I protect the ball. I can't wait to get back up there because I feel like I threw the ball well."

The sidelines are worth watching, too. This marks the third game between Billick and Marvin Lewis, and both are well aware of each other's strategies and tendencies.

"It becomes a bad Abbott and Costello theme: 'I know that you know that he knows that I know so we're going to do this, but he knows that, so we're going to do something else,'" Billick said. "You can drive yourself nuts doing that."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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