Ravens' defense brace for toughest challenge

OWINGS MILLS -- Trapped in a football season littered with losses and controversy, the Baltimore Ravens momentarily escaped from their grim reality a week ago with a dramatic upset win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Now, the challenge only increases. One week removed from edging the defending AFC North champions in overtime, the last-place Ravens (3-7) are bracing for an even tougher encounter in Sunday's game against the Cincinnati Bengals (7-3) at Paul Brown Stadium.

Installed as a nine-point underdog against the high-powered Bengals, the Ravens will find out if the top-ranked defense in the AFC can hold up against one of the most explosive offenses in the league.

"I think this is the best offense in the league right now notwithstanding the dynamics of Peyton Manning and all he brings," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "This is as big of a challenge as our defense will face all year long."

Coming off a 45-37 loss to the Indianapolis Colts where the Bengals produced 492 yards of total offense, quarterback Carson Palmer and receiver Chad Johnson appear to be approaching their peak.

Palmer leads the NFL with a 105.6 passer rating, and Johnson leads the AFC in receptions (61) and receiving yards (997).

Known for his colorful, imaginative touchdown celebrations and trash-talking, Johnson caught eight passes for a career-high 189 yards against the Colts. He got down on one knee and made a mock marriage proposal to a Bengals cheerleader after a 68-yard touchdown. She accepted.

"I've got a good one," Johnson told Cincinnati reporters without revealing what he's plotting to do if he scores his seventh touchdown of the season Sunday. "I have something that's going to top the proposal, so you know it's good."

The Ravens would like nothing better than to silence the brash All-Pro wideout.

However, Johnson traditionally has excelled against Baltimore with 44 receptions for 712 yards and five touchdowns in nine career games.

""Chad does all the talking," Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister said. "I just do all the playing. I'll let him run his mouth and get himself into trouble."

Palmer has spelled a lot of trouble for the Ravens recently.

The former Heisman Trophy winner has passed for 630 yards, five touchdowns and one interception in his last two starts against Baltimore.

Selective with his strong-armed throws, Palmer rarely commits mistakes and has completed a staggering 69.5 percent of his throws for 2,620 yards, 20 touchdowns and six interceptions.

One week after exploiting the absence of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger by sacking Tommy Maddox six times, the Ravens will play a quarterback who's having a Pro Bowl, if not a potential MVP season. The Ravens' three wins this year are against less-than sterling quarterbacks: Maddox, Cleveland's Trent Dilfer and the New York Jets' Brooks Bollinger.

"Palmer is a polished quarterback," Ravens linebacker Bart Scott said. "He is young, but he's polished and he reads the field really well.

"When he sees the safety roll down or two-deep coverage, he knows where to go with the football. He is quick and decisive with decisions."
The Ravens' defensive strategy will likely center on pressuring Palmer with aggressive blitz packages while doing everything they can to jam Johnson.

That will include occasionally splitting out 6-foot-2, 270-pound outside linebacker Adalius Thomas to bump Johnson at the line.

Yet, the Ravens are banged-up again on defense with McAlister, Samari Rolle injured and safety Ed Reed and middle linebacker Ray Lewis sidelined for the sixth and fifth consecutive game, respectively.

Offensively, the Ravens will try to keep the Bengals off the field by establishing the run.

Cincinnati ranks 25th against the run, but limited Jamal Lewis and Chester Taylor to 58 yards on 18 carries in a 21-9 win three weeks ago.

A planned rotation probably tilted toward Taylor because of his success and Lewis' struggles might be derailed by Taylor's sore ankle. It's unclear how much it will affect him, or how the carries will be divided.

"We don't know going in by design," Billick said. "We're struggling right now to find out what the combination is."

Sunday's game might determine whether the Ravens, who have lost eight consecutive road games in a streak that dates back to November of 2004, can handle a taste of success.

"If you get too high, you end up losing and let down," receiver Derrick Mason said. "If you get too low, then you end up staying there.

"You always want to look at the big picture. The win was great against Pittsburgh, but we can't lose focus of what we're trying to do the remainder of the season."

In a game few believe they will win, the Ravens also have another opportunity to take out their frustrations against a team with playoff aspirations.

"If spoiling comes along with the profile of our team, then we're that," Scott said. "We're just hungry for a win, being the spoiler or whatever. If we can ruin somebody else's season, then that is always a good thing."

 

In addition to being a long time contributor to RavensInsider, Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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