Five Critical Questions
1. Will the Baltimore Ravens advance to 3-0 for the first time in franchise history? That's the most likely scenario, particularly since they're competing against another winless outfit today versus the Cleveland Browns. The Ravens are probably too talented, physical and hungry to lose for the third consecutive year at their traditional AFC North rival. Like the Raiders and Buccaneers, the Browns have issues with their offensive line. Except Cleveland has perhaps even more dire problems in its injury-riddled secondary. It doesn't appear to shape up well for the home team, and Baltimore should be determined to redeem itself on offense. The combination of a bad offensive line trying to hold back the flood gates of the Ravens' pass rush to protect a fairly green quarterback in Charlie Frye sounds like a recipe for disaster for the Browns.
2. Will the Ravens find the path to the end zone without a road map and a compass? The Ravens' red-zone failures have been well-documented. They're tied for 20th in the NFL in red-zone scoring percentage with a 33.3 percent mark. Their primary foibles have been a series of penalties, especially the offensive line, and veteran quarterback Steve McNair's confounding lack of accuracy in confined areas. A lack of imaginative calls inside the 20-yard line from offensive coordinator Jim Fassel and Ravens coach Brian Billick have exacerbated the situation. The Ravens need to get a handle on this problem right now. As wide receiver Derrick Mason astutely pointed out, this kind of production won't beat the elite teams.
3. How many big plays will linebacker Adalius Thomas make? Thomas, who's in a contract year, is rapidly emerging as the Ravens' most valuable defender. He plays safety, linebacker, end, tackle and even lined up at cornerback last year. At 6-foot-2, 270 pounds, his blend of size and athleticism and ability to disguise what position he's playing could cause confusion for Frye.
4. Is Jamal Lewis primed for a big game? With a limited workload in the first two games, Lewis is getting healthier each week and might see increased carries today. Lewis has posted five of his 25 career 100-yard games against the Browns, including his NFL single-game record 295-yard game in 2003. The Browns are allowing nearly 160 rushing yards a game.
5. Can the Ravens contain explosive receiver Braylon Edwards and silence tight end Kellen Winslow? Winslow leads the Browns in receptions, but has yet to get untracked vertically. Edwards, though, already has a 75-yard touchdown and is averaging 22.2 yards per reception. He's likely to be covered by cornerback Chris McAlister.
Three downs with …
1. On the importance of being able to throw deep: "I think it's more about the execution. If we had completed a couple of passes last week that should have been completed, it would be a lot different story. We wouldn't be here talking about it. It's not just trying to push the ball down the field. We will take what they give us and hopefully get us a couple of deep balls. We just didn't execute last week. That's the change we need to make."
2. On his understanding of the Ravens' playbook: "Very comfortable. It's not just about the playbook anymore. It's about going out there and executing and putting this team in a position to win. That's the main thing right now. I'm very comfortable with the offense and what we're doing on Sundays. We did not play a perfect game offensively. We can get better as a team. I think last week we didn't establish our tempo offensively. We've got to establish that."
3. On the personality of the offense: "We're on the right track. We are going to take some bumps and bruises here and there, but we have to forget about the bad things and concentrate on getting better. The longer you carry the bad things with you, the longer the process is going to take. Overall, I think the attitude of this offense is phenomenal. We have got some great guys who are willing to pay the price to get better and do the right things."
Three downs with …
1. On the morale of the team: "I think the morale is pretty good. Everybody was down after the game, but we're just working to get our first win. I think everybody is working towards that and we have to be. We've got to pull together, players and coaches have to pull together, and get the win. You can't think like ['We're cursed']. That's a losing mentality. If you're worrying about other stuff, you're thinking about the wrong stuff."
2. On his reaction to Kellen Winslow's complaints: "You know Kellen. He's a real intense, high-energy type of guy. He's very competitive. So, he's going to want the ball because he thinks he's a playmaker and that he can move the chains for us. You expect a guy like that to want the ball. But maybe he should have gone to coach [Romeo Crennel] before he went to the media. That's something that coach said. So, we are supportive of the coaches, but we understand Kellen, too."
3. On being in the same division with Carson Palmer, Ben Roethlisberger and Steve McNair: "Steve is the veteran of the three. He's proven himself in this league as one of the toughest quarterbacks to play the position and he's been very effective. You can't take anything away from what Ben has done. He won the Super Bowl in Year II. Carson had a heck of a year last year, too. This is really my first year to prove what I can do."
WHO HAS THE EDGE?
Total (25) Rushing (10) Passing (28)
Steve McNair truly struggled a week ago, particularly with his accuracy in the red zone, and forced an interception. He should outduel Charlie Frye, especially if they open up the passing game and shed this ultra-conservative approach.
Jamal Lewis should make up a slogan like "Jamal Rocks Cleveland." Or maybe not. With apologies to Drew Carey and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum, expect Lewis to regain a measure of his old dominance against the Browns.
They looked bad last week, especially with Tony Pashos getting flagged like his name was Ethan Brooks. Edwin Mulitalo and Mike Flynn were exposed by Warren Sapp. If they can't block an old, fat guy like Ted Washington, then this group is really in trouble.
Total (1) Rushing (1) Passing (3)
They controlled the line of scrimmage and have paved a track for blitzing linebackers to sprint through. Trevor Pryce woke up from his slumber. Who's going to be the next big guy to rumble down the field on a return only to run out of gas?
They secretly like the comparisons to the old Super Bowl trio of 'backers: Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper. Just an opinion, but even an older Lewis along with Adalius Thomas and Bart Scott seems like a better, more versatile unit.
Chris McAlister has the most difficult assignment today: checking Braylon Edwards. He's capable of matching his athleticism, size and strength. It will be interesting to see if Ed Reed checks tight end Kellen Winslow, his old University of Miami teammate.
Return specialist B.J. Sams leads the entire league in kickoff return average. Kick Matt Stover ranks eighth in NFL scoring history with 1,617 points. He has converted 26 consecutive field goals, a personal-best and franchise mark. Rookie punter Sam Koch averaged 45.3 yards on seven punts against the Raiders.
Total (29) Rushing (26t) Passing (22)
Charlie Frye is a mobile, strong-armed young passer whom the Ravens respect. Watch for him to try to execute a few designed roll-outs to create time and room to operate.
This is the most promising aspect of the offense since it includes Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow. There isn't much depth, though. A talented receiving corps can be rendered moot if the quarterback doesn't have adequate time to throw.
Although they've only allowed five sacks, Charlie Frye has been under nearly constant pressure. Kevin Shaffer has been a disappointment at left tackle. The season-ending knee injury to LeCharles Bentley was a crippling blow for this offense.
Total (30) Rushing (28) Passing (28)
Orpheus Roye is doubtful and he's the best part of this nondescript, aging unit. Ted Washington is humongous, but he's also several pounds overweight and might tip the scales at nearly 400 pounds.
Andra Davis has been making a lot of tackles, downfield though. Willie McGinest is hurt and up in years. Kamerion Wimbley represents the future. Former Maryland star D'Qwell Jackson is fitting in quickly.
Banged-up, the Browns are down to two second-string cornerbacks in the starting lineup. Their safeties, Sean Jones and Brian Russel, are pretty solid tacklers and are decent in pass coverage.
Phil Dawson is one of the most consistent kickers in football. However, he has only attempted and made one field goal this year. Former Baltimore punter Dave Zastudil has gotten plenty of exercise, averaging 45 yards on 11 punts. Return man Dennis Northcutt is dangerous.
EDGES: Quarterback: Baltimore; Running backs: Baltimore; Receivers: Baltimore; Offensive line: Baltimore; Defensive line: Baltimore; Linebackers: Baltimore; Secondary: Baltimore; Special teams: Baltimore.
How the Ravens can win
1. Establish the run. Baltimore will try to employ an aggressive, downhill running game to control the clock, wear down Cleveland's older front-seven personnel and try to set up the pass. It will probably take double-team attention to wall off gigantic nose guard Ted Washington. If Willie McGinest doesn't play, this could get even uglier.
2. Throw the deep ball. Steve McNair should be able to pick on this secondary. Especially Ralph Brown, who has been toasted so much he's burnt to a crisp. Without Gary Baxter, the Browns are extremely vulnerable.
3. Blitz Charlie Frye. Although mobile and competitive, he's prone to mistakes and doesn't really have the offensive line to keep him standing in the pocket. The Ravens will need to keep outside containment because of his speed.
How the Browns can win
1. Pound the football. Against a fast defense, the Browns' best chance is to earn respect for the run with a steady diet of Reuben Droughns up the gut with fullback Terrelle Smith running interference against rejuvenated middle linebacker Ray Lewis.
2. Use play-action selectively. The Browns need to set up some throws to Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow. They need to get Baltimore back on its heels to counteract the zone dogs and multiple-look blitz packages heading Frye's way.
3. Chip-block. Left tackle Kevin Shaffer really struggled against Saints speed rusher Will Smith in the season opener and will need a helping hand to slow down another challenge: swift rush end Terrell Suggs.
Return specialist B.J. Sams leads the NFL with a 36.2 kickoff return average following his 72-yard return against the Raiders, the second-longest of his career and the longest in the AFC this year. It's also the second-longest in the NFL behind the Redskins' Rock Cartwright [100 yards]. The Ravens lead the league in average starting field position, starting drives at the 41.2 yard line. Sams also ranks second in the AFC and third in the NFL with a 14.6 punt return average. In 15 career road games, Sams has a 22.0 kickoff return average. Last year, he broke a career-long 87-yarder at Denver.
TODAY'S KEY MATCHUPS
S Ed Reed vs. QB Charlie Frye
It's a chess match, and Reed is the experienced prodigy. In his 10th career start, Frye will try to match wits with one of the most calculating defensive players in the game. Reed will try to bait the young passer into a critical miscue.
RB Jamal Lewis vs. MLB Andra Davis
These two close friends haven't engaged in trash talking yet, but are likely to have a few choice words when they collide today at the line of scrimmage. Lewis will likely bring up his NFL-record 295-yard game from three years ago, and Davis can accurately remind him that he hasn't rushed for 100 yards against Cleveland since that season.