Ravens set to clash with Bengals

CINCINNATI -- The Baltimore Ravens' defense thrives on intimidation tactics, delivering brutal tackles along with stinging taunts and dashing past blockers with befuddling speed. Their brand of defense is based on creating pure fear, on aggressively dictating terms and forcing opponents to submit rather than deal with a barrage of blitz packages and concussive hits.

Traditionally, the defending AFC North champions' game plan tends to unfold this way as they feature the NFL's reigning top-ranked defense.

Yet, as the Ravens launch their season tonight against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium, they're bracing for a high-profile chess match against a combustible offense and a quarterback who's clearly not scared of them.

Bengals All-Pro quarterback Carson Palmer has won four of the past five encounters with Baltimore, passing for 10 touchdowns and two interceptions in the past four victories. "We're always confident coming into this game even though they are the No. 1 defense, year in and year out," Palmer said. "For whatever reason, we match up really well with them. You've still got to come with your best shot and bring everything you've got.

"Try to surprise them with some things, bring some new things in, get back to some old things that you do great. Find a new wrinkle, find a new advantage just because they're that good."

Christened the MVP of the last Pro Bowl and coming off a 4,000-yard passing season, Palmer leads an offense that has ranked in the top 10 for the past two seasons. He's complemented by two explosive wideouts in Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, workhorse running back Rudi Johnson and a stalwart offensive line.

The Ravens counter with a talent-laden defense featuring perennial All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis along with six other former Pro Bowl selections in linebackers Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs, defensive end Trevor Pryce, safety Ed Reed and cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle.

"No matter what offense we go against, they're going to give us their A-game," Lewis said. "We don't see nobody going half-speed. When you meet a team like this, who is gifted all the way around, with two gifted receivers, a gifted quarterback, you have to come in and match their intensity.

"And for us matching intensity is what we do best. Everybody wants to pump their chest and say, `This is the best defense in football, let's do this and do that.' We don't get too excited about playing anybody. The bottom line is we're going to find out, and they're going to find out."

Although the Ravens led the NFL in interceptions and touchdowns returned for touchdowns last season, they haven't been able to stop Palmer.

Ever since a December 2004 comeback he engineered where he threw for three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, Palmer has typically had the Ravens' number with an average of 272 passing yards per game and a cumulative 108.2 quarterback rating. By comparison, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning has a 79.2 rating in his past three games against Baltimore.

"He's definitely top-three," said McAlister, who allowed Houshmandzadeh to pile up 10 catches for 102 yards in a 13-7 Bengals win in Cincinnati last year, including a 40-yard flea-flicker touchdown. "You give the guy some time to sit in the pocket and he can throw the ball down the field.

"He's one of those guys who doesn't have the championships, he hasn't had the winning seasons that the Peyton Manning's and Tom Brady's have had. But when it comes to throwing the ball, he's just as accurate and just as good as those guys."

Despite the Ravens' intricate defensive schemes, Palmer has been sacked only nine times in the past five games against Baltimore.

In those four wins, Palmer has completed 73.4 percent of his throws. He registered at least one 40-yard completion in the last five games of 2006.

"Obviously you get up for every game, but Cincinnati is about as good as it gets offensively," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "With the young quarterback, two great wideouts and, of course, Rudi Johnson, in the backfield, it's going to be a great challenge. But it's going to be a huge challenge for them as well."

This time, the Ravens might have an advantage rushing the passer despite Palmer's quick release.

Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson didn't play at all in the preseason with a foot injury, but is expected to start tonight.

Meanwhile, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has been mum on whetherLevi Jones or Andrew Whitworth will play left tackle to try to block Suggs, a two-time Pro Bowl pass rusher.

"You definitely want to apply some pressure to try to rattle Carson a little bit," Suggs said. "We just can't let him get comfortable because, as he's shown against us before, if he gets comfortable against us, it's his game and it's his night."

Added Ryan: "Palmer does a great job of knowing where he wants to go with the football and getting the ball out of his hands."

Palmer tends to provide the most telling predictor on who claims supremacy in this budding AFC North rivalry.

In the past five games with Baltimore, the only game Cincinnati lost was when Palmer threw more interceptions (two) than touchdown passes (one).

The Bengals have averaged 24.6 points per contest during that span.

"We know what we're dealing with," Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said. "It's not a shock to our system when they're up and doing all the crazy things they're doing."

Conversely, the Ravens intercepted 28 passes last year, returned five for touchdowns and finished second in the NFL with 60 sacks.

The buildup to this week's game has included an interesting sideshow of trash talk this week between Johnson threatening to hit Scott in the mouth and Scott countering that Johnson couldn't bust a grape in a food fight.

Plus, Johnson has promised to unveil a new elaborate touchdown celebration tonight to top his patented "Riverdance" and his faux marriage proposal to a Ben-Gals cheerleader.

"You're not going to stop me, period," Johnson said. "One person, two people, three, I don't care. You can contain 85 for a certain period of time, but, at some point throughout these four quarters, I'm going to make a play."

Rolle is likely to draw the primary assignment of checking Johnson. Although coming off a sprained ankle that sidelined him for the final two preseason games, Rolle did a solid job against Johnson last season with help over the top from Reed.

Especially in a 26-20 win in Baltimore where Rolle intercepted a pass intended for Johnson and lateraled it to Reed for a touchdown. Now, he just has to tune out the noise emanating from Johnson's mouth.

"I'm used to listening to Chad, I know he's going to talk and I'm going to pretty much politely ignore him most of the time," Rolle said. "I really look forward to these matchups. It's always a challenge since he's got a quarterback who can put the ball anywhere he wants it to go all over the field. But, remember, we get paid to play, too."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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