Baltimore Ravens' scouting report

5 CRITICAL QUESTIONS 1. Will the Baltimore Ravens be able to withstand the Cleveland Browns' passing attack? As the Ravens (4-5) try to snap a three-game losing streak today against the Browns (5-4) at M&T Bank Stadium, they'll be confronted by their past decisions. The Ravens cut Browns quarterback Derek Anderson two years ago due to an injury to starter Kyle Boller.

As they tried unsuccessfully to sneak Anderson through waivers and onto their practice squad.Browns general manager Phil Savage, who used to be Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome's chief lieutenant, pounced on Anderson. However, Anderson didn't even begin this season as the starter as he was behind Charlie Frye. Plus, Cleveland thought that Brady Quinn would wind up as the starter until he staged a lengthy holdout. Now, Anderson has emerged as one of the top pocket passers in the league. He ranks fourth in the NFL with 20 touchdown passes and is known for his extreme hot and cold streaks.

Typically, he takes full advantage of wide receiver Braylon Edwards and tight end Kellen Winslow's athletic talents. Fourteen of his touchdown passes have been directed toward that receiving tandem. Although Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister is expected to return today from a knee injury that has kept him out of the past three games, he might not be 100 percent. McAlister was burnt for a 78-yard touchdown pass Anderson lobbed to Edwards during the teams' first meeting in Cleveland, a 27-13 Baltimore loss.

2. How will Boller fare under center?

Boller is essentially auditioning for the job while starter Steve McNair is sidelined for at least two to three weeks with a partially dislocated non-throwing shoulder. Boller, who had an erratic three-year run as the starter prior to being replaced last year by McNair, is under contract through 2008 and has an excellent chance at remaining the guy if he has a respectable showing in the final seven games.

Boller seems to have lost the swagger he entered the league with, but has matured on and off the field. He has retained his arm strength and mobility. Will his self-improvements be enough in what amounts to his final chance to prove himself?

3. Will the Ravens be able to contain Jamal Lewis?

Basically, no one runs against Baltimore. That has been the bedrock of the league's fifth-ranked defense. Lewis is unlikely to become the exception to that rule. He has rushed for 515 yards and six touchdowns, but over 200 of those yards came in one game. Meanwhile, Lewis' replacement, Willis McGahee, ranks sixth in the league in rushing with 749 yards and four touchdowns.

4. Can the Ravens generate a pass rush?

Anderson tends to get rid of the football quickly and has an especially quick release. Baltimore registered zero sacks during its loss in Cleveland. However, defensive end Trevor Pryce's game is beginning to heat up.

5. Will the Ravens' offense finally be able to pick on someone?

The Browns rank last in the league in total defense, allowing 410 yards per game. If there's one time you would think the Ravens might be able to exploit someone's weakness, this would seem to be the day. Of course, that was the wrongful assumption last week against the Cincinnati Bengals' 31st-ranked defense as well as earlier this year when the Buffalo Bills' defense was ranked second from the bottom of the league at the time.

Who has the Edge?

Offense

Total (23) Rushing (19) Passing (21)

Quarterback

Kyle Boller, your audition to earn a job as the Baltimore Ravens' 2008 starter begins now. Boller has superior arm strength and mobility than Steve McNair, whose career looks to be coming to an abrupt halt. Boller's decision-making and accuracy remain concerns, though.

Running back

Willis McGahee has lost a fumble each of the past two weeks and he doesn't seem too concerned. A running back's job is, first and foremost, to hang onto the football. Other than that, McGahee is having a respectable, albeit underutilized season.

Receivers

With Todd Heap and Demetrius Williams out, big games are needed from replacements Quinn Sypniewski and Devard Darling. However, the reality is that Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton will need to shoulder the majority of the receiving load again.

Offensive line

Their pass protection has been substandard lately, and rookie guard Ben Grubbs hasn't been as impressive as he was earlier this season. Perhaps he's colliding with the infamous rookie wall. All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden passed up early retirement for this?!

Defense

Total (5) Rushing (2) Passing (12)

Defensive line

The Ravens are campaigning for nose guard Kelly Gregg to make his first Pro Bowl, but he trails in the early fan balloting. Gregg has 62 tackles, two sacks and a fumble recovery. Haloti Ngata could make his case, too, with how he's been playing against the run. Trevor Pryce is beginning to round into pass-rushing form.

Linebackers

Terrell Suggs has just three sacks, a career-low for this point in the season. Ray Lewis avoided reporters this week, confining his comments to his radio show, which featured his personal trainer promoting their new workout video. Jarret Johnson is quietly having a banner debut season as a starter. Bart Scott's stats are down in every category.

Secondary

Ed Reed is coming off one of his best and gutsiest games ever. Dawan Landry isn't having a great sophomore season. Chris McAlister's knee has to hold up today or the defense is in trouble. Corey Ivy is almost always disregarded as vulnerable, but usually holds up fine.

Special teams

Matt Stover is the lone remaining former Cleveland Brown on the Ravens' roster. He only ranks behind Morten Andersen, Gary Anderson, George Blanda and John Carney on the league's all-time scoring list. Yamon Figurs is nearly recovered from a knee sprain, but has to do a better job of securing the football.

Offense

Total (11) Rushing (18) Passing (10)

Quarterback

Derek Anderson turned out to be the big fish that got off the line, a real lunker as they say out on the lakes. He's emerging as one of the best pocket passers in the game. Not bad for a big-footed, sixth-round pick from Oregon State who was cut by Baltimore when they tried to sneak him onto the practice squad and didn't even begin the season as the Browns' starter.

Running back

Jamal Lewis returns home to Baltimore today, and it will be interesting to see what kind of reception the former Ravens star running back receives. Lewis has criticized Ravens coach Brian Billick, the playbook and the offensive line since his departure, although many fans might secretly agree with many of his opinions with the way this season has unraveled.

Receivers

Braylon Edwards is one of the most explosive vertical threats in the league. There might not be a more athletic tight end around than Kellen Winslow. Big wideout Joe Jurevicius is an ultra-reliable possession receiver and red-zone target.

Offensive line

Rookie left tackle Joe Thomas is a cornerstone next to standout guard Eric Steinbach. The rest of the line is ordinary, but at least the Browns got half the line right.

Defense

Total (32) Rushing (28) Passing (31)

Defensive line

This is a really bad defense, and it starts upfront with journeymen Orpheus Roye, Ethan Kelley, who replaced overweight nose guard Ted Washington, and Robaire Smith. There's no real depth to speak of here.

Linebackers

The headliner is athletic outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley, who's great in pursuit and rushing the passer. Andra Davis is fading at middle linebacker. Former University of Maryland linebacker D'Qwell Jackson is undersized and overrated. Willie McGinest's best years are way behind him.

Secondary

These guys get picked on a lot, especially rookie cornerback Eric Wright who has been toasted several times. Leigh Bodden is a solid veteran on the other side. Safeties Sean Jones and Brodney Pool have potential.

Special teams

Phil Dawson has connected on 13 of 15 field goals and usually kicks well against Baltimore. Former Ravens punter Dave Zastudil is averaging 45.6 yards. Josh Cribbs is a dangerous return man coming off his second kickoff return for a touchdown this season.

EDGES: Quarterback: Cleveland; Running back: Baltimore; Receivers; Cleveland; Offensive line: Cleveland; Defensive line: Baltimore; Linebackers: Baltimore; Secondary: Baltimore; Special teams: Even.

How the Ravens can win

1. Contain Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow. These two explosive downfield threats can impact a game in an instant. A shorthanded secondary desperately needs Chris McAlister to do more than just play today. He needs to be at near his normal capabilities.

2. Pressure Derek Anderson. Anderson isn't very nimble afoot, especially considering he wears size 17 cleats. It's critical that outside linebacker Terrell Suggs wins his personal duel with rookie left tackle Joe Thomas.

3. Throw the ball downfield. The Browns have a bad defense, ranking last in the league with an average of 410 yards surrendered per game. With Kyle Boller taking over under center, it's time to loosen up the reins on this offense and fire up a few deep balls.

How the Browns can win

1. Go after Corey Ivy. If Chris McAlister is out or limited, then Braylon Edwards could exploit the cornerback's lack of ideal size. The size mismatch is even more pronounced for Joe Jurevicius (6-foot-5, 230 pounds), who has eight inches and nearly 50 pounds on Ivy.

2. Stop the run. Willis McGahee has been the most consistently reliable aspect of the offense, continually churning out yards except in games where Baltimore has fallen behind and abandoned the running game. The Browns' tackling and pursuit has been suspect, though.

3. Blitz Kyle Boller. Boller demonstrated in a loss to the Buffalo Bills that he's still vulnerable to interior pressure. He doesn't make very good decisions when defenders penetrate the backfield quickly, and can still be prone to fundamental lapses in his fifth NFL season like throwing off his back foot.

Three downs with ...

Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs

1. On whether there's a sense of urgency: "You may start to get a sense of panic because there's no way in the world you'd have thought we'd be one game under .500. Not with this team. It's just the way our cards have been dealt to us, but if we play them right, we should come out all right."

2. On the fans' booing last week: "I really wasn't paying attention. I was too busy trying to correct whatever we could on defense. I thought they were booing the way we were playing. We weren't playing that good. I'd have booed us, too. You can't disappoint your fans because, at the end of the day, that's all you have."

3. On being winless in the AFC North: "We know that you can't rack up the AFC losses, you definitely have to start getting some wins in your division, especially if you want to play in the postseason.

"Your window of opportunity, for us, is closing, so, like I said, we better take care of business at home. And we definitely can't afford to drop any more AFC losses. I don't think we can really afford to drop any more losses."

Three downs with ...

Cleveland Browns coach Romeo Crennel

1. On what surprises him about Derek Anderson: "He's been able to run his offense, and the guys have rallied around behind him, and they're doing a good job for him.

"So those things: ability, playmaking ability, and the ability to be quarterback in the NFL. So this year, he's taken the bull by the horns, so to speak, and he's been running with it."

2. On the Ravens' struggles: "It looks to me, just like when I was losing, if you turn the ball over, it's hard to overcome. If you have injuries to your good guys, it's hard to overcome. And that seems to be the problem that the Ravens are having. You have turnovers, it's hard for you to win when you turn the ball over a lot.

"And if you get your good guys hurt, even though you do have backups, and you tell them they have to be ready to step in and play, the reason that they're backups is because they're not as good as your starters. So if you lose a starter, that hurts you. So I think that's what's happening."

3. On what Jamal Lewis has meant to the Browns: "He has provided some stability at the running back position, because we can have a proven running back that we know what he can do. He's got good size. He came to camp in really good shape, as evidenced by the 200-yard game against Cincinnati.

"When we can get him into the next level, the second level, he can gain some yards for us, because he can break tackles. He's got a burst. So he still has those things. What we have to do is, we have to work to get him to the second level a little bit more than we have been."

INSIDE SLANT

Although Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick is under contract through 2010 after team owner Steve Bisciotti signed him to a lucrative contract extension last year that pays him an average of over $5 million per year, his job security has become a hot topic of debate locally and nationally.

Billick is in his ninth season, and tied with Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid and Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren for the longest tenure with their current teams. It's the third-highest longevity in the NFL behind Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher (14 years) and Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan (13 years). The Ravens' disappointing season begs several questions, including: Is the message getting stale? Will Billick be replaced as offensive coordinator after the season?

If Bisciotti, who's on the Forbes' list for richest Americans, opts to fire Billick and buy him out of his contract, which would cost several million dollars, who would replace him? The rumor mill is already buzzing about former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher, popular defensive coordinator Rex Ryan and Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, a former Baltimore assistant coach.

You haven't heard former San Diego Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer's name bandied about even though he used to coach the original Cleveland Browns franchise that is now the Ravens. It's never too early for speculation in this league, but, at this juncture, it remains just speculation. Billick will have the next seven games to try to improve the way this injury-plagued, turnover-prone, aging team is viewed by the organization. Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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