Question: Now that Cleveland is well behind Pittsburgh in the AFCN (I'm an optimist, so I think the Ohio teams are tied for fourth, even though that's not realistically possible), and they are missing key defensive players in their two major weak areas (secondary and defensive line), realistically, how big is this game for Cleveland?
Answer: Browns general manager Phil Savage described last week's game to the Pittsburgh Steelers as a must-win, a game they lost 10-6 as dropped passes, poor clock management, shoddy tackling, an erratic Derek Anderson and questionable strategy from coach Romeo Crennel combined to spell a narrow defeat.
If that was supposedly a must-win for the Browns, what would an 0-3 hole mean for their quest for a playoff berth? A loss today would represent a crippling blow to a foundering team that entered this season with legitimate postseason aspirations on the heels of a 10-6 campaign.
Question: Conversely, with the Ravens opening their three-and-a-half month stretch of games with Cleveland at home, how big will this game be from the Baltimore Ravens' perspective? If the Ravens win, do you think they have any possibility of challenging Pittsburgh for the AFC North title then?
Answer: In my opinion, a potential 2-0 start would bolster expectations in a considerable way for a team that's supposed to be rebuilding. To be regarded in this space as a true contender in the AFC North, though, they'll need to win a demanding road game the following week against the Pittsburgh Steelers in front of a nationally-televised audience. I would respectfully advise you not to raise your expectations for the Ravens' competitiveness too soon.
It's very early in the season. So far, all they have proven is that they might be closer to the 13-3 team from two years ago than the 5-11 squad of last season and that the Cincinnati Bengals are one of the worst teams in football.
Question: With the Ravens and Vikings tied for 4th for toughest schedules in the NFL (Jacksonville 3rd, Indianapolis 2nd, Pittsburgh 1st), and now the Ravens have 15 back-to-back games, how have the players' morale been, and do you think the updated schedule will be a factor in the way they play injury prone (i.e. older veterans and / or oft-injured or players recovering from serious injuries not already on IR) later in the season?
Answer: I think it will be an ongoing issue for the veterans, and coach John Harbaugh said that he has already been checking the calendar and looking to build in some more time off as they approach their originally-scheduled Nov. 9 bye, which is now a work week for the Ravens instead of a vacation as they'll play the Houston Texans in a rescheduled game postponed last week due to Hurricane Ike. Plus, you should expect contact drills to be reduced or cut out midway to late in the season.
Question: Aaron - do you think Rex Ryan will have one of the linebackers chipping wide receiver Braylon Edwards as they did against Cincinnati or will he respect Cleveland's running game a bit more and keep the linebackers inside?
Answer: I think it's a gambit worth trying again as it was extremely effective against Chad Johnson, er, Chad Ocho Cinco, whatever. By using linebackers Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs in space, it disrupts receivers' patterns and gives the opposing quarterback and offensive coordinator something else to think about.
You can also bring blitz pressure, as the Ravens did with rookie safety Tom Zbikowski, from the perimeter after initially lining up outside and then creeping in to rush the passer. Rex Ryan is an unpredictable strategist, so I wouldn't expect him to always run the same game plan even if it's a smart approach.
Question: Until last season, the AFC was dominant both in Super Bowls and in inter league play but both trends reversed last year, do you think the NFC is poised to be the better conference for the next several years or would you expect parity and why?
Answer: I think the balance of power hasnE2t shifted yet. Not until the NFC wins consecutive Super Bowls. The season-ending knee injury of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady could affect the strength of the AFC in a major way over the course of the season despite the promising start of Matt Cassell. The Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles will have their say in this debate, too.
Question: Aaron, no surprise, the linebackers on this team have been playing lights out, what does that mean as far as playing time for Antwan Barnes and Tavares Gooden? Special teams only?
Answer: The lack of playing time for promising young linebackers is an unintended, but unsurprising effect of having four standout linebackers ahead of them on the depth chart. Barnes could still wind up being a factor as a situational pass rusher. I think Gooden will have to wait until next year for significant defensive snaps. Both will be relegated primarily to special teams for the time being.
Question: Aaron, how much do you think Cam Cameron will expand the playbook on a week to week basis in terms of Flacco's understanding and comfort with it?
Answer: I think the Ravens' offensive coordinator will slowly accelerate Joe Flacco's learning curve and won't give him more than he can handle from an intellectual/speed of the game standpoint. Think baby steps when you're dealing with a rookie quarterback from a small college.
The Ravens want Flacco to avoid turnovers, manage the game and make strides in his understanding of blitz packages, coverage schemes and audibles. They are best off relying heavily on the running game and gradually increasing the depth of the playbook that they'll utilize on game days.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.
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