Ravens, Titans resume rivalry

OWINGS MILLS -- The epic clashes of the past between the Baltimore Ravens and the Tennessee Titans featured two football teams vying for the Super Bowl as they engaged in one of the fiercest rivalries in the NFL at the launch of the new millenium. It was more than a hard-hitting football game. It was akin to a heavyweight boxing match.

The AFC Central became a battleground when the Ravens and the Titans played twice per year. Their third encounter in the 2000 season was a playoff game that propelled the Ravens toward a Vince Lombardi trophy as middle linebacker Ray Lewis won yet another confrontation against running back Eddie George.

Although the old AFC Central no longer exists, the teams are in different divisions and Titans coach Jeff Fisher no longer has Brian Billick around to feud with, today still shapes up as a game of major interest, importance and intensity.

It's like old times as the Ravens (2-1) take on the undefeated Titans (4-0) today at M&T Bank Stadium in a matchup between two of the AFC's more surprising early-season contenders.

"Here we go again, here we go again," said Lewis, whose team was defeated 20-17 by Tennessee in a 2004 AFC wild-card game. "Those teams always come back up. We were once in the division together to where we had one of the more classic rivalries, and now we're still back to another type of rivals. They're playing great, great football over there, and we're playing good football. So, here we go again."

Coming off a 5-11 season and a last-place finish in the AFC North, the Ravens have exceeded expectations under new coach John Harbaugh and are one game behind the Pittsburgh Steelers in the division race. They're keeping with tradition as the NFL's top-ranked defense.

The Titans are off to an unprecedented start in franchise history, and are one of the only three unbeaten teams. They have an emerging running game spearheaded by speedy rookie Chris Johnson and burly tailback LenDale White with one of the league's top defenses and arguably the best defensive line led by Pro Bowl selections Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch.

"Yes, Tennessee is as good as its reputation," Harbaugh said.

Tennessee has won its past seven regular-season games. It's the longest current streak in the NFL.

They have yet to trail in the second half this year.

"They're a tough team," linebacker Bart Scott said. "They're pretty much like ourselves: play solid defense, run the football, try to have a quarterback that manages the game. Our mission, of course, is trying to stop the run and try not to let Albert Haynesworth run crazy on us."

The Titans, who lead the NFL with 12 takeaways, are intent on pressuring Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco into miscues.

Tennessee is tied for second overall with 15 sacks. All but one of them were recorded by the front four with Haynesworth in the lead with five sacks. They've allowed the fewest points in the NFL.

"Their defense is playing at a high level, causing problems," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said.

Flacco delivered his first touchdown pass during a 23-20 overtime loss to the Steelers on Monday night, but was sacked five times and lost a critical fumble that was returned for a touchdown in a momentum-changing third quarter.

"We'll have a nice, big Tennessee welcome for him,'' Haynesworth told Tennessee reporters.

However, Flacco hasn't displayed any evidence that his stoic composure can be shaken. He responded to the fumble by leading the Ravens on a game-tying scoring drive.

The first-round draft pick has characteristically declined to point out that he was correct in his self-assessment that he would improve by playing, not watching.

"No, there's no, ‘I told you so,'" Flacco said. "I'm just glad to be out there playing and helping the team out. There are going to be good times, and there are going to be bad times. It's been pretty good so far.

"We've had a lot of different learning experiences where we've been successful, and we've had some bad times. It's all good for us as a team to grow and learn from it. I think later in the season we'll benefit from a lot of these things that are going on."

Meanwhile, the Ravens' defense is allowing just 186.7 yards per contest, nearly 50 yards fewer than the Steelers.

They'll take their NFL-best streak of 22 consecutive games without allowing an opposing runner to rush for 100 yards into this game. Johnson is averaging five yards per carry and has gained 337 yards while White leads his team with five touchdown runs.

"Running on any defense is the main challenge and when coaches go into the game plan and say we can run on this team, they're telling you that they are basically going to out-physical the team," Lewis said. "That's why it's always personal. Anytime somebody buckles up their chin straps and say we're going to run the ball 30 or 40 times, then they're telling you that we feel that our offensive line can get to our defensive line and we can get to your linebackers.

"It's personal, it's personal. It's just the bottom line. Every new person who comes in here, the first thing I say is: 'There's something we don't do, and that's we don't let people run the ball.'"

Kansas City Chiefs runner Larry Johnson was the last one to gain 100 rushing yards against the Ravens back on Dec. 10, 2006.

With aggressive, athletic linebackers in Lewis, Scott, Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson and a strong defensive line led by Haloti Ngata and Trevor Pryce, the Ravens are giving up just 69.7 rushing yards per game to rank second in the league. Since 1999, the Ravens have allowed just 18 100-yard rushers for the fewest in the league over that span.

"We play techniques different than every other team in the league," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "We're set up, the way we play our techniques, to stop the run, and we do have excellent players. When you play with good technique and you've got great players, you have a tendency to be pretty good at stopping the run."

It has been rumored this week that Fisher, who used to exchange backhanded remarks with Billick that stoked the fires of the rivalry, acknowledged after the Titans' win over the Minnesota Vikings that he hates the Ravens.

Outside linebacker Keith Bulluck said it was actually him who expressed his disapproval.

"I miss the Billick and Fisher rivalry just because they usually take good shots at each other during the week," Bulluck said.

Just because Billick is gone, though, doesn't mean the hostility has ended.

At least not according to Titans safety Vincent Fuller, a Baltimore native who grew up rooting for the Ravens.

"It's always a rivalry anytime we play each other," Fuller told Tennessee reporters. "They don't like us. We don't like them. It's still a rivalry because both of these teams want to win bad."

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

Baltimore Ravens' scouting report

NICKEL PACKAGE

1. Can the Baltimore Ravens protect rookie quarterback Joe Flacco and avoid turnovers?

As the Ravens (2-1) take on the undefeated Tennessee Titans (4-0) today at M&T Bank Stadium, a primary concern is pass protection against a dominant defensive line. Flacco was sacked a season-high five times against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Now, he has to contend with a talent-laden front four that averages nearly four sacks per contest and has recorded 15 sacks this season for the second-highest total in the NFL along with the Steelers. The Ravens have some very difficult matchups to contend with, especially left offensive tackle Jared Gaither against gritty, technically sound Pro Bowl defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch and the interior line against disruptive All-Pro defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. He leads the Titans with five sacks and three tackles for losses. When the Titans move Haynesworth to defensive end on third downs, he's even more difficult to handle. The constant pressure leads to turnovers as Tennessee leads the league with 12 takeaways. Flacco will need to get rid of the football quicker and the line will need to buy him more time by staying with and finishing their blocks.

2. Will the Ravens do a better job of distributing the football?

Veteran wide receiver Derrick Mason leads the Ravens with 16 receptions, but tight end Todd Heap and receivers Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams have combined for just 13 catches. Flacco is in a comfort zone with Mason, but has to be careful that he doesn't telegraph his intentions and throw into the double coverage that's bound to occur soon if he locks into the same target the majority of the time. Defensive back Cortland Finnegan is dangerous, vaulting his status into one of the league's elite cornerbacks this year. The Titans have eight interceptions this season. Heap has just three catches, but could be an excellent safety valve or deep threat for Flacco if he's not relegated to pass-blocking as much as he was in the Steelers game.

3. Can the Ravens shut down the Titans' rushing attack?

Between burly veteran LenDale White and swift rookie Chris Johnson, the Titans' backfield personifies the "Thunder and Lightning" tag. Johnson has 4.24 speed and White is a bruiser at 235 pounds. Tennessee has averaged 123.3 rushing yards in road games since 1995 to rank third overall in the league in that span. However, the Ravens are particularly stout against the run with inside linebackers Ray Lewis and Bart Scott as well as defensive tackle Haloti Ngata leading the charge. It has been two years since the Ravens allowed a 100-yard rusher. Lewis is getting to the football many times without being blocked and has delivered some hard hits, thanks to Ngata clogging up the middle and occupying guards. The Ravens allow just 3.1 yards per rush.

4. How will running back Willis McGahee fare with a bruised rib?

McGahee insists that he's going to play all four quarters despite a painful injury suffered against the Steelers when he took a helmet shot. McGahee will likely have a lot of help from fullback Le'Ron McClain, the Ravens' leading rusher. McClain has exceeded expectations with his uncommon quickness and cutting ability for his size. McGahee has made it through practice all week, but hasn't taken any contact.

5. Can the Ravens exploit Kerry Collins' lack of mobility?

Collins makes much better decisions than Vince Young, but is essentially a statue in the pocket. Terrell Suggs and Trevor Pryce could have big games against tackles Michael Roos and David Stewart. They are underrated tackles who are very physical, but could have problems securing the edge against Baltimore today. Collins can't escape with his feet, but he does have a quick release and good pocket awareness.

INSIDE SLANT

KEY MATCHUP

Ravens G Ben Grubbs vs. Titans DT Albert Haynesworth

Haynesworth may be the most disruptive interior force in the NFL, collapsing the pocket with his superior size, strength and speed. Not only is he an anchor against the run, he's also a rare commodity as an all-around pass-rushing tackle who can penetrate the line of scrimmage. It's critical that Grubbs, center Jason Brown and right guard Marshal Yanda cut the 6-foot-6, 320-pounder off with double-team blocks to prevent him from scuttling the between-the-tackles running game that's vital to the Ravens' success. Haynesworth is particularly active for a player of his dimensions, recording five sacks, three tackles for losses and 21 tackles.

KEY MATCHUP

Ravens LB Ray Lewis vs. RB Chris Johnson Lewis doesn't believe in allowing opposing runners to hit the century mark, a streak that has lasted an NFL-high 22 consecutive games and dates back to Dec. 10, 2006. Johnson will test Lewis' range and stamina. One of the fastest players in the league with a 4.24 clocking in the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine, the rookie from East Carolina has already gained 337 yards and scored two touchdowns with a long run of 51 yards and averages five yards per carry. Lewis still has outstanding range and striking ability. He broke Pittsburgh Steelers rookie running back Rashard Mendenhall's shoulder with a hit Monday night, ending his season. The Ravens' top-ranked defense ranks second overall against the run, allowing just 69.7 rushing yards per contest.

THREE DOWNS WITH ...

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco

1. On whether he feels like saying, 'I told you so': "No, there's no, ‘I told you so.' I'm just glad to be out there playing and helping the team out. I think that's all that matters. There are going to be good times, and there are going to be bad times. It's been pretty good so far.

"We've had a lot of different learning experiences where we've been successful, and we've had some bad times. It's all good for us as a team to grow and learn from it. I think later in the season, we'll benefit from a lot of these things that are going on."

2. On where he has improved the most: "I think a lot of it is mental for me. You're just going out there and adjusting to the speed of the game and getting comfortable with the game plan each week, looking at defenses, learning how to prepare. Playing is the only way you can experience a lot of these things. You can get better sitting and watching, but I don't think you'll get better as quickly."

3. On his first loss: "It's a little different coming into work when you haven't won the game before that. In all reality, you've got to put it behind you and you've got to move on because we've got another abnormal week coming up. This is a short week.

"As much it kind of stinks to lose, you've got to put it behind you and move on. It's going to happen in the NFL sometimes. We kind of left one out there, and Pittsburgh took it from us. Losing to those guys, we're going to have to find something else to get better from, and I'm sure we'll do that."

THREE DOWNS WITH ...

Titans quarterback Kerry Collins

1. On Joe Flacco: "I watched the game a little bit last night, and I thought he made some great throws. It seems like he's got good poise for a rookie. It seems like he's showing good poise and is back there just reading things out and throwing the ball well. Obviously, he's got a strong arm, and he's got a pretty good head about him. So, I was pretty impressed."

2. On losing to Baltimore in the Super Bowl: "Obviously, we're going on eight years now, so a lot of time has gone by, and certainly a lot of football has gone by since then. I certainly still have vivid memories of the game, most of which were not so good, but my hat's off to them. They were a good team, and a great defense, and it was a good job on their part."

3. On this edition of the Ravens' defense: ""I mean, I think they bring the same attitude. They're aggressive, obviously. They've got good leaders over there. Ray Lewis is still playing at a very high level and they're active. They show you a lot of different things, a lot of different looks. You've got to be on your toes and ready for everything they throw at you."

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


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