Ravens favor smash-mouth approach

Logic tells the Baltimore Ravens that a Jeff Blake spiral would be the speediest way to reach the end zone. Further study indicates a more direct approach is what offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh will choose most often today against the New Orleans Saints at Ravens Stadium. Nothing fancy, Baltimore center Mike Flynn predicts. Nothing but clouds of dust generated by effective blocking for running back Jamal Lewis and, hopefully, a lot more than three yards a pop.

Despite the presence of two hefty Saints defensive tackles in Norman Hand and Grady Jackson, the Ravens (6-6) know they have favorable statistical variables in the air and the ground against a porous defense that has allowed 20 or more points in every game.

The Ravens also possess the knowledge of a telling statistic that could become a trend.

When Lewis rushes for at least 100 yards, the Ravens are 4-0 with a 5-1 win-loss mark when their 1,044-yard rusher carries the football at least 20 times.

Although Ravens coach Brian Billick was complimentary of the Saints (8-4) in describing a supposedly aggressive, active defensive unit, he left out the part about the Saints having already surrendered 1,406 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns and an average of 4.3 yards per attempt.

"I don't see them being that physical," Lewis said. "They play sound football. They have two big guys in the middle who eat up a lot of grass. But I think we have some guys that will be able to push them around."

One of those guys is Flynn, who will often find himself matched against Jackson and Hand, who check in at a combined 640 pounds.

While both linemen clog things up well enough for linebackers Charlie Clemons and Darrin Smith, the undersized tacklers haven't closed quickly enough in pursuit on running plays. Safety Sammy Knight (97 tackles, three interceptions) is the second-leading tackler for the Saints behind Smith (102 tackles).

New Orleans has been opportunistic in pass coverage with 14 interceptions, but has proved vulnerable against the run except for last week's win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Saints rebounded to allow 34 yards on 16 carries to the struggling Buccaneers' backs, but had given up rushing totals of 260, 100, 155 and 163 yards in the previous four contests.

"I think we have to be physical and run the ball no matter what," Flynn said. "That's what we do best. We are going to stick with the same game plan: Get Jamal cranked up. "They have some big, physical guys, but we've seen that before. We need to get our hands on them and keep moving our feet and finish off our blocks."

Short, choppy steps are the way offensive guards Edwin Mulitalo and Bennie Anderson drive forward at the snap along with Flynn. The Ravens' passing offense ranks just 31st overall in the NFL, but their rushing attack is 15th overall, and Lewis is the sixth-leading rusher in the league. Comparatively, New Orleans has the 25th overall defense.

The Ravens hope to set up their play-action passes, especially to tight end Todd Heap (46 receptions, 508 yards and five touchdowns), by establishing Lewis as a legitimate threat. That requires sticking with the running game even if Baltimore falls behind early because of a talented Saints offense that averages 341 yards a game. In more than a few of the Ravens' losses, the running game has been relatively abandoned once the opponent picks up the initial scoring advantage.

Meanwhile, Lewis is closing in on his franchise-record 1,364 rushing yards that he set as a rookie two years ago during the Super Bowl campaign. With his latest performances, he's increasing his chances of being selected as the league's Comeback Player of the Year. That's something to be determined down the road.

 Today, the Ravens are primarily concerned with a few simple elements: 1.Get off the football quickly at the snap; 2. Change the line of scrimmage; 3. Give Lewis favorable choices for his cutback lanes.

"The mindset every week is to get Jamal going and establish the tempo with our running game," offensive tackle Ethan Brooks said. "This week, we know they have stout guys on their line. So, we just have to play with good technique and be more physical than them."


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