The (5-4) Cleveland Browns will visit the (4-5) Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. The Ravens are 3-1 at home while the Browns have struggled on the road with a 1-3 record. This is the beginning of the playoff run for the Browns. Expect a terrific game with a display of tough, physical football.
The Ravens will certainly attempt to take a page out of the Steelers playbook this week. They will challenge the Browns to find their short game within this offense. This strategy has slowly developed due to several factors. Quarterback Derek Anderson has become almost impossible to sack due to his quick release and stellar pass protection from the offensive line. In nearly 300 pass attempts, Derek has been sacked just 8 times. Defenses just are not getting pressure on the big-armed quarterback.
Derek has struggled with both accuracy and touch in the short game. Derek prefers throwing the mid to deep range pass. This is where he is at his best and he is able to use his big play threats in Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards. By dropping eight men back into coverage, it takes away those options.
Rushing only three should be a welcome invitation for the Browns running game but that is far from the case. Jamal Lewis is averaging just 44 yards per game since his breakout game against the Bengals in week two. While many have placed a large part of the blame on this offensive line that blame is misplaced. The Browns offensive line is creating creases for the running game but Lewis simply lacks the speed and explosion to exploit what is there.
The Browns must look at other options running the football and Jerome Harrison is exactly the type of back that should excel in this offense. Harrison struggles at picking up the blitz but he has shown improvement in his limited action. He is also a tremendous threat as a receiver out of the backfield. Free the Ghost and it will pay off this week.
The average per catch of the Browns receivers has fallen as teams are forcing the Browns to throw underneath the coverage. Even with the defensive adjustments, Winslow and Edwards have become one of the best tandems in football. Edwards seems to make an impossible catch every week and he is the prime target for every defense the Browns face. That will not change this week.
The Ravens defense has lacked the dominance of the past but last week against the Bengals they showed fortitude. The dynamic Bengals offense was held to field goals despite spending much of the day inside the red zone.
Up front the Ravens are simply a different team with defensive end Trevor Price in the lineup. We often hear the term chemistry in reference to the offensive line but the front seven of the Ravens have chemistry with Trevor Price in the lineup. Trevor along with the big monster in the middle Haloti Ngata are a very difficult unit to control at the line. They have the physical strength and quickness to take over the game but what they do most effectively is allow the linebackers to mop up the play. They will have a frustrating day against the Browns offensive line.
Veteran linebacker and future hall of fame candidate, Ray Lewis, may have lost a step or two but he is still a force not only on the field but also inside this franchise. He has questioned and called out the Ravens offense repeatedly but it has done little to motivate the offense. It has to be frustrating to see his defense play solid football only to fall short due to the porous offense.
The secondary of the Ravens has been decimated with injuries all year and while several starters may be returning to action, how effective they will be is a question. Samari Rolle will be out this week but Chris McAlister should make his return. He could have a difficult time covering Braylon Edwards if he isn't 100%.
The play of injured safety Ed Reed is one of the biggest keys to this game. Reed is phenomenal at reading and reacting. The quarterback must recognize where Reed is at all times, or he is likely to be chasing him.
The Ravens offense has been painful to watch. Despite having what should be an elite group of receiving options, they have not moved the ball. When you line up the likes of Todd Heap, Mark Clayton and Derrick Mason with Willis McGahee in the backfield, this should be an offense to contend with. Instead it is a bad offense even by Ravens standards.
McGahee is one of the better backs in football but no one is afraid of the Ravens going deep. This has resulted in the young back consistently facing off against seven and eight-man fronts. No one is going to be successful for to long against that kind of wall.
With quarterback Steve McNair struggling with protecting the football and also finding the end zone, quarterback Kyle Boller will get the start this week. This move is overdue. Kyle will attempt to at least stretch the opposing defense. I believe the offense is more at ease with Boller at the helm.
The Ravens offensive line has been part of the trouble. They have yet to show the consistency expected from a talented group of linemen. Jonathon Ogden has played through pain this season but he remains one of the better tackles in this league. The interior however lacks chemistry. They seem unsure of whom to block and they simply are not finishing off their blocks.
The Browns defensive line is showing improvement every week out. Nose tackle Ethan Kelly is coming off of his best game as a Brown. Kelly has been a pleasant surprise considering the trouble the Browns have had at this position. Part of his improvement is due to the defensive ends. Shaun Smith and Robaire Smith have enhanced the Browns ability to stop the run and these three are also providing a pass rush despite the poor play of the linebacker corps.
When talking about the poor play of the linebackers, Leon Williams is not included. He has impressed me with improved play against the run and better coverage skills than advertised. Leon should continue to improve as D'Qwell Jackson is set to return from injury.
Andra Davis is having his worst year as a Brown. Not only does he appear slow but there is a great deal of hesitation in his play. Instead of seeing the plays develop and attacking, he is waiting often allowing the blocking guard to engage him 8 yards off of the line of scrimmage.
Outside linebackers continues to be the biggest disappointment of the season for this defense. Despite the hype there has been very little production. While the opportunity has been there, this group is not finishing plays. They repeatedly allow both running backs and quarterbacks to stretch the play, which has spelled doom for the Browns secondary.
Cornerback Leigh Bodden's health will be an issue the Browns must evaluate during the off season. Leigh just isn't the same player he once was although he has made some huge plays for the Browns this year. The multitude of injuries seems to have taken its toll and he is no longer considered one of the better corners in the league.
Rookie corner Eric Wright is coming into his own. He came up huge last week in run support and also with solid coverage. He will have his hands full this week with the speedy Mark Clayton.
Safety Sean Jones once again finds himself facing another elite tight end. Jones has struggled this year defending the tight end as he has been force to play a bigger role in run support. Jones could have a huge game this week as Kyle Boller does have a tendency to float the ball high and into the arms of the safety.