The Baltimore Ravens will host the Cleveland Browns in what may end up being a defining game for both teams very early in the 2008 season. The Ravens have only played one game so far, thanks for Hurricane Ike cancelling the game in Houston originally scheduled for week 2, and stand 1-0 due to their 17-10 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on opening weekend. The Browns limp into M&T Bank Stadium with an 0-2 record, albeit both losses to two of the top teams in the entire NFL.
However, scoring only one touchdown and not looking like the playoff contender that they were expected to be heading into the 2008 season, has many Cleveland fans worried and wondering how long before changes in key positions begin. Head coach Romeo Crennel and QB Derek Anderson are both on the hot seat and rumored to be holding onto their jobs by a thread, especially Crennel, who has long been under fire, even before last year's successful 10-6 season. The Browns just missed making the postseason and two losses to arch-rival Pittsburgh dulled the season, much less another loss at home to the hated Steelers last weekend. While Derek Anderson isn't quite hanging onto his job as gingerly as Crennel, he is coming under fire for not looking like the million dollar bonus payday he earned after last season's surprising success. Another poor showing, however, and the rabid Dawg Pound will begin the annual chant for Brady Quinn. Quinn has been patiently awaiting his opportunity on the sidelines, biding his time learning the game and making more commercials and showing off his buff body than most other teams' starters. At some point, the Browns will not want to delay the inevitable any longer.
A loss today in Baltimore to start the season 0-3 will go a long way towards the beginning of the Brady Quinn era. The Ravens plan to do whatever they can to help Brady get an early start to his future. They plan to harass Anderson through a variety of stunts and blitzes and now have a healthy defense to send the extra pass rusher that they were unable to afford last season, when their secondary was chock full of reserves. Injuries to Samari Rolle, Chris McAlister and Ed Reed, along with the offseason loss of Adalius Thomas to the Patriots via free agency and injury to Trevor Pryce made the Ravens pass rush in 2007 almost non-existent. Now, with all those guys back and not even listed on the injury report, the Ravens will be basically at full strength (other than DT Kelly Gregg) for the second game this season. Week one they shut down Cincinnati's Carson Palmer, Chad Johnson and TJ Houshmandzadeh and now plan to repeat the effort this week to Anderson and his favorite targets, Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow. Edwards led the league in dropped balls last year and seems to be on pace to do so again in 2008. To top it off, he is injured and his status will be a game time decision, although expect him to play as he has enjoyed good success against the Ravens in the past. Winslow looks to be a major force in today's game and could very well end up Anderson's favorite target. The Browns would love to get their running game unleashed behind former Raven Jamal Lewis, who had a 92 yard rushing game last season against the Ravens in one of the Browns two victories over Baltimore. The Ravens have not allowed a 100 yard rusher in 20 straight games, the NFL's longest such streak, and it doesn't expect to stop today, especially if the Browns fall behind early. Perhaps the Browns biggest threat to the Ravens comes from special teams return man, Joshua Cribbs, who is one of the best in the league in his role. Cribbs has been a force and has had success against the Ravens as well as the rest of the league and will be a marked man today. If the Ravens can limit his damage, it will only help to pin the Browns back deep in their own territory. This could lead to turnovers and a short field to help the Ravens offense put points on the board without having to rely on long drives.
However, long, time consuming drives have worked out just fine for the Ravens in their lone game this season. The Ravens will continue their plan of running the ball and now have the benefit of Willis McGahee in the backfield for the first time this season. McGahee gained over 1,200 yards last season but missed the entire preseason and first game of the season, but is now not even listed on the Ravens injury report. How many carries he gets is another story, but I expect it to be at least a dozen and could be more depending on the tone of the game. Rookie Ray Rice had a great debut, other than his fumble which led to Cincinnati's lone touchdown last game. The biggest surprise has been the success of fullback Le'Ron McClain, who had over 80 yards in week one, and had primarily been utilized as a blocking back previous to that. However, the absence of McGahee made his carrying the ball more necessary and is now thought to be making a repeat performance this week against the Browns. The combination of McGahee, Rice and McClain will keep the Ravens backfield fresh and don't forget that they also have the luxury of having bruising fullback and former San Diego Charger Lorenzo Neal leading the charge. Imagine the pounding the defense will absorb by having the 260 pound Neal leading the way for the 250 pound McClain, paving the way for McGahee and Rice to dart in and around the holes opened by the young, healthy and rapidly improving offensive line.
The success of the running game will make the transition smoother for rookie QB Joe Flacco from third string in the preseason to starter in the regular season. Flacco looked surprisingly calm and collected and while he didn't put great stats on the board, he did manage the offense without any mistakes and even contributed a 38 yard lumbering touchdown run on a busted play. While we shouldn't expect him to repeat his rushing efforts, he should feel more comfortable with the extra week off to continue to learn the team's offense and take control of the huddle. If he continues his progress and keeps his mistakes to a minimum, the Ravens will have found their quarterback of the future a lot earlier than originally planned.
If today's game goes as planned, the Ravens will stuff Cleveland's Jamal Lewis, forcing Derek Anderson to rely on the passing game too much. By this, I mean if the pass is so obvious, the Ravens pass rushers can pin their ears back and put a target on Anderson's chest, causing him to hurry his passes and throw the interceptions that the Ravens can turn into quick points and put the Ravens into position to win this game. Offensively, they will pound the ball with their three pronged rushing attack, with the requisite number of passes to keep the defense honest. Wide receiver Derrick Mason and tight end Todd Heap, along with short tosses to the backfield will move the ball outside the hashmarks while the RB's pound it inside. Expect the Browns to stack the box with eight or nine defenders, daring the Ravens to beat them through the air. However, the Browns secondary has not been very good and the loss of their best defender, safety Sean Jones, will make it difficult to stop the passing attack, even of the Ravens. Big defensive tackle Shaun Rogers will clog the middle and rush the passer, but expect him to get a lot of attention from the middle of the Ravens offensive line.
Overall, if both teams play to my expectations, the Ravens will go into a week four showdown on Monday Night in Pittsburgh in first place with a 2-0 record, while the Browns will join their Ohio brothers from Cincinnati in the AFC North basement. The Steelers have a tough battle of Pennsylvania at Philadelphia, where I am predicting they lose, so there is my reasoning on the first place Ravens.
I expect the teams to put more points on the board than either has done up to this point in the season, although the game will not be as close as the final score. I expect the Browns to get a late, meaningless score to keep the Ravens defense honest until the end, but the Ravens defense leads the way to victory and Flacco continues his orientation with another solid, mistake-free outing as the Ravens win.