The Baltimore Ravens enter week 16 riding the high of beating the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints in a game in which their defense at long last rose to the occasion in the 4th quarter.; Up next is a trip to Cleveland and a bout with the Browns in a game that is equally important as the Ravens hold onto hopes of catching the Steelers and winning the AFC North. The game will be no cake walk. The Browns gave the Ravens all they could handle in week 3 in Baltimore in a game few expected to be close. The Browns have little to play for other than pride, while the Ravens have play-off seeding at stake. What motivation will win out? And more importantly, how does the Ravens defense stack up against the Browns on Sunday?
Against the Run: Say what you want, but Peyton Hillis running for 144 yards in Baltimore revealed some flaws in the front seven of the Ravens. But that performance by Hillis might play to the Ravens advantage on Sunday. Ray Lewis has already thrown the gauntlet down for the Browns running back, and also for the Ravens defense. Lewis feels it is unlikely Hillis will have another big game against a Ravens front that must slow the Cleveland rushing attack down. If the Browns have any hope of beating the Ravens they will need a big day on the ground. The problem for the Ravens is that, not only is Hillis a pounding back, but the Cleveland offensive line is also very good. The Ravens defensive line will need to win the majority of their battles with the Browns offensive line in order to limit the Browns running game. Not only will NT Haloti Ngata need to come up big, but so will Kelly Gregg, Terrence Cody and Corey Redding. I am not sure Gregg has enough left in his legs to be effective, if not let’s hope Cody is ready to up his level of play. The good thing for the Ravens is that they have a motivated Lewis ready to go along with experienced run stoppers in LB’s Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson. Another wild card that could play in the Ravens favor is LB Dannell Ellerbe. Ellerbe had his best game of the year against the Saints and his physical presence in the middle of the Ravens run defense is needed. The forecast Sunday is for cold and windy weather. That will also mean the Browns game plan will revolve around Hillis. It is a test of wills that a veteran, play-off bound team needs to win.
Against the Pass: The Ravens get their first look at Browns rookie QB Colt McCoy on Sunday. McCoy has shown flashes in several of his starts and is coming on his best game in the NFL when he threw for over 240 yards and 2 td’s in a loss to the Bengals last week. McCoy completes a high percentage of his passes (almost 66%), and he protects the ball having only thrown 3 picks in his 6 games played. Where McCoy has struggled is avoiding pressure. He has been sacked 19 times in 6 games and has struggled to make quick decisions when the heat is on. Part of the problem is that the Browns have little int he way of play-makers on the outside. In fact the Browns favorite targets are TE Ben Watson and Hillis. This puts even more pressure on the Ravens LB’sin coverage. The Ravens should be able to keep the pressure on McCoy. Last week the Ravens were much more aggressive with their blitzes and I see no reason for that to change this week. Simply put the Ravens need to hit McCoy, force him into quick decisions, and quick decisions from rookie QB’s can tend to be poor ones.
It is imperative for the Ravens to get off to a fast start this week. It is clear the defense remembers what happened in week 3. Peyton Hillis and the Browns running game will not catch them off guard again. The Ravens defense is bent on showing Hillis what Ravens football is really about. Despite some struggles against the run this year, the Ravens enter week 16 ranked 5th in the NFL in run defense, and even though Hillis is having a huge season, the Browns are only 18th int he league in yards per game. I like the way this game matches up for the Ravens. Stopping the run is about heart and determination. In those areas the Ravens still have the advantage over the Browns.