When the compound proper noun "Baltimore Ravens" comes to mind, one is instinctively expected to think all things defense. Tackling, run stuffing, quarterback pressuring, pass defending, and intercepting would all adequately complement the seven letter word. The Ravens as a team have made their living that way for the past ten years or so, but now, their persona has made them more of a twentieth century gridiron offensively oriented organization.
Don't misinterpret me; the Ravens have still been at, or near the top in total defense all year, with a rank of tenth in total defense, but their bread and butter, the strengths of their team, are becoming more varied.
Their supposed high powered aerial attack thus far has not been as prolific as most experts expected at 15th overall, but chemistry between the receiving core, and third year gunslinger Joe Flacco. The top receiver on the Ravens depth chart, Anquan Boldin, is still searching for his comfort zone that he quickly sat into in Arizona. And yet he still second on the team in receptions, trailing only Ray Rice, with 60, and is first on the team in yards with 813, and has seven touchdowns, also a team high.
Boldin is not Flacco's only option. Veterans Derrick Mason, ex-Cleveland Brown Donte Stallworth and T.J. Houshmandzadeh make for reliable targets. Tight end Ed Dickson will need to add more to his run-blocking repertoire with Pro-Bowl caliber end Todd Heap out, though a Sunday return is not impossible. Running back Ray Rice leads the team with around 1,600 total yards, rendering him one of the NFL's most complete tailbacks in just his third season.
Back on the defensive side of the ball, they are still among the leaders in stopping the run at fifth overall, but the secondary is exposing some weaknesses. Cornerback Fabian Washington has missed significant time with a blow to his thigh, and is due to return to the team in the very near future. He was listed as probable for last week's game, but did not play. Taking a larger role in his, and for a while, Ed Reed's absence, is newly acquired Josh Wilson from Seattle. His three interceptions have not been numerous, but timely; sealing a win in Houston and putting other games out of reach. He has been everything the Ravens aspired for him to be. Now that Ed Reed has returned, this defensive back core is becoming stronger by the week, gearing up for a strong post season run. We need not say much about feared linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs; they cause enough headaches for opposing offenses as it is. Haloti Ngata, since switching from nose tackle to defensive end, has proved to be just as effective in his penetration.
The offensive line consists of high quality center Matt Birk and improving left tackle Michael Oher. Right guard Chester Taylor has also been pretty reliable at his respective position. Full back Le'Ron McClain has been an excellent run blocker for Rice.
Baltimore does have something to prove in this game: whether they can win in their division or not. We know they can, they've just been a mediocre two-and-two thus far. These next two, more than winnable games might display how for they go in the AFC playoffs.
The Browns will have their work cut out for them. Look for the dirty birds to put seven or eight men in the box to stop Peyton Hillis and constant pressure being applied to Colt McCoy. How to counter this? Ben Watson will have to be more of a blocker than a receiver, so Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi need to get involved in the passing game. Defensively, Cleveland needs to be physical in the five yard box with Boldin, Mason, and Houshmandzadeh, and need to overwhelm the Raven's offensive line. The multi-dimensional Ravens offense will be tough to stop, but even though Cleveland is the heavy under dog in this on, coach Eric Mangini will squeeze every ounce of life out of his players; fighting for his job.