If Ravens don't get serious, Browns could laugh last

October 21, 2001|By Mike Preston

CLEVELAND - The Ravens are playing another ambush game today.

When they meet the Browns (3-2) here his afternoon, they'll play a team that they should beat, but one that's overachieving because it's fueled by the emotions and energy of its first-year coach, Butch Davis.

Will the Ravens dominate or just get by? Or will they get ambushed by an inferior team?

I imagine the defense will play with a newfound fervor after getting stomped by Green Bay last week, but no one knows for sure about the Ravens (3-2) anymore. There are still too many questions surrounding the offense.

But if they're to make it back to the playoffs, they have to win the "gimme" games against the likes of Chicago, Cleveland and Cincinnati.

Granted, these teams have improved, largely because of scheduling that allows them to play other bottom-level teams, but the Ravens simply have more talent.

They have a better defense, better special teams and a more effective running game than the Browns, but they're 1-1 against "gimmes" this season - beating the Bears, 17-6, and losing to the Bengals, 21-10. The latter game still haunts the Ravens, and might for the rest of the season.

In both of those games, their defense showed up, but the offense was a no-show. Last week, both the offense and the defense were missing. Who knows what will happen with the offense today?

"In some games, we haven't held up our end of the bargain," said Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe, in reference to the offense. "If you look at our losses, we were minus in the turnover ratio. When we won, we were positive. We can't turn the ball over.

"These are not the same old Browns. When we've played them in the past, you usually thought about going up there, shutting them out and having a big day. But they're definitely improved."

Let's not go overboard, though. The Browns' only quality win came against San Diego. They beat Detroit and Jacksonville, but only after quarterback Mark Brunell was cheap-shotted in the first quarter and had to be removed from the game.

But they're dangerous. Davis has them believing in his system and that they're a quality team. They're playing with enthusiasm and might be able to feed off their fans' hatred of the Modell family, which moved the franchise from this city to Baltimore for the 1996 season.

If the Browns can hang around and keep the crowd in the game, they could pull an upset if the Ravens aren't ready to play.

"Butch Davis has given the Browns a huge boost," said Ravens coach Brian Billick. "Going to Cleveland means a game with lots of emotion from the fans and the Browns. We have to meet that intensity."

It's a requirement over the next six weeks because the Ravens play six straight division teams. Today will be a good litmus test.

To no one's surprise, the Browns will use the spread offense against the Ravens. Everyone else has. Cleveland likes to use a lot of formations, but wants to run the ball because its passing game is based on play-action.

Quarterback Tim Couch has developed well in his third season and has solid receivers, led by Kevin Johnson.

The Browns like those short slant-in and hitch routes, just like Green Bay receivers Antonio Freeman and Bill Schroeder. Are Chris McAlister and Duane Starks, the Ravens' cornerbacks, listening?

But Ravens fans shouldn't sweat it defensively. Cleveland has only two better-than-average offensive linemen in left guard Ross Verba and center Dave Wohlabaugh.

Ravens tackles Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams should have big games shutting down the run, and right defensive end Michael McCrary is much too fast for left offensive tackle Roman Oben.

Plus, the Ravens have a lot of pride on defense. They're all ticked off after last week. They won't play two bad games in a row.

"We'll see a return of the old group," said Ravens weak-side linebacker Jamie Sharper. "Brett Favre just had a great game against us last week.

"As far as we're concerned, we're starting over again in the divisional race. Our problem is that last week we had too many guys trying to make big plays. We became undisciplined. We have to get back to where we were, doing the little things that made us successful."

That brings us back to the helter-skelter offense again. That's the closest the unit has come to an identity six weeks into the season. It doesn't have a consistent passing or running game, but it does have a coach who makes bizarre and "cute" decisions at times (two-point conversions, fake punts with Randall Cunningham).

The suggestion here today is to break Cleveland's will by running the ball, much like the sorry Bengals did a week ago. The key will be the play of guards Kipp Vickers and Bennie Anderson, who have to match up against Cleveland tackle Gerard Warren, who flip-flops depending on the formation.

The Ravens should be able to throw on the Cleveland cornerbacks if quarterback Elvis Grbac gets time. At least it sounds great in theory; the Ravens have to execute and avoid turnovers. They have to take Cleveland out of the game early, remove the 12th man, the fans.

If they don't, the Browns, trying to rebound from last week's loss to the Bengals, are good enough to win. They're good enough to pull off an ambush of the defending Super Bowl champions, much like the Bengals did a month ago.

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