Seeking road to glory, team starts its engines

Expectations high for Ravens, who take first step in Cleveland

Ravens vs. Browns

September 12, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

CLEVELAND - In an age in which rags-to-riches glory has become customary throughout the NFL, the Ravens are trying to prove that a patient climb can produce the same reward.

In a year in which unexpected turns of events have hit often - from the dissolved trade for Terrell Owens to Jamal Lewis' looming midseason drug trial - the Ravens are aiming to show no such uncertainty exists on the field.

A season of soaring expectations kicks off today at Cleveland Browns Stadium, where the Ravens return to the franchise's roots and look to establish a tone for what could be an intriguing journey.

"This team, having already won the division and coming back intact, deserves to think of itself as a Super Bowl-caliber team," coach Brian Billick said. "But now, it's got to show up on the field."

What usually shows up for the Ravens - from their 7-9 season in 2002 to 10-6 last year - is a battering running game and a bruising defense, an unsubtle combination that was executed to perfection against the Browns last season.

The Ravens ran the ball on 82 of 126 plays (65 percent) against Cleveland. Lewis single-handedly outgained the Browns, 500 rushing yards to their 386 yards of total offense, and outscored them, 24-13.

While Lewis aims for his third straight 200-yard game against the Browns, his offensive line is more worried about the holes it has to fill than it has to create.

Center Mike Flynn is out for the month with a broken collarbone, and All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden is expected to miss a game for the first time in four years with a sprained left knee.

Their backups - center Casey Rabach and tackle Ethan Brooks - don't bring the same physical presence but won't force the Ravens to change their run-first philosophy.

"We're not going to draw up a new Statue of Liberty play," left guard Edwin Mulitalo said. "We're still going to run right, run left, run inside. Jamal will get his carries."

But will he get his usual rushing yards?

Although Lewis has averaged 191.4 yards in the past five meetings with the Browns, Cleveland players sounded ultra-confident in their ability to shut him down.

Defensive end Kenard Lang said Lewis "ain't going to break the first line of defense" and safety Earl Little continued the brash talk by saying Lewis is "just another running back."

Told of these comments, Lewis smiled and said, "Until I hear it from them myself, I won't believe it."

When it comes to Lewis and the Browns, there is little gray area.

On six carries last season, he busted out for 333 yards (55.5-yard average). On the other 46 attempts, he managed 167 yards (3.6-yard average).

"We know it could have been a lot different if we would have stopped the big runs," Browns middle linebacker Andra Davis said.

Cleveland is expected to stack the line of scrimmage. If it doesn't, Ravens receiver Kevin Johnson said, Lewis would "rush for 400 yards."

If Lewis is slowed down, the Ravens will have to exploit the one-on-one coverage on their receivers. The pressure would then fall on Kyle Boller, a second-year starter who becomes the first quarterback to start consecutive season openers in Billick's six-year tenure with the Ravens.

"When you think at this time last year, the difference where he is right now is amazing," Billick said. "The contrast is so stark that it's kind of laughable. But there is still an upside, which is kind of exciting."

For all the uproar over Boller's improvement and Ogden's injury, it's the Ravens' stout defense that should carry the day.

A Cleveland offense that is unveiling a new quarterback in Jeff Garcia and a run-first strategy collides with a Ravens defense that returns 10 of its starters and the same swarm-to-the-ball attitude.

Last season, the Browns scored all 13 of their points against the Ravens off turnovers and made it into the red zone just three times.

But shutouts - not shutdowns - are the measuring stick for the defense this season.

"Our confidence is so great that some people might say it's borderline cocky," linebacker Ed Hartwell said. "You've got to go in day in and day out knowing that you're the best thing walking. You've got to believe in something; why not yourself?"

That confidence only grew with the late addition of nickel back Deion Sanders, someone who knows when to join the right organization.

His first years with the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys - in 1994 and 1995 - both resulted in Super Bowls.

As the Ravens begin what could be a similar path, they have already made an impression on the seven-time Pro Bowl defender.

"This personality is much more aggressive than any of the sort," Sanders said. "They get after it. Offense, defense and special teams, they get after the ball."

Today's opener

Matchup: Ravens vs. Cleveland Browns

Site: Cleveland Browns Stadium

Time: 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Ravens by 3

Inside

Preview: Scouting report, statistics, lineups and more. Page 15E

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