CLEVELAND (AP) — Not so long ago, running the ball on Baltimore’s defense was nearly impossible. It was foolish to even try.
Ray Lewis and his band of swarming teammates simply wouldn’t allow it. They’d dare an offense, trick it into thinking success was achievable, and then destroy it.
The Ravens were impenetrable. They ate running backs for lunch. Lately, teams have been shoving the ball down their throats.
In Baltimore’s past three games, opponents have gained 622 yards rushing, a jaw-dropping figure for a defense that has long rendered teams one dimensional. But those days may be over for the Ravens, who lost Lewis to a season-ending injury and don’t seem nearly so scary.
The Browns will test that theory Sunday with rookie Trent Richardson as the AFC North rivals meet for the second time this season. Richardson was held to 47 yards when the teams met on Sept. 27, but that was when Lewis was healthy and before teams began finding massive cracks in Baltimore’s defense.
Richardson, as healthy as he’s been all season following knee surgery and a rib cartilage injury, gained a season-high 122 yards last week against San Diego. With Richardson at full throttle, Ravens first-year defensive coordinator Dean Pees has a strong suspicion the Browns plan to feed the ball to their young star.
“I wouldn’t think that would be rocket science,” Pees said.
With rainy, windy conditions last week that affected every throw, the Browns had little choice but to hand the ball to Richardson, who broke several tackles on a 26-yard run for the game’s only touchdown in a 7-6 win. He carried it 24 times, and Richardson said he isn’t shy about asking for more touches.
“I do that a lot,” he said. “I tell my coach, I need the ball. Coach is, `Oh, you want the ball?’ `Yeah, yeah.’ Next play I’ve got the ball and I’m always out there doing something, trying to get the first down.”
Richardson’s ribs have healed, but they’ll still be a target for the Ravens.
“That’s what they do best anyhow, and right now we haven’t done well defending the run, especially the last three games,” Pees said. “So, that’s what we are expecting them to do. What we have to gear up and do scheme-wise and also technique-wise, we have to play better against the run.”
There’s little doubt the Ravens sorely miss Lewis, the heart, soul and undeniable ringleader of a defense that currently ranks 30th at stopping the run. But Baltimore is giving up 142.9 yards rushing per game — 50 more than last season — and not just because its without one of its most important parts.
All the Ravens need to plug the holes.
“It’s definitely a team effort,” said linebacker Terrell Suggs, who will be playing his second game since returning from an Achilles tendon injury. “We all have to do things better, just the whole defense. It’s not one man. It’s not the personnel. It’s really just executing and being accountable and being where you’re supposed to be.
“That’s not a stat for one man. It’s a team thing. We all just have to get back to playing Ravens-style football. We’re not panicking, we’re not hitting the panic button, but we know we have to address it and it needs to get fixed ASAP.”
In his first game back, Suggs had four tackles, a sack and batted away a pass in a 43-13 loss to Houston. Suggs has played some of his best games against the Browns, who know they’ll have to account for him on every snap.
“Best player in the NFL last year on defense,” said Browns Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas, who will line up against Suggs. “He’s not just a third-down speed rusher, and he’s not just a run stopper. He does both things exceptionally well. He’s big. He’s strong. He’s fast. He’s got everything you want in an outside linebacker, defensive end.”
Richardson didn’t face Suggs the first time the teams met. However, Richardson knows it won’t take long for him to be introduced to Baltimore’s No. 55.
“Terrell Suggs is one of those guys that’s going to hit you in the mouth from the first snap to the last snap,” he said. “He’s going to go 110 percent every play and he’s one of them type guys that’s not going to get tired of hitting you. A lot of guys get tired of hitting me for four whole quarters, but he’s going to keep coming at you.
“That’s one thing I have been watching on film from his old tapes, so when it comes down to it, we’re just going to have to man up and we’re going to have to go blow for blow.”
The Ravens should be well-rested, though maybe not a full strength. They had their bye last week.
Massive defensive tackle Haloti Ngata missed some practice with a shoulder injury, and if he’s not able to play Baltimore would have a bigger challenge on its hands.
The task will be tough enough.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)