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CLEVELAND — Today’s clash between Jamal Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens has sparked bold challenges, sarcastic remarks and reignited a debate that began this winter when the defending AFC North champions unceremoniously cut Lewis after seven years and a Super Bowl title.
The dramatic matchup of the Ravens’ fierce defense against their former star running back has been the dominant story line all week as Baltimore (2-1) prepared to take on the Cleveland Browns (1-2) on the road.
With all of the attention paid to Lewis, though, it has overshadowed that the former NFL Offensive Player of the Year’s replacement and his offensive teammates are much more likely to have a pivotal impact on this football game.
Newly-acquired running back Willis McGahee is likely to be called upon heavily today, especially considering that the hapless Browns’ defense is second to worst at stopping the run in the league.
"If we do what we’re supposed to do, we can run against any defense to tell the truth," said McGahee, who ranks ninth in the NFL with 272 rushing yards and is coming off a 98-yard performance against the Arizona Cardinals that included a 37-yard burst for his longest run of the season. "We’ve got a good line, we’ve got a good scheme going on and our coaches are preparing us well for it."
Plus, the Ravens are playing the Browns.
This is the beleaguered defense that gave up 186 rushing yards during last week’s loss to the Oakland Raiders, who manufactured a nine-minute drive in the third quarter that included 13 runs.
Three runners have topped the century mark against the Browns, who have allowed the Ravens to surpass 100 rushing yards during six of the past eight games in the series.
"That’s par for the course around here," Browns coach Romeo Crennel told Cleveland reporters. "You can’t just throw your helmet out there and hope to stop somebody."
Raiders running back Lamont Jordan rambled for 121 yards on 29 carries against Cleveland, which has surrendered 529 rushing yards for an average of 176 yards per contest and 4.9 yards per carry.
The Browns are on pace to set a franchise career record for rushing yards allowed per game, surpassing the inaugural 1999 expansion season.
Could it be McGahee, not Lewis, who’s headed for a career day?
"It’s like any given Sunday, it might be a different team coming here to play us," McGahee said. "They might decide they want to shut the run down. You can’t look at it like that because they are a good team."
Good is not a description usually tied to the Browns’ defense, which has an old, heavy defensive line that includes nearly 400-pound, 39-year-old nose guard Ted Washington and 34-year-old defensive end Orpheus Roye.
The linebackers don’t make many impactful players with the exception of athletic pass rusher Kamerion Wimbley.
And the young secondary has looked confused, allowing opposing quarterbacks to throw 11 touchdown passes, average 7.96 yards per pass attempt and combine for a 113.5 rating.
â€œYou look at that, but, at the same time, you donâ€™t want to go out there and be too aggressive," quarterback Steve McNair said. "You still have got to be smart and you still have got to go out and run the football. If they give you a chance to make a big play down the field, youâ€™ve got to take advantage of it.
"But, no, weâ€™re not looking at charts. We know we still need to go out and execute because every week is a different week. They may be tough this week on defense, but we just have got to go out there and execute and minimize mistakes and play within ourselves regardless of what status they are on defense.â€
No NFL team has given up more touchdown passes than the Browns. Rookie cornerback Eric Wright has been used for target practice as he has been burnt for four touchdowns in three games.
Cleveland has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 59.6 percent of their throws and pile up 788 yards.
Despite 99 throws against them this year, the Browns have only two interceptions and four sacks.
Like McGahee and McNair, wide receiver Derrick Mason sounds convinced that the Browns are a quality opponent, though.
"I’ve never considered them as the ‘same old Browns,’" Mason said. "That’s a good team and anybody who thinks otherwise is fooling themselves or they’re not watching the same tape we’re watching. They’ve played some tough games.
"From my experience, they always play us hard. They made it a dogfight each and every time we played them. We will never say this is the same old Cleveland Browns. This is a vastly improved team. It’s going to be a hard-fought battle, especially going down there."
Added tight end Todd Heap, who has caught 41 passes for 440 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games against the Browns: "The thing about Cleveland is that they’re always dangerous. You always know what type of game you’re going into, and you can’t really look at how the game went last week or how their season is going."
Meanwhile, the first game between Lewis and the Ravens could prove to be anticlimactic considering how this defense traditionally shuts down running backs. The Ravens lead the NFL in rushing defense, giving up just 61.7 rushing yards per game and 2.9 yards per carry.
They haven’t allowed a touchdown run in 10 consecutive games, and the New York Jets’ Thomas Jones gained the most yards against them this season with 67 yards.
"They’re still a hard-nosed defense," Lewis said. "They’re going to play hard, they’re going to play fast. I think they’re going to play me a little different than they play any other running back."
Crennel suggested that Lewis, who was released Feb. 28, would be motivated to have a career performance to prove something to his old team.
"If we can put it together, that would be great," Lewis said. "But I just know it’s going to be a slugfest all day and that’s why I’m looking forward to it."
Lewis is the NFL’s third-ranked rusher with 307 yards, gaining 216 against the Cincinnati Bengals.
"If you watch the film when he played against Cincinnati, he could have driven his big, old truck he bought before he left through those holes," All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "When you see how big the holes are, you’re like, ‘Okay, you’re playing against a totally different defense.’ And he knows that, and the Browns know that."
Lewis, though, indicated otherwise, insisting that he knows the Ravens’ weaknesses and could exploit them today.
"I guess he’s going to expose them then," linebacker Terrell Suggs scoffed. "I guess he should go for another 200 yards. I, mean, he knows the weaknesses, right?
"Jamal is one hell of a back and if he said that our defense has weaknesses, then he’s going to expose them. Then, we’ll see if we have any weaknesses."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.