The Ravens (3-5) are 2-0 against the expansion Cleveland Browns this season, but have not beaten Jacksonville (7-1) in six games, or even slowed the Jaguars' explosive offense, ranked ninth in the NFL.
Defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis has gradually built the Ravens' defense into a top 10 unit during the four years the club has been in Baltimore, but he is constantly reminded about the team and individual records Jacksonville has established against his teams.
Lewis declined to be interviewed yesterday, but his No. 2-ranked defense will face its toughest test of the year against Jacksonville. The Ravens have to find answers to Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell, receivers Jimmy Smith, Keenan McCardell and running back Fred Taylor. It's understandable why some members of the Ravens' coaching staff are a little tense this week.
"Brunell is athletic, plus he's having his best year of making throws from the pocket," said Ravens coach Brian Billick. "Fred Taylor is the key for them. He'll get the tough yards, plus hit the home run with his speed. With two Pro Bowl receivers and quality tight ends, there is just not a part of their offense you can focus on stopping."
"We're going into Jacksonville, and their offense takes us to a whole new level," said Ravens defensive tackle Larry Webster. "This is going to be a real test. We've gone against some good teams, but none that can run and pass like this one."
The Ravens have tried countless ways. They have tried blitzing Brunell and rushing just four players. They have tried press coverage and playing soft zones. Nothing has made a difference. The Ravens have never held the Jaguars under 350 yards of total offense and Jacksonville has gone over 400 yards four times, including 519 last September.
Brunell and Co. have lit up the Ravens' defense for 1,907 passing yards, their most against any team in the league.
The Ravens haven't had solid cornerbacks since they moved to Baltimore, and Smith and McCardell have punished them. Issac Booth, Antonio Langham, DeRon Jenkins, Duane Starks, Rod Woodson and Donny Brady all have been victimized.
Smith has had three games with more than 100 receiving yards, while McCardell has had two. Smith has 27 receptions for 595 yards and four touchdowns in six games against the Ravens, while McCardell has 35 catches for 461 yards.
They have beaten the Ravens on almost every pass route imaginable, but the most damaging passes have been screens to running backs. The Ravens are hoping that Starks, Jenkins and now rookie cornerback Chris McAlister have matured to the point where they can handle Smith and McCardell.
If not, they'd better grow up in a hurry. The Ravens haven't faced a duo of this caliber since Issac Bruce and Torry Holt in the opener against St. Louis. They burned the Ravens for 128 yards and 11 receptions.
The Ravens may get some help from Jacksonville coach Tough Coughlin, a conservative play caller compared with Cleveland Browns coach Chris Palmer, who ran the Jacksonville offense last season.
Jacksonville is averaging 340.3 yards in offense and 26 points per game in 1999. The Ravens are allowing only 251.1 yards and 18 points per game.
"They have two great receivers," said Ravens outside linebacker Jamie Sharper. "But we have some hyper, young defensive backs. They've played well and are not going to give up anything easily. They know they can play with those guys, that they can run with them. The key is that they have to keep their eyes where they belong."
Ravens defensive end Michael McCrary said: "We need to get pressure on Brunell. We've got to get after him hard."
The Ravens haven't had a lot of success there, either. Jacksonville has two good offensive tackles in left tackle Tony Boselli and right tackle Leon Searcy, who match up well with Ravens ends McCrary and Rob Burnett.
In the last four games, Burnett hasn't had a sack, while McCrary, a Pro Bowl player, has only one sack against his Pro Bowl opponent, Boselli.
The McCrary-Boselli matchup is always one of the best in the game. Brunell is left-handed, too, which means McCrary has no blind-side advantage and Burnell is able to elude him easier than if he was right-handed. Strong-side linebacker Peter Boulware has been one of the Ravens' most effective pass rushers, with five sacks in four games.
"It's an intense physical battle going against Boselli," said McCrary. "It's like a boxing match each snap, except there's 60 to 80 rounds. He'll tell you how good you are. He'll finish you off if he catches you jogging on a play and the ball's going the other way. He's not a fat, lazy tackle.
"But we're not slouches, either," said McCrary. "We can't let ourselves be neutralized."
Jacksonville's final offensive weapon was introduced to the Ravens last season in Taylor. He made his NFL debut against the Ravens last September and rushed for 128 yards.
Taylor has 381 yards on 79 carries this season despite being slowed by a hamstring injury. He has rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the last two games.
Taylor is the type of runner that gives the Ravens problems. His cutback style is Taylor-made for the Ravens' aggressive defense.
"He's the best running back we've faced since Marshall Faulk," said Sharper. "In our conference, we see a lot of big backs like Corey Dillon, Jerome Bettis and Eddie George. Now we're going to see one who can take it the distance. We have to stay in our lanes, know where he's located. We want to keep him under 100 yards."
McCrary said: "They're a disciplined team. They have a coach who demands a lot of discipline. The bottom line is that if we're not at the top of our game, they could embarrass us."
Next for Ravens
Site: Alltel Stadium, Jacksonville, Fla.
When: Sunday, 4: 05 p.m. TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Line: Jaguars by 13