BEREA — Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh understands that his team will never be popular with Browns fans.
However, he hopes that people in Cleveland can respect the way linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed play the game.
“I know it’s tough sometimes to appreciate opponents who really are kind of iconic when you play them twice in the division,” Harbaugh said Tuesday during a conference call. “But I’d hope fans can appreciate what great people and (future) Hall of Fame players that Ray and Ed are. The level they’re performing at, even at this stage of their careers, is pretty unprecedented.”
Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden and running back Trent Richardson will get their first up-close look at Lewis and Reed when Cleveland plays in Baltimore on Thursday night.
Both rookies spoke reverentially about the longtime Ravens stars in their weekly news conferences, while also admitting this is the biggest test they’ve faced in their young pro careers.
“My mindset is that I’ll be ready for it, but they’ve got a defense unlike any I’ve ever seen and it will be an honor to be on the same field with Ray Lewis,” said Richardson, whose 61 offensive touches are tied for eighth-most in the NFL.
“Ray Lewis is one of the ultimates ever that played the game, especially at linebacker. You can put him in that bunch with LT (Lawrence Taylor) and you can’t take nothing from his game.”
The 37-year-old Lewis — now in his 17th NFL season — has seven sacks, four interceptions and 267 tackles in 23 career games against the Browns.
Reed, 34, has been even more dominant against Cleveland in his 11 NFL seasons. He has 10 interceptions for 356 yards and three touchdowns, along with 71 tackles, in 19 games.
Lewis’ sack total and Reed’s interception numbers are their highest against any team.
“I think Ed Reed is probably the best safety ever to play the game,” said Weeden, whose 60.7 passer rating ranks 30th among the league’s 32 starting quarterbacks. “But you can’t play timid against him. That’s a recipe for disaster.”
While No. 3 overall pick Richardson and No. 22 overall selection Weeden have been up and down in their first three NFL games, Harbaugh praised their potential, saying, “I’ve seen everything they’ve done, and they’re as good as advertised, as far as their draft status.”
The fifth-year coach continued, “Trent is already working his way into being one of the premier backs in this league. He’s tough, hard-nosed, protects the ball and does a nice job in pass protection. I think Brandon has got all the talent and every week has gotten better. He’s big, strong, appears to be very smart and I think (coach Pat Shurmur and offensive coordinator Brad Childress) are breaking him in very nicely.”
Their growth, though, could come to a sudden halt against the ultra-fiery Lewis and his free safety. Baltimore has won eight straight over the Browns, largely because of its stifling defense.
Cleveland cornerback Sheldon Brown — one of the more respected veteran defenders in the NFL — said Reed is doubly-dangerous because not only does he do what he’s supposed to, he also doesn’t.
“Ed Reed is a playmaker and he’s everywhere,” Brown explained. “Realistically, he doesn’t do his job sometimes, which is when he makes plays. You’ve got to love that.
“Their coaches trust him and give him so much freedom because he studies so much film, he really does know everything the offense is going to do.”
Fortunately, Weeden and Richardson aren’t lacking confidence, which will either pay off big in their national television debut on NFL Network — or blow up in their faces when Lewis and Reed add more footage to their personal highlight reels against the Browns.
“Ray himself, you’ve got to witness that to truly experience it,” Cleveland offensive coordinator Brad Childress said. “Some of these things are on-the-job training, and you don’t get it until one of those guys gets right in your grill.
“I think we’ll have to be at our best. Our best should be good enough. We’re good enough offensively to play with anybody in this league.”
Contact Brian Dulik at firstname.lastname@example.org.