Thomas B. Shea
The Baltimore Ravens currently hold a nine-game winning streak over the Cleveland Browns. The last time the Browns defeated Baltimore came during the 2007 season when they did it twice, with the more recent one involving the "double doink" field goal from Phil Dawson on the road. They've never been able to beat Joe Flacco, and it's about time that changes. The Browns lost to the Ravens back in Week 4, but a lot of things have changed since then for both teams.
#1 - Ravens' Defense is Crumbling: When you have an elite defense, you might be able to get by with losing one moderate contributor. The Ravens' defense has taken a more devastating hit since the last time these two teams met. Ray Lewis, the team's centerpiece at inside linebacker for many years, is on injured reserve with a triceps injury. Lardarius Webb, the team's top young cornerback, is out for the season with a torn ACL. Safety Ed Reed has been playing through a shoulder injury most of the season.
The Ravens are also banged up on the defensive line. Defensive end Pernell McPhee has been limited by knee and thigh injuries and hasn't been practicing. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata was limited on Wednesday with a shoulder injury, and then surprisingly did not participate on Thursday. On top of that, Ngata has been battling a knee injury. Both players were reportedly missing from Friday's practice too. Losing Ngata would be another crippling blow to Baltimore's defense.
#2 - Suggs to the Rescue? The Ravens' defense, statistically, has been terrible this year. They are 30th against the run and 24th against the pass. Cleveland's defense is allowing fewer yards per game than the Ravens. Because of how dominant Baltimore has been over the years, it's a radical change for Baltimore's offensive gameplan too -- there is more pressure on Joe Flacco to score early and often.
The Ravens did get some help back before the bye week with the return of linebacker Terrell Suggs. Suggs saw a pretty big workload in his season debut a few weeks ago against the Texans, playing in 55 percent of the team's stats. It looked like Suggs never missed a beat, as he registered 4 tackles, 1 sack, 1 tackle for a loss, 2 quarterback hits, and 1 pass defended. Pro Football Focus said, "If [Suggs] was supposed to be slowed by the lingering effect from his Achilles tear, we sure didn’t see it." Suggs has had more time to get in shape over the bye week and could see a near-full workload against Cleveland. I'm not sure how much it will help, though -- despite his individual effort, the Ravens were still blown out by the Texans 43-13 in his first game back.
#3 - Flacco's Delusion Continues: Since beating the Browns in Week 4, Joe Flacco's consistency issues have persisted. Against the Chiefs -- you read that right, the CHIEFS -- he completed less than 50 percent of his passes and thew an interception in a 9-6 win. He had a good game at home against Dallas, but then completed less than 50 percent of his passes and threw two interceptions against the Texans. His struggles against Kansas City and Houston came on the road. He also did not fair too well in a road loss to the Eagles earlier in the season.
Flacco's QB rating at home this season is 106.6, but on the road, it's a putrid 55.9. Not only that, but the touches for running back Ray Rice have decreased this season; he's on pace for his lowest number of carries since 2008. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron alluded that Flacco is partially responsible for that by audibling out of run plays:
"We've had some situations where the score dictated that the bottom line is we're going to have to throw it to (Rice) more than we hand it to him," Cameron said. "No. 1, let's not be in that situation anymore, and let's make sure that we don't let our audible system take the ball out his hands."
It sounds like the Ravens might try to change their philosophy a bit, but knowing Flacco, he'll let his arrogance get the best of him and just keep on chucking. That might have worked in Week 4, but Joe Haden is back now.
#4 - Challenging Anquan Boldin: The Ravens' receivers did some damage against a Haden-less secondary in Week 4. Torrey Smith had 6 catches for 97 yards and 1 touchdown. He wasn't the big problem, though -- the guy that killed the Browns' chances of coming up with a stop was veteran Anquan Boldin, who pulled in 9 catches for 131 yards, both of which are season highs. With Browns CB Joe Haden back in the fold now and ready to play in his fourth straight game, things are looking brighter for Cleveland. Who will Haden be matched up against, though?
This was a question a few weeks ago when the Browns faced the Colts. Reggie Wayne played the slot position a lot, and Haden was going to stay on the outside. Similarly, Boldin likes to work on the outside. Haden acknowledged that he anticipates being matched up against the speedster Smith more often.
"He’s a real good challenge," Haden said of Smith, who has 25 catches for 435 yards and four touchdowns this season. "He’s definitely a deep threat. He’s a really good receiver, has really good hands and Flacco can throw it however far he can run.
#5 - Threatening Special Teams: The Ravens appear to have found a gem in kicker Justin Tucker. He is 14-of-15 this season on field goals, with his only miss coming against the Browns. He is 4-of-4 on field goals from beyond 50 yards, including a season-long 56 yarder (side note: Phil Dawson is 12-of-12 and is also 4-of-4 from beyond 50 yards). Punter Sam Koch is averaging a career-high 47.2 yards per punt, and the Ravens defend kicks and punts pretty well. Kick returner Jacoby Jones has provided a spark on special teams; he had a 108-yard return against Dallas and a 47-yard return against Houston.