This week, the Cleveland Browns look for redemption when they take on the Baltimore Ravens at home. Cleveland has won their past two games at home, including a solid defensive effort against the Chargers a week ago. These teams are quite different from the last time they met; the Browns have CB Joe Haden and DT Phil Taylor back, while the Ravens have lost LB Ray Lewis and CB Lardarius Webb (but got LB Terrell Suggs back). Let's get to our position-by-position breakdown and prediction for the game.
When these teams met in Week 4, I gave Joe Flacco the edge at quarterback. He delivered a good performance against Cleveland, connecting with Anquan Boldin for some clutch throws. What has changed since then to make this an "even" ranking? First, I don't think you can overlook his quarterback rating of 55.9 on the road. Cleveland's coverage should be improved from their previous meeting, which will pose a challenge to the veteran quarterback.
The other factor is the growth we've seen from Brandon Weeden. Despite having a low completion percentage last week in bad weather, he managed the game well and made some pretty good throws that his receivers dropped. He has cut down on the mistakes, going the past two games without throwing an interception. His pick six against the Ravens earlier this season is the type of mistake we haven't seen him make as of late, and I think that stems from better playcalling, better routes from the receivers, and quick maturity under center.
I loved seeing Trent Richardson's breakthrough performance last week against the Chargers, a game in which he set season highs in carries and rushing yards. Can the Browns get a more productive day out of Richardson than the previous time these two teams met, when he had 14 carries for 47 yards and 1 touchdown (he did add 4 catches for 57 yards). The productivity I'm referring to is his work on the ground, where Baltimore has yielded over 200 yards rushing a couple of times already.
The Ravens still get the advantage here because Rice is a difficult guy to stop. The Browns actually did a better job than any other team this season in limiting his yards per carry (2.7), but he can still break the big run and Baltimore could be looking for a more balanced attack this week (remember, he ran for over 200 yards at Cleveland last season). Rice is averaging 4.9 yards per carry this season and is an effective receiver. My hope is that Richardson can show some more consistency so I can make this an "even" ranking next year; as long as Rice is in Baltimore, I don't think I'll ever be able to give Cleveland the full advantage.
I don't want to discredit the Ravens' receivers, and that's why I'm giving them the advantage here. I want to address the comment that a Ravens fan made in my scouting report recently, which was that, "Boldin always has a great time with the Cleveland secondary." Much like the rest of the Ravens, the story has been "night and day" for Boldin when he's at home versus being on the road against Cleveland. In two games played at Baltimore (neither of which were games that Joe Haden played in), Boldin has 17 catches for 273 yards and 3 touchdowns. Impressive. In two games at Browns Stadium, Boldin has 4 catches for 43 yards. Boldin should be covered in the slot by Buster Skrine, and Haden if he moves to the outside.
The Browns will get Mohamed Massaquoi back from a hamstring injury this week, meaning a decision will have to be made regarding either Josh Cooper or Travis Benjamin. First, will one of them be inactive, and if so, which one? Second, how much playing time does Massaquoi get compared to the rest of the receivers? I'll touch more on this in The Sunday Five. The receivers took a step back with the number of drops they had last week, but got somewhat of a pass due to the slick conditions.
I don't really have much to say about the offensive line position this week. Both positions are pretty stout in protecting their quarterback, although Flacco has been sacked 13 times over his past 4 games, including 4 sacks by the Browns in Week 4.
During that same four-game stretch, Weeden has been sacked just 4 times total. The Ravens do a good job opening up holes for Rice. The Browns have been off-and-on in that regard, but delivered against a tough Chargers run defense a week ago.
Their is one interesting thing to watch, and it's at left guard for Baltimore. Former third-round pick Jah Reid could see work at left guard for the first time this season due to struggles by veteran guard Bobbie Williams. If one of those guys struggle, it could give Cleveland an advantage.
This ranking is based on the assumption that Haloti Ngata will miss this week's game. I don't think it's a very good sign when your top defensive lineman missed the final two days of practice completely; if he was going to play, I would have expected him to at least be "limited" on those two days. On top of that, their other starting defensive end, Pernell McPhee, has been ruled out. If Ngata plays, this will be an "even" ranking in my mind.
The reason the Browns don't get the advantage is the fact that the defensive ends haven't made a ton of noise this season, and the defensive tackles have been susceptible to the run. Ahtyba Rubin is expected to miss this week's game again, but Phil Taylor will make his season debut on a rotational basis with a somewhat limited snap count. Taylor's presence certainly helps the Browns' depth on the line, since the other three guys are playing in their first year and weren't super-high draft picks.
The Ravens are amped up to at least have Terrell Suggs back in the fold, but if Ngata can't go this week, I'd look for Cleveland to have a better time neutralizing Suggs with some double teams. Suggs is enough of an impact player though to still give the Ravens the advantage at this position.
I'm a little concerned about D'Qwell Jackson this week, the strength of our linebacking corp. He missed a couple of tackles last week, despite making 14 of them. He also popped up on the injury report this week with a calf, foot, and toe injury, and was listed as questionable on the injury report. James-Michael Johnson had one of his best performances of the season last week, and Kaluka Maiava made a few plays too.
How will the Ravens' secondary respond without Lardarius Webb? If I'm Baltimore, I'd hate to find out. Cornerback Cary Williams had a pick six the last time these two teams met, but based on the number of teams that have beaten him this year, I think there's something to exploit there still. Ed Reed should be looked up to as the new leader of the defense now that Ray Lewis is out, but he's been banged up all year too.
The return of Joe Haden has had a definite impact on Cleveland's secondary since his return, allowing the cornerbacks to match up better and play with more confidence. Haden is expected to see a lot of Torrey Smith on the outside, with Buster Skrine playing against Anquan Boldin any time he is in the slot. Between Haden, Skrine, and Sheldon Brown, though, each cornerback is getting it done right now. The safeties are still a concern in pass coverage, as always, but hopefully the higher play of the corners continues to limit the damage in that area.
The Ravens' kicker, Justin Tucker, 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. 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. Reggie Hodges' punting has still bothered me, but Joshua Cribbs' returns have matched the productivity (in averages) of Jones.
The Ravens should have a good gameplan coming out of the bye, but I think defensively, they are going to be a bit shell-shocked again with how south things are going. They weren't very good already this season, and now they could be without four of their regular starters (definitely three). Joe Flacco can't just sit back and play a safe game while the defense takes care of business like they used to. While Flacco has certainly delivered in the past, I can't look past his road struggles and the fact that Joe Haden is playing this time around. The Browns will head into the bye week flying high.