The officials are back! The officials are back! Stop the press, the officials are BACK! Thanks to the debacle this past Monday Night with the replacement officials, the process to end the referee lockout seemed to be accelerated. Tonight's game will be headed by referee Gene Steratore, who has 10 years of officiating experience in the NFL. You'll know him when you see him. Our full position-by-position breakdown for the Browns vs. Ravens game, as well as my prediction, is after the jump.
When Jon Stinchcomb talked about Joe Flacco in his preview, he highlighted two key attributes for the now-veteran quarterback: his arm strength, and his ability to come through in the clutch. Flacco has turned things up a notch this season in the Ravens' new no-huddle approach, but he's always had a reputation for being inconsistent.
Brandon Weeden is coming off of a mediocre performance last week against the Bills. Overall, you can see the progress he has made the past two weeks, but one thing has been missing: a solid first quarter performance to help Cleveland jump out to an early lead. Weeden will have to try to survive the rookie hazing that Ed Reed usually provides too.
Trent Richardson has the tools, but is obviously still learning as a rookie. You can tell that it has hurt that he didn't get to practice with his offensive line throughout training camp and the preseason; if he did, he might have a better feel of which holes to just hit right off the bat without worrying about bouncing things to the outside. He should have a little more success against this week than he did against Buffalo.
Ray Rice is the ultimate package at running back. He burned the Browns twice last year, and based on the effort C.J. Spiller had in less than a quarter a week ago, Rice is going to burn the Browns again. Are there any running backs in the NFL today that you would take ahead of Rice?
The Ravens have tried to improve their group of receivers for years to better suit Joe Flacco, and now it seems that they finally have it right. Torrey Smith is going to be a star receiver in the league, and he's coming off of a big/emotional game against the Patriots. Anquan Boldin is a solid veteran. Jacoby Jones is coming through in the slot. At tight end, Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta have been utilized heavily. Everyone catches the ball consistently.
The Browns will have without Mohamed Massaquoi, their top receiver through three games, since he has an ankle injury. There were rumblings going around that Greg Little might see less playing time due to the number of critical drops he has had. It would seem like Jordan Norwood might be active, and he's exactly the type of receiver Brandon Weeden needs this week: someone who can get in and out of their routes quickly like Massaquoi does. With Alex Smith out again, Jordan Cameron should continue getting a fair amount of work at tight end.
It's a little painful to see the Ravens throw rookie right tackle Kelechi Osemele and third-year left guard Ramon Harewood into the starting lineup with pretty solid production through three games. The unit is holding their own in run support and pass protection, and look to be progressing through three games.
The Browns' offensive line, meanwhile, is still a little shaky. To be fair, they were arguably going up against two of the league's better defensive lines, Philadelphia and Buffalo, in two of their games. Against the Bengals, they fared better. People are making fun of Mitchell Schwartz at right tackle, but I have been pleased with him. Those who doubt Schwartz have a really short-term memory on how bad things were with Oniel Cousins. Cleveland needs improved play from both of the guard positions, otherwise there could be some upgrades made in 2013.
It's hard to compare these two teams because they use different alignments up front, and Baltimore usually brings a couple of their linebackers up to the line. Baltimore is strong up front when it comes to Haloti Ngata, but there is not a lot of starting experience between the other two guys, Pernell McPhee and Ma'ake Kemoeatu. McPhee did have two sacks and a good pass rush against Cleveland last season, though.
While the Browns' defense has been shaky to date, I've remained impressed with the defensive line. Two things are holding this unit back from being really good right now: the absence of Phil Taylor (which gives the Browns a stronger rotation when Winn/Hughes substitute), and the fact that Jabaal Sheard hasn't appeared to have a major impact. The talent is there, though.
Again, with a different alignment, it is difficult to compare these two units. Each team has a definitive leader -- that would be Ray Lewis for the Ravens, and D'Qwell Jackson for the Browns. This unit took a major hit when they lost Terrell Suggs. Their pass rushing numbers and overall intimidation factor are down, but inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe has started to pick things up with 2.5 sacks on the season so far.
It'll be interesting to see how often the Browns are able to get in their true 4-3 alignment against the Ravens. It didn't happen often against Buffalo, and Baltimore runs a hurry-up offense. I'm still an advocate of seeing L.J. Fort in the lineup, but I know it won't happen. Fort was a great tackler in college, and I think he can remain stable in the NFL. Plus, I think the Browns need a more athletic guy in the game than Scott Fujita to stay up with the Ravens' tight ends.
Here is how much of a difference Joe Haden makes, at least in the secondary: if he were available for this game, I would give Cleveland the full advantage here. Cary Williams has been very shaky for the Ravens as a starting cornerback, and it could only be a matter of time before second-year man Jimmy Smith gets another crack. The Ravens score bonus points due to the presence safety Ed Reed brings to the field.
The Browns' secondary, without Haden, has been lost over the past two weeks. While I think Sheldon Brown and Dimitri Patterson are stable, there are just too many mistakes in coverage being made in the unit. The confidence appears to be lacking; any time a quarterback takes a shot, you get the feeling that the secondary is already defeated. Haden is the type of guy who could bring that confidence to the rest of the unit with his strong play.
The Ravens are among the top ten in the league in terms of covering kickoffs and punts through three games. To compare, the Browns are in the bottom third of the league, which is a reason I believe Reggie Hodges purposely tried to punt the ball out of bounds a few times last week. We can't keep doing that, though -- we'll have to trust guys like Ray Ventrone and Joshua Cribbs to make things happen in coverage.
Cribbs actually has the Browns in the top ten in league average for kickoff and punt returns. In terms of field goals, while I trust Phil Dawson more than first-year kicker Justin Tucker, Tucker is 7-of-7 on the year and has a strong leg. When Cleveland's coverage units improve on the field, so will my consideration for them in this category.
I have spent the past two weeks predicting the Browns to upset their opponents, and it has not panned out. I do like some of the matchups this week for Cleveland, especially since the Ravens' defense has been giving up a ton of yardage. I can't go out on a limb for the third week in a row, though, as much as I want to. If the Browns continue to start games flat, they are going to get crushed.