This week, the Cleveland Browns play their most important game of the season against the Baltimore Ravens. A win would inspire confidence heading into the bye and for the rest of the season, while a loss would make it very difficult to think about staying in playoff contention. Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.
Earlier this season, Joe Flacco completed 22-of-33 passes for 211 yards, 1 touchdown, and 0 interceptions against the Browns' defense. Those numbers seem pedestrian, but it was actually one of Flacco's better outings of the season. One of Baltimore's problems is that they don't start fast: they only have one first-quarter touchdown all season, and were shut out in the first half by the Browns back in Week 2.
If I was judging based on the small sample size of Jason Campbell's performance last week, I would actually make this an "even" ranking. Campbell brought good mobility, awareness, arm strength, and accuracy against the Chiefs. I'd love to see that again against the Ravens, but Baltimore gets the advantage here because Flacco has been working with his offensive system as the starter for a lot longer.
Talent-wise, the Ravens clearly have the Browns outmatched with Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, a group that should be one of the best one-two punches in the NFL. Each of them are only averaging 2.8 yards per carry, though, and Baltimore is actually averaging just 74 yards rushing per game, which is worse than Cleveland.
The Browns have not been able to establish Willis McGahee early in a game; he seems to do better in the second half when the run blocking also seems to be gelling a little bit better. I would love to see a change of pace in which Fozzy Whittaker tries to help spark the offense early on. We've already seen his ability to catch the ball the past two weeks, too, which can make him a multidimensional threat.
The Ravens moved Torrey Smith around a lot back in Week 2, meaning he wasn't matched up with Joe Haden very much. Smith responded with a 7-catch, 85-yard game. Jacoby Jones is back for the Ravens after suffering an injury in Week 1, and their other receiving threat is Marlon Brown. Dallas Clark has made a few plays at tight end, but is still a shadow of his former self.
The big difference for Cleveland this time around should be the presence of wide receiver Josh Gordon, who was suspended for the first two games of the regular season. A person looking for redemption from that first game is wide receiver Greg Little. He had 3-4 drops in the second half against Baltimore, restoring his reputation as a player who drops too many passes. Since then, Little's drops have long been forgotten -- it is Davone Bess who is at the center of attention due to all of his drops. One of these "other" players besides Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron need to step up their games.
The Browns' pass protection continues to improve; last week, they only allowed one sack against the Chiefs' defense and kept Jason Campbell relatively clean. While the run blocking still leaves a lot to be desired, the chemistry between the five starting linemen is at its peak right now.
The Ravens haven't been too bad in pass protection, but have dealt with a lot of shuffling. In fact, since the last time these two teams met, Bryant McKinnie is no longer the left tackle (replaced by Eugene Monroe), and now starting left guard Kelechi Osemele is out for the season. Osemele is a new loss for Baltimore, and he'll be replaced by A.Q. Shipley, a guy who has been in the league since 2009 but hasn't played very much. Cleveland gets the advantage due to the loss of Osemele.
The Ravens' defensive line consists of Haloti Ngata, Chris Canty, and Arthur Jones. Jones has had his share of struggles lately, while Ngata continues to not make the "stat sheet" plays because he is eating up double team blocks.
The Browns know who their big run stuffers are -- according to Pro Football Focus, Phil Taylor (+4.6 in run defense), Ahtyba Rubin (+8.0) and John Hughes (+8.0) all do very well against the run. One player who has sort of disappeared a little these past few weeks is Desmond Bryant. He had a couple of great games to start the season with four sacks, but hasn't registered as much pressure as of late.
Paul Kruger is coming off his best two-game stretch of the season, which just so happens to coincide with the return of Jabaal Sheard to the lineup. Sheard has not been able to match the monstrous three-game stretch he had to begin the season, but he hasn't presented a weakness over the past two weeks.
Barkevious Mingo, despite his flashy plays, has actually struggled as a pass rusher. The big concern is at inside linebacker, though, where for the past month, D'Qwell Jackson was bad against the run and Craig Robertson was bad in coverage.
The Ravens will continue to get a good pass rush from Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. Jameel McClain returned recently, and Daryl Smith racked up his only 1.5 sacks of the season when he faced Cleveland. The Ravens also rotate Courtney Upshaw and Josh Bynes in.
Despite the solid second half against the Chiefs last week, Cleveland's secondary has had a rough stretch of games against quarterbacks in terms of allowing touchdowns. A bright spot has been T.J. Ward's play against the run the past few weeks, though, where Ray Horton has gone happy in sending him on run blitzes. Tashaun Gipson's tackling needs to improve, and the Browns need some more aggressiveness from Chris Owens.
You wouldn't know it based on the statistics, but the Ravens' pass defense has really struggled this year. Lardarius Webb, Jimmy Smith, and Corey Graham all grade negatively against the pass, according to Pro Football Focus. James Ihedigbo has done a fair job in coverage for Baltimore, but rookie Matt Elam hasn't grown into his role as quickly as the Ravens would have liked.
Other than two missed field goals against the Browns in Week 2, Ravens K Justin Tucker has been perfect this year on his other 15 field goals. Baltimore's coverage units and their punter, Sam Koch, have both struggled this year, as our Ravens affiliate pointed out in our interview with them.
Although the Ravens have been keeping Tandon Doss in on punt returns mostly, Jacoby Jones is available for that role again if Baltimore is looking for a big play late in the game. Jones has also returned to being the team's primary kickoff returner.
The Browns took a big hit last week on special teams, losing Travis Benjamin to a torn ACL. He will either be replaced with Davone Bess or the newly-signed Armanti Edwards. Billy Cundiff and Spencer Lanning have been consistent enough to warrant an "even" ranking for special teams this week.
Last week's second half against the Chiefs was the turning point defensively for Cleveland. With the players mentally being able to have some confidence in QB Jason Campbell, we should see some drives early on. The Browns are determined to end the team's embarrassing 0-11 record against QB Joe Flacco, and this is the week they finally beat him: Cleveland's pass rush will encourage Flacco to throw some bombs often, with Cleveland's secondary ready to finally notch some interceptions again.
Cleveland Browns 24, Baltimore Ravens 17
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