#1 - Lack of Receiving Threats for Flacco: One of the biggest offseason gaffes in the NFL came when the Baltimore Ravens basically gave wide receiver Anquan Boldin away to the San Francisco 49ers for a sixth-round draft pick. Boldin is the very definition of a clutch player, and he uses his body so effectively to make tough catches amidst solid coverage. On top of Boldin, the Ravens are without tight end Dennis Pitta, who they were expecting big things from. Jacoby Jones, who was signed to a big deal in the offseason, is out for several weeks with an injury.
The Ravens' top receiving threat is Torrey Smith, but opposing teams are really going to key in on him and force Joe Flacco to go to his other targets. That's one of the reasons why Dallas Clark, a guy who was just signed off the streets, saw so many targets last week. Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of of Clark from the days he was associated with Peyton Manning, but this version of Clark is no where near the caliber player he was back then. In fact, he appears to be a big-time liability. Ed Dickson, the team's other tight end, has disappointed when it comes to hanging on to the football.
Baltimore is banking on Marlon Brown, an undrafted rookie free agent, to step up to the challenge this week. While that might sound like a feel-good story, it'd basically be the same thing as me projecting Tori Gurley to light up the Ravens' defense this week. Until Brown has some more proven experience, I'm going to resist buying into the hype surrounding him. The Ravens' other options include veteran Brandon Stokley and youngster Tandon Doss. All things considered, the Ravens' group of receivers and tight ends are a downgrade compared to what Cleveland faced against the Dolphins.
#2 - Pass-Rushing Specialists: The Ravens' defense isn't the same as it was without the likes of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Paul Kruger, Bernard Pollard, and Dannell Ellerbe, but that doesn't mean they have become inept in the pass-rushing department. Because Haloti Ngata continues to act as a reliable clog up front, the pass rushers on the outside can tee off on quarterbacks. Everyone is familiar with Terrell Suggs, who notched one sack and three quarterback hits on Peyton Manning last week.
To replace some of the people they lost, the Ravens signed Elvis Dumervil and Chris Canty in the offseason. Both Dumervil and Canty had a sack last week, the together, they had four quarterback hits. After seeing how much Cleveland struggled with Cameron Wake and the Dolphins' pass rush last week, you can expect the Ravens to try to isolate these guys against the right side of the Browns' offensive line early and often.
#3 - Trouble in the Secondary: If the pass rush wasn't the problem last week for Baltimore, then the secondary certainly was. The Ravens yielded seven touchdown passes to Peyton Manning, and while he's a rare breed who can make any defense look foolish, it is still pretty clear that the Ravens are going to have trouble covering receivers down the field in 2013. The only returning player from the secondary is Lardarius Webb, and he is coming off of ACL surgery.
The other members of the secondary, including cornerbacks Corey Graham and Jimmy Smith and safeties James Ihedigbo and Michael Huff. This is very much a patch-job secondary that the Ravens put together in the offseason to replace Cary Williams, Ed Reed, and Bernard Pollard. So far, the results are far worse than they desired. Jason Butt from Baltimore Beatdown told us that he thinks the results are correctable, and that "the cornerbacks weren't trailing correctly after jams, and the safeties weren't wrapping up when tackling" last week against Denver.
#4 - Missing the X-Factors: The Ravens could be without two key players on offense this week: wide receiver Jacoby Jones and running back Bernard Pierce. Earlier, I mentioned that Jones would be missed as a receiver, but he'll more so be missed as a return man. In 2012, he averaged 30.7 yards per kickoff return with two touchdowns during the regular season. He also returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the postseason. His punt return average was 9.2 yards per carry, but he also had a touchdown in that department. Jones is definitely ruled out for Sunday.
The Ravens entered the season with just two running backs: Ray Rice and Pierce. Pierce has been a very reliable backup, and one of the guys who can step in and perform as well as a starter would. He is the type of backup running back you'd like to see for a Trent Richardson. Anyway, the Ravens signed running back Shaun Draughn off the street this week because Pierce was limited in practice all week with a thigh injury. Pierce is officially listed as questionable for Sunday's game. Even if he can play, the Ravens might not have him at full strength, which wouldn't be a good sign against a Browns run defense that held Miami to 0.9 yards per carry a week ago.
#5 - Special Teams Overview: Last year, the Ravens said goodbye to Billy Cundiff and decided to go with Justin Tucker as their new kicker. The decision paid off big time for him, as Tucker was one of the league's best kickers right off the bat. Tucker connected on 4/4 field goals from beyond 50+ yards in 2012, so he has the leg to make the long-distance kicks too. For the second straight week, the Browns will be facing a solid punter in Sam Koch.
The return game is up-in-the-air for Baltimore. Although it will be disappointing for Ravens fans to be without Jacoby Jones, he couldn't have been the sole reason for the success on returns; the blocking has to be pretty good too. We may see Shaun Draughn return kickoffs, with either Tandon Doss or Lardarius Webb returning kickoffs. If only they had Bobby Rainey right about now, eh?