Last week, the Cleveland Browns and the Miami Dolphins were both looking to prove their offseason acquisitions could turn them into a contender. The Browns did not come away looking pretty. For the second week in a row, they are facing a team (Baltimore) that has the same goal as them: rebound from an embarrassing loss and prove they aren't as weak as many people perceive them as. Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.
I've made my disdain for Joe Flacco known in the past. He does not deserve to be one of the league's highest-paid quarterbacks. Besides a miraculous playoff run last year that culminated in a Super Bowl victory, Flacco has been a rather medicore quarterback. He has a big arm, but doesn't have the precision on his passes to carry the teammates around him. Brandon Weeden needs to focus on trusting his protection and getting the ball downfield against a secondary that yielded seven touchdown passes a week ago.
Both teams feature running backs -- Ray Rice and Trent Richardson -- who have been used in questionable manners over the past two seasons. In other words, neither guy seems to be getting enough touches per game, despite the fact that they are dynamic rushers and receivers.
Norv Turner is going to try to get Richardson more carries this week, but as is always the case, the flow of the game will determine whether or not that actually happens. The Ravens are in better shape at backup running back with Bernard Pierce, but he is questionable with a thigh injury this week. Will Bobby Rainey get any work against his former team on offense?
The Ravens are in poor shape at the receiver position. They no longer have Anquan Boldin, who was the clutch receiving option for Flacco in the past. Dennis Pitta, who the team hoped would be their next emerging star, is out of commission. Last week, both tight ends, Dallas Clark and Ed Dickson, were awful. Because of how few receiving options Flacco has, he targeted Clark more than any other receiver, though. Torrey Smith is a good No. 2 receiver in my book, but he'll draw lockdown coverage from opposing defenses while they force undrafted free agent Marlon Brown to beat them.
The Browns get the edge because of the emergence of tight end Jordan Cameron last week. The Ravens gave up two touchdowns to the Broncos' young tight end. Besides Cameron, Davone Bess showed an ability to get open last week, and Greg Little will be looking to make amends for a couple of drops last week. The advantage is major for the Browns here.
Baltimore has a new center this year, as Gino Gradkowski replaces the retired Matt Birk. That may present some challenges for the Ravens down the road, but he fared pretty well in his first start against Denver last week. Michael Oher sprained his ankle last week against the Broncos, but appears ready-to-go this week. Although this unit was far from perfect in Week 1, they were no where near as unstable as the Browns were.
I projected the Browns to have the best offensive line in the AFC North, but Oniel Cousins was a liability way too often against the Dolphins, and Mitchell Schwartz struggled as well. They will need to rebound quickly so Weeden and the passing game can sustain success.
The Browns will likely be without Ahtyba Rubin this week, but the rotation between Billy Winn and John Hughes is adequate enough to accommodate his absence. Desmond Bryant and Phil Taylor showed why they are going to be a load for offensive lines to handle, which makes it much easier for the Browns' outside linebackers to get a pass rush of their own going.
Arthur Jones will return to action this week; he missed the opener against Denver with what was labeled as an illness. Chris Canty, a newcomer signed in the offseason, can generate a nice pass rush. Haloti Ngata will always be a challenge up front, but Alex Mack has always been able to handle the big man pretty well. I almost leaned toward giving the Browns the slight edge here, but decided to make it even.
Used primarily as a rotational player while he was a Raven, Paul Kruger is now almost an every-down player and will be pumped up to face his former team. I thought that he could be a bust when the Browns signed him, but the effort he delivered in the preseason and last week against Miami makes me think otherwise now. The Browns will have Barkevious Mingo available this week, so it'll be interesting to see how many reps they give him. Both inside linebackers, D'Qwell Jackson and Craig Robertson, combined to have a good showing for the front seven in Week 1.
Gone for the Ravens is Ray Lewis, the inspirational leader of their defense for over a decade, even if he wasn't as physically dominant for the past several years. The only regular linebacker returning for Baltimore this year is Terrell Suggs. He and newcomer Elvis Dumervil are very good at rushing the passer, though, and for whatever reason, Dumervil has absolutely owned the Browns in the past. Baltimore features two new inside linebackers in veteran Daryl Smith and the inexperienced Josh Bynes.
Say what you will about Buster Skrine, but the Browns only gave up one touchdown through the air last week, while the Ravens gave up seven. That hasn't happened in over 40 years. Besides Lardarius Webb, the Ravens' secondary is very much full of underachievers or busts in a patchwork attempt to salvage the departures of cornerback Cary Williams and safeties Bernard Pollard and Ed Reed. I'll take the combination of Joe Haden and T.J. Ward over anybody that the Ravens have right now in the secondary.
Billy Cundiff gets to face his former team in M&T Bank Stadium. I hope that doesn't turn into a disaster, because the fans will certainly make sure he's feeling the pressure. Spencer Lanning was a pleasant surprise with his punts to open the season. Punt returner Travis Benjamin is nursing a thigh injury, but is expected to play. Bobby Rainey will return kickoffs against the team that let him go two weeks ago.
Justin Tucker connected on 4/4 field goals from beyond 50+ yards in 2012, so he has the leg to make the long-distance kicks. 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 with Jacoby Jones injured. We may see Shaun Draughn return kickoffs, with Lardarius Webb returning punts.
The Browns' defense was so impressive last week, particularly the front seven against the run, that I'd like to believe if the offense was in sync even just a little bit, they could steamroll the Ravens. This is no where near the same Ravens team that won the Super Bowl last year. You're talking about a team that is missing at least ten key contributors from that victory. Flacco can't do it all alone.
I feel like I'd be in the wrong for picking the Browns here, though. The Ravens are raising their Super Bowl banner. Cleveland is coming off of an ugly outing by Oniel Cousins, and as hard as he may have tried to improve in practice this week, how much "better" can he really get in a short period of time? I think the Browns will make a couple of necessary changes to get the offense a little more on track, but other aspects -- such as penalties, good field position, and turnovers -- will go in Baltimore's favor in a down-to-the-wire game.
23, Cleveland Browns 21
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