On Thursday, the Cleveland Browns will take on the Baltimore Ravens. The game comes just a few weeks after the passing of Art Modell, and Baltimore will be wearing his patch on their jerseys. The Ravens are flying high off of a game-winning field goal over the New England Patriots on Sunday, improving to 2-1 on the season. Let's take a look at five key points to consider when scouting the Ravens.
#1 - The Ray Rice Factor: The Baltimore Ravens have shifted away from a traditional running offense, but that doesn't mean they've stopped utilizing Ray Rice. If you thought C.J. Spiller was having a good season heading into last week's match against Cleveland, then look out: Rice has been just as good, if not better. In three games this season, Rice has 46 carries for 268 yards. That's an impressive 5.8 yards per carry to go along with 14 receptions for 127 yards.
When Rice faced the Browns last season for the first meeting between these teams, he ran for 204 yards. The Browns fared better the second time around, allowing only 87 yards rushing (they still gave up a big reception, though). Unfortunately, I think Baltimore's no huddle, multiple receiver sets this season will force Cleveland into their nickel package often. They didn't fare well against Spiller in those situations a week ago, and things won't get much better against Rice.
#2 - Flacco Attempting to Deliver: Yes, it is laughable that Joe Flacco still thinks he is the NFL's top quarterback. To be fair, though, the new offensive system run by the Ravens seems to suit him quite well. Baltimore's offense looked very sharp in Week 1 against the Bengals, and we saw Flacco make some clutch throws against the Patriots to get back in it. Flacco has thrown 6 touchdowns and 2 interceptions through three games for a quarterback rating of 101.1. His completion percentage is way up too; he completed 57% of his passes in 2011, but is going at 64.5% in 2012.
Flacco struggled both times he faced the Browns last season, but that was with Joe Haden in the lineup. Last week, I said Ryan Fitzpatrick could light a team up, but was also inconsistent. That is the same type of reputation I have held for Flacco in the past. The chance that he has a meltdown certainly still exists, but the issue is that Cleveland's secondary doesn't have a lot of confidence right now.
#3 - Just Some Guy Named Pitta: Heading into the season, I expected the Ravens to use tight end Ed Dickson as one of their top targets in 2012. Then, my brother reminded me that late last season, including the playoffs, Joe Flacco seemed to start favoring a guy named Dennis Pitta. Not only has Pitta turned out to be the Ravens' most targeted receiver, he is near the top in the league in catches, yards, and touchdowns among tight ends. He's been targeted 30 times by Flacco in just three games; he'll be targeted 10 times against the Browns if that rate continues. Will Cleveland's linebackers and safeties be up to the task of stopping Pitta? Here is an example of Pitta going to work on the Patriots last Sunday:
#4 - Ed Reed's Rookie Hazing: The last time safety Ed Reed faced a rookie quarterback on the Browns for the first time, he intercepted Colt McCoy two times. Reed is good at setting the bait, and while I have praised Brandon Weeden over the past two weeks, Weeden has made some risky throws that better defensive backs like Reed would intercept. Reed vs. Weeden is probably the biggest match-up for Cleveland when they have the ball, considering the Ravens' pass rush has been lessened without Terrell Suggs and Jarrett Johnson.
Besides being a ball-hawk, Reed turned into a head-hunter last week against the Patriots.
Ouch. At least Mohamed Massaquoi won't have to worry about Reed this week.
#5 - Returning to Form Defensively: Is the Ravens' defense still intimidating? Most definitely. However, in the absence of a couple defensive players, most notably Terrell Suggs, the unit has taken a hit. They are giving up a ton of points and yards. After being ranked third on defense a season ago, they currently rank 27th. It is core players like Ray Lewis who keep the defense focused at times like this:
"I think at the end of the year is when you pay attention to stats," Lewis said. "When people talk about our defense, whatever they want to say at the beginning of the year, we always say find us at the end of the year because you know where we’re going to be."
The Ravens have surrendered more yards in the passing game, but they haven't done a great job at stopping the run either. Cleveland has a chance to get them on their heels. One of the players who has really struggled and drawn criticism from fans is cornerback Cary Williams. Fans have speculated as to whether or not last year's high draft pick, Jimmy Smith, should be considered for a starting role instead.