Here are five key storylines the Cleveland Browns will be aware of as they take on their Week 9 opponent, the Baltimore Ravens.
#1 - Trying to Get Ray Rice Back on Track: I don't want to build up a rivalry too much between RB Ray Rice and NT Phil Taylor. If you recall back to Week 2, it was believed that Rice may have spit at Taylor, which provoked Taylor to shove Rice's head away, drawing a 15-yard penalty. Rice was adament this week that he did not spit at Taylor, and that the two were just jawing at each other:
"Phil Taylor is a great young player," Rice said. "He's coming along very well and he's making plays in their running game. He's a dominant force. I have tremendous respect for him. As long as I'm in the AFC North, it looks like we'll be going at each other two times a year."
Rice has struggled mightily this season, averaging just 2.8 yards per carry. He strained his hip flexor the last time he faced the Browns back in Week 2, and has been dealing with the injury ever since. In 5 of his 6 games this season, Rice has been held to 45 yards rushing or less.
Coming off of a bye week, though Rice claims that he is finally healthy and ready to take on a heavy load again. We'll see. The fact that backup running back Bernard Pierce has also struggled (2.8 yards per carry) tells me that the offensive line has been the real problem, something that our Ravens affiliate also believes.
#2 - Flacco Still Seeking Weapons: The numbers for QB Joe Flacco are not very impressive this season: 8 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, and a career-worst 78.9 quarterback rating through seven games. Flacco's problem this year is that he has been without two of his former weapons, WR Anquan Boldin (49ers) and TE Dennis Pitta (injured). WR Jacoby Jones could be the pick-be-up this offense has been looking for, though.
Jones suffered an injury in Week 1, and didn't play against the Browns the last time these two teams met. Jones returned to action a couple of weeks ago against the Packers, a game in which he played 26% of the snaps. Just before the bye week against the Steelers, though, Jones played 79% of the snaps as the Ravens went with more of an up-tempo, three-receiver set, utilizing less of their tight ends. Jones is fully acclimated to the offense again. While Cleveland has not given up plays over 40 yards this season, Flacco could try to target the speedster Jones on such a play this Sunday.
#3 - Bringing the Heat Defensively: Last week, the Browns held the Chiefs' top-ranked defense to just one sack. They will have to be on their toes again this week against the Ravens' defense, which has 25 sacks on the season (good for fifth in the NFL, having played one less game than the Browns, who are ahead of them by one sack). The usual suspects are Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs, who have combined for 13.5 sacks. When these two teams met in Week 2, they combined for 2 sacks and 6 quarterback hits. Their leading sacker that day was actually ILB Daryl Smith, who had his only 1.5 sacks of the season. Hopefully, the fact that someone other than QB Brandon Weeden is under center will prevent that from happening again.
The underrated aspect of this Ravens defense, which has been their saving grace in 2013, is their red zone defense. Baltimore ranks 1st in the NFL in that category, giving up a touchdown just 26.32% of the time. To see the stark contrast, consider the fact that the Browns' defense gives up a touchdown in the red zone 65.22% of the time (30th in the NFL). Cleveland only got into the red zone once against Baltimore earlier this year (on their first possession), and had to settle for a 21-yard field goal.
#4 - Struggling Lately Against the Run: On the surface, the Ravens don't seem too bad against the run, ranked 12th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed at 104.3 yards per game. Overall, though, Baltimore has actually had significant issues against the run versus three of their past four opponents:
Week 4: Bills ran for 203 yards (3.7 YPC), Bills won 23-20
Week 6: Packers ran for 140 yards (4.7 YPC), Packers won 19-17
Week 7: Steelers ran for 141 yards (4.9 YPC), Steelers won 19-16
The Bills and Packers rank 7th and 3rd in rushing offense in the NFL, respectively, but the Steelers rank 30th in the NFL in that department. The Browns don't necessarily have the running backs to be confident in their ability to run the ball against Baltimore, but based on the recent trends, it might be something that offensive coordinator Norv Turner considers; if they do, hopefully it will involve someone faster like RB Fozzy Whittaker getting some touches. Regarding the Ravens' struggles against the run lately, the Baltimore Sun attributes it to, "nose tackle Haloti Ngata struggling to fight off double teams and middle linebacker Daryl Smith has gotten caught up in the wash."
#5 - Special Teams Overview: 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 WR Tandon Doss in on punt returns mostly, WR 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, and he's not afraid to take the ball out of the end zone. If there was ever a week in which K Billy Cundiff needed touchbacks every single time, this is it.