This week, the Cleveland Browns take on the Baltimore Ravens. Browns fans are on an emotional high after defeating the Saints last week, but can they take out a divisional opponent heading into the bye week? Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.
Joe Flacco began his career an incredible 11-0 against the Browns, but now he's 11-1 after having lost to the Browns 24-18 heading into the bye last season. Flacco had the worst season of his career in 2013, throwing just 19 touchdowns to 22 interceptions. He's off to a better start in 2014, though, possibly because he has a couple of new toys at his disposal.
This season will be a tough one when it comes to picking an "advantage" at the quarterback position. In terms of decision-making, I think Hoyer is right up there, if not better than, Flacco. Flacco has a big arm and likes to drop straight back, while Hoyer is on the move more often on bootlegs. Flacco gets the edge here simply because of the experience factor and his great record against Cleveland -- if Hoyer strings together a couple more solid efforts, though, he'll gain some more respect in these head-to-head comparisons.
In 25 carries last season, Bernard Pierce averaged just 2.65 yards per carry last season against the Browns' run defense. Pierce will be facing a Browns front seven that should be fully in tact for the first time all season. Justin Forsett, Pierce's backup, has been very good through two games, averaging 6.6 yards per carry on 19 attempts. Keep in mind that he's averaged 5.0 yards per carry in his career, even though he's been a backup.
The Browns get the advantage here because not only are rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell running the ball very effectively, but they've shown more upside in a couple of games than Pierce has shown in his career. Baltimore's running game does seem improved in 2014 vs. 2013, but it's nothing to be overly concerned with.
How about the addition of Steve Smith to the Ravens, and Owen Daniels at tight end? When you throw Dennis Pitta into the mix, that trio has 35 catches for 364 yards and 3 touchdowns. Meanwhile, the Ravens' other two primary receivers, Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones, have combined for just 7 catches for 80 yards. This is a deep and talented group, and it won't be long before Flacco starts distributing the ball a little more evenly to keep defenses off balance.
Browns tight end Jordan Cameron was a limited participant in practice this week, but he'll still be a game-time decision. Other than him, Cleveland's group of receivers seem surprisingly consistent, but not dominant this season. The Browns have took one deep shot per game to Travis Benjamin, so I'm interested in seeing if they not only try it again, but try doing it multiple times in a game.
You have to love this about John Greco, via PFF: "Greco yet to allow a pressure in 76 pass blocking snaps on the year and is tied for the top spot in Pass Blocking Efficiency among guards with Josh Sitton." The entire offensive line is playing at a very high level, but Greco's stout play has helped "complete" the unit.
The zone blocking scheme appears to be the best thing that could've happened to Greco, and it's no wonder he blew Garrett Gilkey away in the competition this offseason. The Ravens are hoping to have improved play from the offensive line this season. The Ravens were fortunate to be able to stumble right into left tackle Eugene Monroe last year. The new starters on the offensive line this year are right tackle Rick Wagner and center Jeremy Zuttah, both of whom are getting decent reviews this far.
The Browns have the talent on the defensive line, but so far, too many pieces have been a disappointment. Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin have almost been non-factors. With Desmond Bryant in his second week back and John Hughes ready to make his debut, though, the unit is finally at full strength, and this is the same group that held the Ravens' running game in check a year ago.
Baltimore uses a mix of defensive fronts, but the primary contributors up front are Haloti Ngata, Elvis Dumervil, and Chris Canty. Ngata has had a lot of battles with Joe Thomas, but Thomas has pretty much won that battle every time. Baltimore doesn't have the same depth that Cleveland does on the line, which is why they get downgraded to "even" here.
C.J. Mosley has gotten off to a fast start this season, grading particularly well against the run, according to PFF. Terrell Suggs needs no formal introduction. Daryl Smith, the Ravens' other inside linebacker, is good in coverage but struggles against the run.
Paul Kruger gets the chance to go up against his former team, except this season, he seems up to the task of being a difference maker. If Barkevious Mingo plays, I still hope Jabaal Sheard gets more playing time than him, but Mingo is still certainly a useful asset to Pettine. Karlos Dansby has made notable plays in each of the first two games, but the coverage for the inside linebackers will be tested this week against the Ravens' dual tight end threat.
It might have taken a couple of seasons, but Jimmy Smith seems to finally have his act together. That's a good sign for the Ravens because their best cornerback, Lardarius Webb, is expected to return this week. Webb has missed a lot of time due to a back injury, though, so you have to wonder if he'll be playing like his usual self or not. The Ravens' safeties play at an average level -- gone are the days of an Ed Reed type of playmaker being back there.
Justin Gilbert got his act together last week, but now it's time for Joe Haden to step up to the plate and deliver. Through two games, Haden has appeared a bit off his game. He's done a good job against Torrey Smith in the past, but it's tough to tell which cornerback will match up with Steve Smith until the first snap of the game. Cleveland's secondary has allowed more yards than the Ravens' secondary over the first two weeks, but the Browns have the better overall unit, and that will be evident by the end of the season.
Justin Tucker can hit from any range, with a very impressive 91.3% success rate in his young NFL career. He's 5-of-6 this season, but the longest field goal he's made was just 38 yards -- Baltimore has gotten close to the end zone without getting in numerous times. The Ravens get the edge in the field goal game, while punters Spencer Lanning and Billy Koch are pretty even right now.
In the return game, Jacoby Jones remains one of my most feared returners in the game. I want to give Travis Benjamin that same respect, but he's seemed tentative with his punt returns over the first two games, and Marlon Moore is now the team's kick returner. Plus, Cleveland has made some special teams gaffes (botched extra point, kick coverage, etc), so Baltimore gets the advantage.
The Ravens rolled through the Steelers in Week 2, and they will have had a longer stretch to prepare for the Browns after playing on Thursday Night Football. I see that as a bit of a disadvantage, though -- they'll be going back on the road, where they were largely dominated by the Bengals in Week 1, and might have lost a bit of the momentum they built up. I think this is the week we see the Browns unleash a hectic pass rush on Flacco while really trusting our cornerbacks to perform well on an island, and Cleveland will thrive with that responsibility.
Cleveland Browns 24, Baltimore Ravens 17
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