On Sunday, the Cleveland Browns (1-3) take on the Baltimore Ravens (1-3) in Week 5 of the NFL regular season. Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.
Joe Flacco has faced the Browns for seven years, compiling a 13-1 record against them. Cleveland has often been penciled in as a win, but this year he has much fewer weapons to deliver the ball to. Although he's completing a career high 64.2% of his passes, he's thrown at least one interception in each of his first four starts. Other quarterbacks have not really attacked the Browns deep, but Flacco won't be afraid in the least to take those shots, especially with the team's typical single-high safety, Tashaun Gipson, out with an ankle injury.
Josh McCown is in the middle of playing some of the best football of his career when you factor in his last six quarters of play. He is only one of four Browns quarterbacks to throw for 300+ yards in two straight starts. If he does it for a third straight start, he'll be the only Browns quarterback to have ever done so. We can expect much of the same this week, as I think offensive coordinator John DeFilippo realizes that opposing defenses have a tough time covering Cleveland's receivers.
Justin Forsett averaged 5.4 yards per carry in 2014, thriving behind the zone blocking scheme put in place by Gary Kubiak. Kubiak is now the Broncos' head coach, and Marc Trestman is the Ravens' offensive coordinator. Forsett got off to a very slow start in his first three games, but carried the Ravens on his back with a 27-carry, 150-yard effort against the Steelers last week. In two games against the Browns last year, Forsett had 28 carries for 182 yards (6.5 YPC). Backup Lorenzo Taliaferro only has 13 carries this season, but he had his best game of the season against Cleveland last year.
Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson combined for their best efforts of the season last week against the Chargers, but San Diego's defense was also one of the team's in the NFL that really struggle against the run. Both running backs did more damage as receivers, and Johnson's ability to catch a deep ball touchdown adds another wrinkle for this offense because of what else that look can set up. Johnson didn't have a high yards per carry average last week, but he actually made several elusive moves to turn would-be losses into 3-yard gains.
If you thought the Chargers' receiving situation was bad by the end of last week's game, the Ravens' receiving situation is far worse. At least San Diego still had their top receiver, Keenan Allen, and their top tight end, Ladarius Green. Baltimore *should* be without veteran Steve Smith this week, who is listed as doubtful after not practicing all week. First-round pick Breshad Perriman hasn't played all year and is out indefinitely. Slot receiver Michael Campanaro suffered an injury last week and is now on injured reserve.
Who is left for Baltimore? Kamar Aiken and Marlon Brown are set to start. You never want to underestimate receivers, but in terms of experience, both players are expected to be third- or fourth-receivers. The Ravens acquired deep threat receiver Chris Givens from the Rams this week, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Flacco take a shot deep at him. Sixth-round rookie Darren Waller will also be in the mix. Tight end Crockett Gilmore is out again, meaning Maxx Williams will see the bulk of the reps. Many Browns fans were intrigued by Williams, but he has just 7 catches for 84 yards through four games.
The Browns' receivers are playing very well as a collective unit. Tight end Gary Barnidge has been productive in back-to-back weeks, but Baltimore has been one of the better teams in the league with guarding tight ends. Travis Benjamin, Andrew Hawkins, and Taylor Gabriel are tough to stay with given their versatile skill set and quickness. Brian Hartline might be a game-time decision with his injury, and the team is still trying to find a way to get Dwayne Bowe involved. Even though he's appeared "lazy," a more "in tune" Bowe could be the answer to the Browns' red zone woes.
|OL||This week, we covered how Pro Football Focus rated the Browns as having the third-best offensive line in football through four weeks. Specifically, they had Cleveland ranked as 3rd in pass blocking and tied for 4th in run blocking. The run blocking grade seems shockingly high, but keep in mind that a lot of the struggles in protection and with blown up run plays have come from issues at tight end or fullback.
What about the Ravens? After PFF ranked them 3rd in the NFL in 2014, they are all the way down to 29th this year, including 30th in pass blocking and 21st in run blocking. Part of the reason for their struggles has been the fact that left tackle Eugene Monroe has been out several weeks with a concussion and his replacement, James Hurst, was awful. Monroe is set to return to duty this week, though. He, along with right guard Marshal Yanda, are the strengths of the line. Right tackle should be the most vulnerable position with Rick Wagner.
|DL||Ravens nose tackle Brandon Williams has been a dominant force against the run this year, and he's able to play a high volume of snaps each week (around 75%). With Chris Canty out, Carl Davis and Lawrence Guy will occupy the other defensive lineman positions when needed. Davis, a rookie third-round pick, has been used primarily to help defend the run, with Timmy Jernigan coming off the bench in a pass-rushing role.
Browns nose tackle Danny Shelton continues to string together mediocre rookie performances, and part of the reason for that is outlined in this article from The OBR. In college, he'd have more snaps, which means more opportunities. In the NFL, he often has to fill a responsibility -- which might mean clogging a lane or taking on two blockers -- rather than aggressively trying to disrupt something himself. The staff has challenged him to make more of an impact, though. If Desmond Bryant is able to return this week, it will be a huge boost to the defense, as nobody else on the team is a more complete lineman than Bryant is.
The Ravens' outside linebackers are Elvis Dumervil and Courtney Upshaw. Jason Babin was also signed to assist with pass-rushing efforts, but right now, the team is really missing the presence of Terrell Suggs (Achilles' injury). Dumervil is the only player on defense who poses a serious pass-rushing threat. Naturally, I'm sure that means that Cleveland will let Jim Dray block him one-on-one (rolls eyes). At inside linebacker, the Ravens feature Daryl Smith and C.J. Mosley, a tandem that gives Baltimore a definitive edge over Cleveland.
Paul Kruger needs to start having an impact if the Browns' defense wants to have a fighting chance. Whether that is Kruger snapping his slump in one-on-one battles or Jim O'Neil letting him pin his ears back on every snap, some adjustments need to be made. Scott Solomon is expected to return this week, but his workload is yet-to-be-determined. One tweet that made me chuckle this week was the following: "People talk about how Scott Solomon was a huge loss for the Browns so I looked up who the hell he was and he has 8 career tackles." Craig Robertson will be out again, leaving Christian Kirksey to take on a bigger workload again.
|DB||The Ravens' starting cornerbacks are Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb. The Dolphins had traded Will Davis to the Ravens in late-September, and he made his debut last week against Pittsburgh with an effective outing, taking over the No. 3 cornerback spot from Kyle Arrington. Will Hill and Kendrick Lewis are the Ravens' starting safeties. The secondary has talent on paper, but struggled most of last season and for the first three weeks of this year before taking advantage of Michael Vick last week.
The Browns' secondary has really only been getting consistent play from Tramon Williams, but the return of K'Waun Williams this week can help in more ways than one. Not only is he a reliable third-down defender, he fits very well with the team's third-down blitzes and making sure he gets a hit on the quarterback in time. Joe Haden will be a game-time decision, with Pierre Desir starting over him if he can't go. Free safety Tashaun Gipson is out, so Jordan Poyer is expected to start in his place. I'm sure Mike Pettine would love to have a great system guy like Jim Leonhard back.
|ST||Justin Tucker has connected on 10-of-11 field goals this year, including the 52-yard game winner in Pittsburgh last week. Nobody makes 50+ yard field goals in Pittsburgh. Tucker gets a touchback on his kickoffs about 90% of the time, so don't expect Cleveland to have kickoff return attempts this week. Travis Coons has been perfect with his field goals, but hasn't been tested for a 50+ yard attempt and doesn't have as good of depth on his kickoffs.
At punter, Andy Lee continues to crush the rest of the NFL, with an average of 52.7 yards per punt and a net average of 47.4 (both tops in the NFL). Ravens punter Sam Koch is tied for 6th in the NFL with an average of 48.8 and a net average of 42.4, but he's good at directional kicking the ball to prevent the return man from getting opportunities.
Michael Campanaro was the Ravens' kick and punt returner, but he's now on injured reserve. The Ravens just promoted Jeremy Ross from the practice squad, so either he or Lardarius Webb will take over return duties. Travis Benjamin has the most punt return yards in the NFL. Cleveland has the edge at punter and punt returner, but I made this even because of how big of an impact Tucker has.
I want to be optimistic, but healthy or not, the Browns' defense has not delivered a respectable performance over the past two weeks. I can live with the team giving up a few big plays, but the problem is that the defense is not making any difference-making plays -- no interceptions, no timely forced fumbles, no passes tipped at the line of scrimmage, and definitely no pass rush. Cleveland's offense should be able to put together another respectable outing, but why should I believe that Joe Flacco can't use his substitutes to pick apart Jim O'Neil's defense like Philip Rivers did last week?
Baltimore Ravens 27, Cleveland Browns 21
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