In the NFL, every game is a big game. But this game is big for the Baltimore Ravens for a number of reasons. They need to right the ship, get into the win column, while steadying the offense and defense.
Here are this week’s plotlines.
This is a must for the Ravens. Last week’s paltry 2.8 yards per carry on a measly 21 attempts is pathetic. According to Pro Football Focus, the Ravens were the ninth-worst run blocking team in week one. The offensive line needs to reestablish its nasty mean streak. In particular, Kelechi Osemele had a horrible game against the Denver Broncos, following a less-than-stellar preseason for him.
As the offense continues to figure out its identity because of the uncertainty of the receivers, the run game needs to be a focal point. For it to be a focal point, the offensive line needs to step up its game.
The Ravens face a stout front seven from the Browns, with run-plugging linebackers in D’Qwell Jackson and Craig Robertson and an interior line of Phil Taylor, Desmond Rubin, and backup John Hughes. The entire Browns’ front seven had favorable ratings from Pro Football Focus in the team’s week one loss to the Miami Dolphins, and the run defense was rated the second best of the entire league.
For the Ravens to have overall success, they need to win the battles upfront in the trenches. In addition, they need to use the athleticism of the interior line by utilizing some pulls and traps to help the running backs get to the outside. They need to attack the edges because Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard are not known for their run defense (although they played solidly against the run last week).
This is a must-win game-within-the-game for the Ravens.
Handling a Formidable Pass Rush
Although Kruger is not known to be stellar at setting the edge in the run game, the dude can bring the heat with the pass rush. The Browns invested heavily into the pass rush this off-season, with the free agent acquisitions of outside linebacker Kruger and the interior-line-crashing Bryant, and the drafting of outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo. The Browns have inside rushers and outside rushers, and defensive coordinator Ray Horton has a penchant (from his Pittsburgh Steeler roots) to dial up the unique pressures.
Considering the Ravens threw the ball 62 times against the Denver Broncos, the pass protection held up adequately. However, without the suspended Von Miller and the now-Raven Elvis Dumervil, the Broncos pass rush pales in comparison to what the Cleveland Browns offer in talent and scheme.
A consistent run game will help keep the pass rush in check. I look for the Ravens to use draws, screens, and misdirections to help compensate for the over pursuit of the aggressive Browns’ front seven.
Defending the Middle of the Field
Oh goodness. The middle of the field was a big, fat, giant, black hole for the Ravens defense against the Broncos. After being one of the more stingy defenses against the tight end position last year, the wheels fell off the cart in the playoffs through the Super Bowl. This trend continued into this season with last week’s breakout performance by Julius Thomas, as he racked up 110 yards on five receptions for two touchdowns.
Enter Jordan Cameron. Many predict the big, athletic tight end will have a breakout season under offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who has a fondness for featuring the tight end (see Antonio Gates in San Diego, Randy McMichael in Miami, and Jay Novacek in Dallas). Turner likes to stretch the field vertically with his wide receivers and hit the seam with his tight ends. Last week against the Miami Dolphins, Cameron had nine passes, 108 yards, and a touchdown.
The Ravens will have more success against the tight ends this week than last. For starters, the Ravens limited the damage done by Thomas in the second half (because everyone else was scoring!). In addition, the Browns do not have as many weapons as the Broncos do. The Ravens had their attention spread out last week among Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, and Eric Decker. With speedster Josh Gordon suspended, what do the Browns have on the outside to threaten the Ravens? Not much. Greg Little, Davone Bess, and a questionable Travis Benjamin do not strike fear within the Ravens—even within the struggling Corey Graham and Jimmy Smith.
The Ravens will lock down the middle of the field in the pass and run games and force quarterback Brandon Weeden to beat them on the outside.
Impact Felt from Former Ravens?
Paul Kruger? Bobby Rainey? Billy Cundiff? Who will present the biggest threat to the Ravens? I think the Ravens will account for Kruger when they are in an obvious passing situation. Cundiff does not concern me whatsoever. I see him overcompensating to prove a point to John Harbaugh and the Ravens’ brass.
My money is on Rainey because the special team defense of the Ravens, though stout last week, is prone to give up the big play. Rainey is more than capable of providing that big threat.
Unsung Player to Watch, aka the “Corey Graham Award (after last week, this may need a new name)”
In lieu of a prediction of the score of the game, I will pick a Raven player each week who I think will have an impact on the game. I won’t pick an obvious player (such as Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Terrell Suggs, etc.), but a player that flies a bit under the radar. Think of this as the “Corey Graham Award.” Who would have predicted that Graham would have been last year’s postseason-player-of-the-game in Denver?
I was originally going to select Marlon Brown, but national and local publications think he is a sleeper performer for week two. This makes a ton of sense because Joe Haden will be matched up on Torrey Smith all day. Number-two receivers have had success against the Cleveland Browns.
With that being said, Tandon Doss (yes, you read that correctly) is my selection this week. As one of the only kick returners now on the squad, Doss will make a big play on special teams. Though the Ravens may struggle with their special teams coverage units, they excel in the return game. With only four wide receivers expected to suit up for the game, I also see Doss making a play or two in the passing game. He will atone for his lackluster training camp and preseason woes.