What a difference a week can make in the NFL. Just last week, the Ravens were two and a half games behind the Cincinnati Bengals, with many pundits not giving the Ravens a chance of catching the Bengals in the AFC North divisional race.
Then, on Halloween night, this happened.
That safety opened the door for opportunity for the Ravens. With a win today in Cleveland (which is no guarantee), the Ravens have an opportunity to close the gap in the divisional race. A win today sets up another opportunity next week when the Ravens face a big divisional match-up against the Bengals. Another win next week, and the divisional gap will be closed.
Obviously, I am getting a bit ahead of myself. But the point remains. An opportunity exists the next two weeks. It all begins with this game in Cleveland. A loss today and a major opportunity will go to waste.
With opportunity being the major plotline this week, here are the plotlines that will help determine today’s outcome in Cleveland.
The Ravens have had two weeks to sort out the mess on the offensive line. All reports indicate that they reverted back to last year’s blocking schemes. This may help their situation by allowing the linemen to attack the defense rather than react to what the defense offers.
Have the wounded had adequate time to heal? Did the longer time off help heal injuries to Marshall Yanda (shoulder) and Michael Oher (ankle)? I was hoping yes, but then Oher sat out on Wednesday, and then we learned that Kelechi Osemele will most likely be out for the season.
However, I think A.Q. Shipley, Osemele’s replacement, might be a better option than Osemele at the moment. Osemele has struggled mightily all year, and his back injury was most certainly the cause. When Osemele left the game against Miami, Shipley struggled mightily. However, the Ravens did have their best rushing performance of the season, compiling 133 yards of net rushing (that is a really sad “best” performance).
I am hoping that the Ravens had time to plan for this particular change, rather than learning about it when we learned about it—which was late in preparations for the Cleveland game.
Patrolling the Middle
Another adjustment the team needed to make during the bye week was the communication between the linebackers and secondary when covering the field between the hash marks. Thus far in the season, there have been too many breakdowns in communication which have led to huge gains on busted coverages—mainly by opposing teams’ tight ends.
The middle of the field will again be tested by athletic Browns’ tight end Jordan Cameron. He did some damage against the Ravens in the first game (five receptions for 95 yards), and that was without then-suspended wide receiver Josh Gordon stretching the field outside the numbers. Gordon will be back today, and he has been a tear since coming back from his suspension. Gordon averages 18.3 yards per reception, and every touchdown pass in his career (eight career touchdowns) have gone for at least 20 yards. The Ravens have to respect his speed and play-making ability on the outside which will cause the middle of the field to be possibly exploited.
Who do the Ravens take away—Cameron or Gordon? Have the Ravens corrected the communication? It is the mid-point of the season, and these communication issues need to be resolved.
Who Steps Up Next to Torrey?
Cleveland Browns' cornerback Joe Haden is a stud. Here are some top receivers this season he has shutdown, or held in check:
- Mike Wallace: one reception, 15 yards, zero touchdowns.
- A.J. Green: seven receptions, 51 yards, zero touchdowns.
- Calvin Johnson: three receptions, 25 yards, zero touchdowns.
- Jordy Nelson: five receptions, 42 yards, one touchdown.
That being said, Torrey Smith did have success against Haden in the first meeting gaining 85 yards on seven receptions. He was held out of the end zone, but Smith did some damage on crossing patterns and drag routes.
The cornerback opposite Haden is the area the Ravens need to exploit. To say Buster Skrine struggles is an understatement. Opposing teams’ second wide receivers have enjoyed great success against the Browns. Here are some highlights:
- Brian Hartline: nine receptions, 114 yds, one touchdown.
- Marlon Brown: four receptions, 45 yards, one touchdown.
- Kris Durham: eight receptions, 83 yards. A third of Durham’s offensive production of the season came against the Browns.
- Jarrett Boykin: eight receptions, 103 yards, one touchdown.
On top of that, tight ends from the Cincinnati Bengals (a combined six receptions for 92 yards) and Detroit Lions (a combined seven receptions, 70 yards, and three touchdowns) enjoyed big days against the Browns.
I believe the Ravens will do their best to feed Smith the ball in various scenarios, but this game is an opportunity for Brown, Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson, and the tight ends to assert themselves in meaningful ways by taking advantage of the Browns’ mismatches.
Defensive Line Rotations
With the team cutting ties with Marcus Spears, they are putting a lot of faith in rookie lineman Brandon Williams, beleaguered veteran Terrence Cody (whose knee injury has undoubtedly improved), and second year player DeAngelo Tyson.
The subtraction of Spears cuts down on the depth along the defensive line, but maybe this is an addition by subtraction situation. There is still depth with Haloti Ngata, Arthur Jones, Chris Canty, Williams, Cody, Tyson, and possibly Pernell McPhee. Add Courtney Upshaw and Terrell Suggs along the line in certain situations and this is still a formidable group, on paper. It will be interesting to see which players get the call in which circumstances.
Additionally, have the Ravens made the necessary adjustments to shore up the rush defense? This falls mainly to the coordination and efforts of the defensive line and linebackers. There has also been a change in personnel to the linebacking corps (Jameel McClain in, Josh Bynes out), so we shall see if these changes to both areas of the defense are positive changes. The Browns struggle when running the ball, so it is imperative for the Ravens to completely shut down the run and force the Browns to win with the ball in quarterback Jason Campbell’s hands.
Unsung Player to Watch, aka the “Corey Graham 2012 Postseason Award”
In lieu of a prediction of the score of the game, I will pick a Raven player each week that I think will have an impact on the game. I won’t pick an obvious player (like Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Terrell Suggs, etc.), but a player that flies a bit under the radar. Think of this as the “Corey Graham 2012 Postseason Award.” Who would have predicted that Graham would have been last year’s postseason-player-of-the-game in Denver?
I will be surprised if we see much of fullback Vonta Leach as the Ravens will predominately use their 11 personnel (Leach will see about 20% of the snaps). By spreading out the Browns’ defense, the Ravens can use quick strikes to their skill positions while putting little stress on the offensive line. This strategy may hurt the deep ball, but I think the Ravens may have more success running the ball out of the spread formation; thus, allowing for play-action to put the deep ball in play.
Therefore, I see this week as the actual week production comes from the tight end position. Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell and quarterback Joe Flacco will attack the middle of the field giving Dallas Clark the opportunity to impact the game. Clark comes up with a big game.