It's a short week for the Baltimore Ravens, who are coming off a 31-30 home win over the New England Patriots on Sunday night. On Thursday, they host the Cleveland Browns, an 0-3 squad that still could cause trouble for the Ravens without adequate preparation.
One of the biggest mistakes the Ravens could make this week is to underestimate their competition—that mentality was part of the reason the team fell to the Jacksonville Jaguars last season. With that in mind, here's a three-step game plan Baltimore can employ to get the better of the Browns on Thursday.
Pressure the Rookies
While rookie Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden will be firmly in the Ravens defense's crosshairs on Thursday, he's not the only inexperienced player Baltimore needs to focus on.
There's running back Trent Richardson, naturally, who will be seeing his fair share of Haloti Ngata if the Browns are interested in running up the middle. First-year receivers Josh Gordon and Travis Benjamin will have to contend with the likes of Ed Reed, Lardarius Webb, Cary Williams and Jimmy Smith.
Defenders L.J. Fort, James-Michael Johnson (who seems set to return after an oblique injury that's had him sidelined for the past two weeks), Tashaun Gipson, John Hughes, Billy Winn and Trevin Wade should all see opportunities on the field that the Ravens can take advantage of.
According to ESPN Cleveland's Tony Grossi, at least 23 current members of the Browns' roster have yet to play in a prime-time game. The Ravens can easily capitalize on this big-stage inexperience and win the mental game over Cleveland well before they have the actual, physical game in hand.
Beyond that mental aspect, however, the Ravens simply need to force these inexperienced players into making mistakes. And considering how many the Browns have made on their own, handing away games that they could have absolutely won, it shouldn't be too hard for Baltimore to get the better of Cleveland's young team on Thursday.
That's not to say the Ravens need to look at the Browns as an easy out, lest they be sorely disappointed on the national stage, at home on Thursday.
Weeden has been improving over his first three games this season, now reading through his progressions, not staring down receivers and limiting his bad throws (except, of course, for the two interceptions he threw while attempting to catch the Buffalo Bills last week). He's dangerous and has proven he has both the arm and the talent to throw for more than 300 yards.
If the Ravens can limit Weeden's receiving options, they can either force him to make a poor decision (like throwing into coverage and getting picked off), take a coverage sack or, at the very least, throw the ball away for no gain. Further, pushing him out of his comfort zone—the pocket—will force him to make decisions on the fly that could result in disaster.
Pressure up front, alternated with playing physically and close with the Browns receivers, will expose Weeden for the rookie that he is and potentially even cut off Cleveland's passing game entirely.
Confounding Cleveland's young-skewing defense is another task, and one that Baltimore can easily manage if, again, they don't underestimate the actual talent the Browns are capable of fielding.
Ray Rice, Anyone?
The Browns' run defense was terrible last year, giving up an average of 147.4 rush yards per game. They tried to improve this area via free agency and the draft, but injuries to linebacker Chris Gocong and defensive tackle Phil Taylor has stalled these efforts somewhat. Though they're presently stronger against the run than in 2011, they're still giving up an average of 122.7 yards per game.
A bend-but-don't-break defensive approach can work, of course, and the Browns ostensibly could allow all of the rushing yards in the world they want if it doesn't result in opponents scoring touchdowns, but the Ravens have a run game capable of breaking the Browns defense if they just handle it correctly.
Baltimore is clearly taking a conservative approach with the number of carries they give their star running back, Ray Rice, but he's clearly making the most of every touch. On 46 carries through three games, Rice has 268 yards and three touchdowns, is averaging 5.8 yards per carry and has 14 first downs—more than any other player on the Ravens roster who, of course, isn't Joe Flacco.
Rice is highly paid for being so rarely used as a running back, but he's not a collectible—he's a football player, one of the best in the league at his position. And the Ravens would be smart to bump up his carries against the Browns this week.
Rice had 20 carries last week against the New England Patriots, and it helped set up Baltimore's passing game. The no-huddle approach to throwing the ball is nice and has paid dividends for the Ravens for two of their past three games, but it's even better when Rice's carries get thrown into that no-huddle mix.
What can kill the Browns defense on Thursday is speed. Their front four, in particular, haven't been strong against the run thus far, and Rice can easily take advantage of this by coming at them quickly and making it through to the linebackers.
This is where things get tricky. The Browns linebacking corps is their best defensive unit, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), so the goal is for the Ravens to confound the Browns defense as to whether they plan to run or pass the ball and then set Rice loose when the Browns aren't particularly expecting it.
Last week, the Ravens did a good job of throwing off the Patriots linebackers by using the play-action (you can see an example of this here), and play-action passing is particularly well-suited for an offense such as Baltimore's.
In passing situations, the play-action forces linebackers forward and leaves single-coverage on receivers in the secondary. Clearly, the Browns won't know when the Ravens are running the ball until it's safely in Rice's hands.
Play-action and using the run to set up the pass aren't new concepts in the NFL, but these tactics will be perfect for the Ravens in their quest to topple the Browns on Thursday. It allows Rice to be at his most effective while still providing opportunities for the deep passes Flacco's been so fond of to be executed properly.
Regardless of the switch to more no-huddle passing, Rice is still the motive force behind Baltimore's offense, and he needs to be the centerpiece in their attempt to pick apart Cleveland.
Don't Underestimate Cleveland's Passing
Though the Browns offense, in particular, is rife with rookie and second-year players at important positions (quarterback, receiver, running back, right tackle), that doesn't make them inherently bad or easy to stop.
As mentioned above, Brandon Weeden already has one 300-plus-yard passing day to his name this season, and he'd have fared even better in his other two outings if his receiving corps had complied with his wishes—i.e. caught his passes.
Of the 81 total passes thrown to the Browns' tight ends and receivers, only 43 have been caught. Though Pro Football Focus calls just six of these straight-up drops (five for receivers, one for tight ends), a good number of these incomplete passes had to do with receiver error far more often than they can be attributed to bad passes from Weeden.
The Ravens, therefore, need to be wary about their cornerbacks' performances as of late, particularly the outings by Cary Williams and Jimmy Smith.
According to Pro Football Focus, Smith has played 150 defensive snaps so far this year, with 11 passes thrown his way. Eight have been caught, for a total of 115 yards (and 24 yards after the catch), and opposing quarterbacks have a 106.2 passer rating when throwing at him.
Williams has fared even worse. In his 225 snaps, opposing quarterbacks have targeted him 26 times and completed 19 of them, for 235 yards, 70 yards after the catch and a touchdown, with a quarterback rating of 113.5 when he's being thrown at.
All it will take for the Browns to exploit these two shaky corners is for Weeden and his receivers to finally be consistently in sync. If that's the case, the Ravens may be in for a surprise aerial performance out of Cleveland on Thursday.
Williams and Smith must not assume that Cleveland's receivers aren't going to make catches, or that Weeden cannot capably throw their way, or they'll find themselves just as burned as they were by Tom Brady on Sunday.