Cleveland Browns vs. Baltimore Ravens: Players to Watch on Thursday

Luke Petkac@@LukePetkacFeatured ColumnistSeptember 27, 2012

Cleveland Browns vs. Baltimore Ravens: Players to Watch on Thursday

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    The 0-3 Cleveland Browns and the 2-1 Baltimore Ravens will clash tonight in an AFC North showdown, and there are a few players to watch in this one.

    Though the Ravens have won the last eight meetings between the two teams, the games have been closer than that record would indicate. Baltimore has only won one of the teams' past four meetings by more than 10 points, and has even had to stage a few comebacks to get by Cleveland.

    Stars like Joe Flacco and Ray Rice will obviously have an impact, but there are other guys that will determine whether Baltimore's streak continues or is snapped by the Browns.

    Here are those players.

Cleveland Browns: Jordan Norwood, Wide Receiver

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    The Associated Press reported (per The Washington Post) that the Browns leading receiver, Mohamed Massaquoi, will be out tonight with a strained left hamstring.

    The Browns are going to need receiver Jordan Norwood to step up in his absence.

    Norwood hasn't played in any of Cleveland's three games this season, but last year he caught 23 passes for 268 yards and a touchdown.

    Listed at 5'11", he may be small, but Norwood has the quickness necessary to play the slot effectively and create space against the Baltimore secondary.

    If the Browns can't move the ball through the air against the Ravens, they won't stand much of a chance. Baltimore uncharacteristically ranks 28th overall against the pass (289.7 yards allowed per game) and Cleveland will need to exploit that to stay competitive.

    The Brown's best receiver, Greg Little, is prone to dropping easy catches, and rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden needs a receiver that he can rely on. It will be interesting to see if Norwood can prove to be that guy.

T.J. Ward and Tashaun Gipson, Safeties

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    T.J. Ward and Tashaun Gipson, the Browns' two safeties, will have perhaps the toughest assignment on the field tonight.

    Ward and Gipson will be responsible for helping to stop the Ravens' two most dangerous offensive weapons: wide receiver Torrey Smith and running back Ray Rice.

    Smith is one of the fastest wideouts in the league, and he absolutely torched the New England Patriots last week with six catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns. He's averaging 23.5 yards per catch this year and is a terrific deep threat.

    Ward and Gipson are going to have to provide deep help for corners Dimitri Patterson and Buster Skrine and make sure that Smith doesn't beat them for a long touchdown pass.

    However, they'll also have to provide some hefty run support to help neutralize Rice, who gashed the Browns defense last year for 291 rushing yards in just two games.

    How well Ward and Gipson balance these two duties will go a long way in determining the outcome of this game.

Mitchell Schwartz, Offensive Tackle

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    The Ravens know how strong the left side of the Browns' offensive line is.

    Joe Thomas is about as good as they come at the tackle position, so Baltimore will be looking to test Mitchell Schwartz, Cleveland's rookie right tackle.

    Schwartz has played solidly so far this year, but he hasn't seen a pass rush as complicated or as aggressive as Baltimore's is. It's going to be a big test for the rookie.

    The Browns absolutely need to be able to move the ball through the air in this one, and it'll be tough to do that if Weeden constantly has defenders in his face.

    If Schwartz can fend off the Baltimore pass rush and give Weeden some time to throw, then the Browns should be able to move the ball.

Baltimore Ravens: Justin Tucker and Sam Koch, Kicker/Punter

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    Josh Cribbs doesn't have a return touchdown yet this year, but he's still one of the most explosive returners in the game and a constant threat to take it to the house.

    It'll be up to kicker Justin Tucker and punter Sam Koch to make sure that doesn't happen.

    The Ravens defense has been less than stellar so far this season, and Baltimore simply can't afford to give away points to teams off of kick or punt returns.

    Cribbs has done it to the Ravens before, and he's more than capable of doing it again. Tucker and Koch need to do their jobs tonight and make sure that Cribbs is never put in a position to make a big return.

Dannell Ellerbe, Linebacker

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    Brandon Weeden is a rookie quarterback who, like most rookies, is prone to getting rattled if he is pressured.

    The Ravens will be relying on Dannell Ellerbe to generate a lot of that pressure.

    Ellerbe is splitting time with fellow linebacker Jameel McClain, but he's the one who gets most of the burn in passing situations. He leads the Baltimore defense in sacks (2.5) and is second only to Ray Lewis in terms of total tackles (20).

    The Browns have struggled a bit in pass protection, surrendering eight sacks so far this year, and the Ravens need to exploit that.

    If Weeden gets enough time to throw, he could create some problems for the Baltimore secondary, so the Ravens will be looking to unleash Ellerbe often. He'll definitely be worth keeping an eye on tonight.

Lardarius Webb, Cornerback

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    Lardarius Webb is the Ravens' top corner and one of the few Baltimore defenders playing well at the moment.

    However, Webb's been bothered by a knee injury recently, and it showed in last week's game against the Patriots.

    Webb looked uncharacteristically sloppy in the loss, and the Ravens' struggling defense can't afford for him to be less than 100 percent. Webb is listed as probable for tonight's game, according to the Ravens' official site, and it's worth keeping an eye on how he plays.

    Baltimore needs him to play well tonight, because they'll really need him in the future.

    The Ravens have games against the Dallas Cowboys and the Houston Texans fast approaching, and both teams have passing attacks far more dangerous than Cleveland's.

    If Webb doesn't look healthy tonight, the Ravens could be in some trouble in their upcoming games. It's definitely something to look for in tonight's matchup.