Ravens vs Browns: 10 Keys to the Game for Cleveland
The Cleveland Browns are starting to find a groove, having won two straight home games and being victorious in two of their last three.
This Sunday the Baltimore Ravens (5-2) ride into Cleveland (2-6) for the second and final meeting between these AFC North rivals.
Back in week four it was Baltimore that hung on for a hard fought 23-16 win that saw the Browns have a chance to tie things up on the final play of the game. Under the bright lights, Cleveland proved to the country that they can compete with the upper echelon clubs.
Can the orange and brown turn the corner on that potential and convert a great effort into a 'W'?
This will be the fifth game for Cleveland since that Thursday Night Football battle, and the Browns are a much different-looking team. Baltimore, on the other hand, looks shaky as they sit atop of the division coming off of a bye.
Let's take a look at 10 keys to the game for Cleveland.
Contain RB Ray Rice
Everyone says it, few can do it—contain Ray Rice.
The diminutive Baltimore running back represents 30 percent of the entire Ravens offense. Averaging 5.4 yards per carry and scoring five touchdowns so far this season means that the thoroughbred rusher will make an impact.
Remember, he also possesses near-perfect hands and executes screen passes effectively, which makes him a favourite target for quarterback Joe Flacco.
He may only have had 49 rushing yards the last time these rivals faced off on September 27, but what about those eight catches for 47 yards? That is a combined 96 yards of production for Rice, and he will be after a whole lot more than that on Sunday.
The gradual introduction of the returning Phil Taylor to Cleveland's defensive line will be important. More vital is stopping No. 27 from getting to the outside.
The cornerbacks must make those first tackles around scrimmage if Rice does turn the corner. Veteran Sheldon Brown has been burned on quick tosses off the snap to running backs the past two weeks and absolutely has to tighten up on those tackles.
Get off to a Fast Start
Being the youngest team in the NFL means that the Browns have very little room for error, and this is especially true against a veteran club like Baltimore.
Getting down early in a game means that Cleveland has to take more chances through the air and cut down carries to their most dangerous weapon, Trent Richardson.
In the Browns pair of victories this season, they came out hot and led or were tied heading into the half. The same scenario has to occur to prevent the clock-eating machines of Rice and Pierce from owning the final two quarters.
A fast start will also get the 70,000 fans at Cleveland Browns Stadium loud and rowdy. That, of course, creates plenty of noise, which could help to limit some of Flacco's no-huddle offense.
Convert on 3rd-and-Short
If a team gets to 3rd-and-short, it usually means that a moving of the chains is only a snap away.
It especially should be for the Browns who have their number three overall pick, running back Trent Richardson, standing behind Brandon Weeden in those circumstances.
However, for some reason, converting on third down has been a real difficulty for Cleveland in 2012. The Browns rank 27th in that category, only securing a new set of downs 31.5 percent of the time.
The real head scratcher is that Trent Richardson is a dismal 2-of-7 on 3rd-and-1 opportunities.
For a club that needs to keep a dangerous Ravens offense off the field as long as possible, they can not let what should be automatic first downs slip away.
This is on the coaching staff to figure out a new plan of attack if the conventional straight ahead rush approach continues to fail.
Lock Down Suggs and Ngata
If you bleed orange and brown, then facing a rusty Terrell Suggs and injured Haloti Ngata is a very good situation.
On top of that, an already depleted Ravens defense that is missing Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb could mean that Baltimore is ripe for a Cleveland upset.
Ngata was limited in practice on Wednesday and sat out Thursday with a shoulder ailment. If he is unable to suit up, that would be a huge break for the Browns O-Line. The massive No. 92 is a game-changer at DT, and his 32 tackles with three sacks certainly backs up that statement.
Suggs returned in Week & from an offseason Achilles tendon injury. A bye following that terrible defeat against the Texans will, of course, only let that body part get stronger for the 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
While looking sluggish at times versus Houston, the linebacker showed he is still a force by recording four tackles, a sack and deflecting a pass.
To try and negate Suggs and Ngata as much as possible, Weeden must continue to improve on a quick release. The pocket has to also hold strong and the line stay aggressive in order to cut down on pass deflections at scrimmage.
Give Trent Richardson the Ball Early and Often
Rumble, young man, rumble.
Coming off his second 100-plus rushing game of the season and getting healthier by the day, Trent Richardson is poised to bust loose once again.
This is a much different defense then T-Rich faced back in September.
They are without Ray Lewis and has tumbled to 30th in the NFL against the run. The Ravens struggling front seven are allowing an average of 142.9 yards on the ground per game.
No. 33 already has five scores in the 2012 campaign and has a real shot at dramatically upping his 3.7 yards per carry come Sunday afternoon.
Despite rushing for only 47 yards when these AFC North rivals hooked up the first time, Richardson contributed on the receiving side by catching four passes for 57 yards. That is a total of 104 all-purpose yards, which included a rushing touchdown and are numbers the Browns will be looking to multiply drastically this weekend.
Much like the opposing Ray Rice, Richardson can move the chains in the air and on the ground. The Alabama alumni needs to find his rhythm early and be allowed to wear down an already beaten up Ravens 'D', all the while chewing up clock.
T-Rich has the difficult task of protecting injured ribs and also needing to play at full throttle. Anything less than that takes away Cleveland's best player and forces in the unpredictable Montario Hardesty.
Hurry Joe Flacco
With Baltimore's usually stout defense struggling, it will be up to signal caller Joe Flacco to step up and deliver his usual deep field completions.
Wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith are long bomb threats on every snap and had huge outings in the Thursday Night matchup versus the Browns back in September.
Boldin lit up Cleveland's secondary with 131 yards, while Smith collected 91 yards and scored a touchdown.
Big numbers, however, that was without Browns cornerback Joe Haden who was serving a suspension. Since his return, the Cleveland secondary has been much more effective.
The Browns front line must produce constant pressure on Flacco, and a returning Phil Taylor will help with that even if he is only used sparingly in his first game back from injury.
Defensive coordinator Dick Jauron's coverage plan was masterful in last Sunday's victory over the Chargers. Cleveland confused quarterback Phillip Rivers by causing him to think that he was seeing one type of coverage when the Browns were actually employing another.
They will need to be just as clever against Baltimore to cause Flacco to hesitate. This will increase the Browns' chances of taking him to the turf or hurrying 'Joe Cool' into making poor throws.
A benefit for Cleveland is that Flacco has been less than stellar on the road in 2012. His QB rating away from MT&T Bank Stadium is a disappointing 55.9 compared to 106.9 at home.
Couple that with Flacco's four interceptions and only two touchdowns while travelling and the Browns could make it a long day for the Audubon, New Jersey native.
They are possibly the two most overused words and definitely the most frustrating ones for the Cleveland Browns faithful: Dropped Passes
Yes, slippery fingers and stone hands have been a chronic condition in northeast Ohio since 2011 when the club led the NFL in dropped balls.
The culprit who has garnered most of the attention for these mistakes has been wide receiver Greg Little. The photo in this slide reminds us of a touchdown pass that flew right through his hands the last time the Browns and Ravens squared off.
It was a key reception that would have changed the game and was one of Little's five drops in 2012.
However, since the emergence of Josh Gordon becoming Brandon Weeden's favorite downfield target, Little has improved.
Perhaps it was the pressure of feeling that Little did not have to carry the load on his own, or maybe that with all the new receivers in town he was playing to keep a job. Regardless, No. 15 is starting to perform like the clutch WR the Browns drafted.
With a young corps of wideouts comes mistakes. Gordon, Cooper, Marecic, Cameron, Benjamin and even Richardson have all dropped catchable passes in important situations.
We need only go back to Josh Gordon's open drop steps away from the end zone that would have tied up the game against Indianapolis.
Against a Ravens squad that knows how to eat up time, ensuring that the Browns offense remains on the field as long as possible is essential.
Cleveland is just not good enough of a football team yet to allow simple mental errors to derail them. If the Browns want to make it back-to-back victories, they must play as mistake-free as possible. That begins with catching the football.
It may not be the sexiest topic, but punting for the Browns this year has been a real concern.
Since returning from a season-ending Achilles injury in 2011, Reggie Hodges has not been the same player.
Usually a steady and reliable kicker, Hodges has been delivering several short and off-target punts.
He is over a full yard down on his average distance per punt. More importantly, only 29.4 percent of his kicks are within the 20-yard line compared to 37.1 percent in 2010.
Of course, part of that statistic depends on field position; however, on numerous occasions Hodges has simply botched the punt and did not get the desired location.
Hard to say if his troubles are from mechanics or a deterioration of abilities. Either way, the Browns need Hodges to pin back this potent Ravens offense as often as possible.
Weeden Must Continue to Be Patient
One of the greatest improvements Brandon Weeden has made as a rookie quarterback has been developing his patience.
In his last pair of outings, the 22nd overall selection has not turned the ball over at all.
The 6'3" pivot has matured a lot as a starter since his first look at the Ravens back in September. In that matchup, No. 3 threw for an impressive 320 yards, but that was overshadowed by a costly fourth-quarter interception and hurling the ball out of the end zone as time expired.
Baltimore's front seven brought the heat on Weeden all night, forcing him to make quicker-than-normal decisions.
Whether Terrell Suggs or Haloti Ngata are 100 percent or not, the Browns offensive line better be ready for a dogfight.
Weeden needs his guardians to be at their very best in order to give him those precious extra moments to step up in the pocket and utilize that accurate rocket arm.
No Penalties on Special Teams
You have to feel for Browns kick/punt returner Joshua Cribbs.
After an injury-plagued 2011, Cribbs has looked like his old self in the return game...or at least he is trying to.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Cleveland's special teams has become a magnet for penalties.
Beginning in Indianapolis, two massive runs by Cribbs were negated by holding infractions courtesy of Ray Ventrone. The calls were questioned by everyone on the Browns staff, but the fact remains that excellent field position was lost because of sloppy fundamentals.
Being pushed back and losing the momentum that goes along with a long return could very well have cost Cleveland a win against the Colts.
Last week in the 7-6 victory over San Diego it was another special teams hold that saw a terrific effort by the speedy Cribbs go for not.
The former Kent State quarterback was, and should be, visibly frustrated as he desperately wants to take one to the house.
Cribbs salivates at the chance to excel against division rivals and will be pushing extra hard for huge returns this Sunday. The question is whether his special teams colleagues will be disciplined enough to let him shine.
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