Can the Ravens come off their bye and gain the all-important road divisional win?
Though Cleveland sits at 2-6, they're a better team than their record indicates, and those two wins have come in the last three weeks. The Ravens, on the other hand, are a team trying to stave off a late-season collapse. At 5-2, their AFC North lead is safe for now, but a few more losses could send them down the standings and even out of the playoffs come January.
Of the Ravens' last six games—four wins, two losses—all but one have been decided by a margin of seven or fewer points, including their Week 4 defeat of Cleveland. Their most recent game was a blowout loss; they fell 43-13 to the Houston Texans before embarking on their much-needed bye week.
The Ravens cannot afford another loss like that, especially within their own division. Here's a game plan for how Baltimore can best the Browns on Sunday.
Acquaint Brandon Weeden with Terrell Suggs
There are a lot of things different about both the Browns and the Ravens since their last meeting, and the most significant of these for Baltimore is the return of linebacker and 2011 Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs.
Suggs, who partially tore his Achilles' tendon in the spring, returned to the field in Week 7 against the Houston Texans. The Ravens were absolutely demolished in that game, and Suggs didn't play every snap (and was on the field sparingly in the second half) but he did manage to dish out a textbook sack on Texans quarterback Matt Schaub.
It is an encouraging sign that he can still play at the high level we saw prior to the injury.
Though Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden has been steadily improving, especially when it comes to facing pressure, he still has a long way to go until he's fully acclimated to the speed and intensity of the pro game. One way he can get more comfortable is to face the league's best pass-rushers—which means he first has to get very uncomfortable.
Under pressure, Weeden has completed 58.3 percent of his passes, the worst percentage of this year's group of rookie quarterbacks, and has been sacked a total of 13 times. However, he's only faced pressure on 28.1 percent of his dropbacks and none of that pressure has come from a pass-rusher as fast and as dangerous as Suggs.
Baltimore's biggest defensive struggle has been against the run game—meaning that if they cut off the Browns' ability to pass the ball well, they could turn to Trent Richardson, who poses a very serious threat to the Ravens.
But it's been Weeden's arm that has led the Browns to the majority of their touchdowns.
With the secondary in trouble now that cornerback Lardarius Webb is out for the season with an ACL tear and the linebackers struggling in coverage, keeping Weeden in check is a major priority this week.
If Weeden is on the ground or on the run, the less likely he is to connect with the likes of receiver Josh Gordon, Cleveland's biggest scoring threat. It throws their entire offense off their rhythm, kills drives and can get Baltimore's defense off the field where they cannot give up the 400 yards per game they are presently averaging.
Baltimore still has to beware Cleveland's running game—Richardson put up 122 yards and a touchdown just last week against the San Diego Chargers' then-top-ranked run defense, but when it comes to preventing the Browns from scoring, it's all about getting to Weeden.
And if there's anyone on that defense who can, clearly it's Suggs.
The Ray Rice Offense
It's like a broken record—Baltimore needs to run the ball more with Ray Rice. Every week, the same rallying cry is sent out into the world by fans and writers alike, and every week, the frustration continues to mount about how little the Ravens are having Rice run.
Earlier this week, I detailed the situation with Rice.
Basically, Rice is the fifth-best running back in the league right now and has played the fourth-most snaps of any running back, but yet he ranks 20th in carries, averaging 15 per game.
At the same time, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is struggling.
Flacco ranks 30th in the league when passing under pressure and he also ranks 30th in overall accuracy. He's 10th overall in terms of play-action passes attempted, but 14th in play-action completions. He has connected on just 36.6 percent of his passes thrown 20 or more yards.
On the road, Flacco is at his most disappointing.
His worst completion percentage at home this season was 60.9 percent (tellingly, against Cleveland), with a high of 72.4. In his three road games, however, his percentage dipped significantly: 52.4 percent at the Philadelphia Eagles; 48.1 percent at the Kansas City Chiefs; 48.8 percent at the Houston Texans.
If history is any indicator, Flacco is set to have another rough time against the Browns on Sunday. Add into that the fact that weather is a major influence on how well or poorly quarterbacks perform in Cleveland.
It might be best for the Ravens to have a run-heavy game plan.
The Browns, like last season, are having trouble stopping the run, giving up an average of 131.6 yards per game. Their opponents know that running the ball is a key to having success against their defense, rushing on average 30.1 times per game. Simple math says that's twice the number of carries that Rice is averaging at present and more like the total number of rushes that the Ravens should be targeting on Sunday.
Not all of those have to go to Rice, of course.
Bernard Pierce has been an effective change-of-pace back so far this season, averaging 5.3 yards on his 23 carries. Even fullback Vonta Leach can be a useful ball carrier, especially in short yardage situations. This is not the game for Flacco to attempt a ton of throws on 3rd-and-short—not on the road, and not against this Cleveland secondary.
More running will also help the Ravens with their time of possession problem.
The Ravens are currently last in the league in possession (the Browns are 31st), something that clearly needs to change. The longer their defense is on the field, the more chances Cleveland has to exploit their weaknesses.
Baltimore offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has been trying to steer the Ravens toward a faster passing game, employing more no-huddle to get them there. But really, with the situation as it is on defense, they need to slow their offense down.
Run the ball, check it down and extend drives—that's how Baltimore can win on the road, and how Flacco can avoid making mistakes.