Baltimore Ravens vs. Cleveland Browns: 10 Keys to the Game for Baltimore
The Ravens have watched their two and a half game lead over the Pittsburgh Steelers slip all the way down to one. It looks to be another year of these two teams egging it out for the AFC North, which means that divisional games take on an added importance considering that these teams have finished with the same record the last three seasons.
Even without the AFC North implications of this game, the Ravens really need a win. Two weeks is not nearly long enough to take away the sting of a 30-point loss to the Houston Texans. Playoff contenders do not lose games by 30 points so the Ravens need a rebound in the worst way.
Talking about teams that need wins, the Browns fit that title extremely well. Although many people have buried the team as a hopeless bottom-feeder, the Browns have been competitive in almost every game. They have now won two out of three and are looking to make the insanely difficult jump from 0-5 to wild-card team.
The Ravens have won nine straight games against the Browns. Yet the average margin of victory in that time span has only been 13 points and three of the last five games have been decided by a touchdown or less.
The Browns certainly are approaching this week upset-minded and the Ravens cannot overlook them. Here are the steps the Ravens need to take to get back in the win column and beat the Browns.
1. Pressure Brandon Weeden
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Last time the Ravens played the Browns, Brandon Weeden had an impressive game. Although he did not throw any touchdowns, Weeden threw for 320 yards and put his team in a position where they could win the game.
A key reason why Weeden did so well was the Ravens' lack of a pass rush. He was sacked only once the entire game and generally had time to throw the ball wherever he pleased.
Through seven games, the Ravens have only 12 sacks, with their sack-leader Haloti Ngata only having three sacks. To put that in perspective, that ties them for 24th in the league and is less than half of the 26 sacks that the NFL-leading Arizona Cardinals have.
That's going to have to change for the Ravens as opposing quarterbacks have been taking advantage of their pass rush weakness, throwing for over 257.1 yards a game. Hopefully the return of Terrell Suggs can bolster the pass rush but he can't do it all alone. Players like defensive ends Pernell McPhee and Arthur Jones really need to play better for the Ravens' pass rush to have success.
2. Contain Trent Richardson
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As surprisingly good as Brandon Weeden has been playing, the real key to the Browns offense is Trent Richardson. He has 470 rushing yards and is tied for third in the NFL with five rushing touchdowns.
With over 600 all-purpose yards, Richardson can do it all. He's a tough between the tackles runner but he also can catch balls out of the backfield. Although he didn't impress in the running game in the first game against the Ravens, Richardson had four catches for 57 yards.
The Ravens rush defense is a shadow of their older selves with three straight games allowing over 180 rush yards. It's not just the Jamaal Charles and Arian Fosters of the NFL that are owning the Ravens run defense. When backups like Shaun Draughn and Ben Tate have over 40 rushing yards against you, it's an indictment of a serious problem stopping the run.
Richardson is recently coming off a ribs injury and for the most part his backups have not impressed. The Ravens need to key in on stopping Richardson, even taking some plays to load the box and dare Weeden to beat them. If Richardson is held under 50 yards rushing for a second time this season, it's very likely the Ravens get the win.
3. Improve the Offensive Time of Possession
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A major reason for the Ravens' recent defensive struggles has been their inability to stay off the field. The Ravens offense ranks last in time of possession in the NFL with around 26 minutes a game.
It's an abysmal amount of time for any offense, particularly one that has a Pro Bowl running back in Ray Rice. As much as the Ravens love to play in the no-huddle nowadays, doing so makes their offensive drives go by quicker and takes away rest time for the defense.
This could be a recipe for disaster on Sunday with the Ravens taking to the road against the Browns. Offensive numbers are down across the board when the Ravens take the road so they really should be putting their emphasis on just getting the basics right.
Things like getting those third down conversions, protecting the ball and winning the field possession battle are crucial improvements the Ravens need to make in a hostile road environment. They may sound like little things but after a 30-point loss two weeks ago, the Ravens would be wise to pay attention to little things.
4. Better Communication by the Offense
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Staying with the theme of offensive performance on the road, the Ravens have been using their bye week to figure out why things have gone so wrong. And one answer that several players have found is communication issues.
A lot of this responsibility falls on Joe Flacco who has a ton of leeway at the line of scrimmage. He will often switch plays and make adjustments based on the defenses that he sees.
Audibles are important and Flacco really needs to be sure his players hear what he's saying. He also needs to get the audibles called fast enough so delay of game penalties are avoided and the offense has the time needed to make necessary changes.
5. Remember Their Dominance in the AFC North
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The Ravens have owned the Browns with a 20-7 overall record against them. This includes the nine consecutive wins against them dating back to Week 2 of 2008, meaning both John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco are undefeated against them.
The Ravens are not dominant against just the Browns though. Dating back to the 2010 season, the Ravens have won 10 consecutive regular season games against the AFC North, which is the longest current streak in the NFL.
A win on Sunday gives the Ravens 10 straight against the Browns and a new level of dominance against their rival.
6. Someone Needs to Take the Nose Tackle Position
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Whether it's Terrence Cody or Ma'ake Kemoeatu, the Ravens' play at the nose tackle positon has been awful. Both of these players have not impressed in their starts as they are equally pushed around by the opposing offensive linemen.
It's sad to say but this isn't too surprising for Kemoeatu, who at this point in his career can't be expected to do too much. He's 33 years old and he hasn't played a full 16 game season since 2007.
What's more disappointing is the decline of Cody, who is verging on bust status in his third NFL season. This season he has been able to find his gaps and he is getting pushed around, a hard feat given his enormous 350-pound size.
Other teams have picked up on this and are now running the ball right at him. It has gotten so bad that Kemoeatu is now listed as the starter, though both players still share snaps.
Regardless of who it is, this needs to stop. The Ravens need a strong nose tackle who can come up and swallow up the opposition's running back, not let him gain more yards.
7. Respect Josh Gordon as a Deep Threat
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It may seem crazy but the Browns, a team known for offensive ineptitude, may finally have found a good wide receiver. And he has come from a pretty unlikely place, the NFL's supplemental draft.
This is where the Browns selected Josh Gordon, as a desperation play to aid with their ailing pass offense. Gordon has quickly risen up the depth chart and is now the go-to option for Brandon Weeden in the Browns' passing game.
Prior to last week, Gordon had three straight games with a touchdown. His receiving average of 22.3 yards per catch leads the NFL and cements his status as a deep threat. It also doesn't hurt that he has touchdowns of 62 and 71 yards this season.
Given the state of the Ravens' secondary, this could be a scary matchup for the weekend after Halloween. Jimmy Smith and Cary Williams are both becoming regular scapegoats as they continue to fall short against the oppositions receiver.
Likely Williams will line up most plays against Gordon and if he loses the battle to the rookie receiver, his seat as a starter will be even hotter. This matchup is a crucial one for both Williams and the defense who will strive to take away the deep pass, which will hopefully make Gordon a non-factor in the game.
8. Get Terrell Suggs Back on the Field
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One of the only silver linings that the Ravens could take away from the Texans game was seeing Terrell Suggs back on the field again. Even the most optimistic fan could not have hoped that he would be back in October, less than five months removed from Achilles surgery.
Suggs even got a sack two weeks ago and he was able to cause some pressure on plays. Now after two weeks of rest, it's not too unrealistic to expect even more improvement from him this week.
Besides helping with the pass rush, Suggs can also step into that leadership role that is somewhat vacant after the departure of Ray Lewis. Even though he's no Lewis, Suggs is a pretty good leader in his own right and his leadership was a big reason the Ravens went 4-0 in every game Lewis missed last year. If any one player can help improve a defense ranked 28th overall and 30th against the run, it has got to be Suggs.
9. Give the Ball to Ray Rice More
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It's a common thread by now but whenever the Ravens lose, complaints of Ray Rice not getting the ball enough seem to follow. And it's true that many of the Ravens' losses come when Rice isn't fed the ball, whether that be through the passing game or the running game.
Now Rice has played the fourth most snaps of any running back in the NFL but amazingly, he's only 20th in rushing attempts with 106 on the season. Especially when considering Flacco's road struggles, it's becoming clear that Rice needs to get the ball more in road games.
Running Rice can fix Flacco's deficiency in the play-action game where he ranks 28th in play-action completion. Running the ball is also the easiest way to fix the time of possession problem.
The Browns play into Rice's running strengths as well with their defense giving up 131.6 rushing yards per game. The Browns' secondary is getting stronger too with the return of Joe Haden so this is a great game to run the ball more and give Rice the ball early and often.
10. Avoid Injuries
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Although it's not a thing that you can really control, injuries are such an important part of the game. And even though they are still reeling from season-ending injuries to key players, the Ravens are still getting hit hard by the injury bug with a lot of minor injuries showing on the injury report.
Right now the Ravens have 16 players showing up on the injury report. Now maybe they are being safe a week after being fined for not including Ed Reed in the report, but still that's a lot of injuries.
Thankfully 12 of these players were full participants in practice meaning that only four are threats to potentially miss the game. Jacoby Jones and Jimmy Smith were limited, so both players should still be able to play. Pernell McPhee and Haloti Ngata did not practice at all though, so it bears watching to see if either man will be playing Sunday.
Besides these current injuries, the Ravens really can't afford much more. Even if Sunday is another ugly win, the Ravens will have to feel good if they can get out Cleveland Browns Stadium without another major injury and end their current streak of bad luck with injuries.