With two wins in three weeks and the AFC North looking ever-increasingly up for grabs, the Cleveland Browns have an opportunity to play the role of potential playoff spoiler this week should they defeat the visiting Baltimore Ravens.
It won't be easy—for all of the Ravens' faults this year, they're still a two-loss team, one that is coming off of its bye week after being defeated handily by the Houston Texans in the previous week. However, if the Browns can exploit Baltimore's weaknesses while minimizing their own, there's more than a good chance that Cleveland can win this thing.
Here's a game plan for how this can happen.
Be Smart About Trent Richardson
One look at the statistics swirling about the Baltimore Ravens defense and it's easy to simply say that the Cleveland Browns need to give the ball to running back Trent Richardson and then give it to him again. The Ravens are giving up an average of 142.9 rushing yards per game—ranking them 30th in the league—four yards per carry, 8.3 rushing first downs and 1.3 rushing touchdowns per game.
That said, the Ravens defense also ranks 24th in passing yards allowed. There is more than one way to put up yards on Baltimore, and the Browns need to keep this in mind on Sunday. Cleveland cannot put out a predictable offense and hope that the Ravens cannot stop it—they must vary their attack and make the most of a matchup against a team for whom "poor defense" is a rare descriptor.
That's not to say that Richardson needs to be cast aside in favor of the passing game, but that he needs to be used properly. He had 122 yards last week, yes, as well as Cleveland's lone touchdown in their 7-6 win over the San Diego Chargers, but all those yards didn't set up the Browns for any more scoring.
The weather last week wasn't conducive for passing—Brandon Weeden completed only 11 of his 27 attempts—which was one reason why the Browns relied so heavily on Richardson. This week, he'll play a major role, but expect more and better passing out of Weeden as well.
Every area of the Ravens' defensive weaknesses must be exploited, from their struggles in mid-field coverage to not having cornerback Lardarius Webb in the secondary, not just their seeming inability to stop the run. Granted, having a back like Richardson buys the Browns considerable Weeden insurance, considering he's likely to find himself well-acquainted with Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs. Running the ball will obviously take some of that pressure off.
Richardson had 24 carries last week, and he could still get around that number this Sunday. All in all, the Browns had a balanced offensive effort against the Chargers, with 33 total runs to 27 passes. This week, it's about connecting on more of those passes and catching the Ravens off guard with the passing game and using the run to augment that.
Don't Underestimate Joe Flacco or the Ravens Offense
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has, in one sense, been having a good season. His yardage totals aren't wildly fluctuating like they were last year, he's not checking down like crazy to running back Ray Rice, and, when playing at home, he's had some very legitimate success in running a no-huddle offense.
But things are far from perfect. With the numerous injuries and shortcomings on the defensive side of the ball, more pressure has fallen on Flacco to carry the team to victories, rather than manage games and let the defense handle the heavy lifting. As such, he's had issues, particularly on the road.
In Baltimore, Flacco's lowest completion percentage this year is 60.9—that was in Week 4, the first time the Browns and Ravens met—and his highest is 72.4. He's been markedly worse on the road. Both of the Ravens' two losses have been as the visiting team and Flacco's completion percentage in their three away games are 52.4, 48.1 and 48.8, respectively. In those three games, he also threw a combined two touchdowns.
With road numbers like that it seems like it would be easy for the Browns defense—which now includes cornerback Joe Haden, who was suspended the first time the two teams met—to shut Flacco down.
Maybe it will be; however, the Browns cannot just assume that to be so. Underestimating a team or player is the quickest way to get burned and lose, and the Browns must prepare for Flacco as though he were Tom Brady—because sometimes, Flacco can play just as well.
There are reasons to believe that Flacco will have a bad day on Sunday. There are those completion percentage numbers from his previous road games and the fact that he ranks 30th in the league in both overall accuracy and passing under pressure that point to a potential Ravens loss thanks to Flacco coming undone.
However, if the Ravens finally wise up to the fact that road passing just isn't working for them, this could be a big game for Ray Rice. Rice has 824 rushing yards total against the Browns over the course of his career, far and away more than against any other AFC North team. The Browns cannot overfocus on Flacco because the moment Baltimore decides to unleash Rice, it could be trouble for Cleveland and their 24th-ranked run defense.
The expectation should be that Flacco actually puts everything together on the road and to keep in mind that if he doesn't, Rice is assured to see his carries increase. The minute the Browns assume that Flacco will continue to struggle and that Rice won't run much, they'll find themselves in trouble. Play Flacco like he's brilliant, even if he hasn't been.