The Ravens are in must-win mode against the Browns.
The Baltimore Ravens scraped out a win against the Cleveland Browns in Week 2, but this Browns team has undergone some changes in seven weeks. History says that the Ravens will come away with the win—under John Harbaugh they've never lost to the Browns or after a bye week—but they will need to execute well to beat this scrappy Cleveland team on the road.
Both rushing attacks are among the league's worst and, considering the strength of the defensive fronts, it's unlikely that either ground game will be much of a factor in this contest. It will be an aerial affair.
These are the keys to the game for Baltimore to come away with a critical division win.
Trust Joe Flacco and Utilize a Spread Offense
Before the bye, the Ravens showcased a different offensive approach with Joe Flacco operating out of the shotgun and using a lot of three-wide receiver formations and no-huddle. It didn't get them the win, but Flacco was impressive, and it opened up the entire offense a little bit.
With the struggles on the ground, the Browns' imposing front seven and the newfound depth at wide receiver, it would behoove offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell to stick with that same strategy against Cleveland—and for the rest of the season.
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With a lead in the second half, Kansas City adopted a more traditional approach (two WRs and under center) and struggled to get anything going.
Baltimore can't make the same mistake since it has a lot of speed on the outside, and Tandon Doss has emerged as a viable slot receiver.
The Ravens need to put the ball in Joe Flacco's hands, spread out the offense, and be aggressive through the air.
Run out of Three-WR Sets
Shifting to a spread offense doesn't mean that the Ravens should stop running the ball. On the contrary, getting three wide receivers on the field will help the running game.
The talent of Cleveland's front seven has already been mentioned, but adding a third receiver means that the Browns have to add an extra defensive back and leave six defenders up front.
Kansas City took advantage of this numerical matchup to pick up yards on the ground. For example, on this play, there are only six Browns in the box.
The play uses a zone-stretch scheme off the right tackle, so the backside defender (Barkevious Mingo) is left unblocked. That leaves six Chiefs to block just five Browns. Davis makes the correct read and cuts back through the middle to pick up nine yards on the play.
Don't expect a sudden turnaround in rushing statistics, especially against this defense, but the Ravens will be able to churn out some yards and break a few long runs (long for the Ravens this year is over seven yards) from three-WR sets.
Be More Creative Getting Ray Rice the Football
We know that Ray Rice hasn't been Ray Rice this year. He can't find any room to run, and one of the most explosive offensive weapons on Baltimore's roster has disappeared as a result—infuriating fantasy owners everywhere.
The great thing about Mr. Rice, however, is that he's a very versatile running back. Unfortunately, the Ravens aren't getting him involved in the passing game enough.
It's not about the number of receptions, but the types of plays he's making. Dumping the ball off to him on a checkdown is an important outlet for Flacco, but Rice could be making much more impactful plays.
Jim Caldwell needs to start splitting Rice out wide and getting him matched up against linebackers in space. There also needs to be some deeper routes which get Rice up the field instead of hovering around the line of scrimmage.
Another thing that the Ravens haven't really exploited is the screen game. Kansas City had great success using screens against the Browns last week.
On this 3rd-and-9, the Chiefs drew up a screen for Jamaal Charles, who was able to weave through blockers and pick up 24 yards.
They also used a screen, this time to fullback Anthony Sherman, to score a 12-yard touchdown.
The key to both plays (as with any screen) is the athleticism of the linemen to get outside and make the key blocks, but Kelechi Osemele, Gino Gradkowski and Marshal Yanda are all athletic and capable of doing that.
Shut Down the Run
The run defense has been bad over the last few weeks, but this matchup against Browns should be the perfect remedy.
The Browns haven't run the ball well at any point this year, even with Trent Richardson. Without him, they’ve resorted to using two former Ravens (Willis McGahee and Bobby Rainey) and Chris Ogbonnaya.
That’s not exactly a Pro Bowl-caliber unit.
To their credit, they’ve been more productive than Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce—though that’s not saying much this year.
If Baltimore can’t stop the Browns’ rushing attack, it may as well give up all hope for the rest of the season.
Maintaining consistency against the run will be a priority moving into the second half of the year, but this matchup should be a good chance to get the run defense back on track.
The Browns have given their backs fewer carries in recent weeks, so if Baltimore can shut down the run early, they'll be able to unleash their ferocious pass rush against Jason Campbell.
Be Wary of Trickery
While the Browns haven't been able to pick up yards with their running backs, they have shown some aggressiveness and broken some big gains on the ground with end-arounds.
Josh Gordon has been a huge receiving threat since his return from suspension, but he is also capable of picking up yards with his feet. On this play against the Minnesota Vikings, he circled behind Brian Hoyer and took the ball 22 yards up the field.
Their longest run of the year was the result of an end-around with Travis Benjamin (who is now on Injured Reserve), who turned on the jets to pick up 45 yards against the Detroit Lions.
It's not just end-arounds either; they ran a flea-flicker and scored a 37-yard touchdown to Josh Gordon just last week.
The Pittsburgh Steelers used some Wildcat and trick plays against Baltimore in Week 7, and they achieved some success with the element of surprise. The Ravens are sure to be more prepared this week, and they'll have to be.
Offensive coordinator Norv Turner has been aggressive with his play-calling. He'll use creative methods to test the defense.
Eyes on Josh Gordon
Josh Gordon is second in the league in yards per catch (18.2) and fourth in yards per game (97). His blend of size (6'3", 225 lbs) and speed could pose some problems for a secondary that has been susceptible against deep balls.
The defense didn't get the chance to face him in Week 2, but he's been excellent for the Browns and has made a number of big plays for their offense.
On this play against the Vikings, Gordon runs a little stutter-step which completely fakes out his defender. The cornerback bites on the double-move, and Gordon parlays his excellent route-running into a 47-yard trip to the end zone.
In addition, he's very adept at picking up yards after the catch, like he did against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Both Davone Bess (black arrow) and Gordon (yellow arrow) run drag routes, and Bess acts as a pick to give Gordon some separation from his defender.
Campbell hits Gordon in space and he shifts gears to pick up 47 yards, almost all of which come after the catch.
Containing Josh Gordon will go a long way to limiting what the Browns can do on offense. He's their best playmaker.