The Baltimore Ravens are coming off their bye week with a 3-4 record and a road contest against their AFC North rivals, the Cleveland Browns, on Sunday. With the division-leading Cincinnati Bengals losing on Thursday night to the Miami Dolphins, their 6-3 record leaves an opening for the defending Super Bowl champions to try to retake the crown.
However, the Ravens have to get through the Browns to get there. At 3-5, the Browns don't seem on paper like formidable opponents. However, with Jason Campbell under center instead of Brandon Weeden, Cleveland's offense is more efficient. And Campbell doesn't lack for weapons to throw to, including deep-threat receiver Josh Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron.
If the Ravens are going to get out of Cleveland with a win, their defense will have to keep the Browns offense at bay.
The Browns aren't running the ball well, averaging only 82.6 rushing yards per game. However, running is mostly an afterthought for the Browns offense, with the team averaging just 21.4 rushing attempts per game, ranking them 30th in the league. Clearly, the Ravens will need to be more prepared to stop the passing game.
Unfortunately for the Ravens, coverage is where the defense has struggled the most this year. They rank 16th in passing yards allowed at 238.7. According to Pro Football Focus' grades (subscription required), only two members of Baltimore's defense have excelled in coverage this year—linebacker Daryl Smith at plus-four, and strong safety James Ihedigbo at plus-1.7.
The rest of the Ravens secondary hasn't been all that impressive in coverage situations. Free safety Matt Elam has the better of the bad grades at minus-1.8 while cornerback Jimmy Smith has the worst, at minus-5.2. This could spell trouble when tasked with stopping the formidable Gordon, who has 59 catches for 582 yards and three touchdowns and who is averaging 18.2 yards per catch.
via Pro Football Focus (subscription required)
And even if they can hold Gordon to few catches and minimal yards, there's the matter of Cameron to contend with. More of a receiver than a traditional tight end, Cameron has 49 catches for 596 yards and six touchdowns this year—the second-most receiving yards of a tight end so far, behind New Orleans' Jimmy Graham.
Because of Cameron's speed and size, the Ravens won't simply be able to put a coverage linebacker like Smith or a safety like Ihedigbo on him and hope that they can stop him. That will put a lot of pressure on a defense that ranks 19th against tight ends, according to Football Outsiders, and 27th against No. 2 receivers, which is what Cameron basically is for the Browns.
The benefit, however, to shutting down both or either of Gordon and Cameron is what the Browns have left—namely, not much. Receivers Davone Bess and Greg Little have been mostly disappointing this year, with Bess dropping nine passes and Little five. They have combined for just one touchdown.
Clearly, the Ravens need to force Campbell to throw to his two most unreliable options this week and not his two playmakers. That's a lot to ask of Baltimore's coverage linebackers and defensive backs.
Should coverage continue to be a weakness, the other option the Ravens have to stop Cleveland's passing game is by bringing pressure to Campbell. This would have been a far easier task had Weeden remained the Browns' starting quarterback, considering the 21 sacks he took in just five games.
Campbell was sacked only once by the Kansas City Chiefs' top pass-rushing defense last week. Campbell saw pressure on 47.7 percent of his dropbacks against the Chiefs and still completed 52.9 percent of his pressured passes, better than Weeden or Brian Hoyer before him.
The Ravens have been good at bringing pressure this year, however, and a one-game sample size isn't truly indicative of how Campbell will handle it this week. The Ravens have sacked opposing quarterbacks 25 times so far this year, with linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil leading the way with eight and 5.5, respectively.
Suggs may have a hard time with Browns left tackle Joe Thomas, who is his team's best pass protector. However, Dumervil could get lucky against the right side of Cleveland's offensive line.
The return of right guard Shawn Lauvao has meant better protection for the quarterback—he's given up only one sack, no hits and six hurries since his Week 5 return—but right tackle Mitchell Schwartz could have his hands full with Dumervil. Schwartz has given up nine sacks, 12 quarterback hits and 20 hurries so far this year. He's the weak link and he's the lineman the Ravens need to target if they want to get to Campbell.
No matter what, the Ravens have to find a way to slow the Browns passing game if they are going to get the much-needed divisional win. Cleveland is not a threat to run and their defense is good enough to break through Baltimore's porous offensive line to reach quarterback Joe Flacco and stuff Ray Rice's runs.
The Ravens might have some trouble scoring points of their own, which means the defense must do its part to keep Cleveland's point total low. The only way that can be done is to shut down Campbell, Gordon and Cameron.