Following losses to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs, no one is giving the Cleveland Browns much of a chance against the Baltimore Ravens in Week Three.
For the Browns, who are struggling to find their first win of 2010, the Ravens provide a stiff matchup. Cleveland has had difficulty moving the ball in the second half of games, and Baltimore features a defense that ranks second in the NFL in yards allowed and have yet to allow a touchdown through two games. The Ravens also have a history of bullying the Browns, especially at home.
However, there is one area in this game which favors the Browns more than most people would expect and should give the team a fighting chance of pulling off the upset.
The Cleveland Browns currently have the NFL's eighth ranked pass defense, and on Sunday, that unit will go up against a Ravens passing attack that is ranked 21st in the NFL. Sure, the two quarterbacks that Cleveland has faced won't be confused with the league's elite, but Josh Freeman and Matt Cassel are playing like Pro-Bowlers compared to Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco.
Heading into the 2010 season, experts believed that the Baltimore Ravens were ready to take a step forward toward having an elite passing offense. Flacco was coming off of a productive 2009 season in which he threw for 3,600 yards and 21 touchdowns. During the offseason, the Ravens traded for Anquan Boldin, signed free agent T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and drafted pass-catching tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta.
Baltimore seemed ready to unleash the strong-armed Flacco on opposing defenses. Unfortunately for the Ravens, Flacco has yet to deliver.
Through two games, Flacco has only completed 48 percent of his passes, had thrown five interceptions, and is ranked 32nd among qualifying quarterbacks with an abysmal 41.2 QB rating.
The defenses of the New York Jets and the Cincinnati Bengals were able to throw Flacco off his game by bringing pressure on the third-year quarterback, forcing him to get rid of the ball early. The Jets and Bengals currently rank 22nd and 15th against the pass, respectively.
Cincinnati, in particular, seemed to lay down an effective blueprint by blanketing Flacco's top target, Anquan Boldin, in coverage and bringing a heavy pass rush into the backfield. The Bengals held Boldin to just 35 receiving yards and forced Flacco into throwing a career-high four interceptions. It is a formula that the Browns defense needs to follow, as Flacco will be looking to redeem himself in front of the home crowd.
Boldin is a tough and physical receiver and covering him will not be easy, but Browns cornerback Eric Wright excels in man coverage and will likely be locked up with him for much of the game. The Ravens have several receiving weapons so even if the defense is able to keep Boldin from running wild, it will need to generate a lot of pressure on Flacco to slow down the passing offense.
Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has brought several blitz packages to bear on opposing quarterbacks, and the Browns defense has produced four sacks and three interceptions through the first two weeks of play. This would be the perfect time for Ryan to get creative and bring even more exotic defensive looks into the equation.
Leading the charge will be second-year linebacker Marcus Benard. Nicknamed "King Kong," Benard leads the team with 2.5 sacks. Benard, along with defensive standout Shaun Rogers, is officially listed as questionable for Sunday's game, but both players will likely be in the lineup. The Browns can also utilize hard-hitting linebackers Scott Fujita and Matt Roth who possess the size and strength to penetrate the middle of the offensive line.
If Flacco can be forced into making mistakes, the Browns have a talented young secondary that can make him pay. Eric Wright is a turnover threat if tested and veteran cornerback Sheldon Brown proved that he still has a nose for the football against Kansas City. Rookies Joe Haden and T.J. Ward are hungry for the first interception of their young NFL careers.
While Cleveland's secondary has the ability to make plays, it all starts with the pass rush. If Flacco is allowed to sit in the pocket and read through his progressions, we may well see the explosive passing attack that Baltimore was expected to have all along.
The Cleveland Browns know all too well that putting up points against the Ravens is never easy. The best chance the Browns have to win is to keep the Ravens off the board as much as possible, and derailing Flacco and the Ravens passing offense will go a long way toward achieving that goal.