Perhaps a boxing announcer could best describe the Cleveland Browns following embarrassing losses to the 4-10 Buffalo Bills and 3-11 Cincinnati Bengals. In prize-fighter terminology, the NFL's third toughest schedule has left the Browns dazed, winded and leaning against the ropes trying to avoid a knockout at the hands of the 10-4 Baltimore Ravens.
Fortunately for Browns fans, Cleveland has played its best football this season against the toughest opponents, surprising the now 10-4 New Orleans Saints before pummeling the league-leading New England Patriots in consecutive games. Now, with injuries mounting, temperatures dropping and a physical Ravens team looming, here are 10 things for Browns fans to watch for while the Browns attempt to upset Baltimore.
The Cleveland Browns run defense couldn't stop or even slow the Cincinnati Bengals rushing attack last Sunday, giving up 188 yards on the ground to the fifth worst rushing attack in the NFL. This week, the Baltimore Ravens bring a balanced offense and solid running game led by Ray Rice (1,051 yards). The Browns must improve upon the 5.3 yards per carry the defense allowed Rice on 15 carries in Baltimore.
It was the 10th week of the NFL season and the Cleveland Browns had just beaten the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots in consecutive weeks. They were engaged in a battle with the New York Jets when the team lost linebacker Scott Fujita to a knee injury. Fast forward six weeks and the man in charge of calling defensive audibles and lining up the Browns defense still has not returned to the field.
Although the Browns are a respectable 2-3 in Fujita's absence, the defense (particularly the run defense) has not been the same since he left. Fujita, known for his intelligence and physical, run-stopping ability is also a seasoned veteran and vocal team leader.
Today, the Browns placed Scott Fujita on the injured reserve list ending his 2010 season. Among others, David Bowens has replaced Fujita's minutes on the field and fans should watch the rotation at linebacker to see what combination, if any, slows down the Baltimore running game.
Brian Daboll is the favorite whipping boy of Browns fans. For the most part, his offenses have been vanilla and conservative during his two years on the job. In Daboll's defense, he has been forced to game plan with three different starting quarterbacks this season and a wide receiving corps lacking high-end talent. Still, his offenses have not consistently produced touchdowns and most believe his days in Cleveland are numbered.
Daboll knows his back is against the wall and the Baltimore defense will be keying on Peyton Hillis and the Cleveland rushing attack. With nothing to lose and Colt McCoy continuing to make good decisions with the football, Daboll should get aggressive and creative in the passing attack. Doing so could create space at the line of scrimmage for Peyton Hillis and the running game. In the end, Brian Daboll's foot should be squarely on the gas pedal. These final two games are likely his last stops as conductor of the Browns offense.
Something is amiss in the Browns rushing attack. In week three, the Browns rushed for 173 yards while limiting the Ravens to 109 yards by comparison. Last week, however, the Browns managed only 59 yards against a mediocre Bengal rush defense. Injuries have mounted on the right side of the offensive line and defenses are keying on Peyton Hillis. The Browns must re-establish a physical presence at the line of scrimmage and create holes for Peyton Hillis if they hope to beat a technically sound Baltimore defense and keep the offense out of third-and-long situations.
Ben Watson is Colt McCoy's favorite target. With 58 receptions and 674 yards on the season, Watson's ability to slip off the line and into the defensive secondary has been crucial to the Browns offensive effort. As a tight-end, Watson is in the best position to help Colt McCoy vertically attack the middle of the field against a veteran Ravens defense. Watson's productivity on Sunday should be a barometer of the Browns overall success on the offensive side of the football.
One thing is certain: Anquan Boldin won't be terrorizing Browns cornerback Eric Wright a second time this season. Wright was injured in last week's loss at Cincinnati and was placed on injured reserve this week, effectively ending his season. Boldin torched the Browns for 142 yards and three touchdowns in a 24-17 Baltimore victory in September.
Boldin is a big, fast physical receiver that is a match-up nightmare for defenses. Savvy veteran Derrick Mason is the other half of the Ravens dangerous receiving duo. With Browns rookie cornerback Joe Haden establishing himself as a formidable presence, look for the Ravens to attack veteran Sheldon Brown at the other cornerback position. Brown is a solid veteran, but lacks top-flight speed and has been playing through injuries. The bottom line is that a thin Browns secondary will be repeatedly tested by the talented Baltimore receivers.
With injuries limiting an already thin Cleveland Browns secondary, the pressure will be on the defensive line and linebackers to put constant pressure on Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Without pressure, Flacco and the talented receiving tandem of Anquan Boldin and Derrick Mason will move the ball consistently through the air.
Flacco possesses a top-flight arm and excellent accuracy to go along with poise in the pocket. The Baltimore offense can beat teams on the ground or in the air, and their balance is the key to their attack. The Browns defense must limit Flacco's time to throw, force him out of the pocket and knock him to the turf to keep him from settling into a throwing groove.
To be fair, Joshua Cribbs is fighting through injuries that include four dislocated toes on the same foot. Still, Cribbs has not been the same caliber of return man this season, even when healthy. Successful athletes sometimes have years like this in otherwise standout careers.
Kickers and punters are also angling the ball away from Cribbs in an effort to limit his dynamic returns, and Cribbs is without a return for a touchdown in 2010. Whether it comes from Cribbs, a fake punt or even an onside kick, the Browns will likely need to create a score or keep a drive alive in the special teams game to beat the Ravens.
In case you've been living under a rock, Michael Oher, the subject of the hit movie "The Blind Side" is the starting left tackle for the Baltimore Ravens and a massive physical presence on the offensive line. His counterpart, Joe Thomas, is a perennial pro-bowl player and leads a Browns offensive line that must protect Colt McCoy from a blitzing Ravens defense.
Colt McCoy can beat a defense with his arm or his legs. In fact, about the only time he can't beat a team is when he's flat on his back. As McCoy continues to strengthen his healing ankle, the offensive line must protect the young quarterback and provide him with time to throw down-field. McCoy did not start or play against Baltimore earlier in the season, so this will be his first look at Ray Lewis and the vaunted Raven defense. For the Browns to succeed on Sunday, Colt must stay upright.
Overall, the Cleveland Browns are not as talented as the Baltimore Ravens. A good way to beat such an opponent is to focus on the little things. If the Browns can win the field position battle and give their offense a short field to work with, the likelihood of scoring touchdowns increases. The Browns must also try to control the ball and the game clock on offense by sustaining drives and avoiding three-and-outs. Last, the turnover margin is critical. The Browns must be opportunistic and create more turnovers than they make in order to beat Baltimore.