Baltimore Ravens vs. Cleveland Browns: Browns' Keys to the Game
It's the Cleveland Browns vs. the Team Formerly Known as the Cleveland Browns on Sunday as the Browns take on the Ravens at home for their second AFC North matchup in a row and the first meeting in 2011 between the two teams.
The Ravens swept the season series in 2010, though the Browns hung in there in both contests, losing by seven and 10 points, respectively.
Baltimore presents an interesting opponent for the Browns. The Ravens have played well against good teams this season, including a sweep of the season series against the Steelers but have struggled against weaker opponents, losing to the likes of Jacksonville and Seattle, both teams the Browns have already beaten.
But whether those were just embarrassing glitches for Baltimore or if they really do have a problem with playing down to their opponent's level, the Browns will have their work cut out for them this Sunday.
Baltimore has won the last six meetings between the two teams and is deadlocked with Pittsburgh for first place in the AFC North at the moment.
Baltimore needs a win to keep a share of the division lead and to keep the Cincinnati Bengals from creeping up on them as well. The Browns need the win as well. They need to prove they can hang in against their tough divisional opponents, not to mention that nobody likes to lose to the stolen version of themselves.
Following are the keys to the game for the Browns if they hope to have a shot at upsetting the division rival Ravens.
1. Hang Tough Against a Tough Defense
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If there's one thing Baltimore always brings when it comes to town, it's a scary, punishing defense.
That could spell trouble for the Browns, who have had trouble scoring points all season and difficulty staying consistent offensively.
The Ravens rank fifth in the NFL against the pass and third against the run, intimidating numbers for an opposing offense which has struggled on both fronts this season.
The Ravens will likely be without standout defender Ray Lewis again this week, but they've got 10 other defenders who routinely feast on weaker offenses.
The Browns put together what may have been their best offensive performance last week against the Bengals, finally getting that elusive first-quarter touchdown and perhaps indicating that the offense is finally on the upswing.
Peyton Hillis had one of his best games early last season against the Ravens, posting 180 yards and a touchdown, but has largely been a non-factor for the Browns this season after missing six games due to illness and injury.
Hillis bounced back a bit last week but is still yet to show signs that he's back to where he needs to be. Against the third-best run defense in the league, Hillis needs to prove he can still bulldoze opposing offenses if the Browns are going to have a shot at a win.
The passing game showed signs of life last week as well but also faces a tough challenge in the fifth-ranked Ravens pass defense. QB Colt McCoy has been unspectacular against divisional opponents in his career (he's yet to win against an AFC North team), and his receivers are still struggling to hang onto the ball.
McCoy needs to prove he can stand in against divisional opponents, and Greg Little, plagued by drops last week in Cincinnati, needs to do a better job hanging onto the ball.
Perhaps most concerning—the Browns' beleaguered offensive line needs to show it can stave off an aggressive pass rush, or the Browns will find themselves stymied offensively.
2. Control RB Ray Rice
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The Browns have had terrible trouble holding top-tier opposing rushers in check this season, particularly those of a dual-threat nature like Baltimore's Ray Rice.
Though the Browns defense had a relatively good showing last week, they allowed Cedric Benson to go over 100 yards, and he's not the same level of rusher that Rice is.
Statistically it's been a disappointing season for Rice, but he's still leaps and bounds ahead of any of the Browns' rushers and has more than enough talent to batter the Browns struggling run defense.
He's also been a decent receiver for them, presenting further problems for the Browns, who always seem surprised when opponents throw to their running backs and have trouble corralling the RBs after the catch.
Rice has been solid against the Browns in his career, averaging five yards per carry. It isn't realistic to expect the Browns run defense to completely shut down Rice, but if they want to keep the score close, they'll have to at least keep him somewhat in check on the ground and attempt to take him out of the equation as a possible receiver for the Ravens' passing game.
3. Time for the Browns Offensive Line To Turn a Corner
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The most frequently criticized component of the Browns on either offense or defense this season has been without a doubt their offensive line, which has been downright awful on the right side and nowhere near as solid as it should have been on the left side.
Even without Ray Lewis, the Ravens have a fearsome pass rush and will no doubt blitz heavily this week to put pressure on QB McCoy.
One of the biggest problems the line has created for the Browns this season is that McCoy never has time to get set before he's forced to run for his life. It has hurt McCoy's accuracy and decision making and leaves his receivers little time to get open.
I fully expect the Ravens to take advantage of this and go after McCoy to disrupt any rhythm the passing game may have begun to establish in Cincinnati last week.
Obviously for the Browns to avoid having their passing game completely shut down and to keep McCoy from getting killed, the line needs to shore up prove they can hold off an aggressive pass rush.
Still, it's not all on them. Even though he shouldn't have to, McCoy needs to show he can throw on the run, and the receivers need to do their part and up their game by getting open more quickly so that McCoy has enough targets to choose from when he is inevitably forced to throw while being chased behind the line by defenders.
4. Get It Together on Special Teams
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Once regarded as one of the best special teams units in the game under ex unit coach Brad Seely, the Browns are under new management in this area of their game this season and have been an absolute mess.
Josh Cribbs excepted, nearly every member of the special teams unit has struggled severely this season.
Whether it's returning kicks and punts or defending them or botching field goal snaps, the Browns special teams unit has been a comedy of errors in 2011.
Baltimore is pretty solid on special teams, particularly in defending against opposing returners, though they have allowed a touchdown on both kickoff and punt returns this season.
While it won't be easy, that could provide a good opportunity for Josh Cribbs to help out his offense by running one back.
Defensively, the Browns haven't been awful against opposing returners, but they have been burned a couple of times this season, most notably in the Oakland game when the Raiders' returners ran all over them. Baltimore hasn't been spectacular at returning, but they're far from the bottom of the heap in this area, and the Browns cannot afford to cede solid field position to them on returns if they want to stay in the game.
Finally, there's the Browns' troubled field goal unit, which has watched a near-potential win slip away twice this season on a botched snap. LS Ryan Pontbriand was let go this week, though the move was likely more symbolic than a true resolution of the problem.
The Browns can't continue to set K Phil Dawson up to fail, especially in a game where they'll need all the points they can get. If the Browns defense can keep them in this game, it could come down to field goals, and the Browns can't afford to let another win slip through their fingers (or perhaps their toes?) on a bungled field goal snap.
5. Prove They Can Stay in the Mix Against Tough Divisional Opponents
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Over the last two seasons, the Browns have been awful against fellow AFC North teams. They were nearly swept by the division last year (eking out just one win against Cincinnati) and have yet to win a divisional matchup in 2011.
The good news, if you can call it that, is that the Browns still have four interdivision games left this year, two against the Ravens and two against the Steelers. Should they be able to squeak out just one upset in those four games, they can at least avoid being swept by the North in 2011.
Obviously, it's sad that this is where our standards have fallen to—looking for just one measly win against the division, but when your team has been mostly subpar for more than 10 years, you take anything you can get.
If the Browns' Master Plan is to be believed, 2012 should see them hanging in with the rest of the perpetually competitive AFC North, but as for 2011, our expectations must remain tempered.
Still, an upset this week isn't completely out of the question, given the Ravens' propensity to play down to weaker opponents this year.
But the bottom line is that even if the Browns can't pull off the win, they do need to show they can hang in there and keep the score close against division rivals if they want to solidify claims that they are improving.
A win this week would be wonderful, but a good, close game might be the best we can hope for.