Preview of Game #4 – Cleveland @ Baltimore
Perhaps a short workweek will help the Browns forget about their loss against Buffalo. The team faces the Ravens on the road, and this may be their hardest game on the schedule. It will take heroic efforts from all areas of the team in order to score the upset, but the odds of that occurring are stacked against the Browns.
Offense: You can bet that the Ravens will throw the kitchen sink at Brandon Weeden. The rookie will be challenged to read the pre-snap defense correctly, put the team in the best situation each play (play call-wise), and get the ball out of his hand quickly. The Ravens continual, defensive dominance includes the element of intimidation in order to get the opposing team out of rhythm. To be successful, Weeden must keep the offense composed no matter the situation. There are many young athletes that will be in the huddle who could make a costly mistake out of emotion (i.e. frustration). Additionally, the Ravens’ defense can seemingly intercept any pass and return it for a touchdown. From his first throw to his final one, the quarterback has got to be aware of the opposing secondary and be smart when throwing to his intended targets. This includes deeper passes – Weeden must start connecting on these for the sake of having an offense that can score (several touchdowns per game) regularly.
Trent Richardson did not put up great stats against the Bills and this will likely continue Thursday night. The Ravens only gave up seventy-seven rushing yards against the Patriots, who boost a stellar offense. I hope Shurmur is patient with Richardson in this game; it appeared that the rookie was playing better in the second half before his carries stopped. I do not think he will have a Peyton Hillis-like performance in 2010 (over 140 yards rushing), but if he can put the team in easier situations for Weeden and the offense, that could be huge for the team. This would open up the play book as well – in addition to five or seven-step drops, the team could employ three-step drops, where a play can be made quickly and the probability of a sack are low. I liked seeing the dual backfield of Ogbonnaya and Richardson last week. It gives the offense two rushing and receiving options; I also have faith the two can help in pass protection as well. Ogbonnaya can possibly play a larger role this week, as the Ravens’ rush defense is very physical and want to make it miserable for Richardson.
Pat Shurmur’s comments regarding the issues surrounding Greg Little have been scrutinized, and I will be curious to see how he handles the second year veteran. Shurmur stated Little has got to catch the football and won’t play if the drops continue. Additionally, the coach said he has talked to receiver about his antics (i.e. celebrating after getting a first down, while losing). Will little be benched this week – implying he needs to get better? Could a point be made that he is not bigger than the team, and therefore his role is reduced? If Little loses time, which receiver fills that void (Cribbs, Norwood, Gordon, etc)? The Browns have got to get production from this unit no matter who is out there – the Patriots had two receivers with over one hundred yards each against the Ravens. I know Cleveland does not boast wide outs as talented as Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, but there is a possibility a receiver or two could have a solid performance (provided Weeden is given time to throw).
The front seven of the Baltimore Ravens, last week, produced two sacks and a fumble. It won’t be easy for the offensive line of the Browns, and they must play exceptional in all aspects of their game. Giving Richardson time and room to run is paramount – I envision more double teams employed up the middle to prevent the linebackers blowing by the offensive line and stopping the Browns’ running attack early. Likewise Weeden needs opportunities to throw downfield, and chip blocking could be used during the longer passing plays. I think the line can have success; but like the quarterback position, one small error can lead to a turnover, touchdown, and a huge momentum shift.
Defense: Ray Rice gashed the defense for over two hundred rushing yards against last season. It appears the Browns’ have done little to improve in this department, as opponents are running at will this year. If the unit cannot contain Rice, this game could get out of hand early. Not being able to stop your opponent is deflating, however its magnified knowing the defense will on the field more creating fewer opportunities to score (in the game). I’m hoping John Hughes has a bounce-back performance – Phil Taylor cannot come back soon enough as the rookie has had an up-and-down season thus far. Also, the line did not put pressure on the opponent last week; this is a dire need and a way to overcome some deficiencies the Browns exhibit (i.e. run stopping and pass coverage). Perhaps this is the week the defensive ends exceed expectations and Jabaal Sheard, Frostee Rucker, and Juqua Parker garner a few sacks.
The linebacker unit needs a consistent player alongside Craig Robertson and D’Qwell Jackson – L.J. Fort had a good opening game but has been used more in special teams the past two weeks, and Scott Fujita is not in many snaps. Thursday night might be the first appearance for rookie James Michael-Johnson, which could be a boost for the linebacker corps. Having another healthy athlete available is very important, as it keeps the rotational players fresher. Also, depth is needed when playing a physical running team where, more than likely, bumps and bruises will occur for the linebackers. I’m intrigued to see if the rookie from Nevada can help in coverage against Dennis Pitta, who has become a reliable target for the Ravens. Ray Rice must also be accounted for in the passing game – he is one of the best receivers at the running back position.
Browns fans’ expectations for the secondary should not be too high – this part of the team has struggled, giving up many yards and several touchdowns the last two games. Forcing a Joe Flacco mistake and getting a turnover (i.e. an interception) will help this unit’s confidence though. However, facing Torrey Smith (who is coming off a great, emotional performance), Jacoby Jones, and Anquan Boldin could be the secondary’s biggest challenge this season. Not playing aggressive (during Joe Haden’s absence) has been ineffective this season– I hope they change it up and move the cornerbacks closer to the line of scrimmage. Buster Skrine, Tashaun Gipson, and to a lesser extent Usama Young have the speed to stay with the wide receivers; it’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
Special Teams: Not too many arguments here from the previous week, outside of Reggie Hodges getting a little more distance and hang time on his punts, and better punt coverage. Stopping Jacoby Jones should be the key this week; the punt returner has taken back a couple for touchdowns the last few seasons. Assuming this is a lower scoring game, winning the special teams battle could be the difference between a win and a loss.
Coaching: Correct offensive play calling is crucial this game; being down seven or fourteen is not cause to start airing it out. In the past, this has lead to turnovers and a larger deficit for teams facing the Ravens. Sticking with the run is a part of this philosophy – it will not be pretty but the Browns should not get discouraged, as they were last week. Defensively, it will not be like last week where the Browns were trying to force their opponent to be one-dimensional (i.e. passing over running). The Ravens are stout in both areas, and Dick Jauron must find the right mix of play calling not to get torched by Flacco or Rice.
Prediction (My Record 1-2): After thinking the Browns could win the previous two weeks, I have changed my tune for the game against Baltimore. The Browns have kept it close, for the most part, every game and had a chance to pull out a win. However, M&T Bank Stadium is a tough place to play – the Ravens just won a huge game on Sunday against the Patriots, and I don’t think they have a letdown. The Browns lose 34-10 this week and have ten days to think about this outcome before their next game.