Friday, November 2, 2012

Streaky Sunday

John Harbaugh has no idea what it feels like to lose to the Cleveland Browns.

Neither does Joe Flacco.

Nor Ray Rice.

When the Baltimore Ravens arrive at Cleveland Browns Stadium for Sunday’s game against the Browns, they will haul a nine-game winning streak against their AFC North rival.

This is Harbaugh’s fifth season as the Ravens’ head coach. Not once has he crossed the field following a game against Cleveland and commiserated with his coaching rival.

First, it was Romeo Crennel twice in 2008, followed by Eric Mangini, who lost four in a row in 2009 and 2010. And Sunday, Pat Shurmur takes a three-gamer into his fourth meeting with Harbaugh.

Overall, the new Browns have won just seven games against the old Browns in this 27-game series.

So is it a coincidence that Flacco and Rice, who joined the Ravens the same season Harbaugh was tapped to succeed Brian Billick, row in that same boat with their coach? Not really.

Can’t argue with the facts. Nine victories in a row, none closer than six points. In those nine games, the Ravens have outscored the Browns, 226-107.

Flacco has put up relatively modest numbers as a quarterback against Cleveland, throwing just 11 touchdown passes and only five interceptions. He completes 64.5% of his passes for a pedestrian 209 yards a game.

Nothing fancy. All he does is win. At least he is given credit for winning since he’s the quarterback of record. Perhaps the gentlemen who play on the other side of the football for the Ravens have had something to do with that.

Same with Rice, who has compiled 824 rushing yards against Cleveland’s rather porous front seven over that period of time, and more than 1,000 yards when you factor in his skills as a receiver out of the backfield. But he has had trouble getting into the end zone, scoring just three times on the ground and once as a receiver.

Speaking of the Baltimore defense, it has played almost totally out of character this season. The hallmark of this team for the past dozen or so seasons has been the defense. It has virtually disappeared, at least statistically, in the last three games.

Even though they are 2-1 in those games, the Ravens surrendered 622 yards on the ground to Kansas City, Dallas and Houston, a total more apt to be given up by the Browns. That’s an alarming (at least in Baltimore) 207 yards a game.

There is genuine concern that without the normally stingy defense lending more than just casual support, the Ravens’ offense might not be strong enough to outscore the opposition on a consistent basis. The Houston Texans took full advantage a couple of weeks ago with a 43-13 victory.

Already this season, the Ravens have given up 24, 30, 29 and 43 points. They no longer seem to be a big threat to opposing offenses. With linebacker Ray Lewis down for the season with a torn triceps and cornerback Lardarius Webb gone with a shredded knee, that once-vaunted defense seems vulnerable.

Moving over from the outside to replace Lewis at inside linebacker is Dannell Ellerbe, a fourth-year man out of Georgia who racked up a dozen tackles in his first start against the Texans. And Jimmy Smith, a former first-round draft pick, takes over for Webb, one of the best corners in the National Football League.

But the Ravens, who hemorrhage 400 yards a game, are still tough up front with defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and in the back end with incomparable free safety Ed Reed, who has tortured the Browns with 10 interceptions over the years, three winding up in the Cleveland end zone.

Compensating somewhat for the loss of Lewis is the return of hybrid linebacker/ defensive end Terrell Suggs, who made his season debut in the Houston loss after missing the first six games due to off-season Achilles’ tendon surgery and racked up a sack.

Suggs, who has 13 career sacks and seven forced fumbles against the Browns, also brings an attitudinal and emotional difference to the Baltimore defense, an element missing with Lewis’ injury. They’ll need it with Browns rookie Trent Richardson up next.

Richardson, coming off a 122-yard effort in the San Diego victory, ran the ball just 14 times for 47 yards and a touchdown in the clubs’ first meeting in week four and added another 57 yards as a receiver. Quarterback Brandon Weeden was 25 of 52 (with five drops) for 320 yards.

That was also the game Weeden learned a very valuable lesson. Never loop a pass on an out route. Put it in a line. He didn’t while throwing to Travis Benjamin. Baltimore corner Cary Williams jumped the route and took the pick 6 63 yards late in the final seconds of the third quarter to give the Ravens a 23-10 lead.

In that first game, the Ravens’ fourth in an 18-day period, Anquan Boldin torched the Browns’ secondary. The veteran wide receiver caught nine passes, eight in the second half, for 131 yards in the 23-16 victory. He didn’t score, but frustratingly prolonged drives.

Joe Haden was serving his four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s drug policy at the time and Flacco took full advantage with a 356-yard evening in front of a national television audience.

Rice, Baltimore critics say, is not getting enough touches to make a difference and balance the Baltimore offense. The Ravens throw the ball 62% of the time and gain nearly 71% of their offense through the air. But the offensive line protects Flacco well, giving up only 12 sacks in seven games.

However, that line was revamped recently at the tackles with Michael Oher moving from right tackle to left to replace Bryant McKinnie with rookie Kelechi Osemele taking over on the right side.

McKinnie, brought in last season after Oher had difficulties switching from right tackle to left, has been bothered by off-the-field problems this season. Oher began his career as a right tackle before switching to the left side last season.

Chances are very good, now that Haden is back and the Cleveland defense is getting healthy, that we’ll see much more of Rice and the ground game Sunday.

Oh, one more thing. The Ravens are coming off their bye week, licking their wounds after a tough loss, much like the San Diego Chargers were last Sunday. And the Ravens, just like the Chargers, are being criticized for passing the ball too much.

I lied. One more stat. Under Harbaugh, the Ravens have never lost a game following the bye week. That’s going to change Sunday, when two streaks will crumble and another continued. The Browns win their third straight home game. Make it:

Browns 19, Ravens 14

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