Saturday, September 20, 2014

Same old Ravens? Not really

The Baltimore Ravens, who invade Cleveland for Sunday’s game against the Browns, are not the same old Ravens.

No more Ray Lewis. No more Ed Reed. No more Ray Rice. No more swaggering teams that won a couple of Super Bowls in the last 15 seasons. No, those days are gone.

Instead, the Ravens who roll into town for the game are mere shadows of those bygone days when winning was not only expected, it was demanded by the strong personalities of Lewis and Reed.

These Ravens are reeling emotionally because of the scandal surrounding the recent release of Rice, and yet they are still a good team, make no mistake about that. There is still enough talent on the roster to play winning football. But they don’t scare anyone like they used to.

They still play stingy football on defense, giving up only 29 points (one touchdown and a whole bunch of field goals) while splitting their first two home games with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Nothing new there. But it’s not an intimidating defense.

There are plusses and minuses. The Ravens surrender just 32-plus yards per possession. They lead the National Football League in red-zone efficiency and limit the opposition to less than 90 yards a game on the ground

But they are missing an element of their game on that side of the ball that has enabled them to be so successful: the turnover. They have only two sacks and just one interception (by none other than defensive tackle Haloti Ngata).

The Browns, on the other hand, average 152½ yards on the ground and have yet to turn the ball over in their first two games. Can’t remember when they went that long and not gifted the opposition with the football.

There is no question that when the Cleveland offense introduces itself to the Baltimore defense, it can expect sizable resistance on the ground. That offense, which has played in fits and starts thus far this season, will receive its first big challenge.

Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell, whose significant contributions to the Cleveland running game have made Ben Tate’s absence more palatable than expected, face their toughest test of the season. So, too, does the offensive line.

It is obvious the two rookies love to run behind the new zone-blocking scheme, which has opened numerous holes on the edges of the line of scrimmage. And Crowell has showed a surprising burst of speed that enables him to take full advantage.

One area the Browns most likely will explore is the up-tempo game, which has proved very successful thus far. They unveiled a no-huddle offense in the second half of the season opener in Pittsburgh, tying the game after trailing by 24 points at the half, and used it on occasion in the New Orleans victory.

The Ravens, who bring a four-game road losing streak against the AFC North into this one, do not handle the no-huddle well, giving up 6.2 yards per play against it. And with Brian Hoyer getting more comfortable with the scheme by the possession, it would not surprise to see a lot of it Sunday.

Joe Flacco, unbeaten in 11 games against Cleveland before a 24-18 loss last November, leads the pass-heavy Baltimore offense. Nearly two of every three plays is a pass. That’s a problem for the Browns.

The Steelers and Saints strafed the Cleveland secondary for 627 yards in the first two games, completing 68% of their passes. Throw in the 301 yards they gained on the ground and all of a sudden, one has to seriously question whether Mike Pettine’s defense is working.

Flacco targets most of his passes for tight ends Dennis Pitta and Owen Daniels and wide receiver Steve Smith, who have caught 35 of his 56 completions. Wideouts Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones, long-distance threats who have burned the Browns in the past, have been unusually quiet this season with just seven catches for 80 yards.

The Baltimore running game, in the absence of Rice, is now being handled by veterans Bernard Pierce and Justin Forsett with only a modicum of success.

Even though the statistics favor the Ravens, this figures to be a close, low scoring game with the defenses taking center stage.

Look for the Cleveland run defense to tighten up with the return of defensive tackle John Hughes. And the secondary can’t be that bad three games in a row, can it? A lot depends on how much pressure the front seven places on Flacco. The beleaguered secondary needs help.

One interesting statistic linking Flacco and Pettine to remember: When the Cleveland coach was defensive boss in Buffalo last season, his Bills picked off five of the Baltimore quarterback’s 50 passes and sacked him four times in a 23-20 victory.

Does that mean Pettine has discovered the formula for beating Flacco? Probably not, but it certainly has to make him think when he lines up and tries to figure out what the Cleveland defense is up to.

Again, this will not be a high-scoring game with just a few touchdowns. It probably will go down to the final minutes with the team that has the ball last winning the game by a field goal. That team will be Cleveland and that kicker will be Billy Cundiff. Make it:

Browns 16, Ravens 14

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