Friday, October 9, 2015

Ravens ripe for an upset?

Game planning for Sunday’s game in Baltimore against the Ravens should be easy for Browns defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil.

The Ravens haven’t run the ball very well this season and Joe Flacco is a quarterback with no bullets in his gun belt.

Easy, no? Stack the line of scrimmage, force Flacco to throw the ball and everything else will fall into place, right? At least on the defensive side of the ball.

With veteran Steve Smith sidelined with a bad back, the rest of the Ravens’ receiving corps is loaded with scraps. Even Cleveland’s less-than-mediocre roster of receivers looks better right now compared to what Flacco has in his huddle.

He’ll see wideouts Kamar Aiken (who?), Marlon Brown (really?), rookie Darren Waller and/or recently acquired Chris Givens (that’s it?) and rookie tight end Maxx Williams. In addition to Smith, injuries have sidelined receivers Breshad Perriman, Dennis Pitta and Crockett Gillmore.

Attack the Ravens’ weakness. Right now, that’s the passing game featuring Flacco and a bunch of never-heard-of-thems.

The Browns’ secondary gets cornerback Joe Haden back, but lose free safety Tashaun Gipson. Even so, if it can’t shut down that crew, this team is in big trouble. The key, of course, against a less-than-foreboding offense is to load the box and stop the run. Force second- and third-and-long. Make life uncomfortable for Flacco.

All the Browns have to do is stop running back Justin Forsett, who gets the vast majority of carries. Then again, the way the Browns have once again failed miserably at stopping that aspect of an opposing offense, that might be much easier said than accomplished.

The soon-to-be 30-year-old Forsett bounced around the NFL for six seasons before becoming a full-time starter last year in his first season in Baltimore after Ray Rice was released due to domestic abuse problems. After shedding his journeyman status, he ran for 1,266 yards and eight touchdowns.

The 5-8, 195-pounder got off to a slow start this season with just 124 yards in the Ravens’ first three games before busting loose for 150 yards in an overtime victory in Pittsburgh last Thursday night.

Limiting Forsett seems to be the key. Stop him and the chances of knocking off the Ravens increase exponentially. The only statistic not factored into this equation is Flacco’s dominance against the Browns. It should not be ignored. He has lost just once in 14 games against Cleveland.

After becoming the Ravens’ top choice in the 2008 college draft, he reeled off 11 straight victories against the Browns, the only blemish against his AFC North rivals a 24-18 setback in Baltimore in 2013.

In those 14 games, he has completed nearly 62% of his passes for slightly more than 3,000 yards with 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions (just five in the last 13 games). Over the years, though, he had a lot of help on offense and one of the National Football League’s top defenses. That’s not nearly the case this season.

Defensive stalwarts such as Ray Lewis Ed Reed, Bart Scott, Haloti Ngata and Jarret Johnson are no longer around to help, and Terrell Suggs is out for season with a torn Achilles’ tendon. Missing on offense are the likes of Rice, Todd Heap, Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith and a very good offensive line.

These are not your same Ravens, who are fortunate not to be entering this one with a winless record. The only reason they beat the Steelers in that Thursday night game was the inability of now former Pittsburgh kicker Josh Scobee to hit two very makeable field goals in regulation.

The current Baltimore defense surrenders 347 yards a game, nearly 260 of those yards through the air. And with Cleveland quarterback Josh McCown showing no reticence to throw the football, look for the Browns to take advantage and attack the Ravens more through the air than on the ground on Sunday.

The Baltimore defense has produced two of the club’s nine touchdowns, but also gives up 26 points a game, a pace that will produce the worst season on that side of the ball for the franchise since its inaugural season in 1996, when it allowed 441.

All of which means Flacco can’t rely anymore on a normally stingy defense to limit opponents’ scoring opportunities and make his job easier. Unlike the past, he finds himself in a position where putting points on the scoreboard is a must in order to give his team a better chance of winning because the defense has sprung leaks.

At the same time, the Baltimore quarterback has thrown interceptions in four straight games, something he has never done before in his eight-year career.

No longer is the Ravens’ defense capable of forcing its will on opposing offenses. Even with the likes of outside linebackers Elvis Dumervil and Courtney Shaw and inside linebacker C. J. Mosley, it’s just not the same.

If the Browns can scrounge up a pass rush – it has been missing since their seven-sack salvo in the Tennessee victory in game two – and harass Flacco in relentless fashion, the prospect of winning increases. Just know, however, the Ravens’ offensive line has been stingy in its protection of Flacco, giving up only seven sacks.

Because neither team dominates on either side of the ball, clearly reflective in their 1-3 records, the result of this one very well might depend on which team makes the fewest mistakes. Discipline will be a factor.

And since neither club is what you would call disciplined with regard to penalties, mistakes are likely to permeate the game. The Browns’ 34 penalties have cost them 290 yards this season; the Ravens’ 30 penalties have cost them 270 yards.

This one could get ugly in a hurry with both clubs floundering. Both teams will shut down the run (yes, that includes the Browns). So look for McCown and Flacco to go up top frequently with McCown continuing his annoying habit of throwing at least one interception at the most inappropriate time.

Flacco, however, is too good to extend his interception streak to five games. Somehow, he will find a way through the penalty-filled game to make a play and continue his dominance over Cleveland in a game featuring kickers Justin Tucker of Baltimore and the Browns’ Travis Coons. Make it:

Ravens 23, Browns 13

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