No trifecta for McCown
It would be incorrect, maybe even preposterous, to suggest the Baltimore Ravens are frightened at the prospect of facing Cleveland quarterback Josh McCown in the Browns’ home opener Sunday.
After what the veteran quarterback did to the Ravens last season, one can only imagine grudging respect would be the correct approach from a Baltimore standpoint.
In splitting the season series last year, McCown put the ball up 85 times, completing 56 for 689 yards and four touchdowns. The torching of the Baltimore secondary certainly got the attention of Ravens coach John Harbaugh.
“He’s had a lot of success against us,” he said in the media run-up to the game. “He’s been on fire against us. . . . I just remember the guy having no conscience. . . . So we have a lot of respect for him. . . . ” But can he do it a third straight time?
McCown, who will helm the Cleveland offense until (a) Robert Griffin III returns from a broken shoulder or (b) he joins The Third on the sidelines with an injury, will work with a significantly different set of receivers this year.
Gone are wide receivers Travis Benjamin, Taylor Gabriel and Brian Hartline, who combined for 24 catches, 322 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the two Baltimore games. Benjamin, now with the San Diego Chargers, was 14-173-1.
In their place are Terrelle Pryor, still learning the nuances of the wide receiver position, veteran Andrew Hawkins and rookies Corey Coleman, Rashard Higgins, Ricardo Louis and Jordan Payton. In other words, it’s the Browns’ version of inexperience central.
Tight end Gary Barnidge, who burned the Ravens for 15 receptions, 230 yards and a touchdown last season, is back, of course, but his inauspicious 2016 debut (two targets, two drops last Sunday in Philadelphia) does not bode well for the immediate future. Maybe a change at quarterback will help.
The big difference for the Ravens this season will be the defense, which led the way last Sunday in the 13-7 victory over the Buffalo Bills, who were limited to 160 total yards, just 95 through the air.
The return of veteran outside linebacker Terrell Suggs has been a factor. Suggs, who has torched the Browns numerous times over the years, tore his Achilles’ heel in last season’s opening game and missed the entire season. He registered a sack last week against the Bills.
The improved pass rush figures to get even better once outside backer Elvis Dumervil recovers enough from offseason foot surgery. He will not be ready for Sunday’s game. Albert McClellan fills in.
Where the Ravens have improved the most is in the secondary, where Lardarius Webb has moved to free safety after seven seasons as a cornerback and strong safety Eric Weddle was signed as a free agent.
Factor in the very young Cleveland receiving corps and the new look Baltimore secondary and torching that group again might prove a little more difficult for McCown this time around.
Offensively, at least considering how they began the season, the Ravens are somewhat of a puzzle. Quarterback Joe Flacco, who loves to play against the Cleveland, is back after missing last season’s second game with the Browns with a torn ACL.
He has faced Cleveland 15 times and owns 13 victories, including the first 11 in a row starting with his rookie season. Both losses were 33-30 overtime verdicts. During that stretch, he has thrown 19 touchdown passes and just seven picks.
This season, the Ravens’ receivers corps has gained speed with the addition of veteran Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman, a No. 1 pick who missed all of last season with knee problems. Wallace and Flacco hooked up on a 66-yard bomb against the Bills.
Veterans Steve Smith Sr. and Kamar Aiken along with tight ends Dennis Pitta and Crockett Gillmore give Flacco more strong options than McCown has with his young receivers. The depth at running back includes former Brown Terrance West, Justin Forsett and Buck Allen.
Where the Ravens are vulnerable offensively is up front, where rookies Ronnie Stanley and Alex Lewis operate on the left side of the line. The Bills sacked Flacco four times last Sunday and hit him on several other occasions after delivering the ball.
It’s incumbent, then, on the Cleveland defense to take advantage of that youthful presence. Oh, wait. The Browns are just as young as the Ravens along the front seven with the likes of rookies Carl Nassib, Emmanuel Ogbah and Joe Schobert.
The outcome of this one depends, in large part, on the Browns’ ability to get up close and personal with Flacco and force him to either throw before he wants or entice him to leave the pocket to avoid trouble. And to do something they couldn’t do in the season opener against the Eagles: move the ball consistently, not in fits and starts.
Cleveland coach Hue Jackson has a reputation as an offensive guru to uphold. Granted it’s just one game into the season and we don’t really know how to label his offense. One more game won’t answer that puzzle, either.
Jackson strongly hinted during training camp that he wants a balanced offense. Last Sunday, he did not achieve it with 29 called passes and 21 runs, a 58-42 ratio. That’s not even close to being Jacksonian.
A closer look shows the last three plays were runs, which accounted for 40 of the 120 yards on the ground, because time was running down and the Eagles were in a massive prevent defense while leading by 19 points.
If the Cleveland defense can get off the field often enough – and right now, that’s a huge if – and prevent the offense from getting cold on the bench, then the Browns have a shot. It also has to apply pressure on Flacco and disturb his throwing rhythm.
Now the question is whether defensive coordinator Ray Horton will dial up more blitzes against the Ravens quarterback than he did last Sunday against Eagles rookie quarterback Carson Wentz. If he goes conservative, forget it.
And now that McCown, a much better pocket passer than The Third, is in charge of the huddle for the foreseeable future, will Jackson look at what the veteran did last season against the Ravens and lean more on the forward pass to get the job done?
The fact remains the Ravens have more talent up and down the roster to withstand any upset bid the Browns. Flacco continues his mastery of the Browns by completing 16 of just 20 passes for nearly 300 yards and scoring throws to Smith and Perriman.
Why only 20 passes? Because the Ravens smartly use the ground game to set up the passing game and batter the Cleveland defensive line for 151 yards, led by West and Forsett, who each score a touchdown.
Once again, the Cleveland offense lacks consistency against an aggressive Ravens defense and controls the ball for just 49 plays, forcing Britton Colquitt to punt six times. One of those plays is a 62-yard bomb to Pryor that sets up Isaiah Crowell’s two-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter.
It ties the game at 7-7 and is as close to the lead as the Browns will get all afternoon. Make it:
Ravens 31, Browns 10