Coming off a better-than-it-looked-on-the-scoreboard loss last Sunday to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Browns travel to Baltimore for a Sunday showdown with the Ravens in hopes of evening their record in the AFC North.
They haul a 12-game losing streak in the division into Baltimore, where they won their last division game, a 33-30 overtime victory on Oct. 11, 2015. They take on a team trying to find its personality on one side of the football and playing boastfully outstanding football on the other side.
Don’t be fooled by the Ravens’ impressive 20-0 victory against the Bengals last Sunday in Cincinnati. When you remove the blinders, blemishes exist.
Not on the defensive side of the ball, of course. It’s quite an accomplishment when you pitch a shutout in the National Football League. The Ravens have hurled 10 since 2000, tying Seattle for the league lead in that department. The Browns, on the other hand, have been blanked 12 times in that span, by far the most in the NFL.
But when you take a close look at the current Ravens offense, that’s where you discover the blemishes. It starts with Joe Flacco, the large man under enter who has tormented the Browns over the last nine seasons. Not Ben Roethlisberger torment, but awfully close.
Since entering the league in 2008, Flacco is 15-2 against the Browns with losses of six and three points spoiling an otherwise perfect performance against them. He has thrown for 3,835 yards and 24 touchdowns with only 11 interceptions.
Not exactly overwhelming quarterback figures, but Flacco was the beneficiary of a solid defense and strong running game in many of those victories. He basically did not make enough mistakes to alter the outcome of games.
He was bothered by back problems enough this year to miss all of training camp and the entire exhibition season. The rust showed in the Bengals victory. He completed only nine of 17 passes for 121 yards, all in the first half.
With a cushy 17-0 lead at the half and the defense playing lights out, the coaching staff buttoned down the attack in the second half, relying almost exclusively on the run. Flacco attempted five passes in the half and completed none. Two of his four incompletions were nullified by defensive penalties and one pass was picked off.
The defense, meanwhile, made life miserable for Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton with four interceptions and the recovery of a Dalton fumble. The Bengals’ offense threatened only once. How bad was it? Six first-half possessions resulted in three punts and three picks.
Now factor in that the Cleveland offense is worse than Cincinnati’s – although fans can reasonably argue that is not the case given the Bengals have yet to score a touchdown in two games – and you get some idea of what awaits the Browns as they help the Ravens open their home season.
The Steelers pointed the way on how to control the Cleveland running game in the season opener. The Ravens are every bit as stingy against the run, featuring a pair of 340-pound defensive tackles in Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams, who take up a lot of space and are hard to move.
Also factor in Terrell Suggs, playing what the Ravens term their rush linebacker. Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas calls Suggs, who seems to have been around forever, one of the best pass rushers he has ever faced. The 15-year veteran recorded two of the Ravens’ five sacks against the Bengals.
The ultra aggressive Suggs has 17 sacks in 25 games against the Browns. As much as anything, that’s a testament to the greatness of Thomas, who usually draws Suggs as his assignment.
The Cleveland offensive line, which struggled against Pittsburgh last Sunday, might be challenged even more by the Ravens. Winner of that battle most likely will be the determining factor as to the outcome.
The Browns’ defense, which starred in the season opener, is much like Baltimore’s defense in that it gives its team the best chance to win. The new aggressive approach on that side of the football is extremely popular with the fans and should have been made long ago.
Flacco has four new receivers this season in wideouts Michael Campanaro, Chris Matthews and Jeremy Maclin and a new starting tight end in Nick Boyle, who moved up when veteran Dennis Pitta was released.
Maclin, signed as a free agent, teams with Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman to give the Ravens outstanding speed on the outside, an attribute that could be problematic for the young Cleveland secondary.
Former Brown Terrance West and Buck Allen, who combined to compile 151 of the Ravens’ 155 yards on the ground against the Bengals, handle the running game behind a good offensive line.
Look for more of the same kind of offense from the Ravens in this one with an emphasis on the ground game, pounding the ball until the Browns prove they can stop it and force Flacco to throw. That undoubtedly will be the major goal of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ front seven.
A couple of statistical facts with regard to Ravens coach John Harbaugh. He is 16-2 against Cleveland and 6-0 against rookie quarterbacks at home (allowing only two touchdowns and picking off eight passes). Browns quarterback Cody Kessler was the latest victim last season. Now it’s DeShone Kizer’s turn.
That opening-game shutout over the Bengals was the Ravens’ first since blanking (you guessed it) the Browns midway through the 2009 season.
The last time the Browns failed to score a point in a game was a 30-0 loss to Cincinnati at home back in 2014. And the last shutout they recorded was an 8-0 triumph over the Buffalo Bills in a blizzard at the Cleveland lakefront in December of 2007.
Shutting out a team in the NFL is difficult of course. Doing it two games in a row is as rare as an eclipse. The St. Louis Rams last accomplished the feat in 2014, knocking off Oakland and Washington back-to-back.
The Ravens now have a chance to duplicate that rarity. Posting back-to-back shutouts is nothing new for them. The 2000 team recorded four shutouts, including back-to-back blankings of the Bengals and (you guessed it again) Browns in weeks four and five.
First the Bengals last Sunday and now the Browns on deck this Sunday. Will history repeat itself? No, although the Browns like last week will make it close for a half. Make it:
Ravens 20, Browns 9