Saturday, October 6, 2018

Trench success wins this one

Browns coach Hue Jackson likes to divide National Football League 16-game seasons into four-game blocks. The first four are now history, which will show the Browns overwhelmed one opponent, underwhelmed two and whelmed a fourth.

The next four-game block, more challenging than the first quartet of games, begins Sunday with consecutive home games at home against Baltimore and Los Angeles Chargers, and back-to-back trips to Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh.

Up first, the team that has bedeviled the Browns the last 19 seasons almost as much as the Steelers. The team that arrived in Baltimore in 1996, known for the previous 50 seasons as the Cleveland Browns, has rewarded that city with two Super Bowl championships.

The Ravens, to put it mildly, own the new iteration of the Browns over the years, winning 29 of the first 38 games, including 17 of the last 19. The faces come and go for both teams, but the end result is invariably the same.

Now factor in the John Harbaugh era in this series. The Ravens’ head coach, who arrived in Baltimore 10 years ago, has won so often against these Browns, he probably has a tough time rationalizing losses to them. Which isn’t very often.

Harbaugh has faced six – yes, six – different Cleveland head coaches in those 10 seasons and lost only twice in 20 games (once in Cleveland). One loss was by six points, the other by three in overtime, the last time the Browns won a game on the road.

Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur, Rob Chudzinski, Mike Pettine and Jackson share the pain of losing to the Harbaugh’s Ravens in a variety of interesting ways over the years.

The Ravens under Harbaugh are 97-67 (including this season) with five double-digit victory seasons, six postseason appearances, a Super Bowl victory and only one losing season, which happens to be his only double-digit losing season.

The Browns, meanwhile, are 39-124-1 over that span with no double-digit winning seasons, no postseason appearances and nine double-digit losing seasons.

The difference between these two teams is so stark, calling it a rivalry when they get together is a misnomer. The competitive level might some day balance out and even favor the Browns, but now is not that time.

Harbaugh’s success in Baltimore coincides with the arrival of quarterback Joe Flacco, who, like his coach, has exited the field only twice (in 19 starts) against the Browns on the wrong end of the score.

A couple of average seasons (for him) cast concern in the Baltimore front office as to whether Flacco was on the downside of his career.  So the Ravens drafted dynamic Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson in the first round last April.

It served as a wakeup call for Flacco, who has completed nearly 65% of his passes this season and averages 313 passing yards a game with eight touchdowns and only two interceptions as the Ravens won three of their first four games.

A few changes in the wide receivers corps has helped immensely. Gone are Jeremy Maclin and Mike Wallace from last season. In are speedster John Brown and possession receivers Willie Snead IV and Michael Crabtree. Brown has already caught six passes of at least 20 yards.

The Cleveland secondary, weakened by the season-ending surgery to cornerback Terrance Mitchell, will have its hands full Sunday. To make matters worse, the Ravens can throw a quartet of tight ends at the Browns, who have shown little and often no ability to even adequately cover the position.

The Baltimore offense has turned over the football only four times, a challenge for the Cleveland defense, which has already equaled last season’s takeaway count of 13. A couple of lost fumbles by Alex Collins, who shares running duties with Buck Allen, accounts for the other two turnovers.

But it’s on defense where the Ravens excel, especially in the second half of games. It has yet to yield a second-half touchdown in four games, completely shutting out the Pittsburgh offense in last week’s victory.

It is basically a no-name defense, with perhaps the exception of ancient pass rusher Terrell Suggs, in his 17th season at age 36. It is a defense that gets off the field quickly, permitting the opposition to convert only 27.7% of their third-down opportunities.

The Ravens are notorious for striking quickly on offense, scoring 74 first-half points, but are also most vulnerable on defense early as well, surrendering 56 of the 65 they have yielded in the first 30 minutes, obviously making solid halftime adjustments.

The battle in the trenches figures to be one of the main keys in this one. The Ravens limit opponents to just 16 first downs a game, while their offense averages nearly 25 first downs a game.

The matchup to watch all afternoon along the line when the Ravens own the ball is how offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley fares against Browns mad-dog pass rush specialist defensive end Myles Garrett.

In order for the Cleveland defense to be effective, it must apply pressure on Flacco or at least make him throw the ball before he wants. That’s where Garrett factors into the equation. If Flacco has time to throw, it will be a long afternoon for the secondary.

The Ravens’ secondary, meanwhile, will be bolstered by the return of veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith from a league-imposed four-game suspension. He was a vital part of a Baltimore defense that led the NFL last season in takeaways and interceptions.

Count on new Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale to attempt to confuse rookie Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, who is coming off a four-turnover game, with a variety of looks, baiting him all afternoon into making ill-advised throws.

The best battle, however, promises to be the unstoppable object, better known as the Browns’ run game, against the irresistible force, a.k.a. the Ravens’ formidable front seven. Whoever wins the trench battles wins the game.

The Browns are coming off a 208-yard game on the ground in last Sunday’s loss in Oakland, raising the season average to nearly 153 yards a game. It will be challenged by a Ravens front seven that has limited opponents to just 82 yards a game on the ground.

The big difference this season for the Browns is the almost totally reconstructed roster. More than half these players have no idea how badly the Ravens have mishandled the Browns over the years.

It might, in fact, surprise more than a few of them if told the Ravens once were called the Cleveland Browns. This will be just another divisional game to them. And since they are playing well enough to arguably be unbeaten at this point instead of 1-2-1, their confidence level couldn’t be any higher.

But these are the Ravens and Flacco and history. Until the Browns show they have finally learned how to win games once they grab the lead, it is difficult to pick them to win.

They have come close, which right now is not good enough. It will happen soon enough, though. Just not Sunday. The Ravens win the trench battles and the game. Make it:

Ravens 27, Browns 17

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