By Jeff Zrebiec
The Baltimore Sun
11:17 PM EDT, October 31, 2013
RAVENS PASSING GAME: Joe Flacco has gone two games without an interception after having been picked off six times the previous two games. However, he’s still struggling to get the Ravens’ offense off to a fast start, and into the end zone. The Ravens have one first-quarter touchdown this season, and only 52.2 percent of their red-zone trips have resulted in touchdowns. The Ravens went heavy with the no-huddle and three-receiver sets against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Flacco got into a good rhythm. Expect that to continue.
BROWNS PASSING GAME: The Browns are on their third quarterback this season, with veteran Jason Campbell now at the helm. He passed for 293 yards and two touchdowns against the Kansas City Chiefs last week. Cleveland is starting to develop a nice, young core on offense, led by Jordan Cameron, who leads all NFL tight ends with 49 receptions to go along with six touchdowns, and wide receiver Josh Gordon who is second in the NFL with an 18.2 yards-per-catch average. Gordon didn’t play in the teams' first meeting.
RAVENS RUNNING GAME: Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce say they are fully healthy, and that the Ravens have mostly gone back to the basics with their blocking schemes. All that’s left is finding success on the ground. They rank 28th in the NFL in yards per game (74.0) and 32nd in yards per carry (2.8). The Ravens had 99 yards rushing in their 14-6 victory over the Browns in Week 2, one of their better efforts this season. Center Gino Gradkowski will have has hands full with nose tackle Phil Taylor.
BROWNS RUNNING GAME: Following the surprising trade of Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts, the Browns have been relying on former Raven Willis McGahee and Chris Ogbonnaya in the running game. McGahee is averaging just 2.9 yards per carry, but the Ravens expect to see a motivated back, given his history with the franchise. The Browns are averaging 82.6 rushing yards per game, 26th in the NFL. Campbell gives the offense an added dimension with his ability to run.
RAVENS RUSH DEFENSE: What has happened to this group? The Ravens rank a respectable 13th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (104.3). However, they’ve been gouged in three of their past four games, surrendering 203, 140 and 141 yards on the ground in those contests. Much of the damage has been done up the middle, where nose tackle Haloti Ngata has struggled to fight off double teams and middle linebacker Daryl Smith has gotten caught up in the wash.
BROWNS RUSH DEFENSE: Cleveland has yet to allow a 100-yard rusher this season and they have held the opposition to 103.6 rushing yards per game (12th in the NFL), and 3.7 yards per carry (sixth). However, they have surrendered nine rushing touchdowns, including one to the Ravens’ Bernard Pierce in the first meeting. Former Maryland standout D’Qwell Jackson leads the Browns with 72 tackles, but he gets plenty of help against the run from a physical and athletic front seven.
RAVENS PASS DEFENSE: The Ravens’ pass rush continues to cover up for the occasional breakdown in the secondary, as was the case in the first meeting between these teams. The Ravens sacked former Browns starter Brandon Weeden five times. Elvis Dumervil continued to torment the Browns with his 10th sack against them in five career games. Led by cornerback Jimmy Smith, the Ravens’ coverage has steadily improved, but the secondary is still not consistently making big plays or big hits.
BROWNS PASS DEFENSE: The strength of the NFL’s seventh-ranked defense lies in the Browns’ ability to get to the quarterback with their front four and cover targets on the back end. Cornerback Joe Haden, who will draw the assignment of guarding his close friend Torrey Smith, is one of the NFL’s best, while Tashaun Gipson and T.J. Ward make up a formidable safety duo. With six sacks last week, the Browns moved into third place in the NFL, with 26 on the season. Fifteen different Browns have at least one sack.
RAVENS SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Justin Tucker’s two missed field goals this season came against the Browns, but he’s converted 13 straight since. Tandon Doss is second in the NFL with a 17.3-yard average per punt return. However, it’s been a struggle for the rest of the Ravens’ special team corps. Sam Koch is having a down year, and the coverage teams have struggled, prompting the promotions of Brynden Trawick and Omar Brown to the active roster this week.
BROWNS SPECIAL TEAMS: Travis Benjamin tore a ligament in his knee last week, costing the Browns one of the NFL’s most electric return men. Benjamin averaged 11.7 yards per punt return and 48.7 per kickoff return. Davone Bess is expected to handle punt return duties, with Fozzy Whittaker returning kicks. Former Raven kicker Billy Cundiff is 14-for-16 on field-goal attempts, and he’s made both of his tries from beyond 50 yards. Both of Cleveland’s coverage units have been solid.
RAVENS INTANGIBLES: With 11 straight wins over the Browns, the Ravens hold the longest active winning streak by one team over another. Flacco is a big reason for that, with 13 touchdowns and only five interceptions in those games. Under coach John Harbaugh, the Ravens are 5-0 after their bye week. This year’s bye came at a good time for a team that has lost three of its past four games and is suddenly in a must-win situation. The Ravens are as healthy as they’ve been all season.
BROWNS INTANGIBLES: It hasn’t necessarily shown with their 3-5 record and their three consecutive losses, but the Browns are starting to build a solid base of talent. Still, it’s going to be tough for them to make any headway in the division until they beat the Ravens for the first time since 2007. Instability at the quarterback position has held the organization back, and Cleveland still lacks discipline at times. The Browns have a minus-two turnover ratio and more penalties than all but two NFL teams.
PREDICTION: This is not exactly what the Ravens had in mind: going to Cleveland the first weekend in November and needing a win to jump-start their season. Seven of their 11 consecutive victories against the Browns have been decided by 10 points or fewer. It would be surprising if this game is any different. However, the Ravens should prevail in another tight and, at times, ugly game. If the Ravens are indeed a legitimate playoff contender, this is going to have to be the week they show their mettle. A loss here would be disastrous for their playoff hopes.
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