RAVENS PASSING GAME: The Ravens weren't kidding when they talked about revving up their passing attack in quarterback Joe Flacco's fifth season. Flacco is currently second in the NFL in passing yards (913) and tied for fifth in touchdowns (six). Flacco has never lost to the Browns in eight tries and Thursday night he'll face a shaky secondary, looking to improve on a career 94.4 quarterback rating against Cleveland. Flacco used all of his weapons in a 31-30 victory over the New England Patriots last Sunday, completing passes to eight different guys. Mostly quiet this season, wide receiver Anquan Boldin has 300 yards receiving and three touchdowns in five career games versus the Browns. The Ravens' offensive line has exceeded early outside expectations, allowing five sacks in three games.
BROWNS PASSING GAME: There's been some good and plenty bad so far from rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden, who is completing only 56.5 percent of his passes for 677 yards, three touchdowns and six interceptions, which is tied for the NFL lead. It certainly would help if Weeden, a 28-year-old first-round pick, had a few more weapons around him, but his best receiver, Greg Little, is prone to drops and another one of his top options, Mohamed Massaquoi, has battled inconsistency and injuries. Weeden has also been sacked eight times despite the presence of standouts Joe Thomas and Alex Mack on the Cleveland offensive line.
RAVENS RUNNING GAME: Ray Rice has punished a lot of teams, but he's specifically had his way with the Browns. His 775 rushing yards against them are his most against any team and his best career game on the ground — a 205-yard outburst — came against Cleveland in Week 13 last year. Rice has averaged 96.9 rushing yards over eight career games against the Browns to go along with three touchdowns. Rice is seventh in the NFL with 268 rushing yards but he ranks sixth in yards per carry (5.8) among backs with 30 carries or more. Balancing their passing game, the Ravens rushed for 121 yards and averaged 4.7 yards per carry against New England.
BROWNS RUNNING GAME: Rookie Trent Richardson, an explosive and physical running back who the Browns selected third overall out of Alabama, has been the bright spot for Cleveland amid its 0-3 start. He leads the team in rushing yards (175) and receptions (11). He also is tied for the league lead among all rookies in points scored (18) and is second in receptions, third in yards from scrimmage (240) and fourth in yards. Still, the Browns are ranked 26th in the NFL in rushing yards, averaging 87.3 per game. Chris Ogbonnaya is Cleveland's top backup, but he has just one carry and is mostly used in the passing game.
RAVENS RUSH DEFENSE: While there are continued concerns with the pass defense, the Ravens have looked far stingier against the run the past two weeks. For the season, they are allowing 111.7 rushing yards per game, but much of that damage was done in Week One by the Cincinnati Bengals' BenJarvus Green-Ellis. In the victory over the Patriots, New England rushed for just 77 yards on 34 carries, representing a meager 2.3 yards per carry. The previous week, the Philadelphia Eagles rushed for 129 yards but only registered 3.1 per carry. Linebackers Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe are the Ravens' leading tacklers, while defensive tackle Haloti Ngata has made 16 total tackles in the interior.
BROWNS RUSH DEFENSE: The Browns book-ended a strong showing versus the run against Green-Ellis and the Bengals by allowing 150 and 138 rushing yards respectively to the Philadelphia Eagles and Buffalo Bills. The Bills' output came despite already being without starter Fred Jackson and losing his backup, C.J. Spiller, who entered the game as the NFL's leading rusher, to a shoulder injury early in the game. Overall, Cleveland ranks 22nd in the NFL against the run, permitting 122.7 yards per game. Ahtyba Rubin is one of their top run stuffers inside, while linebacker D'Qwell Jackson (Maryland) is probably the Browns' top defensive player with 14 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions.
RAVENS PASS DEFENSE: After three weeks of facing Pro Bowl quarterbacks, the Ravens' beleaguered pass defense could get a little breather this week against rookie Brandon Weeden, though they certainly aren't looking at it like that. The Ravens are giving up 289.7 yards per game through the air. Only four teams are surrendering more. With Lardarius Webb on one side and safeties Bernard Pollard and Ed Reed playing center field, teams have victimized cornerbacks Cary Williams and Jimmy Smith on quick throws to the outside. One way to combat those is putting more heat on the quarterback. The Ravens are ninth in the league with eight sacks, but they've mostly had to blitz to get them.
BROWNS PASS DEFENSE: Joe Haden, the Browns' top cornerback, has missed the past two games while serving a four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance enhancement substances, and his absence has showed. In the opener against the Eagles, Haden had six tackles and an interception and the Browns forced four Michael Vick interceptions and 27 incompletions. Without him, opposing quarterbacks have completed 46 of 66 passes with six touchdowns and one interception the past two weeks. Cleveland is 27th in the NFL in pass defense, allowing 269 yards per game. Sheldon Brown, Dimitri Patterson and Buster Skrine have each started two games at cornerback.
RAVENS SPECIAL TEAMS: Justin Tucker's game-winning 27-yard field goal that beat the Patriots capped another solid performance for the Ravens' special teams. Tucker, the rookie kicker, has been at the forefront of it, making all seven of his field-goal attempts and all 11 of his extra points. Sam Koch ranks 13th in the NFL in both punting average (47.4) and punts inside the 20 (five). However, where the Ravens' special teams have made their biggest improvements is with their coverage units. The Ravens have allowed just 19.6 yards per kickoff return, the sixth-best average in the NFL, and just 6.7 yards per punt return, the ninth-best mark in the NFL. Both were problem areas last season.
BROWNS SPECIAL TEAMS: The Ravens have a ton of respect for Browns return man Joshua Cribbs and they'll obviously try to avoid kicking him the ball if they possibly can. Cribbs is currently fourth in the AFC with a 28.4-yard average on kickoff returns and sixth in the conference with a 13.0-yard average on punt returns. In 14 career games against the Ravens, Cribbs has averaged 13.3 yards per punt return and 26.0 yards per kickoff return. He also set a career high with 306 combined return yards in a Nov. 2007 game against the Ravens. Browns veteran kicker Phil Dawson is 5-for-5 on field-goal attempts this season and his 83.4 percent field goal accuracy is ninth-best in league history.
RAVENS INTANGIBLES: The task for the Ravens all week was to move beyond their emotionally and physically draining Sunday night victory over the Patriots, and all indications are that they have done that. They have also won 12 straight games at M&T Bank Stadium and nine straight games against AFC North foes. Both of those streaks are the longest in the NFL of their kind. Also, the Ravens are undefeated against the Browns in the John Harbaugh era, winning eight consecutive contests. During that span, the Ravens have outscored the Browns, 203-91.
BROWNS INTANGIBLES: The Browns have gone young, so it would be unfair to make this year's team bear the brunt of past failures. However, already 0-3 and with games against the Ravens, New York Giants and a rematch with the Bengals over the next three weeks, it appears that it will be another long season for the Browns. They are 18-49 over their past five seasons and they haven't had a winning year since going 10-6 in 2007. That's also the last season the Browns beat the Ravens. Dating back to last year, the Browns have dropped nine consecutive games and 12 of their past 13. They haven't won a road game since Week Two of last year.
PREDICTION: With guys like Weeden, Richardson, Thomas and Haden making up a young nucleus, the Browns do appear to be headed in the right direction and there will probably be a time soon where they pose a bigger threat to the Ravens than they do now. The Ravens have historically made things really tough on rookie quarterbacks and even with their current defense lacking the bite of the previous versions, they still have more than enough to get after Weeden, who has looked overmatched at times. This one could stay close early, but don't expect the late-game drama that the Ravens have provided the previous two weeks. A couple of timely forced turnovers and one or two Rice touchdowns should give the Ravens more than enough breathing room.
Ravens, 26-13Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun