Browns 24, Ravens 18
STRATEGY: Jim Caldwell has embraced a pass-centric approach, transitioning firmly to spread looks as the base offense. The Ravens utilized three wide receiver sets on 63 of 67 snaps, and went with four receivers twice. They were in shotgun 58 times with just five no-huddles. The hope is to create better spacing downfield, and some breathing room for a lackluster running game. The plan backfired due to pass-blocking breakdowns and too many errant throws from Joe Flacco. A handful of Pistol formation plays introduced Sunday didn’t confuse the Browns and generated 5 yards on five plays. The defense tried to get pressure with a four-man rush, but had just three sacks with no spy assigned to shadow mobile quarterback Jason Campbell. Effective coverage schemes on Jordan Cameron and Josh Gordon didn’t extend to Greg Little and Davone Bess, who encountered little resistance.
PERSONNEL: With the I-formation eschewed, fullback Vonta Leach got a season-low two snaps. Deonte Thompson increased to 31 snaps after being forgotten in recent weeks. Ed Dickson didn't capitalize on 46 snaps, failing to catch a potential touchdown. Torrey Smith doesn’t get the attention ideally devoted to a top receiver, catching five passes for 78 yards on eight targets. The iron men defensively were middle linebacker Daryl Smith, cornerback Lardarius Webb and strong safety James Ihedigbo with rookie free safety Matt Elam missing just one snap. Haloti Ngata was deployed all over the line. Elvis Dumervil failed to record a tackle on 30 snaps. Courtney Upshaw produced just two tackles on 52 snaps at strong-side linebacker. Replaced by Jameel McClain as the weak-side inside linebacker, Josh Bynes went down to nine defensive snaps and up to 26 special-teams plays.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: Marlon Brown quickly gains separation with his imposing size and quick feet, catching two touchdown passes and a two-point conversion as his timing grows with Flacco. Flacco discovered a rhythm, completing 16 of 22 passes after halftime. Cameron was held to one catch for 4 yards on five targets, and Gordon was limited to three catches for 44 yards on seven targets. Former Ravens runner Willis McGahee looked his age, managing 31 yards on 21 runs and lost a fumble. Terrell Suggs isn’t slowing down, maintaining a rare upfield burst to notch his ninth sack.
WHAT WENT WRONG: Flacco’s lack of accuracy and frequent late throws counteracted the revamped approach. He threw it up for grabs on a Joe Haden interception in traffic, a head-scratching decision. The running game is an ineffective afterthought, undone by a lack of blocking and Ray Rice displaying no tackle-breaking ability or elusiveness. Flacco was sacked five times, pressure Cleveland aggressively derived from safety blitzes and Ravens linemen not sticking to assignments long enough. Corey Graham was no match for Bess, constantly arriving late to surrender two touchdowns. When Webb tried to help a beaten Graham, he was faked off his feet in an embarrassing missed tackle on Bess’ second score. Confusion reigned on journeyman tight end Gary Barnidge’s easy touchdown as the secondary didn’t account for him at all. Sam Koch had an ugly 25-yard shank. Usually-reliable Tandon Doss fumbled a punt, providing a short field leading to a touchdown.
TURNING POINT: Trailing by three points in the fourth quarter after Brown's second score, the defense didn’t hold up its end of the bargain. On fourth-and-1, Upshaw lost outside containment as Campbell scrambled away to buy time for Bess to get free for a clutch first down. It set up a Billy Cundiff chip shot that sealed the game.
X-FACTOR: This might not be the time to completely abandon the running game against a Bengals defense adjusting to life without All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins (torn ACL) and run-stuffing linebacker Rey Maualuga (knee, concussion).