RAVENS PASSING GAME: Quarterback Joe Flacco was nowhere near the Ravens’ biggest problem in last week’s 49-27 loss to the Denver Broncos but he had his moments, throwing two interceptions and making several questionable decisions. Going forward, he needs better blocking up front and his receivers to hang onto the ball. Tight ends Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark each had a couple of drops. The Ravens are extremely thin at wide receiver, putting even more focus on Torrey Smith who has touchdowns in his last two games against Cleveland.
BROWNS PASSING GAME: Things were looking up for Brandon Weeden after he had a strong preseason, but the second-year quarterback took a step back in a 23-10 season-opening loss to the Miami Dolphins. Weeden threw three interceptions and completed just 26-of-53 passes. He was also sacked six times as the Browns’ offensive line struggled throughout. Tight end Jordan Cameron is emerging as a top target. Projected starting receiver Josh Gordon is serving the final game of a two-game suspension.
RAVENS RUNNING GAME: It would be a bit surprising if offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell doesn’t try to establish the run early after a game in which the Ravens rushed for just 58 yards on 21 attempts. Head coach John Harbaugh and the players have spoken all week about the need to get the running game going. Ray Rice’s 922 career rushing yards versus the Browns are his most against any opponent. His backup, Bernard Pierce, averaged 5.7 yards a carry in two games against Cleveland last year.
BROWNS RUNNING GAME: Bruising back Trent Richardson set Browns’ rookie records last year for rushing touchdowns (11), total touchdowns (12) and rushing yards (950). In two games versus the Ravens, he had 39 carries for 152 yards and a touchdown and 10 catches for 88 yards. He gained just 47 yards on 13 carries last week against the Dolphins, but his physical, down-hill style will be a test for the Ravens’ improved defensive line. Former Raven Bobby Rainey is Richardson’s primary backup.
RAVENS RUSH DEFENSE: With Peyton Manning doing most of the damage through the air, the Ravens’ rush defense really wasn’t tested. They allowed 65 yards on 23 carries, a solid debut for a revamped defensive line. Haloti Ngata was especially disruptive with four tackles, while weak-side linebacker Josh Bynes had a team-leading eight stops. The return of defensive tackle Arthur Jones, who missed last week’s game with an illness, would make this group even more formidable.
BROWNS RUSH DEFENSE: For all the Browns’ issues last week, this group was not one of them. The Browns held the Dolphins to 20 yards on the ground on 23 attempts, an NFL-low for Week 1 and the second fewest rushing yards surrendered in a game in franchise history. They did that despite starting left end Ahtyba Rubin missing the game. Nose tackle Phil Taylor is a load to handle inside. Former Maryland standout D’Qwell Jackson is the Browns’ top tackler and their defensive leader.
RAVENS PASS DEFENSE: What was supposed to be a strength has turned into the Ravens’ biggest question mark as the secondary was picked apart for seven touchdown passes by Manning and the Broncos who capitalized on poor communication and even worse tackling. The Ravens need much better efforts from safeties Michael Huff and James Ihedigbo, and cornerbacks Corey Graham and Jimmy Smith. Strong-side linebacker Elvis Dumervil has nine sacks in four career games versus the Browns. He could be in for a big day as Browns right tackle Mitchell Schwartz struggled mightily last week.
BROWNS PASS DEFENSE: The additions of former Raven Paul Kruger, Desmond Bryant and Quentin Groves paid immediate dividends as the three combined for four sacks in Week 1. They should get even more help Sunday with the debut of outside linebacker and first-round draft pick Barkevious Mingo who is now healthy. Joe Haden enhanced his reputation as a lock-down cornerback by shutting down Miami’s Mike Wallace last week. Haden will probably spend much of his day shadowing his friend, Torrey Smith.
RAVENS SPECIAL TEAMS: The Ravens were shaky in this area as well last week as a blocked punt of Sam Koch contributed to a touchdown and a lack of awareness by rookie Brynden Trawick resulted in a collision with punt returner Jacoby Jones. With Jones out for as much as a month with a knee sprain, Lardarius Webb and Tandon Doss will probably handle punt returns and Pierce and recent addition Shaun Draughn are the top candidates to return kicks. Justin Tucker was 16-of-17 on field goals at home last season.
BROWNS SPECIAL TEAMS: Phil Dawson, who seemingly never missed against the Ravens, has moved on to the 49ers and the Browns’ current kicker is former Raven Billy Cundiff. The veteran has bounced from tryout-to-tryout since getting beaten out by Tucker last preseason but he hopes that he’s found a home in Cleveland. Cundiff converted on his only field-goal attempt last week. Rainey, who the Browns claimed off waivers from the Ravens, averaged 25.8 yards on four kickoff returns versus the Dolphins.
RAVENS INTANGIBLES: Recent history is certainly on the Ravens’ side in this matchup. The Ravens have beaten the Browns 10 straight times, outscoring them 251-122 during that streak. They are undefeated against Cleveland in the John Harbaugh era. Harbaugh’s team is 33-7 at M&T Bank Stadium and 21-9 against AFC North foes during his tenure. They also are 4-0 following games in which they lost by 20 or more points. The unveiling of the Super Bowl XLVII banner should only energize the Ravens and the home crowd further.
BROWNS INTANGIBLES: First-year head coach Rob Chudzinski insists that his team hasn’t spent much time discussing the Browns’ recent futility against the Ravens and it’s true that many of his players haven’t experienced it. The Browns brought in a host of free agents and they also have 12 rookies on the active roster, making them one of the youngest teams in the league. The inexperience showed last week as they turned the ball over three times and committed nine penalties.
PREDICTION: The Ravens are well-rested, motivated and ticked off, not a good combination if you are a Browns team that is looking for its first win in the series since 2007. Cleveland is an improving team and they will pose problems for the Ravens in several areas. They did last year despite losing two relatively close games to Baltimore. I expect this one to follow a similar script but in the end, the Ravens should secure their first victory by relying on their running game and a few late stops by their defense.
Ravens, 23-17.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun