Ravens beat reporter Aaron Wilson talks about the Baltimore Ravens upcoming game against the Cleveland Browns and the key players that may or may not play. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
The Ravens last season were demolished in Denver, bumbled through their afternoon in Buffalo, and caved in close losses at Cleveland, Chicago and Cincinnati.
A team that had relished going on the road and winning in coach John Harbaugh's first five seasons became a mistake-prone, defensively challenged shell of itself whenever it ventured away from M&T Bank Stadium in 2013.
The current Ravens are a far different team, players have said repeatedly in recent weeks. They can prove that and distance themselves from recent road woes by going to Cleveland and beating the rejuvenated Browns on Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium.
"Let's hope that it's a new year and we don't have to worry about those things that happened last year," said tight end Dennis Pitta. "We know we're bringing in a good football team to Cleveland, and we certainly have to be able to manage the adversity that we'll face on the road. But I think we're well equipped to do that. … All good teams have to be able to go on the road and win, and certainly that's a challenge we'll face this week."
The Ravens (1-1) had won five straight games in Cleveland before a 24-18 loss there in November featured many of the issues they'd face on the road all season. They started slow in some games and wilted late in others. They turned the ball over too much on offense and couldn't get off the field on defense.
The Ravens' 2-6 mark away from home factored prominently in the Ravens' finishing one win shy of a playoff berth. It also represented a significant departure from previous Ravens teams.
Entering last year, the Ravens had a .500 or better road record in four of Harbaugh's first five seasons. Their 21-19 reguiar-season road mark during that span more than sufficed, given the team's home dominance. The Ravens had won at least one road playoff game in each season from 2008 to 2010, and their Super Bowl run in 2012 was highlighted by road victories against the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots.
But dating to late in that 2012 season , the Ravens have won just two of their past 10 regular-season road contests. That stretch included getting swept by their AFC North rivals on the road last season.
"It's always a challenge to play in this league on the road," Harbaugh said. "That's pretty much proven by stats and numbers and all that."
Just seven NFL teams finished last season with a winning road record. The season before, eight teams did so. The Ravens know firsthand what a fine line it is between boarding the team charter riding the emotion of a win or carrying the baggage of a loss.
Of their six road losses last season, four were by six points or fewer, including an overtime defeat against the Bears. Their road wins against the Detroit Lions and Miami Dolphins came down to a last-minute field-goal attempt — the Ravens' Justin Tucker made his from 61 yards and the Dolphins' Caleb Sturgis missed his from 57.
"We just have to execute," Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "Communication is big. You can't have penalties that set you back. We've had too many of them already. When it happens on the road, it's a lot tougher."
It's not that the Ravens went on the road last year and left their offense at home. They actually scored four more points on the road than they did at M&T Bank Stadium. But the offense gave away too many possessions — it turned the ball over 16 times on the road — and the defense allowed too many points. The Ravens surrendered 211 points on the road, compared with 141 at home. Of course, that total was heavily influenced by the 49 points the Ravens allowed in the season-opening loss to the Broncos.
"It's just always different things every time," Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. "We just have to bring a complete game — a team game — at away games, and hopefully, we can get wins."
As usual, much of the onus will fall on quarterback Joe Flacco, who needs to play much better away from home and avoid the slow starts and key mistakes that plagued the Ravens last year. Fourteen of Flacco's franchise-record 22 interceptions came on the road last season. He also completed just 57.6 percent of his passing attempts on the road, compared with 62 percent at home.
While Flacco has gone into hostile environments and led his team to several big wins in his career, he's been a different quarterback on the road. He has thrown 10 fewer touchdown passes on the road and 13 more interceptions. His completion percentage, quarterback rating and yards per attempt drop precipitously when he goes on the road. But he also has been sacked 29 more times in his career on the road than at home.
'Stick to fundamentals'
Flacco said Thursday that the key to performing better on the road is to "stick to the fundamentals and play quickly."
"I think when you do those things right there, just simple things like that, you allow yourself to go play free and not worry about too much mentally," Flacco said. "I think when you play slower, you try to do too many things sometimes. It's tough to do that on the road. One thing here or there could snowball into a bad couple of plays, and before you know it, you're running off the field. So I think if we stick to the fundamentals, if we play quickly, we'll help ourselves out a little bit."
Operating Jim Caldwell's offense last season, Flacco had a lot of responsibility and freedom at the line of scrimmage to change plays and make adjustments. The crowd noise in opposing venues made that problematic and led to communication issues.
First-year offensive oordinator Gary Kubiak's new offense has simplified things for Flacco, who has fewer decisions to make when he prepares to run a play.
"We're going to go out there and we're going to be able to play well, and this offense probably has a little bit [of] something to do with it," Flacco said. "It probably has a little bit of an effect, more so his philosophy of going out there and playing on the road. I think it matches up well with his offense and what we've been doing over the last couple of months. This will be our first real test."
In practices preparing for the Browns, Harbaugh pumped in deafening noise to simulate what the Ravens expect from the notoriously rowdy Cleveland crowd. Browns fans usually save their best for their hated rivals, and many Ravens said this week that they expected more vitriol than usual in the wake of former running back Ray Rice's domestic-abuse scandal. Browns fans also are feeling pretty good about their team, coming off a home upset of the New Orleans Saints last Sunday.
"We know we're going to be hated, so we're not worried about that," Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said.
The Ravens also know that there are few better feelings than going into an opposing venue and silencing the crowd.
"The No. 1 thing you have to do is have poise. John has done a good job this week, and [you] see how loud it is when we practice. It has been very loud. I can promise you that," Kubiak said. "So we're preparing for that. But [in] the National Football League, you go on the road, and if you can't handle noise and you're jumping offsides and you're having penalties and you don't protect the ball, it's very, very difficult in this league. So that's bee a big point of emphasis this week, and hopefully, we can handle our end of the bargain there. We have to play clean."