Ground game critical as Ravens eye win over AFC North foe

November 30, 2011 | Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Unlike earlier meetings with Jacksonville and Seattle, the Ravens know exactly what they’re up against when they travel to Cleveland to meet another sub-.500 team on Sunday afternoon.

Despite winning their last six meetings against the Browns since John Harbaugh took over as head coach in 2008, the Ravens are fully aware of the challenge offered by playing on the road against an AFC North rival. Cleveland has lost four of its last five games in Pat Shurmur’s first year as head coach, but three of their seven losses on the season have come in one-possession games.

As Baltimore tries to improve its inexplicable 1-3 road record against sub-.500 teams this season, the Browns are not a team to take lightly in the minds of anyone you talk to around the Ravens’ training facility in Owings Mills this week.

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“If you are a fighter, you avoid this fighter at all costs,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “because he’s always going to fight you hard and he’s always going to fight you for the 12 rounds. If you look at just the two matchups between the two teams in [past years], they’ve always [brought] it. They’ve always had a special thing to play us, so they’re going to bring it.”

In order to win that fight to which Suggs refers, the Ravens would be wise in sticking to the increased commitment to the running game they’ve displayed over their last two games, victories over the Cincinnati Bengals and the San Francisco 49ers. Despite both ranking in the top 5 in rush defense, the Ravens ran the ball a combined 63 times for 197 yards to control the tempo of each game.

The 3.1 yards-per-carry average won’t intimidate opposing defenses, but it does spell out the Ravens’ blueprint for success in the final month of the regular season when weather conditions worsen and high-octane passing games become dependent on favorable elements and home-field advantage to advance deep into the month of January. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and the Ravens slowly but surely seem to be finding their identity as they reach the final stretch of the regular season.

Patience with the running game has been music to the ears of running back Ray Rice, who sees value in the number of run plays beyond what the Ravens were able to accomplish in the process of securing two victories in a five-day period.

“I’m not saying those are practice reps, but those are live reps that you can come in, and coach and get better at it,” Rice said. “The more and more that your line has to block [on run plays], the more and more you get better at the run. At the same time, you look at what happened last week — the time of possession — putting our defense out there fresh is a great scenario for us, whether it’s flipping [the field] or getting points. Any time you flip a field and you put our defense out there, it ends up being a good situation for us.”

A similar approach on Sunday might earn a larger return as the Browns own the 29th-ranked run defense in the NFL. Allowing an average of just under 140 yards per game on the ground, Cleveland has allowed 130 or more rushing yards in seven of their 11 games this season.

The Browns’ front seven has struggled in controlling the line of scrimmage and has only grown weaker after losing two starters, defensive end Emmanuel Stephens and outside linebacker Scott Fujita, to season-ending injuries on Sunday.

Despite their struggles in stopping the run, the Browns own the top-ranked pass defense, in part because of teams’ tendency to pound the running game but also due to a talented secondary led by young cornerback Joe Haden. The Browns have allowed 174.7 passing yards per contest and 11 touchdown passes this season.

“They’re covering real well,” Harbaugh said. “[Browns defensive coordinator] Dick Jauron does a great job in the back end. He’s kind of a secondary guy from way back. They’ve very solid. They don’t give up a lot of big plays. They get good pressure up front.”

In order to stick to that game plan of controlling the tempo with a heavy dose of Rice and backup Ricky Williams, the Ravens will need to avoid the turnovers that plagued them in losses to the Jaguars and the Seahawks. A fast start is exactly what they’ll need against an underwhelming Cleveland offense ranked 28th in the NFL.

With the Ravens currently tied with three other teams at 8-3 atop the AFC, players believe their previous shortcomings are valuable lessons as they enter December and the stakes become even higher over the final five games of the regular season.

“We’re battle-tested, and let’s take December and January football and take it in stride,” Rice said. “You go through the ups and downs, but right now, I feel like we’re hitting stride because we know what we want to do.”

Even so, the doubts remain until they are able to put them to rest.

Can the Ravens beat the teams they’re supposed to beat on the road, especially after two stock-building wins over the Bengals and 49ers?

“We’ve definitely earned that reputation,” Suggs said. “So, until we show you all different, that’s going to be the story.”