OWINGS MILLS, Md. — There’s no big secret to beating the Baltimore Ravens despite how difficult it might be to actually carry out the plan.
Create turnovers, build an early lead, and control the tempo with the running game to wear down the defense and keep the offense on the sideline.
The Jaguars did it when they built a 9-0 lead behind a dominating defensive effort and rode the back of Maurice Jones-Drew in the second half to a 12-7 victory in October.
Three turnovers gave Seattle a 22-7 lead early in the second half as Marshawn Lynch’s 109 yards on 32 carries wore out the Baltimore defense, and the Seahawks controlled the ball for the final six minutes of the fourth quarter in a 22-17 final. The rushing totals by each team were eerily similar: 42 carries for 132 yards by Jacksonville and 42 carries for 119 yards by Seattle.
The Cleveland Browns will try to find a similar formula to hand the Ravens their fourth loss to a sub-.500 team this season and put a dent in their goal for the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage in the AFC. They fit the same profile with an offense that won’t strike fear in anyone. Cleveland ranks 28th in total offense and averages just 15.0 points per game this season.
Colt McCoy is more game manager and less quarterback in his second NFL season, as Browns head coach Pat Shurmur preaches efficiency and high-percentage pass plays for the second-round pick who starred at Texas. Though clearly a bigger threat than Blaine Gabbert, who the Jaguars won in spite of in their meeting with the Ravens, McCoy isn’t going to strike fear into Ravens defenders’ hearts.
“You look at the breakdown, there’s a bunch of [third-and-short situations],” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “He’s doing a great job managing the game. They’re making it simple for him. He’s getting the ball out, simple reads, and then he’s athletic and he’s scrambling.
In fairness, McCoy doesn’t exactly have a plethora of weapons to which to throw, with his leading receiver being rookie Greg Little, a second-round pick from North Carolina, who caught his first career touchdown against the Bengals last Sunday. He also soiled the day with four big drops in the Browns’ 23-20 loss in Cincinnati.
Much like their meetings with Jacksonville and Seattle, the Ravens won’t be facing a prolific offense that can light up the scoreboard. However, if the sixth-ranked Cleveland defense can force turnovers and set up the offense on a short field to score some early points, the Browns might be well-equipped to copy the second-half strategy used by the Jaguars and Seahawks.
Big, bruising running back Peyton Hillis is finally healthy and can wear down a defense in the same way Jones-Drew and Lynch were able to do in the Ravens’ last two losses. If the Ravens fall behind early in Cleveland on Sunday, they can expect plenty of Hillis, who’s rushed for only 276 yards on 79 carries this year after off-season accolades that included being on the cover of the Madden NFL 12 video game.
“I think I can make a huge difference,” Hillis said. “Including last game, I’ve only played [five] games all year, so I haven’t been out there too much, but I feel like when I get out there I can produce and help the team win.”
Of course, Hillis’ breakout performance came against the Ravens last season when he rushed for 144 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries in a 24-17 loss in Baltimore. The big day put the 250-pound back on the map and put the Ravens on notice that Hillis was no one to take lightly.
After an injury-riddled season in which he’s dealt with a hamstring injury and even a bout of strep throat, Hillis might be the great equalizer should the Browns be able to build an early lead against the Ravens on Sunday.
“He’s a downhill guy, so it’s a huge challenge,” Pagano said. “I think our guys fully understand and they know what they’re up against. They’ve got a good offensive line, and they’re blocking well. We’ve got respect for them. We understand what style of game he plays.”
With Hillis unavailable for most of the season, the Browns rank 29th in run offense with backup Montario Hardesty unable to stay healthy and previous unknown Chris Ogbonnaya receiving a bulk of the carries. But a healthy Hillis might just be enough to move the chains and keep the Browns in control if the Ravens shoot themselves in the foot as they did in their previous losses.
If the Ravens are their own worst enemy for a third straight time on the road against a team with a losing record, Hillis just might turn in a performance reminiscent of what he did in Baltimore last season.
“That was the first time we played them last season,” defensive end Cory Redding said. “It was early in the year. We played them later on in the year, and we stopped him. And, we put that behind us. Of course, you will go back and look at those games and see what hurt us – this, that and the other – just to get refreshed about how he runs and the blocking schemes, all that kind of stuff. But, for the most part, this is a new day and a new era. [He is] the same guy, same team, and you just go out there and do it one more time.”
The Ravens are hoping for a new day, indeed.
One that involves them taking care of an inferior opponent in the way they’re expected to.