As the Ravens prepare to return to the practice field after a much-needed layoff following two games in a five-day period and ahead of a AFC North matchup in Cleveland on Sunday, here are five thoughts to ponder …
1. The Ravens will face another sub-.500 team on the road this Sunday, but this one has a different feel than their previous failures in Jacksonville and Seattle. The question has already been asked and will continue to be tossed at coaches and players as the Ravens prepare to face the Browns: Can Baltimore beat a team it’s supposed to beat on the road? The Ravens will say all the right things in Owings Mills this week, but actions speak louder than words after a 1-3 road record against teams with losing marks this season. The Ravens are more familiar with the Browns than they were the Jaguars and Seahawks since they play them twice a year in the AFC North. Baltimore has annual first-hand experience with the difficulty of playing — and winning — games in Cleveland. New head coach Pat Shurmur will have some new wrinkles for the Ravens, but the personnel remains similar as the Browns will try to run the ball with Peyton Hillis and force Joe Flacco into making mistakes against the top-ranked pass defense in the NFL. Perhaps the most significant difference between this game and the Ravens’ past troubles on the road is the run defense they’ll be facing. Cleveland is 29th against the run while Jacksonville and Seattle were far more formidable in stopping a ground attack. With no room for error in the strongly-contested AFC, it’s hard to imagine the Ravens laying another egg on the road against an inferior team. Then again, I said the same thing about their game in Jacksonville. And in Seattle.
2. With five games remaining in the regular season, Ray Lewis would be wise to heed any medical advice he receives regarding his injured toe. The 36-year-old linebacker desperately wants to return to the field, and no one can question his tolerance for pain over the course of his 16 seasons in the NFL. But if the Ravens learned anything from their two victories over playoff-caliber teams in five days last week, it should be that they’re capable of winning football games without their defensive leader. As soon as Lewis is as close to 100 percent as he can possibly get with the toe, he’ll make his return to the field, even if it’s against Cleveland on Sunday or winless Indianapolis next week. There’s no such thing as simply holding him out for “better” opponents as some like to suggest. However, with the Ravens receiving such strong play from Jameel McClain and having competent backups in Dannell Ellerbe, Brendon Ayanbadejo, and Albert McClellan, there’s no need for Lewis to return to the field before his injured toe is ready. At some point, Lewis may need to force the issue and play at much less than 100 percent, but it might as well come in January and not against the likes of four straight opponents with sub-.500 records. By no means will I diminish Lewis’ impact on the defense and the team in general, but if the Ravens fall to the likes of the Browns or the Colts, Lewis’ potential absence won’t be the primary reason why.
3. The return of Lee Evans’ opens up more possibilities in the vertical passing game, but offensive coordinator Cam Cameron shouldn’t shy away from using two tight ends in the process. The veteran receiver saw his workload increase against the 49ers as Evans even replaced rookie Torrey Smith on a couple occasions in two-receiver sets, and the Ravens intend to use him more and more as he proves to be fully healthy. Cameron and quarterback Joe Flacco are licking their chops at the thought of Evans and Smith lining up on opposite sides as two deep threats on the outside, but the Ravens shouldn’t forget the success they’ve had in using tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta on the field at the same time. Linebackers can’t cover them while cornerbacks and many safeties can’t handle their size. The increased role for Evans would logically cut into Pitta’s opportunities, which is a slippery slope given the rapport he’s developed with Flacco, especially on third down as we saw once again against the 49ers.