The stars aligned for the Ravens on Sunday as the Steelers lost to the Bengals, throwing Pittsburgh into the Wild Card race with two meetings with Baltimore still to come.
All that’s left for the Ravens to do is get through tonight’s game at Cleveland to move into a group of 5-4 teams in the AFC with Jacksonville and Houston, just one game back of the Steelers and resurgent San Diego, which hold the two Wild Card spots as of now.
Join us for a special Monday Night Purple Haze at 8 pm ET. Nestor Aparicio and Glenn Clark will be in Cleveland to provide news and notes, and other WNST folks will add analysis. Click here to join in (If you don’t know what the Purple Haze is, check out the archives on that page to see what we do each and every week).
Monday night road games are some of the toughest on players in the NFL. If you are the Monday night home team, you could either stay at home in your own bed, or go to a hotel Sunday night and meet in your facility like a regular Monday would be on a normal week.
For the road team, the routine is fly to the city on Sunday, watch the late games, have meetings and dinner, then off to bed. Monday might might have more meetings, but the players are told to stay off their feet as much as possible, and it’s a long wait until the first buses leave for the stadium four hours before the game. It’s a lot of sitting and waiting to play.
A lot of that can lead to lethargic play, especially early in the game. Coaches have to monitor the energy level of themselves and the players to make sure they are in the right frame of mind when they get to the stadium.
Everyone knows Cleveland’s struggles. Some would say the Browns are a bad team. No team in the NFL is bad. Most of the 53 players on the Browns roster could play for other squads. It’s fair to say they are a struggling team, but they have a lot of pride, just as the Ravens do.
The Browns know the fan unrest, including a planned sit-out of the opening kickoff. Front-office troubles with the firing of George Kokinis have added to the misery. But the message from Eric Mangini to his team is a simple one. “We’re on national TV against a team that went to the AFC title game last year. We can ruin their season, and show the fans that we are better than our record. Have pride, and take the fight to the Ravens.”
The best way to beat a struggling team is to get up early and keep the foot on the gas for the entire 60 minutes. If the Browns score first, like Minnesota and Cincinnati have done to Baltimore in recent weeks, the pressure begins to grow. The longer they hang around, the more confidence they gain, and more any mistakes by the Ravens could be magnified. In short, the Ravens have to treat Cleveland like they would if it was Pittsburgh.
Hopefully the Ravens won’t look back at this game like Philadelphia (Oakland), Green Bay (Tampa Bay) and Denver (Washington) have in recent weeks. Beware of a wounded team in the spotlight. On to the breakdown:
Ravens offense: We’ve seen large doses of Ray Rice both running and catching the football as leads the team in rushing yards and receptions. Tonight would be perfect to get the ball into the hands of Willis McGahee and LeRon McClain as the stretch run begins. Get back to basics: run the ball and control the line of scrimmage. Efficient drives that get 7s, not 3s and continually wear down the Cleveland defense. Opponents lead the NFL in total runs at the Browns left (50 plays) and right guard (74) spots. Cleveland is in the bottom quarter of the league in yards allowed to runs to left end, left tackle, up the middle, right tackle and right end, and not far from that to left and right guard. You get the picture: run the ball effectively, especially to the outside.
When Flacco wants to pass the ball, he will be more effective on shorter throws. As Cleveland tries to shore up the run, they are susceptible to passes thrown between the secondary and the linemen. The Browns give up 7.8 yards on passes thrown short left (32nd in the NFL) and 9.3 yards on short middle (31st). But he will have to get the ball out quickly as Cleveland will try to blitz a bunch to help out a beleaguered secondary. Look for Todd Heap to find his way into that soft spot for big catches.
Ravens defense: Brady Quinn is back in as the Browns starter as Cleveland has to evaluate what they have in him going forward, especially with a top-five pick in next year’s draft looming. Does Mangini go the Vince Young route with him by throwing safe passes? Consider this: the Browns offense has failed to score a TD in the five games, and no Cleveland back has been in the end zone since last Nov. 17. Without decent playmakers for Quinn to go deep with against a Ravens secondary that has struggled at times, the Browns will have to try to run the ball. Jamal Lewis, who is expected to retire at the end of the season, will try to put together a huge effort against his former club.
Patience is the key for the Ravens. Stifle Lewis and put pressure on Quinn, who is completing close to 60 percent of his passes. Three-and-outs are boring to watch for the national TV audience, but we might see a lot of those from the Browns.
Special teams: Here is where the Ravens have to be careful. Cleveland’s Joshua Cribbs is one of the best return men in the league (16.4 avg on punt returns and 27.7 average on kickoff returns). The Ravens need the field to be as long as possible each time the Browns get the ball. Containing Cribbs is a high priority for the Ravens. Baltimore has its own weapon on kick returns in Ladarius Webb, who is averaging 28.2 per return. He’ll have a chance to give the Ravens good field position at either the start of the game, or the second half, and hopefully not any time else.
PREDICTION: The goal here is to demoralize the Browns as soon as possible. Solid running that tires Cleveland up front will help that cause. Baltimore has to find the end zone, not kick field goals early. Cleveland could potentially go no-huddle with Quinn to quicken the pace and not allow the Ravens to catch their breath on defense. If Baltimore slows down Lewis and Cleveland sees a lot of third-and-long spots, the Ravens should grind out a victory that won’t be pretty, but effective to raise the record to 5-4. Ravens 24, Cleveland 10.
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