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The Ravens haven’t lost to the Cleveland Browns since the George W. Bush administration and will try to continue that trend at FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday in the 30th all-time meeting between these teams.
In dumping veterans Bryant McKinnie, Marcus Spears, and Michael Huff, coach John Harbaugh hopes his team will respond positively after an underwhelming 3-4 start that’s put the Ravens below the .500 mark this late in a season for the first time since 2007. Baltimore is 5-0 coming off its bye week in the Harbaugh era and plays Cleveland following an off-week for the second straight season.
Losers of three straight, the Browns look much different offensively as veteran Jason Campbell is now the starting quarterback and former Raven Willis McGahee has replaced 2012 first-round pick Trent Richardson, who was traded to Indianapolis after Cleveland’s Week 2 loss to the Ravens. Unlike that game in Baltimore, explosive wide receiver Josh Gordon will be available to challenge the Ravens secondary and has caught 32 passes for 582 yards and three touchdowns in six games this season.
It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens lead the all-time series by an overwhelming 22-7 margin and are 10-4 in Cleveland. Despite Baltimore’s current 11-game winning streak over the Browns, three of the last four contests have been decided by eight points or less.
Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to climb back to the .500 mark and improve their all-time record coming off a bye week to 13-5 …
1. A new and undersized left guard isn’t going to help jump-start the Ravens running game after the bye. It’s true that Kelechi Osemele wasn’t playing at a high level, but news of him likely undergoing season-ending back surgery is bad for the rest of the season. A.Q. Shipley is giving up four inches and over 20 pounds compared to Osemele, leaving the Ravens undersized at both center and left guard. There have been whispers of Juan Castillo’s influence waning and Andy Moeller being given a bigger voice in coaching the offensive line, so it will be interesting to see how the unit looks against one of the league’s better defenses. Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce appear to be healthy, but Browns nose tackle Phil Taylor will be a handful for the interior line and the front seven will keep the Ravens under 85 rushing yards for the sixth time in eight games this year.
2. With more responsibility on Joe Flacco’s shoulders, the quarterback will throw for two touchdowns and go over 275 yards. The increased use of the no-huddle offense and three wide receivers in Pittsburgh was likely a preview of what we’ll see more frequently in the second half of the year as the Ravens can’t count on the running game to suddenly make drastic improvements after averaging a league-worst 2.8 yards per carry. The bye week allowed offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell to devise creative ways to get the ball to Torrey Smith while also utilizing the skills of Jacoby Jones, Tandon Doss, and Marlon Brown. Cleveland has struggled lately against the pass and the Ravens need Flacco to step up his performance in the second half despite several factors working against him. He’ll come through with solid but unspectacular pass protection in front of him.
3. Browns tight end Jordan Cameron will catch a touchdown pass to follow up a strong performance against the Ravens in Week 2. Baltimore didn’t have to face Gordon in Week 2 and will need to watch him closely as a deep threat, but Cameron is the more dangerous target in the red zone and had 95 receiving yards against the Ravens earlier this season. The 6-foot-5 receiver will be a difficult matchup regardless of whether a linebacker or a safety attempts to cover him, and I expect defensive coordinator Dean Pees to throw as many different coverage looks as he can at Campbell. The Browns haven’t been able to run the football all season and that won’t change on Sunday, putting the ball in Campbell’s hands and the veteran will lean on his stud tight end for much of the afternoon.
4. With Terrell Suggs locked up with Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas all day, Elvis Dumervil will star for the Ravens’ pass rush with two sacks. In Week 2, Suggs had a strong performance against Thomas, but he won’t have as much success this time around. However, Dumervil will draw frequent matchups against right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, who isn’t nearly as accomplished and struggled throughout the Week 2 game. The Browns have given up 28 sacks this season while the Ravens have collected 25 in seven games. The Baltimore defense hasn’t been very dynamic in terms of creating turnovers and setting the offense up on a short field, but it has pressured quarterbacks throughout the season. Campbell was impressive in throwing for 293 yards and two touchdowns against a very tough Kansas City defense in a losing effort last week, but lighting won’t strike twice.
5. Superior efficiency in the red zone will be the difference as the Ravens find a way to win their 12th straight over Cleveland in a 20-16 final. Much like the last handful of games between these teams, scoring opportunities will be at a premium as both offenses have faced their challenges all season. The defenses are the main strengths of each team, but the Ravens rank first in red-zone defense (allowing touchdowns on 26.3 percent of red-zone trips) while the Browns rank only 30th (65.2 percent). In a close, low-scoring game that could come down to the final possession or two, the Ravens will make the big play they need while Cleveland will come up short as they have so many times in the Harbaugh era despite Baltimore appearing as vulnerable as ever for a loss to the AFC North foe on Sunday.