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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday night

Posted on 09 December 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens don’t really need to beat Pittsburgh on Sunday night.

A one-game lead for the final wild-card spot, a strong tiebreaker profile, and three remaining games — two at home — against teams that are a combined 20 games below .500 make Baltimore’s chances to make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014 very strong already. But a victory would bring the elusive signature win that would make the doubters — and perhaps John Harbaugh’s team itself — start to believe the Ravens are capable of being a legitimate threat in January.

Meanwhile, the Steelers hope to extend their seven-game winning streak, but a defeat would still leave them within striking distance of New England, who will visit Heinz Field next week with the upper hand for the No. 1 seed in the AFC on the line. The immediate incentive for Pittsburgh to win Sunday would be to clinch the AFC North title, but its three-game advantage with four weeks to go leaves quite a margin for error in the division race.

In other words, the renewal of this intense rivalry lacks the same stakes as last year’s Christmas Day affair that essentially served as a division championship game.

Last week’s serious back injury suffered by Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier has been on the minds of both teams as the former Pro Bowl selection’s future on and off the field remains unclear. With many Pittsburgh players planning to wear cleats paying tribute to their injured teammate, how the Steelers respond emotionally playing at home could certainly be a factor for at least the beginning of Sunday night’s game.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC North rivals meet for the 44th time in the regular-season series with the Steelers holding a slight 23-20 advantage to go with a 3-1 edge in postseason encounters. Pittsburgh has won the last two meetings and is in search of its first regular-season sweep of the Ravens since 2008. Including the playoffs, 16 of the 22 showdowns with the Steelers in the John Harbaugh era have been decided by a single possession.

Below are five predictions for Sunday night:

1. Danny Woodhead will have his best game as a Raven with 60 receiving yards and a touchdown. The focus on Shazier’s injury has rightly been on his health and not on football, but the Steelers will miss his presence in pass coverage as he recorded an interception and four breakups against Baltimore’s underneath passing game in Week 4. With Cam Heyward and a strong Pittsburgh front dominating the line of scrimmage in that first meeting, Joe Flacco may have to rely on more short passing and less of Alex Collins and the running game. With outside linebacker Arthur Moats filling in on the inside, this is the game Woodhead and the Ravens need to exploit an advantageous matchup.

2. Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell will finish with 115 total yards of offense. It’s no secret the run defense has been superb since Brandon Williams’ return in late October, but Bell’s huge game in Week 4 was more about the inability to set the edge on outside runs and to handle the Steelers’ pulling interior linemen on counters than struggles inside as he averaged just 2.2 yards per carry between the tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. The Ravens will be hellbent to slow Bell as a runner, but linebackers C.J. Mosley and Patrick Onwuasor have been vulnerable in pass coverage and this is where Bell will find more of his success. He’ll extend a streak of 57 or more receiving yards to four straight games.

3. Mike Wallace and Martavis Bryant will catch long touchdowns for their respective teams. With Steelers cornerback Joe Haden still out and their safeties inclined to play a little closer to the line of scrimmage to help the inside linebackers in coverage, there should be some opportunities for the Ravens to take deep shots and Wallace has been playing his best football of the year since the bye. On the flip side, Baltimore will do whatever it can schematically to prevent Antonio Brown from killing a secondary without Jimmy Smith, but that will leave Marlon Humphrey or Brandon Carr occasionally on an island matched up with Bryant, who is still dangerous despite a disappointing season.

4. Joe Flacco will be efficient and play turnover-free football for the third straight week. The 10th-year quarterback is coming off his best game of the year and needs to play more like that down the stretch if the Ravens are to become a realistic threat in the AFC. Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler will do more to try to confuse Flacco and mix up coverages than Detroit did a week ago, but his fourth-ranked defense ranks a pedestrian 14th in the NFL in takeaways. Pass protection needs to hold up better than it did in the first meeting between these teams, but Flacco will effectively find Woodhead and Jeremy Maclin in the short-to-intermediate area of the field.

5. The Ravens will pull off the upset for their first signature win of the season in a 23-20 final. Perhaps I’m drinking too much purple Kool-Aid, but the Steelers are coming off a short and emotional week following a Monday night road game and have trailed in the second half of four of their last five games, illustrating how vulnerable they’ve looked at times despite a terrific 10-2 record. Baltimore has one last chance to earn a signature win and needs to build on its strong performance from a week ago to build confidence that the offense can be productive enough moving forward to have a real chance in the playoffs. The Steelers are the better team overall, but this week’s circumstances set up favorably for the Ravens to steal a road win in Pittsburgh and further improve their playoff positioning.

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Ravens-Browns: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 27 December 2014 by Luke Jones

(Editor’s note: The Browns announced that wide receiver Josh Gordon was suspended for a team violation after this post was published.)

Needing help in Week 17 is never a comfortable feeling, but it’s reality for the Ravens as they welcome the Cleveland Browns to town for the regular-season finale on Sunday.

Baltimore needs a win coupled with a Kansas City victory over San Diego to advance to the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years under head coach John Harbaugh. Should the Ravens win and not receive help from the Chiefs — who will be starting backup Chase Daniel in place of injured quarterback Alex Smith — it would be the first time in franchise history that they’d finish a year with double-digit wins and not make the postseason.

Of course, the Ravens wouldn’t trade their current predicament with the Browns, who are losers of four straight and are forced to start rookie free agent Connor Shaw due to Week 16 injuries suffered by Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel. While many in Baltimore are displeased by the possibility of the Ravens missing the playoffs for a second straight year, Cleveland needs a win just to complete its third non-losing season since 1999.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Browns meet for the 32nd time in regular-season history. Baltimore is 12-3 against Cleveland at M&T Bank Stadium and has won 12 of the last 13 over the Browns under Harbaugh. The Browns haven’t beaten the Ravens in Baltimore since 2007.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens hope to extend their season beyond Week 17 …

1. Torrey Smith will catch a touchdown in what could be his final game with the Ravens. The Browns own the league’s seventh-ranked pass defense, but top cornerback Joe Haden is questionable with a shoulder injury that limited him in practice all week. Meanwhile, Smith is facing the possibility of Sunday being his last game with Baltimore. It will be interesting to see what kind of market potentially develops for the 2011 second-round pick as he’s proven himself as a solid — and occasionally spectacular — No. 2 receiver, but the Ravens cannot and should not pay him as anything more than that. Regardless of what happens this offseason, Smith will catch his team-leading 11th touchdown of the 2014 campaign.

2. Browns wideout Josh Gordon will have his best game since his 2014 season debut in Week 12. Draw whatever conclusion you’d like, but Cleveland’s once-promising season crashed right around the time that the talented receiver returned from a lengthy suspension. There’s no doubting Gordon’s immense talent, but he hasn’t provided the shot in the arm the Browns needed as they’ve lost four of the five games in which he’s played. Gordon will have a chance to finish the season on a high note against the league’s 28th-ranked pass defense and even with Shaw under center, the 6-foot-3 receiver will eclipse 75 receiving yards and catch his first touchdown of the year, beating Rashaan Melvin in coverage.

3. Timmy Jernigan and Pernell McPhee will combine for three sacks against a vulnerable Browns interior line. All eyes will be on Elvis Dumervil and his quest to lead the league in sacks, but the Ravens should have few problems exploiting the interior portion of the Cleveland line as Nick McDonald is expected to start at center for the injured Ryan Seymour. The Browns have struggled inside since the loss of Pro Bowl center Alex Mack earlier in the year, and McPhee and Jernigan have had plenty of success as interior rushers in passing situations. While Cleveland will do whatever it can to contain Dumervil and Terrell Suggs off the edges, the Ravens will wreak havoc on the rookie Shaw with pressure right up the middle.

4. Justin Forsett will crack the century mark to complete one of the most surprising seasons in franchise history. The running game has suddenly become a concern over the last couple weeks, but the Browns are dead last in the NFL against the run, which will soften the blow of neither Eugene Monroe or Rick Wagner playing on Sunday. Even without his starting tackles to block for him, Forsett will take advantage of a front seven that will struggle to set the edge and will fail to protect cutback lanes, leading to a couple long runs. Forsett will join Jamal Lewis, Willis McGahee, and Ray Rice as the only running backs in franchise history to post a 1,200-yard season.

5. The Ravens will win 24-13 before learning they will miss the postseason after not receiving the necessary help from Kansas City. Sunday’s game will be one of those contests that’s closer than it should be, but the Browns’ inability to consistently move the ball will allow the Ravens to stay ahead until they put together a fourth-quarter drive to make it a two-score game. Unfortunately, the Chargers will continue their late-season mojo with a win over the Chiefs to clinch the No. 6 spot. Considering the adversity and injuries the Ravens experienced in 2014, a 10-win season looks good on paper, but the memory of late-season losses to San Diego and Houston will lead to the most offseason pressure Harbaugh has felt since coming to Baltimore.

 

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Trends converging as Ravens try to right ship in Cleveland

Posted on 31 October 2013 by Luke Jones

(This blog brought to you by Atlantic Remodeling. Visit www.atlanticremodeling.com to learn about their Red Cent Guarantee!)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The story has been the same whenever the Ravens encounter the Cleveland Browns in the John Harbaugh era.

Winners of 11 straight against the AFC North foe starting in the 2008 season — the year Harbaugh, quarterback Joe Flacco, and running back Ray Rice first stepped foot in Baltimore — the Ravens and their fans have been able to view a meeting with Cleveland in November or later as a catalyst propelling them to greater heights while throwing dirt on the division’s annual doormat. In truth, the Browns haven’t been a pushover in recent years as three of the last four encounters have been decided by eight points or less, but the script inevitably involves the Ravens making the necessary big play and the Browns folding when it matters late in the game.

So, why would Sunday’s meeting at FirstEnergy Stadium be any different?”

“Because as the years go by, the teams change,” Browns cornerback Joe Haden told the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Thursday. “The Ravens aren’t the Ravens of old. They’re still a really good team, a division opponent, but at the same time, our team is a whole different team. It’s a different squad. We still haven’t gotten over the hump, but there’s no reason why we can’t.”

Of course, it would be easy to fire back at the talented young defensive back that Cleveland has very much looked like the old Browns since a surprising 3-2 start, losing three straight despite a top 10 defense and an offense that includes talented young wide receiver Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron, who was labeled by Harbaugh earlier this week as a premier tight end in the NFL. After quarterback Brian Hoyer went down with a torn ACL on Oct. 3, head coach Rod Chudzinski has bounced between 2012 first-round pick Brandon Weeden and veteran Jason Campbell at the quarterback position, appearing to settle on the latter after a surprising performance in a losing effort to undefeated Kansas City last week.

But Haden’s right about the Ravens as their 3-4 record puts them only one loss better than the Browns and in unfamiliar territory below the .500 mark this late in a season for the first time under Harbaugh. Even with the Browns’ recent struggles, the Ravens’ long winning streak against Cleveland has never appeared to be in more danger than it is on Sunday.

Harbaugh and his players received all the evidence they needed in Week 2 when they were shut out in the first half before scoring two second-half touchdowns in a 14-6 victory over the Browns in Baltimore.

“Every time we play them, it’s a tough game, it’s a physical game,” Harbaugh said. “They’ve run the ball on us, they’ve played great defense against us over the years, [and] their pass rushers are legitimate pass rushers. It’s always a fight right down to the finish, so we know it will be that kind of game again — at least that’s what we are expecting and preparing for.”

The head coach went on to state his belief that the Ravens are going to catch fire over the season’s final nine games after various concerns in all three phases have left them two games behind the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North. Meanwhile, a loss to the Ravens would all but finish the Browns with a 3-6 record entering their Week 10 bye.

But the Ravens must find a way to start faster in games as they’ve been held without an offensive touchdown in the first half of five of their seven games and have trailed at halftime five times this season. Most of the blame will fall on the league’s worst running game in yards per carry (2.8), but Flacco has completed just 55.2 percent of his first-half passes before improving to 63.7 percent in the game’s final 30 minutes.

The weekly slow starts have put much pressure on a solid but unspectacular defense that has allowed 140 or more rushing yards in three of its last four games and has struggled to get off the field in the second half in two straight losses to Green Bay and Pittsburgh.

It’s been an uphill battle too often and a formula not conducive to success over the scope of an entire season, especially when playing on the road.

“There’s nothing you can really do in terms of practice and stuff like that to ensure anything,” Flacco said. “You practice to give yourself the best chance to play the best, and it’s a matter of going out there and playing. Once we go out there and play well early on, then people will forget about it and we’ll forget about it to a certain extent.”

The Ravens have said all the right things about feeling the necessary urgency and acknowledging that there’s little margin for error with six of their final nine games coming against teams with a .500 or better record.

But as Flacco said, talking about making the necessary corrections along the offensive line, in the run defense, and on special teams means little if the results don’t show up on Sundays.

General manager Ozzie Newsome and Harbaugh sent a clear message on Wednesday by cutting veteran defensive players Michael Huff and Marcus Spears and proving that they won’t hesitate to make changes to turn around their season and advance to the postseason for a franchise-record and NFL-best sixth straight season.

Their first post-bye opportunity comes against the league’s 24th-ranked offense and a running game that’s been nearly as ineffective as them, but the Browns possess a balanced defense posing a serious challenge to an offense that showed marginal improvement two weeks ago in Pittsburgh but hasn’t been able to get out of its way more often than not this year. Several players echoed the sentiment this week that the Ravens are built for the second half of the season, but much of that was based on past accomplishments that included a much stronger running game.

“It’s November football,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “At this point, [the games are] all big after the bye. They all count. Not to say the ones before didn’t, but these decide whether or not you get a chance at greatness.”

As much as Baltimore’s leadership was discussed this offseason following the departures of such veterans as Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Anquan Boldin, and Matt Birk, the true test was always going to come in the face of adversity, and a 3-4 record with an important divisional road game certainly qualifies. The locker room has remained united and focused on team-oriented goals, but a loss to the Browns and a 3-5 record would place more strain on the fabric of the Ravens than they’ve felt in a very long time.

Past trends don’t guarantee future results as the Ravens have seen other streaks under Harbaugh come to an end this season, including an undefeated mark in season openers and a perfect home record against NFC opponents. On Sunday, the Ravens will try to improve to 6-0 coming off their bye week under Harbaugh while extending their winning streak over Cleveland to 12 games.

The Browns will have something to say in determining the outcome — good or bad — but Haden was right in saying these aren’t the same old Ravens as only seven players remain from when Baltimore began its current streak of success against Cleveland on Sept. 21, 2008. And 18 players currently on the 53-man roster weren’t with the organization for Super Bowl XLVII nine months ago.

“It’s different, because every time I used to look at them, they used to be back there controlling everything,” said Browns running back Willis McGahee when asked about seeing his former team without leaders such as Lewis and Reed. “Now, it’s a bunch of new faces. I guess it was time for them to start over and bring in new people.”

Even with new faces and glaring flaws, the Ravens hope old habits die hard in Cleveland and that Sunday is the first step in righting their 2013 season.

While also putting the latest nail in the coffin of a Browns season.

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