The tenor of Sunday’s game in Cleveland has understandably changed for the Ravens with the passing of longtime defensive assistant Clarence Brooks after his yearlong battle with cancer.
As beloved as the 65-year-old was by the entire organization, it’s fair to wonder how head coach John Harbaugh’s team will respond playing a game a little over 24 hours following his death. The predictable cry will be to rally behind his memory, but these are human beings with feelings that stretch far beyond the football field. Not acknowledging that reality would be to trivialize Brooks’ life.
Still, the Ravens understand they have business to handle in their second game of the young season. The approach doesn’t change despite it being an emotional weekend.
Keep it simple against the Browns.
With an active roster currently including 17 rookies — nearly one of every three players — Cleveland is the consensus worst team in the NFL, especially on the heels of a blowout loss to rookie quarterback Carson Wentz and Philadelphia last week. But let’s not ignore the fact that the Ravens are coming off a 5-11 season themselves and haven’t had a winning road record in a season since 2010.
As a reminder to any fans and media predicting a laugher, some of Harbaugh’s best teams haven’t exactly blown out Cleveland on the road.
Think what you want about the lowly Browns, but this is their home opener and a statue of the legendary Jim Brown is being unveiled before the game as part of an alumni weekend for former players. You’ll find little optimism along the Cuyahoga River for 2016, but Cleveland has to be viewing a home contest against the Ravens as one of the few games on the schedule that could be winnable.
It’s the first home game for new Browns head coach Hue Jackson, a one-time Baltimore assistant who is very familiar with the AFC North after serving as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator the last two years. The Ravens need to be prepared for anything on Sunday and should certainly remember that Browns quarterback Josh McCown lit them up like a pinball machine in Baltimore last season.
“We are expecting Hue to throw the kitchen sink at us,” said linebacker Terrell Suggs of Jackson’s offensive innovation. “We are preparing for everything. They have a receiver over there who was once a quarterback, so we are expecting everything. Some Wildcat, Polecat offense — we are expecting everything. Don’t be surprised if they come out there with that ‘Little Giants’ formation [or] the Flying V.
“They have something up their sleeve for us. We just have to be able to prepare for it and react for it.”
Gadgetry still shouldn’t matter because the Ravens have the better and more experienced roster.
Protect the football, don’t commit foolish penalties, and take advantage of mistakes that an inexperienced team is bound to make on both sides of the ball over the course of 60 minutes.
On offense, be aggressive, but don’t try to be too cute to build an early lead before controlling the tempo with a ground game that needs to improve from Week 1. Defensively, the pass rush will be a concern without Elvis Dumervil, but the secondary cannot allow speedy receivers Corey Coleman and Terrelle Pryor to shake loose for big plays.
The plan doesn’t sound all that complicated, because it’s not against a team short on talent and building for the future.
“You have to pay attention,” wide receiver Steve Smith said. “You can’t go in there and say, ‘Well, with their record [last year] and their circumstances, this is going to be an easy day.’ You can’t go in there and think that or presume that because you will embarrass yourself if you do that.”
The last three games between these AFC North teams in Cleveland have each been decided by a single possession. Performances at FirstEnergy Stadium over the years have rarely been pretty, but the Ravens just need to come away with a win.
We still wonder how good Baltimore can really be in 2016, but much optimism goes out the window if you lay an egg and lose to a team that some have even discussed possibly going 0-16. If you can’t win this road game, which ones are you feeling good about the rest of the way?
On Sunday, the Ravens’ biggest opponent is themselves. They don’t need to play their best football to win, but they must be good enough.
And especially with heavy hearts on top of the normal challenges of playing on the road, the Ravens need to keep it simple and smart.