The Ravens will attempt to go 2-1 against the AFC North to begin the 2014 season, but the Cleveland Browns stand in their way while feeling good about themselves following last week’s surprising win over the New Orleans Saints.
While Baltimore has benefited from extra rest after a Thursday night win over rival Pittsburgh in Week 2, Cleveland has used a strong running game led by Towson product Terrance West while committing no turnovers through the first two weeks of the season. The Browns’ summer quarterback controversy between veteran Brian Hoyer and rookie Johnny Manziel has also subsided with the former off to an efficient start in his return from a season-ending knee injury last season.
Sunday marks the 31st all-time meeting between these AFC North rivals with the Ravens enjoying a 22-8 advantage and a 10-5 edge at FirstEnergy Stadium. Baltimore is 11-1 against the Browns since 2008 with last year’s 24-18 loss in Cleveland the first defeat over that stretch.
Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to win their sixth game in seven tries in Cleveland in the John Harbaugh era …
1. Torrey Smith finally gets his 2014 season going, making six catches for 95 yards and a long touchdown reception. Aside from a long touchdown to Steve Smith on a broken play in the season opener, quarterback Joe Flacco hasn’t taken many deep shots, but that could change on Sunday with the Browns looking to clean up their run defense and fully aware of Gary Kubiak’s use of Steve Smith and the tight ends in the short-to-intermediate passing game. Torrey Smith has been held to just four catches for 60 yards in his first two games, but that will change on Sunday as he catches a 40-plus-yard touchdown to beat Cleveland cornerback Buster Skrine in the first half.
2. The Browns running game picks up 130 yards on the ground to win the time of possession battle. The Ravens defense was very physical against Pittsburgh, but it’s difficult to determine how much of that was about playing their biggest rival in a prime-time game and handling an inferior offensive line. Cleveland has averaged an impressive 5.1 yards per carry and won’t match that impressive clip, but West and fellow rookie Isaiah Crowell will grind out tough yards to keep the Baltimore defense on the field too long. A key matchup will be Pro Bowl center Alex Mack going up against second-year nose tackle Brandon Williams, and the Browns will have the edge there to find some running room inside.
3. Terrell Suggs collects his first sack of the year in a difficult battle against Browns tackle Joe Thomas. The six-time Pro Bowl linebacker has more career sacks (15) against Cleveland than any opponent, but only seven have come since 2007 when the Browns drafted the seven-time Pro Bowl selection Thomas. Even though the Ravens insist Suggs has played very well and Pro Football Focus has graded Suggs as the team’s best defensive player through two weeks, the 12-year pass rusher has collected only one sack in his last 10 games dating back to last season and hasn’t been making high-impact plays since the first half of 2013. Suggs and fellow rusher Elvis Dumervil need to put heat on Hoyer, and Suggs will break through for his first sack since Week 16 of last year.
4. Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins beats a rusty Lardarius Webb for a touchdown catch from the slot. With Webb listed as probable on the final injury report, it appears the Ravens will have their full secondary at their disposal for the first time since the beginning of training camp. However, it remains to be seen how much rust the sixth-year corner will need to shake off even after practicing fully for the last three weeks. Meanwhile, the Browns are without suspended wide receiver Josh Gordon, but the shifty Hawkins has been very effective out of the slot where he has lined up more than half of the time, leading the team with 14 catches for 157 yards. He’ll catch his first touchdown on a quick out route as Webb misses the tackle on the play.
5. A fourth-quarter touchdown run by West is the difference as the Ravens’ road struggles from last season carry over to Sunday in a 20-17 loss to Cleveland. It’s easy to be encouraged by what Baltimore did playing at home last Thursday night, but the Ravens have almost always played well at home even in some of their worst seasons. A 2-6 road record in 2013 is difficult to forget, particularly because it was the Ravens defense that struggled in allowing 26.4 points per game on the road compared to 17.6 points surrendered per home contest. A typical, ugly game between the Browns and Ravens will play out once again, but the Cleveland defense bounces back from its poor start to the season while the Baltimore defense is worn down by the running game in the final quarter.