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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Every meeting with the Cleveland Browns draws the predictable kind words from the Ravens despite the fact that Baltimore hasn’t lost to the AFC North foe in their last 10 meetings.
The final outcomes haven’t always been convincing or overly impressive, but the Ravens have beaten Cleveland every time they’ve played since coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco arrived on the scene in 2008. The words of flattery aren’t exactly convincing when considering the opposite ends of the spectrum on which these teams have stood over the last five seasons.
“It’s a challenge. It always is in the division,” Harbaugh said. “We are very impressed with what we see on tape, and it’s a very important week for us.”
The Browns may not pose an overwhelming threat after a 23-10 home loss to the Miami Dolphins in Week 1, but the final part of Harbaugh’s statement rings true for the Ravens after a humbling 49-27 loss of their own in Denver. It was the first season-opening defeat of the Harbaugh era and a painful reminder that the euphoria of last year’s Super Bowl title is long gone.
Running back Ray Rice called it a reality check as the Ravens now shift their attention to the home opener and an opportunity to improve their record to 1-1. Much attention has been paid to the Baltimore defense allowing a franchise-record 49 points, but the Ravens offense has been under the microscope since the start of the offseason. The decision to send wide receiver Anquan Boldin to San Francisco in a move that provided $6 million of salary cap space created concern in the passing game that transformed into a full-blown crisis with the long-term hip injury suffered by tight end Dennis Pitta at the start of training camp.
There are still no clear answers to quell those concerns as the Ravens failed to significantly address the wide receiver position after Boldin’s departure, erroneously depending on a young group of holdover receivers that wasn’t up to the task.
Graybeards Brandon Stokley and Dallas Clark and rookie free agent Marlon Brown have emerged — out of attrition and because of the latter’s impressive skill set — as critical pieces in the passing game. And the Week 1 injury to speedy receiver Jacoby Jones puts a dent in the vertical passing game, the one area of the field in which the Ravens could really feel confident in throwing the football.
To make matters worse, the Ravens couldn’t run the football as they averaged just 2.8 yards per carry and were limited to just five carries in the second half after falling behind big in a disastrous third quarter. Many have pondered whether that running game will need to be leaned upon more heavily this season despite having a franchise quarterback to throw the football.
The pressure on the offense to show instant improvement falls on the shoulders of Flacco, who attempted a career-high 62 passes for 362 yards but was picked off twice against a Denver defense lacking Pro Bowl linebacker Von Miller and future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey. Without Boldin or Pitta on which to depend, life suddenly isn’t as easy for the franchise quarterback.
“That’s the name of the game when you’re a quarterback in this league,” said Flacco, who acknowledged that working with so much new personnel has caused the little things such as timing to take more time to perfect. “You want your organization to be able to [make changes], and you have to prove that you can adapt to whatever is necessary to win football games, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
The challenge this week will be a talented Cleveland front seven that will only get stronger with the return of first-round linebacker Barkevious Mingo from a bruised lung. He, former Raven Paul Kruger, and Jabaal Sheard form an imposing pass rush on paper, but the Ravens will the expected return of right tackle Michael Oher, who missed the entire second half against Denver with a right ankle injury.
Browns cornerback Joe Haden will draw the assignment of covering No.1 receiver Torrey Smith, who dealt with bracketed coverage against Denver after Jones’ exit with a knee injury. Jones’ absence means Stokley and Brown will need to keep the rest of the secondary honest enough to give the speedy Smith some opportunities in one-on-one matchups against Haden.
Flacco certainly needs more help from Clark, who dropped a sure touchdown pass right before halftime in Week 1 and struggled to gain separation, and fellow tight end Ed Dickson, who couldn’t rein in a number of catchable passes. The quarterback took the high road when asked to address the high number of drops on Wednesday, but the sense of urgency is there to limit unforced errors with the overall talent level of the wide receivers and tight ends coming into question.
“If that’s all we have to worry about is a couple of guys that have very sure hands not coming up with a couple really tough catches, then I think we’re going to be OK,” Flacco said. “Over the long run, we’re going to make a lot of those catches, and it’s going to lend itself to a lot of good things.”
The Ravens hope those good things begin coming to fruition quickly against the Browns, who aren’t nearly the opponent that Denver was but have played them closer than expected at M&T Bank Stadium in each of the last three seasons. Baltimore needs its $120.6 million man to be on his game to elevate the play of a pedestrian group of pass catchers as much as he can — he can’t catch it, too, of course.
Flacco’s 99.0 quarterback rating at home last season only continued his career-long trend of thriving against defenses on his home turf, and it’s the kind of precision the Ravens will need this year to make the offense click. The Ravens have made it a point this week to emphasize that the running game must improve — it’s the truth with two talented running backs at their disposal — but the offense will only go as far as Flacco can take them.
His 92.5 quarterback rating in 10 career games against the Browns and the first contest of the year in Baltimore are the perfect combination for a bounce-back performance. A win is never a guarantee, but the setting doesn’t get much better than this, especially with the backdrop of 71,000 fans stoked to see a Super Bowl championship banner unveiled.
The bad taste from the second-half debacle in Denver will have lingered for 10 days by the time kickoff arrives on Sunday afternoon.
“We’re not going to overreact, but we are going to react and respond where we need to,” Harbaugh said. “The first game is always a good barometer. The old saying is true: It’s never as good or it’s never as bad as what you initially feel.”
And the Ravens hope they’ll be feeling much better about themselves on both sides of the ball by 4:15 p.m. on Sunday.