OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With a 1-3 record to begin 2015, the Ravens can’t afford to take any opponent lightly.
Not even the Cleveland Browns.
That sentiment rings truer without veteran wideout Steve Smith, who is expected to miss Sunday’s game with microfractures in his lower back suffered in last week’s win in Pittsburgh. In two games over Cleveland a year ago, Smith caught 13 passes for 191 yards in two fourth-quarter comeback victories.
The Ravens instead will count on a quartet of receivers who have combined for 21 receptions and 264 yards so far this season, eight fewer catches and 109 fewer receiving yards than Smith in his four games.
“It’s definitely not ideal. It’s going to be a little bit challenging for us an offense, but it’s just the way it is,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “We wouldn’t want it any other way. These are the guys that are going to go out there and make plays for us, start making a name for themselves, and help us win, so I’m excited about it.”
It’s a given that Flacco will need to be sharper than he was a week ago when he turned the ball over twice in a 23-20 overtime win. With Smith, Breshad Perriman, Michael Campanaro, and tight end Crockett Gillmore all injured, the Ravens will ask their starting quarterback to elevate the level of play of his inexperienced teammates, at least enough to squeak out a win over Cleveland’s 22nd-ranked pass defense.
Baltimore wants its running game to build on what it did a week ago as the Ravens face the league’s 31st-ranked run defense on Sunday, but the passing attack will need to do enough to prevent the Browns from stacking the box.
The Ravens have said all of the right things, but how much can you reasonably expect from Flacco as he’s working with two former undrafted free agents — Kamar Aiken and Marlon Brown — as his starters, a rookie sixth-round pick (Darren Waller), and a veteran (Chris Givens) acquired just a week ago?
“Joe can only do so much. He has to do his job,” offensive coordinator Marc Trestman said. “It’s up to all of us to help all of us to get this done. It’s a team game, and it’s not one guy. Certainly, Joe expects to play at a high level and does every week. This week should be no different than any week.”
Aiken and Brown will be expected to gain separation against Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden and veteran Tramon Williams. Haden has struggled early this season while battling injuries, but the 32-year-old Williams has played at a high level in his first season with Cleveland.
It’s been a bizarre start to the season for Aiken as he has two performances of 77 or more receiving yards while combining for one catch and minus-1 yard in the other two contests. The 6-foot-5 Brown has struggled to catch the football so far in 2015, making just eight receptions for 75 yards while serving mostly as the No. 3 receiver.
The Ravens would stand to benefit from Brown channeling the success of his rookie year when he caught 49 passes for 524 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013. His role in the Baltimore offense has mostly diminished since then.
“I’ve completed a lot of passes to both of them — Kamar recently and Marlon in the past,” Flacco said. “We just have to get them rolling and have confidence that they’re going to go out there and do the job because they’re our guys right now. They have a lot of ability, and we can’t treat them any other way.”
With Smith’s injury in Pittsburgh, the comparisons have been made to the 2013 season when the Ravens were reeling from the offseason trade of Anquan Boldin and the serious hip injury to Dennis Pitta, but Flacco could at least throw to Torrey Smith then. On Sunday, the eighth-year signal-caller is projected to have just two targets at receiver or tight end — Aiken and Givens — who were even in the league when Flacco led Baltimore to a Super Bowl less than three years ago.
But that won’t deter him from showing confidence in an inexperienced group — at least on Sunday.
“I know you guys might not see him talk much or encourage much,” said Aiken about the even-keeled Flacco, “but he’s always trying to motivate us in the huddle and tell us, ‘Let’s go!’ and stuff like that. It’s great to have Joe as a quarterback, even with us going through all this. That’s why I feel so confident that we’ll be fine.”
Changes to nickel defense
An interesting personnel development from the Week 4 win at Pittsburgh was the emergence of the recently-acquired Will Davis as the No. 3 corner over veteran Kyle Arrington in the second half.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees has previously stated his preference to use starting cornerback Lardarius Webb inside in the nickel package, but Arrington has struggled when asked to play outside as the third cornerback. In 23 snaps in his first game with the Ravens, Davis finished with a tackle and a pass breakup while Arrington played only 20 defensive snaps, most of that coming in the first half.
“I really feel like [Webb] is a really good inside player and a good nickel for us,” Pees said. “And when we play sub [packages], we would like to keep him there as opposed to outside if we can, and I just feel like that’s a great matchup for us. It’s [not] because of anything down on Kyle; it’s a little bit more of a good fit for Webby and, really, a better fit for Will because he’s really an outside guy only.”
Trestman and Browns quarterback Josh McCown have expressed great admiration for each other this week after the pair worked together in Chicago in 2013.
In Trestman’s first season as head coach of the Bears, the journeyman McCown made five starts in place of an injured Jay Cutler and posted a 109.0 passer rating. That performance has led to McCown’s starting jobs with Tampa Bay and Cleveland and the pair have remained in touch, but there hasn’t been any text messaging this week, according to the Baltimore coordinator.
“We’re just doing our job this week, but I’m excited for his opportunity,” said Trestman, who added that McCown’s athleticism and mental capacity for the game are his underrated traits. “I was when he left Chicago. He had a great opportunity, and I was excited for him, excited for the career he has extended.”