The Baltimore Ravens will head into Cleveland this Sunday looking to build on their back-to-back wins over the Denver Broncos and the Pittsburgh Steelers, hoping to move to 4-1 on the season.
The Ravens will conclude their divisional road schedule this season when they take on an upstart Browns team that is 1-2-1 on the season with all of their games having been decided by four or fewer points.
Last week the Ravens defeated the Steelers 26-14 in what was the most lopsided Ravens victory in the rivalry since September of 2014. It was also the first Ravens victory in Pittsburgh over a Roethlisberger-led team since 2011. The Browns are on the heels of a 45-42 overtime road loss to the Oakland Raiders which kept the Browns winless on the road dating back to Oct. 11, 2015.
Sunday afternoon will mark the first home start for Browns’ rookie sensation and 2018 number one overall draft pick Baker Mayfield who has performed admirably in his first two appearances in the NFL. The Ravens look to continue their domination against rookie quarterbacks on Sunday against Mayfield.
Here’s what to watch for on Sunday.
1) Will Joe Flacco and the offense continue their hot start against the Browns defense?
It’s no secret that Joe Flacco and the Ravens’ offense have been extremely impressive so far this season. They have the numbers to back it up as well as the Ravens rank fifth in the NFL in points per game at 30.8 and eighth in passing yards per game at 307.8. Flacco is on pace to shatter his career high in passing yards (4,317) and to set a new career high in passing touchdowns eclipsing the 27 he threw in 2014.
The Browns defense comes into this game after having just given up 565 yards and 45 points to a Raiders offense that was averaging just 17.3 points per game over their first three contests. However in their first three contests of the year, the Browns were impressive against the high-powered Steelers and Saints before stifling the Jets. They gave up 19.5 points per game in those contests before stumbling in the Black Hole last week.
Against the Browns, Flacco is 17-2 lifetime with 27 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. including an 8-1 mark in Cleveland against the Browns. He also completes 62.3% of his passes against the division rivals and has a passer rating of 90.5.
The Browns’ defense is 24th against the run and 23rd against the pass this season and the Ravens offense should be able to continue their strong start this Sunday in Cleveland. The Browns also placed starter Terrance Mitchell on injured reserve this week, giving the Browns one less option in shutting down Michael Crabtree, John Brown, Willie Snead, and company.
This match up heavily favors the Ravens.
2) What impact do the returning players make and what is their role?
Jimmy Smith is unquestionably the best cornerback on the Ravens roster but his replacements performed admirably in his four-game absence due to suspension. Brandon Carr and Marlon Humphrey both put together strong cases to start opposite Smith when the veteran returns to the lineup this Sunday from his suspension to start the season.
Check out this textbook pass breakup from Carr:
Humphrey has responded well after a rough night against Cincinnati star wideout A.J. Green by putting together back-to-back quality weeks He helped hold Steelers receiver Antonio Brown to five catches for 62 yards and a touchdown on Sunday night.
This duo has been impressive to say the least for the Ravens but in walks the top corner in Smith, leaving many interested to see who slots in on the other side. Smith will be playing in his first game since week 12 of the 2017 season when he tore his left Achilles tendon. Smith was also suspended the final four games on last season due to a violation of the NFL’S personal conduct policy. Will he be ready to play Sunday?
Coach Harbaugh alluded to the potential return of another projected contributor in 2018 first-round tight end Hayden Hurst who has been out of action since fracturing his foot in training camp. Hurst also returns to a position group that has performed very well in his absence. Maxx Williams, Nick Boyle, and rookie Mark Andrews have caught 31 passes for 342 yards this season and Hurst projects to give Flacco yet another go to target on offense.
It will be interesting to see who slots in at the cornerback spot opposite Smith as well as how many and which tight ends the Ravens choose to activate on game day.
3) Can the defense continue it’s unprecedented dominance?
Listen, I know the Ravens defense has been nothing short of immaculate this season. I know that they have yet to give up a second half touchdown in their first four weeks of the season. I know that they only given up nine second half points all season. The accolades go on and on:
Maybe I am getting greedy here but with a rookie quarterback at the helm this Sunday, I have to think the Ravens will be looking to improve upon their sack numbers and turnover numbers to date this season. They are ranked in an eight-team tie for 12th place in the NFL with 10 sacks on the year. They rank tied for 14th with just five takeaways so far this year. Their turnover differential is even on the year as well.
As dominant as this defense has been, imagine what it could be doing to opposing offenses if their pass rush gets going and they are able to recapture some of their turnover magic from last season as well. The sky is the limit for this group as it is and they could soar to unprecedented heights if the sacks and turnovers start coming.
Put me down for three plus sacks and two plus turnovers this Sunday.
The Prediction: Ravens 31 Browns 13
The Ravens have too much on both sides of the ball for an improved Browns team. Eric Weddle has been using the moniker “this ain’t the same Ravens” the past few weeks and I think he and the Ravens deliver this Sunday when they handle the Browns instead of playing down to their albeit improved competition.