Three things to watch for as the Ravens look to bounce back in the Music City

The Baltimore Ravens were flying high heading in to take on the lowly Cleveland Browns last week looking to build on their Sunday Night Football victory over the arch rival Steelers.

Unfortunately “the same old Ravens” showed up to First Energy Stadium and the Ravens left with a disappointing 12-9 overtime loss against the upstart Browns. Joe Flacco and the offense didn’t register a touchdown on the day and seemed to be out of sync throughout. The defense was good enough to win on Sunday surrendering just 12 points across five quarters of football but couldn’t get the last stop to preserve a tie (how awful does preserving a tie sound?).

But alas the Ravens sit at 3-2 in second place in the AFC North and are headed to Nashville to take a on a 3-2 Tennessee Titans team that has been up and down this season. They are in first place in the AFC South division and are fresh off of a 13-12 road loss to the Buffalo Bills this past Sunday in a game where they produced just 221 yards of total offense.

Here’s what to watch for ahead of this week’s game.

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Michael Crabtree will be looking to bounce back from his worst performance of the season. Image Credit: AP

1) Can the offense bounce back? 

Flacco and the offense need to be better than they were on Sunday for the Ravens to have any chance of turning this into a special season. While Michael Crabtree and his NFL-leading seven drops are getting the lion share of the attention, the rest of the offense was ineffective as well. Flacco was 29-56 for 298 yards and a costly redzone interception.

Crabtree, Willie Snead, and John Brown combined to haul in just 15 of the 33 targets they received. The running game started well but floundered in the second half. The Ravens haven’t scored a touchdown in 123:03 of game time after beginning the season 12-for-12 in the red zone.

This Sunday, the Ravens will take on their former defensive coordinator Dean Pees and his Titans defense that currently ranks seventh in yards-per-game allowed. The Titans do a great job stopping the pass attack of their opponents, boasting a ranking of third in the NFL surrendering just 210 yards per game.

Where the Titans struggle defensively is stopping the run. They rank 26th in the NFL giving up 123.2 yards-per game on the ground. Ironically, the Ravens have really struggled running the football this season and they will be presented with another favorable match-up in hopes to get the running game going.

The Ravens are seventh in the league in rushing attempts. Despite cries from fans for a better run-pass balance, John Harbaugh doesn’t seem concerned:

The Ravens have been ineffective in running the football this season as they are averaging just 3.4 yards-per-attempt which ranks 30th in the league. They have also had issues with ball security from their running backs as both Alex Collins and Buck Allen have fumbled this season. Collins has lost the football twice and Allen has once.

I am not sure how much trust Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg have in the running game at this point and if they can’t get it going against one of the NFL’S worst units, this could be a storyline that continues throughout the season.

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Jerry Rosburg and his special teams unit will be hoping for an incident free performance against the Titans. Image Credit: Baltimore Sun

2) Can the Ravens stop with the special teams issues?

It isn’t often that the Ravens’ special teams unit draws the ire of fans criticism but five games into the 2018 season, there are issues to be discussed here.

Week three against the Broncos saw the Ravens give up a blocked punt from their own 13/yard line which set up Denver at the Ravens six for a game-opening touchdown drive.

That same game saw a Justin Tucker 43-yard field goal attempt blocked with the Ravens clinging to a 17-14 lead late in the second quarter. The Broncos took it back for a touchdown to boot, but it was called back for an illegal block which wiped out the potential go-ahead touchdown.

And this past week against the Browns, this happened:

Browns rookie Denzel Ward blocked Tucker’s 48-yard field goal at the end of the first half that would have tied the game at six heading to the halftime break. In a game that ultimately needed an overtime session to determine a winner, this was once again another key mistake from this special teams unit.

The Ravens need to clean this up fast.

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Willie Henry and Terrell Suggs sparked the Ravens defense against the Browns. Will it continue? Image Credit: Getty Images

3) Can the front seven build off of what was a great week?

The Ravens recorded five sacks against the Browns this past Sunday, making good on half of my prediction for the defense this past week (they only recorded one turnover).

Willie Henry returned to the lineup in Cleveland and picked up his first sack of the season while Eric Weddle, Brandon Williams, and Terrell Suggs each picked up a whole sack. Za’Darius Smith and rookie Kenny Young each picked up a half a sack for the defense as well.

It was arguably the most disruptive that the Ravens’ front seven has been this season as they also recorded a season-high 11 tackles for a loss on the day. The Browns and their number two-ranked rushing attack mustered just 112 total rushing yards in roughly five quarters of football.

The Titans offense hasn’t been too impressive this season either. They rank 17th in rushing, 29th in passing and points-per-game, and 24th in third down conversions. The Ravens defense should have the advantage over a Titans unit that has not gone over 20 points in regulation this season.

Predictions:

Jake McDonnell– Ravens 20 Titans 17

Nolan McGraw– Ravens 23 Titans 17

Ian Schultz– Ravens 17 Titans 13

Jay Stavros – Ravens 24 Titans 10

This game could go either way for the Ravens. If the offense responds and has a huge game against Tennessee, I will be happy to eat crow. I think that the Ravens defense will have a big day against a Tennessee offense that hasn’t hit their stride yet this season. Flacco will connect with Crabtree for the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter.

The Details:

Image Credit: AP

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Three things to watch for as the Ravens take on the Browns

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.

The Details:

Three things to watch for as the Ravens head to Pittsburgh for Sunday Night Football

PITTSBURGH, PA — The Baltimore Ravens will depart for Pittsburgh this week to take on their AFC North Rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, on Sunday Night Football at Heinz Field.

If it feels like the Ravens have played a night game in Pittsburgh every year for the last ten years or so, it’s because they nearly have:

It would be nice to see some balancing of the schedule, but the Ravens can’t spend too much time sulking. The Steelers will be coming into the game at 1-1-1, coming off their 30-27 road win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday night. The Ravens will be looking for back-to-back wins after defeating the Denver Broncos last Sunday 27-14 in Baltimore.

Here are three things to watch for ahead of this pivotal AFC North matchup.

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James Hurst and Ronnie Stanley were sharp last week in containing Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. Image Credit: Baltimore Sun

1) Does the offensive line put back-to-back good performances together?

Heading into last week’s contest, the biggest concern for the Ravens was how they were going to deal with the pass rush of Broncos linebackers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb.

Joe Flacco was sacked just twice in the contest, with Chubb recording one of them and Miller being shut out entirely. It was a bounce-back week for an offensive line that really struggled with Bengals esteemed pass rushers Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins two weeks ago.

The Steelers are currently tied for second in the NFL with 11 sacks to-date. Their pass-rushing group is led by second-year linebacker T.J. Watt who has recorded three sacks on the season. Watt also recorded seven sacks in his rookie year including one against the Ravens in the Steelers 39-38 win in Pittsburgh last year.

Fourth-year linebacker Bud Dupree also has a pair of sacks on the season and two career sacks against the Ravens.

If the Ravens’ offensive line can protect Flacco it could be a long night for the much-maligned Steelers pass defense that has given up 10 passing touchdowns in three games.

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John Brown will be looking to continue his strong start to the 2018 season. Image Credit: USA Today

2) Can the Ravens take advantage of the Steelers’ pass defense?

Speaking of that pass defense, which ranks fifth worst in the NFL surrendering 288 yards per game, if the Ravens are able to keep Flacco upright he could be in for another huge day.

The Steelers are coming off a performance in which they surrendered 411 yards and three touchdowns to Buccaneers journeyman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. They are also two weeks removed from second-year sensation Patrick Mahomes lighting them up for 326 yards and six touchdowns.

Starting cornerback -the aptly named- Artie Burns was benched for a portion of the Bucs game and his replacement Coty Sensabaugh didn’t perform much better.

Joe Haden is on the other side of the defensive backfield for the Steelers and he has been dealing with a hamstring injury. Flacco and the Ravens have often went after Haden going back to his days in Cleveland but Haden has arguably gotten the better of that exchange with five career interceptions against the Ravens.

The Ravens would be better served to target whomever of their new three-headed monster in the receiving game is matched up with Burns or Sensabaugh. This will be one of the key match ups for the Ravens to exploit this week if they want to down their most hated rival.

The pass coverage struggles extend to the Steelers linebacking group that hasn’t been the same since the loss of Ryan Shazier. Opposing tight ends have caught 20 passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns as well.

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Terrell Suggs will be hoping to spend a lot of time in the backfield with Big Ben on Sunday. Image Credit: WNST

3) Does the Ravens’ pass rush disrupt the flow of the Steelers offense and will it matter?

If you are a regular reader of three things to watch for and I hope that you are, this point will seem like a broken record.

It is however more important this week than in the past few that the Ravens pass rushing group of Terrell Suggs, Matt Judon, Tim Williams, and Za’Darius Smith live in the backfield on Sunday night.

The Steelers have arguably the best wide receiver tandem in the NFL in Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Brown has gotten off to a slow start by his standards with 24 catches for 210 yards and two touchdowns so far this season. Smith-Schuster is off to a red hot start with 27 catches for 356 yards and a touchdown. With Jimmy Smith missing his fourth and final game due to suspension Sunday night, the Ravens can’t afford a repeat of Brown’s 11-catch, 213-yard week 14 performance from last season when the Ravens were without Smith.

Jesse James and Vance McDonald have given the Steelers’ pass-catching tight end threats as well, combining for 16 catches, 343 yards, and two touchdowns. Rookie Kenny Young, who performed well in pass coverage last week, will need to be sharp again.

In his last seven games against the Ravens in Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger is 6-1, averaging 295 yards per game, throwing for 15 touchdowns and five interceptions. He also boasts a completion percentage of 63% and a passer rating of 97.6. He has been sacked 17 times in those match-ups which begs the question if getting to Roethlisberger will be enough anyways.

The Ravens would be best served to hound Big Ben all game, even if it has proven to have varying success rates in the past few meetings.

This match-up may decide the outcome of Sunday night’s game.

Prediction: Steelers 33 Ravens 27

These two teams rarely play in a blowout game and I think that trend continues on Sunday night. The Ravens defense hasn’t proven to be able to stop elite level quarterbacks the past few years and until they do, it is hard for me to pick the Ravens when they are going up against one. Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense will be too much for the Ravens in this one.

The Details:

Image Credit: USA Today