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:

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Can the 2018 Ravens defense be trusted?

As the Ravens prepare to get their 2018 campaign underway, fans are wondering what the team will do this year. When you combine the pressure to rebound from missing the playoffs three years in a row with a tough schedule, you have a scenario with little room for error.

For many the defense is a sign of strength as the season approaches. After retaining almost everyone from last year’s squad and adding some intriguing draft picks, this feeling is justified but as much as I want to, I can’t subscribe to this mentality. The Ravens defense was far too inconsistent in 2017 and it’s going to take some convincing before I put my trust in them again this year.

In the 2017 offseason, the Ravens retooled their defense in free agency and the draft. By bringing in the likes of Brandon Carr and Tony Jefferson, the front office seemed determined to fix the depth issues that plagued the secondary in previous seasons. When the draft rolled around it became evident that they were going to neglect the offense, but it didn’t matter because the defense was about to return to the days of old when the likes of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed patrolled the field and struck fear into the hearts of every opposing team.

This excitement was only natural and honestly there was nothing wrong with it. On paper the defense had an exceptional amount of depth, especially on the defensive line and in the secondary. However, the second that excitement turned into expectations, we were only setting ourselves up for disappointment.

The brand new Ravens defense dominated in the 2017 preseason, which only raised those expectations to extreme heights. When I say dominate, I mean it. During that four-game preseason campaign, the Ravens defense held their opponents to just 7.5 points and 206 yards-per-game while also forcing six turnovers.

Even the local media started to get on the hype train. A countless amount of outlets couldn’t resist the urge to compare the 2017 defense’s potential to the historic defensive units in team history. At the time I thought it was stupid but when the regular season kicked off in Cincinnati, the defense looked nothing short of historic. They forced five turnovers, including four interceptions by Andy Dalton, a quarterback who often picked apart the Ravens in previous seasons. When the final seconds ticked off the clock, the Ravens had successfully held their division foe to zero points.

A debut like this only strengthened the argument that the 2017 defense was the real deal. Throughout the rest of the season, the Ravens defense came up with two more shutouts and led the league in turnovers. These are just two of the biggest accomplishments for last year’s defense but the Ravens still finished the season with a 9-7 record and missed out on the playoffs for the third straight year.

How could this be? How could a team with such a dominant defense finish 9-7? Ask the average Ravens fan and they will tell you the offense was to blame. Well, I’m here to tell you that the defense is just as responsible, if not more, for the way the 2017 season played out.

Lets start by acknowledging the offense’s flaws. I previously mentioned the lack of attention given to the offense during the 2017 offseason and early on that looked like a serious detriment to the team. Throw in Joe Flacco’s back injury and some unbelievably predictable play-calling by Marty Mornhinweg, and things weren’t looking too hot. However, if you erase all touchdowns scored by the defense and special teams, the Ravens offense still managed to put up at least 20 points in 12 of their 16 games. Those other four games all ended up being loses, with the offense averaging just 10.5 points in them.

It’s performances like these that make Flacco and company an easy target for blame. However, in those four loses the Ravens defense allowed 28.5 points per game, making only one (week six against Chicago) actually winnable in crunch time. A pair of special teams touchdowns helped the Ravens keep the game alive, but in overtime it was the defense that choked by allowing Mitch Trubisky and Jordan Howard to walk 71 yards down the field with ease for a game-winning field goal.

This leads me to one of my biggest gripes with the 2017 defense, and that is the level of competition they faced. After a mass wave of season-ending injuries plagued the NFL, the Ravens defense ended up facing five offenses led by a rookie or backup quarterback. Their 4-1 record in those games is not a surprise considering they avoided quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Derek Carr. I can’t tell you what the record would be if they faced healthier teams but I would be willing to bet that two of their three shutouts (Green Bay & Miami) wouldn’t have happened if that was the case.

Unfortunately that previously mentioned loss against Chicago was not an isolated incident. Even the best defenses in the league are prone to being exposed every once in a while but that was not the case for the Ravens last year.

After the bye week the offense started to turn the corner. Flacco had more chemistry with his receivers and Alex Collins emerged as a legitimate threat in the backfield. Outside of a Sunday night matchup with the Steelers, the Ravens second half schedule was softer than a pillow. A playoff berth was still very much in sight and as long as the defense maintained their high level of play down the stretch, the Ravens would surely be back in the mix come January.

As we know now, that didn’t happen. The Ravens went 5-2 in their last seven games after the bye week. That doesn’t sound bad as an isolated stat, but the fact that the two losses could be boiled down to one play makes things way worse. In Pittsburgh the defense only needed to make one stop at any point in the fourth quarter and the Ravens would have had the edge in the offensive shootout. Fast forward to week 17 and the defense failed, once again, to make the one stop necessary with the game on the line.

As we prepare to enter the 2018 season, I look at the defense and I see a depth chart that pretty much mirrors what we saw last year. So I ask you, can the 2018 Ravens defense be trusted? Don’t get me wrong, I want nothing but success for this team and if they stay healthy I think they have an opportunity to really grow as a unit.

Health is just one of many variables standing in their way. Even if the defense keeps its big play-makers on the field, the pressure to succeed is being placed on the shoulders of new defensive coordinator Don Martindale. I compiled a lot of issues in the paragraphs above, but how many of them could have been avoided without Dean Pees calling plays? A lot of people seem to think most of them, but that doesn’t change the fact that Martindale is still rather unproven as a defensive coordinator.

Need more variables? How about Jimmy Smith? The Ravens top tier cornerback will be absent for the first four weeks of the season as he serves a suspension. When it comes to Smith’s impact, the numbers pretty much speak for themselves. With Smith on the field the last two seasons, opposing quarterbacks averaged a passer raring of 76.1. When Smith was out, that average rating increased to 91.5. To make things worse, two of the Ravens’ first four games will be road tests against the Bengals and Steelers.

Guess who wasn’t on the field when the Ravens faced Pittsburgh and Cincinnati down the stretch last season? There is no way to dispute it. Smith’s presence could have easily been the difference between a win and loss in those two games.

As always the numbers make a more compelling argument. When Smith faced off against Cincinnati’s A.J Green and Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown in the first half of 2017, he allowed just two receptions and 27 yards. After being sidelined with a season-ending injury, Green and Brown brought in 13 receptions and racked up 230 yards while running wild against the rest of the Ravens secondary.

My final variable is the health and depth of the defense. At the end of the day health is a something that you don’t always have control over and that’s scary. We saw the difference in results when Smith went down, but what if another cornerstone of this defense, like Brandon Williams or Terrell Suggs, misses time? The absence of either of these players would handicap the pass rush and run defense significantly.

We don’t have to speculate because the Ravens defense has already taken a hit with a couple preseason injuries. DeShon Elliott and Stanley Jean-Baptiste were not primed to be starters but their season-ending injuries have an impact on the team’s depth which could become a bigger problem as the season progresses.

The worst defensive injury of the preseason wasn’t even a season-ending one. Rookie linebacker Kenny Young came on strong this preseason and challenged Patrick Onwuasor for the second starting middle linebacker position. Even if he didn’t get the starting role, he would have likely seen significant playing time but now there are questions surrounding his knee. The team’s depth at middle linebacker is pretty thin with or without Young, which has me concerned moving forward.

Just like last year, there is a ton of potential to be found when looking at the Ravens defense. Who knows, the offense is certainly looking more capable going into this season so the need for a lockdown defense may not be as necessary as last year. I just worry that between the variables listed above and a tough schedule, the defense will be put under extreme pressure this year.

Image credit: Patrick Semansky / AP

Three things to watch for as the Ravens head to Miami

The Baltimore Ravens will look to push their preseason record to 4-0 as they head to Miami Gardens, Florida to take on the Dolphins in preseason game number four at Hard Rock Stadium Saturday night.

The biggest stories heading into this game are surrounding cornerback Jimmy Smith and left tackle Ronnie Stanley.  Smith was suspended four games due to a violation of the NFL’s personal conduct policy dating back to an alleged domestic violence dispute with an ex-girlfriend. He is eligible to play in the remainder of the preseason and it appears that he will.

As far as Stanley is concerned, the Ravens left tackle is unlikely to appear in any of the final two preseason games as he is recovering from a right knee strain suffered in the 20-19 win over the Indianapolis Colts. Couple that with the continued absence of right guard Marshal Yanda and the absence of right tackle James Hurst from practices this week and it is possible that three of the five projected offensive line starters will not play Saturday night.

With all of that being said, here are three things to watch for in preseason game number four for the Ravens.

1) Who steps up on the offensive line?

With the absences on the offensive line, it will be intriguing to see if any of the Ravens younger offensive linemen can step up. Orlando Brown Jr. is an option to start at left tackle Saturday, but many believe he is better suited to play right tackle at the NFL level. It is also a lot for the Ravens to ask of Brown Jr. to move back to the left side after taking every rep at right tackle to this point in his NFL career.

The depth along the offensive line has been questioned all preseason and Saturday night will provide another test for players like Jermaine Eluemunor, Nico Siragusa, Greg Senat, Maurquice Shakir and Bradley Bozeman among others. Senat is likely the solution at left tackle for Saturday’s contest, but starting the sixth-round pick out of Wagner on the blind side will make the Ravens and their fans feel uneasy about the protection of their quarterbacks.

With the issues on the offensive line, I do not foresee the Ravens starting Joe Flacco in Saturday’s contest. Flacco has had a nice preseason to date and putting him out their without 60% of the starting offensive line is not a situation that the Ravens should explore.

2) Quarterback Competition

In what is becoming a weekly feature of this article, the backup quarterback competition should be on full display Saturday night in Miami. It is unknown to this point how the snaps will be distributed among Lamar Jackson and Robert Griffin III but it is known that the performances Saturday night will play a key role in deciding which of the two will be the backup.

Griffin III should be the leader in the clubhouse for that role. The Ravens have been incredibly torn on the issue to this point and it will be interesting to see if Griffin III can add some fuel to that fire with another strong performance on Saturday night.

Jackson has struggled so far this preseason. As ESPN’S Booger McFarland indicated on Monday night against the Colts: “We have this conversation about should Joe Flacco be worried. I don’t think he should be. Lamar Jackson, at best, in my opinion, is two years away from having an opportunity to see if he can play quarterback in this league.”

Jackson has been inaccurate thus far through three games. Jackson’s first instinct is to escape the pocket and put himself in positions to take big hits rather than move around in the pocket and scan downfield. Jackson has also struggled throwing a tight spiral to this point.

Jackson will have every opportunity the next two weeks to change the narrative and regain what many thought was a stranglehold on the backup role heading into the season.

3) Bubble players

Heading into the last two preseason games, there are several Ravens that will be looking to put an exclamation on their cases to make the 53-man roster.

  • Breshad Perriman caught a touchdown pass this preseason but also had a key drop in the Hall of Fame Game leading to an interception. He will be looking for a big night Saturday to solidify his roster standing.
  • Kamalei Correa flashed in the Hall of Fame game but has disappointed in each of the last two weeks. It is often a “what have you done for me lately” league and if Correa’s greatest accolade of the preseason turns out to be his performance in the Hall of Fame Game, he will be on the outside looking in.
  • Bronson Kaufusi has struggled to make an impact since the Ravens drafted him in the third round out of BYU in 2016. Kaufusi did have one pass batted down last week, but the 27-year old will need to make a much greater impact in the last two weeks to earn a roster spot.
  • Jaleel Scott was a 2018 fourth-round pick for the Ravens and has yet to make an impact this preseason. The 6’6 209-pound wideout out of New Mexico State took just three offensive snaps on Monday night against the Colts and appears to be destined for the practice squad at best.

Image Credit: AP