On Monday morning the Baltimore Ravens were licking their wounds after a beat down at the hands on the San Diego Chargers. They were an angry team that was facing up to the prospect of having to go on the road in the playoffs once again. Fast forward to later that night as they celebrated with the Pittsburgh Steelers failing to take advantage against San Francisco. The Ravens once again had their destiny in their own hands. In order to win the AFC North and get a first round bye it’s very simple – just win out.
After another disappointing season, the Browns will surely be relishing the chance to play spoiler as they get to take on the divisions two best teams to end the season. Improvements have been made in Cleveland, but before they can think about challenging the rest of the AFC North, they need a capable signal caller and some offensive playmakers.
The Ravens know that they are just two wins away from one of the best regular seasons in team history. However, the Browns will be desperate to prove a point on Sunday, so with that in mind let’s take a look at the three areas to focus on.
Baltimore’s Wide Receivers vs. Cleveland’s Cornerbacks
The news that the Ravens will be without Anquan Boldin (+3.3) for the last two weeks of the season with an MCL tear definitely hurts Baltimore. That said, I’m intrigued to see how rookie Torrey Smith (-0.5) steps up as the team’s top target at WR. He has averaged a sensational 17.9 yards per catch while hauling in seven touchdowns. His drops have been highlighted in previous columns but since his four-drop performance in Pittsburgh, he has dropped just the one pass so it’s hard to be too critical there. Opposite Smith, Lee Evans (-2.3) has failed to make an impact since returning from an ankle injury. Despite looking to have a nice rapport with Joe Flacco in the preseason, the Ravens QB can’t seem to find Evans now. He’s thrown 20 passes towards him and while Evans has dropped only one pass, he has recorded just four catches.
While Joe Haden (+5.4) hasn’t quite lived up to the lofty expectations we all had of him after his rookie year, he can look back to the first meeting between these two as one of his best this year. He didn’t allow a catch and also broke up two passes in the end zone. Both of those pass breakups came against Evans and Smith so you can be sure that Haden will be confident of handling them again this week. Opposite Haden, Sheldon Brown (-6.7) has allowed 14.1 yards per catch and two touchdowns while breaking up six passes and picking off another.
Baltimore’s Pass Rush vs. Cleveland’s Offensive Line
The Ravens pass rush needs to wake up this week after a horrid showing in San Diego on Sunday night. That means Terrell Suggs (+36.1) can’t have just one QB Hit to show from his pass rushing effort. He instead needs to show the form that has led him to 13 sacks, nine hits and 32 pressures this season. In obvious passing situations, the Ravens use Paul Kruger (+6.5) and the talented rookie Pernell McPhee (+17.0) who have combined for 12 sacks, nine hits and 31 pressures.
Not surprisingly, the Browns OL is once again lead by Joe Thomas (+11.0) who recovered from a four pressures allowed performance in Week 14 in Pittsburgh to shut out the Arizona pass rush last week. Despite a slow start to the year, he is still our highest graded offensive tackle in terms of pass blocking with Tennessee’s David Stewart (+13.8 as a pass blocker) the nearest player to him. At right tackle, Tony Pashos (+4.3) has improved the Cleveland OL since stepping in as the starter in Week 4, allowing just five sacks and 14 pressures. Compare that to the two players they used at RT prior to Pashos, Oniel Cousins (-9.4) and Artis Hicks (-6.1), who have allowed six hits and 17 pressures on a combined 139 snaps as pass blockers this year.
Time for the Tight Ends?
With Boldin’s injury you have to believe that tight ends Dennis Pitta (-4.1) and Ed Dickson (-5.8) will see more opportunities in the passing game. Neither are good run blockers but both have been able to replace what Todd Heap offered as a receiver for so many years in Baltimore. Dickson may average just 9.7 yards per catch but he has hauled in 51 passes and 4 touchdowns this season. Although they don’t use him as much, I actually believe Pitta to be a bigger asset to the Ravens passing game than Dickson. He has been a real safety outlet for Flacco catching 72.3% of the passes thrown to him with no drops and no interceptions on passes thrown to him.