3TFO: Ravens @ Browns, Week 9
It’s been a series of ups and downs for the Browns in 2013. They started off 0-2, and then traded off Trent Richardson, prompting many to believe they were headed for the tank. After rattling off three straight wins, they’ve now lost three in a row. They received a spark from hometown quarterback Brian Hoyer, but now that he’s out for the season inconsistency reigns for the Browns at QB. Brandon Weeden was difficult to watch, so now it’s Jason Campbell’s turn. After a promising debut against a stiff test in Kansas City, he’ll get a chance against another stout defense at home.
For Baltimore, the bye had to come at the right time. They lost two in a row in similarly poor fashion to the Packers and Steelers, with the offensive struggles being a main theme throughout the season. With a week of rest for Ray Rice, and an extra week to game-plan for the Browns, you’d like to think Jim Caldwell and company could iron out the issues they’ve been having on that side of the ball.
Like other AFC North battles, expect a tight defensive contest. Which side will make those extra few plays to bring home the W? Let’s take a look a few of the matchups that may determine the outcome.
The Ravens’ Run Game
Baltimore needs to get their run game going, as their offense is very much predicated on having a competent rushing attack to set up Joe Flacco for the play action. With Rice and Bernard Pierce both averaging 2.8 yards per carry, the Ravens are setting themselves behind the 8-ball on the early downs. The running backs haven’t been very elusive, but it starts with the offensive line. Before being traded, Bryant McKinnie was embarrassing in run-blocking, picking up a -9.5 grade. Eugene Monroe has been a major improvement already, and the bye week will likely help him become more acclimated. However, the hits don’t stop there. Michael Oher (-8.4) and Gino Gradkowski (-3.1), in addition to tight end Ed Dickson (-8.0), have all underwhelmed in creating some lanes for Rice and Pierce. The only hope is that they’ve identified and sorted out some of those issues.
Unfortunately, this is probably not the week to get their rushing attack going. Cleveland has one of the stouter fronts in the league, featuring run stuffers like Phil Taylor (+4.6 in run defense), Ahtyba Rubin (+8.0) and John Hughes (+8.0) on the defensive line. Creating lanes will be difficult for the Ravens, but they do have hope. Out of the 36 ILBs who have seen at least 50% of their teams’ run snaps, Craig Robertson and D’Qwell Jackson rank 30th and 33rd respectively. If the Baltimore line can get some bodies on their counterparts, perhaps Rice and Pierce can make Jackson and Robertson miss, hitting on a few big runs.
Torrey Smith vs. Joe Haden
Joe Haden has probably had his two worst games of the season the past two weeks. He gave up a touchdown in each contest and allowed 9 of 12 targets to be caught for 82 yards. Entering that two game stretch, he had allowed just 21 of 44 targets his way to be caught, with 0 TDs allowed. It will likely go down as his worst stretch of the season. Smith and Haden have met on four previous occasions, with Haden coming away the winner on three of them. Haden shut Smith out twice when the pair squared off in the latter’s rookie year. In 2012, they met only once, but Smith beat Haden for a touchdown on four targets. Earlier this season, the third-year wideout came away with 46 yards against his foe, but it came on eight targets. He has evolved into more of a complete receiver this season, running more routes, so he’ll pickup some yardage against Haden, but the question will be if he can connect on a big play with Flacco. He’s seen a league-leading 22 targets 20+ yards down the field, but he’s reeled in just six of them. Hitting on one of those shots could prove to be the difference in the game.
Who Stops Josh Gordon?
The Browns have a big-play receiver of their own. Since returning from his suspension in Week 3, Gordon has been playing like a Top 10 wide receiver. He is eighth in the league in Yards Per Route Run at 2.27, ahead of guys like Dez Bryant, Brandon Marshall, Torrey Smith, DeSean Jackson and Vincent Jackson. Additionally, he’s getting downfield targets from whoever is throwing him passes. All eight of his career touchdowns have come from over 20+ yards, so if he’s hitting on a big play, it very well could go for six. Normally, you’d put Lardarius Webb on Gordon and call it a day. However, Webb has proven that it is still difficult to comeback from a torn ACL in less than a year. He just doesn’t look all the way back quite yet. His -4.9 grade in pass coverage is just part of the story. Webb has allowed 65% of the passes his way to be completed. And Jimmy Smith (-5.2) and Corey Graham (-2.9) haven’t exactly impressed either. The Browns will often move Gordon around the formation, even lining him in the slot occasionally, so he’ll likely see coverage from all three corners on Sunday. And the way he’s been playing, he should have no trouble beating the coverage. James Ihedigbo has been the best Ravens defensive back in coverage (+1.7), so perhaps they’ll roll safety help on Gordon. However, that will open up Jordan Cameron underneath. Just another chess match for the Ravens and Browns to play in a tight AFC North battle.