The Baltimore Ravens are perched atop the AFC North standings, but their weaknesses are much more obvious now than they were in Week 4, when the Browns made the purple-clad fans at M&T Bank Stadium sweat during a Thursday night game.
Since the Ravens’ 23-16 win over the Browns, they’ve lost middle linebacker Ray Lewis and cornerback Lardarius Webb to injuries, though they’ve also welcomed outside linebacker Terrell Suggs back from one of his own. A defense that is usually among the best in the NFL is now ranked 28th, allowing 400 yards per game. Its pass rush (tied for 24th with 12 sacks) and ability to stop the run (ranked 30th with 142.9 yards allowed per game) have virtually disappeared.
Meanwhile, the Ravens’ offense has been dreadful on the road, where the team is averaging 15 points per game and is 1-2. At home, it’s averaging 32.3 points per game and is 4-0.
The Browns (2-6) believe they’re better now than they were when they faced the Ravens (5-2) earlier this season. Still, upsetting coach John Harbaugh’s men won’t be easy. The Ravens suffered an ugly loss two weeks ago, had a bye last week and are determined to fix their road woes when they face the Browns at 1 p.m. Sunday in Cleveland.
Aaron Wilson covers the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun. He discussed the team in the following question-and-answer session:
Q: The Ravens’ defense is ranked 28th in the NFL. What factors have contributed to its demise?
A: “The Ravens have been severely impacted by injuries, obviously, but that’s not the only problem. Starting with the injuries, losing middle linebacker Ray Lewis (torn right triceps), shutdown cornerback Lardarius Webb (torn anterior cruciate ligament, meniscus) for the season and not having Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (partially torn right Achilles tendon) for the first six games has been extremely difficult to overcome. The Ravens’ arm tackling, lack of pass rush, not setting the edge physically enough and susceptibility to double-move pass patterns, especially cornerback Jimmy Smith, has combined for a vulnerable situation. First-year defensive coordinator [and former Kent State coach] Dean Pees has been aggressive at crowding the line of scrimmage and dialing up blitzes. However, the defensive line except for Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who’s dealing with a sprained right medial collateral ligament, rarely creates pressure and often gets knocked back into the linebackers and fails to clog up the middle or occupy blockers. It’s a combination of reasons why a traditionally stingy defense has regressed. There are very few simple answers.”
Q: Since the Ravens’ win over the Browns in Week 4, they’ve lost Lewis and Webb to those aforementioned injuries. Who has filled in and how significant have the drop-offs been at those positions?
A: “The Ravens plugged in Will or weakside inside linebacker Jameel McClain at Ray Lewis’ vacated Mike or middle linebacker spot, and he only produced four tackles in his first start against the Houston Texans, a 43-13 embarrassment of a loss. They promoted Dannell Ellerbe to start at Will and he had a dozen tackles, one of the few bright spots of the last game. Jimmy Smith has had trouble covering so far, but it’s early in the development of the former first-round draft pick. In the case of McClain, he’s not as adept in pass coverage as Ellerbe, but is fairly stout against the run. Ellerbe’s presence could be an upgrade to the defense. Without Webb, a $50 million player who was having a Pro Bowl caliber season, the defense is missing a key element.”
Q: The presence of Suggs will be another major difference this time around. How has Suggs looked since returning from his injury and how is the defense different when he’s in the lineup?
A: “Terrell Suggs provided a spark for the defense in his return, but it wasn’t enough for the Ravens to contain Texans offensive players Matt Schaub, Arian Foster, Andre Johnson, Kevin Walter and Owen Daniels. Despite being roughly 15 to 20 pounds over his listed playing weight of 260 pounds, Suggs performed well. He displayed quickness on an inside rip move for a sack and pushed around Duane Brown to set the edge and make tackles. With Suggs back, there’s a sense that the defense has a chance to play its base defense and still create a pass rush.”
Q: The Ravens’ offense has struggled on the road this season. What are the main reasons?
A: “1. They abandon the running game as soon as they fall behind. 2. They scrap the no-huddle offense in noisy road venues. 3. The offensive line has had trouble with three strong front sevens in three road games, including matchups with the Philadelphia Eagles’ Trent Cole and Jason Babin, the Kansas City Chiefs’ Tamba Hali and Justin Houston and the Houston Texans’ J.J. Watt, Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed. 4. The receivers haven’t defeated press coverage techniques against the likes of Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Brandon Flowers. 5. Joe Flacco has been gun-shy in the pocket, hit often and much less accurate and tends to throw one bad interception per road contest.”
Q: Running back Ray Rice had only nine carries against the Texans. Do you expect him to become more involved or could the Browns somehow catch a huge break?
A: “I expect Ray Rice’s involvement to increase markedly against the Browns. The Ravens will crank up the running game in all likelihood as a way to create a time of possession of advantage and make plays in space against the Browns’ linebackers.”
Read Aaron Wilson’s coverage of the Ravens at www.baltimoresun.com/sports. Follow him on Twitter: @RavensInsider. Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com.browns.abj.