Game 3 Preview: Baltimore

Frankly, I have no idea how the Browns will do against the Ravens on Sunday. This is a major step forward from a week ago, when I would have bet on the Ravens.

It’s become increasingly clear that the Ravens are on the downhill slide. The last time the Ravens drafted a player who made the Pro Bowl was 2008 (RB Ray “Great Satan” Rice).  The last time the club had the type of draft people assume the Ravens have every year was 2007:

  • The #1 pick (G Ben Grubbs) went on to 2 Pro Bowls
  • The #3 pick (T Marshal Yanda) made 3 Pro Bowls
  • The #4 pick (FB Le’Ron McClain) made 3 Pro Bowls and an All-Pro team
  • The #5 pick (QB Troy Smith) had some interesting games (he went 4-4 as a starter

The Ravens had always operated on a very simple approach: “If you want to throw stupid money at out players, feel free to do so. We’ll draft someone else, pay them a lot less than you will and get the same results.”

It’s been a while since they’ve been able to make that work, and it’s hurt them.

Baltimore also drafted QB Joe Flacco in 2008, but I’ve never liked him as much as everyone else does. His career rating is 83.7— just over the acceptable line (80.0). His career TD-INT ratio (above average begins at 2-1) is 124-79.

In some respects, Flacco was a godsend during his 5-year rookie contract. He started all 16 games as a rookie, never missed a game and never had a bad season. But,. other than 2010, he never had a good one:

  • 2008: 80.3 rating, 14-12 TD-INT ratio (11-5; lost AFC Championship)
  • 2009: 88.9 rating, 21-12 TD-INT (9-7; lost divisional playoff)
  • 2010: 93.6 rating, 25-10 TD-INT (12-4; lost divisional playoff)
  • 2011: 80.9 rating, 20-12 TD-INT (12-4; lost AFC Championship)
  • 2012: 87.7 rating, 22-10 TD-INT (10-6; won Super Bowl)

But in the 2012 playoffs, Flacco got blisteringly hot: In four games, he went 73-126 for 1,140 yards (over 9.0 per pass), with 11 TDs and 0 interceptions. That’s a 117.2 rating.

Certainly better than Trent Dilfer’s 83.7 rating and 3-1 TD-INT ratio in the first Super Bowl season… but I still would have reacted the same way the Ravens did then. It’s always tempting to draw conclusiions based on inconclusive data– to assume that the most recent events are the most significant.

But Peter Queen & the Mean Girls decided those four games proved Flacco had ascended to greatness and that the Ravens would be insane unless they gave him all the money in the world. The Ravens handed Flacco $120.6 million for 6 seasons. He rewarded them with a 73.1 rating, 19 TDs and 22 interceptions and an 8-8 record.

During the 2013 season– and over the off-season– there were complaints that:

  • Rice (who’d carried the ball 1,216 times in five years) had let the team down
  • Dumping WR Anquan Boldin (to clear space for Flacco’s salary) had let opponents smother WR Torrey Smith.
  • Losing TE Dennis Pitta (61-94 for 669 yards and 7 TDs) to injury and TE Ed Dickson (21-33 for 225 yards and 0 TDS) in a salary dump had taken away his possession receivers.
  • The line losing C Matt Birk (36; he retired) disrupted the blocking calls, opening Flacco up to pressure.

Any and all of which might be true…. but the reality of 2013 was closer to the following:

  • Backs’ careers are measured in carries, not years. At the end of 2012, Rice had 1,214 carries– and that is a career for some people. John L Williams had 1,245 carries; Christian Okoye 1,246 and Kevin Mack 1,291. All bruising backs who ran to contact– and hit the wall.
  • Losing Boldin was a setback– but the bigger problem was Smith’s behavior. Instead of welcoming the challenge– realizing that tying 2-3 defenders up was opening up holes for others– he complained. He was upset that his stats went down and insisted that Baltimore add a veteran receiver to take some of the pressure off him (Baltimore chose 35-year-old Steve Smith).
  • Flacco wasn’t that good. I dunno about you, but I’m not giving $120 big ones to a guy who can be discombobulated by losing Dennis Pitta.

The 2012 Ravens had also benefited from an in-season event. With the team struggling in mid-year, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was taking enormous heat for his play-calling. After the Ravens lost 31-28 to Washington to drop to 9-4, HC John Harbaugh fired Cameron.

Cameron wasn’t a competent coach– he went 18-37 in 5 seasons at Indiana. He took over the 6-10 Miami Dolphins after Nick Saban ran off to Alabama– and ‘led’ them to a 1-15 record. His play-calling has been questioned everywhere he has coached– and he generally responds to the criticism, rather than just ignoring it..

Was Jim Caldwell better? No– he’s incompetent for different reasons. But he is a very nice guy whom many people believe is a good coach. By removing Cameron, Baltimore eliminated a lightning rod. So, even though they went 1-2 under Caldwell, scoring fewer points, everyone marveled at how good the play-calling had become and the team pulled together in the playoffs.

In 2013, people discovered Caldwell’s shortcomings, as the Ravens fell from 10th in points scored (24.9 a game) to 25th (20.0) and fell to 8-8. He has now been replaced by OC Gary Kubiak— former head coach in Houston and practitioner of the Mike Shanahan offensive system.

I need to write about Rice– and the NFL’s handling of him– but the impact on the Ravens has been positive. A player who was unlikely to have a good season has been removed and the Ravens can skip the next 12-24 months of realizing that h’s never going to regain his form.

The Ravens might already know this. They wanted to draft Terrance West (Towson is in their neck of the woods), but the Browns traded up and beat them to it.

As a result, the Ravens are trying to more ahead with RB Bernard Pierce (who also had a good 2012 and a horrible 2013) and 5’8 scatback Justin Forsett. To date, that has been marginally successful:

The big question for the Ravens (and the Browns) is whether is whether the effectiveness of the run against the Steelers (36-157) was due to Baltimore’s skill or Pittsburgh’s inept run defense (27th in yards per attempt):

  • Pierce went 22-98 and Forsett went 7-56 against Pittsburgh
  • In Cleveland’s loss, West went 16-100, Crowell 5-32-2 and Tate went 10-41

It would appear, based on their results, that the Browns have a much better rushing attack. Unfortunately, the Browns are 29th in run defense (again, using rushing average). If we use Pittsburgh’s LeVeon Bell as the point of comparison, it’s very close:

  • Bell ran 21 times for 109 yards and a score against Cleveland (5.2 per carry)
  • He ran 11 times for 59 yards and no scores against Baltimore (5.4 per carry)

Since the three other Steelers who ran the ball went a combined 7-40(nearly 6 yards), it looks like the Ravens have trouble against the run– and Pittsburgh simply got away from it when they fell behind.

So it looks like the Ravens should be able to run against Cleveland… unless the Browns fix the run defense. But the Browns ought to be able to run very effectively against Baltimore…. unless West and Crowell aren’t as good as they;ve looked.

In the first two games, Flacco has collected an 83.2 rating, (3-1 TD-INT ratio) throwing much shorter passes. Of his 56 completions:

  • 26 (13 each) have gone to Pitta and Steve Smith
  • 18 (9 each) have gone to Forsett (who played for Kubiak in 2013) and TE Owen Daniels (who went to 2 Pro Bowls with Houston but is 32 and was swept out in the change from Shanhaniana to Belichicikism.

Torrey Smith has been shifted to Left Out, but has been surprisingly quiet. Since this is the last year of his contract, there are people who feel the Ravens need to “get him involved”, others who feel they should resign themselves to his departure and try to find other receivers and others who say “Hey, just do whatever works.”

Since Mike Pettine used to work for the Ravens, both teams are in an interesting situation– they know each other’s schemes on both offense and defense.  Both offenses are in year one of learning the system. The Ravens have more people who know the system… but except for Smith, there isn’t a huge gap in talent:

  • The Browns unquestionably have a better line.
  • The Ravens are way ahead on receivers– even if Poke Cameron plays.*
  • Neither team has a set of proven backs. The Ravens have done more– but the Browns rookies have more upside.
  • While Flacco has played much, much more than Brian Hoyer, he has rarely played significantly better. And since he doesn’t know the offense anymore than Hoyer, much of his experience isn’t valuable

* – The Browns could play Poke, but it seems like a silly idea to me. He’s got a shoulder injury– which can last as long as a high-ankle sprain unless you let it heal. He’s at maybe 50%. You have the bye week next week– and if you don’t get him beat up, he can be close to 100%. Jim Dray and Gary Barnidge aren’t stars– but they’re not that far behind Pitta and Daniels. I might activate Poke, but I wouldn’t play him unless I needed him.

Defensively, the Ravens have been playing the scheme much longer, but 4 of the Baltimore starters and 7 of the backups are in their first three years in the league. The gap isn’t as wide as it once was.

Baltimore spent its top three picks (ILB C.J. Mosley, NT Timmy Jernigan and S Terrance Brooks) on defense because the defense is still pretty much NT Haloti Ngata and OLB Terrell Suggs They both made the Pro Bowl last year– but so did LT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack. And with LG Joel Bitonio replacing Shawn Lauvao– and FB Ray Agnew there to pick up blitzes– the Browns, for the first time in eons, look like they can handle Baltimore’s line. (Especially if Brian Hoyer can keep getting rid of the ball quickly.)

Steve Smith is still an awfully good player, but he’s 5’9″, so he doesn’t have the physical mismatch. The tight ends are good but not Jimmy Graham or even Heath Miiller,

Torrey Smith is 25-376-2 in 6 games– a lot of yards, but not many points. (He was 13-163-0 against Cleveland last year). The problem is WR Marlon Brown, who is 6’5″ and cooked the Browns pretty effectively last year (9-99-3).

What it’s really gonna come down to is the two QBs with the career ratings in the 80’s. Flacco in 11-1 in his career, with a 91.6 rating and a 15-6 ratio.

But that loss was last year. He was 87.7 and a 3-1 ratio in those games, but Baltimore scored only 32 points (14-6 win in Baltimore; 24-18 loss in Cleveland) In the game the Browns won, they sacked Flacco 5 times and Joe Haden picked off a pass.

The Browns beat the Ravens last year with Jason Campbell starting at QB; they lost with Brandon Weeden. The question is whether QB Brian Hoyer (possibly aided and abetted by Johnny Football) can manage to play as well as Campbell, and not as badly as Weeden. That certainly seems possible

Prediction: I’m less sold on this team than anyone in the city, simply because I like to be convinced by evidence, as opposed to jumping on a bandwagon.  Pittsburgh beat Cleveland 30-27… and then lost 26-6 to Baltimore.

That record against common opponents would indicate that the Ravens are comfortably ahead of the Browns. Also, there is no shame in losing to Cincinnati by less than a touchdown… whereas is it very likely that New Orleans might be heading toward the same sort of abrupt collapse that Atlanta suffered last year.

If you say “The Browns aren’t the same team that started the season against Pittsburgh,” I’d agree with you. The question is:

  • How much better is Cleveland?
  • Will the Browns keep getting better– and if so, how rapidly will they improve?
  • To what degree did the first two opponents underestimate them– and will Baltimore do it?

I’m gonna guess that the answers are “Not quite enough”, “Yes, but not as quickly” and “Probably a lot– and Baltimore probably won’t.”

So let’s say Ravens 27-16, but with one caveat.

It’s extremely difficult to project a growth rate. Some teams get better every week– some go forward and then take a step back. If the Browns can build on the New Orleans win– if they make as much progress from week 2 to 3 as they did from weeks 1 to 2– they win. If not, it’s a struggle.

If the Browns are going to make a step forward, the low-hanging fruit is the run defense. The Browns keep talking about how mush talent they have in the front 7, but they don’t execute. It’s always the same story– they get out of position, leave gaps open and ballcarriers blast through the hols.

If that changes, the Ravens won’t get many yards on the ground, and they’ll need to pass. At which point the Browns can send all sorts of rushes at what is only an adequate line.

Baltimore didn’t win last week, so much as Pittsburgh beat themselves. In the game. the Steelers turned the ball over 3 times and committed 9 penalties for 75 yards,

The Browns have no turnovers (they’ve forced three) and they’ve committed only 12 penalties for 85 yards. If they keep that up against Baltimore (2 turnovers, 120 yards in penalties), they’ll win.

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