Browns Preview: Game #5 (@ Baltimore)

Opponent Preview

For me, the best thing about Art Modell’s departure from the Ravens (after 2003), his death (in 2012) and the removal (after 2007) of Brian Billick is that it lets me enjoy GM Ozzie Newsome’s success without qualms.

Since he ascended to “VP of Player Personnel” in 1996 (a sop to let Modell pretend that he was still making all the player decisions) and then became GM in 2002 (a demand made by owner-in-waiting Steve Bisciotti, to ensure he couldn’t leave), Ozzie hasn’t been the best GM in the NFL. He’s won 2 Super Bowls in 19 years, but so have Pittsburgh, Denver, Green Bay and the Giants… well behind the Great Satan in New England (4). (Most of those teams also made losing appearances.)

Baltimore has lost the AFC Championship twice and made the playoffs six other times. They’ve had winning records 11 times, and been at .500 two other times. All but two of the losing years came when Art was still in charge; since Brian Bilious (and his annual quarterback controversy) departed, the Ravens have hit .500 once, but never been below it.

The Steelers, by comparison, have been an 8-8 team in two of the last three years. And it might be three out of four– if they’re lucky.

The reason Ozzie has succeeded is that he understands, better than almost anyone, the need to continually refit the team– to fight the scourges of increasing injury and declining ability that come with age. Some franchises, in a vain effort to win a championship, will hang onto players until they absolutely cannot perform any longer. Often they’ll add more and more veterans, hoping to find one that gives them the extra bump.

The Ravens, better than any franchise except the Patriots, understand the need to move players who have grown too old– or too expensive– out. Ozzie’s absolute confidence in his team’s ability to find good young players means that the age of the roster (using the Pro Football Reference algorithm), over the last ten years, has been between 25.8 (in 2014) and 27.4 (in 2010). It’s been between 26.4 and 26.7 seven times.

The Browns, in that time, have ranged from 25.1 to 27.5, depending on the tastes of the coach or GM. They announce they’ll get young and build through the draft, the rookies make stupid mistakes, they decide they need veteran influence and get old. In the last 10 years (counting 2015), the Browns (who have been rebuilding every season except one) have had an older roster than Baltimore four times.

Age comparison

The more detail you go into, the more depressing it gets. The Ravens, who hope to contend for the Super Bowl, have 13 players who are 30 or older as of 12/31. The oldest is WR Steve Smith (36) appears to be ageless. The other 12 players include backup QB Matt Schaub, LB Jason Babin (an emergency replacement signed a few weeks back), P Sam Koch (not subject to normal aging) and a string of veterans who’ve helped Baltimore win for years.

The Browns, who hope to maybe get over .500, have 12 players 30 or older. Seven are players signed in the last two years: QB Josh McCown (36), LB Karlos Dansby (34) P Andy Lee (33), DE Randy Starks (32), CB Tramon Williams (32) and WR Dwayne Bowe (31). They’re mercenaries, who are in Cleveland because that’s where the money was. If the team goes south, they’ll be instant distractions.

The five Browns who have been here a while are all pretty good: LT Joe Thomas (31) and four 30-year-olds (TE Gary Barnidge, DE Desmond Bryant, RG John Greco and C Alex Mack.

If you shuddered when you realized how old the line was, join the crowd.

The Ravens manage aging with a process. During the year, head coach John Harbaugh gives his young players more playing time as they earn it. At the end of the year, the coaching staff and front office huddles to grade everyone’s current performance, and project the level they expect the player to reach next year. Once a young player’s “next year” projection is higher than the veteran’s, the veteran goes.

Last off-season, the process subtracted Haloti Ngata. In the 2013 draft, the Ravens picked NT Brandin Williams in round 3. He played 7 games as a sub in 2013, then took over the nose in 2014.

Because Ngata was still playing at a pretty high level, Baltimroe shifted him to end in 2014– but they picked lineman Timmy Jernigan in round two of the 2014 draft to be ready.

Last season, Jernigan played 12 games, started 3 and impressed people enough to convince the Ravens to look for offers for Ngata. So when Ndumakong Shoe inflicted himself on Miami– and Detroit wanted a veteran replacement, Baltimore sent Ngata and a #7 pick for Detroit’s #4 and #5 in 2015.

Baltimore spent the #4 on DE-LB Za’Darius Smith (putting him in the pipeline to replace either 33-year-old Terrell Suggs or 31-year-old Elvis Dumerville). They spent the #5 to move up in round 2 and get TE Maxx Williams, to help move out 32-year-old Owen Daniels and injury-prone Dennis Pitta.

The Ravens try to work things so that they don’t remove all the veterans from a unit at once. They want young players mentored by players know how to do the job and can pass on “their way.”

It’s like watching a well-oiled machine traversing a high wire. Baltimore never lets the roster get covered in barnacles– every season, they strip some unit down to bare wood and refinish.

The hitch in the process is injuries. If the Ravens keep a player, they expect him to stay healthy and play well. It’s usually a reasonable bet, because Baltimore tries never to keep players past their “sell-by” date. You don’t see soap operas like the Scott Fujita contract, where the Browns:

  • Signed a guy who’d missed 8 games in the last 3 years in New Orleans.
  • Watched him miss 7 games in his first year and 6 in his second.
  • Still expected him to start in year three– and seemed gobsmacked when he missed 12 games.
  • Ended up with Kaiuka Maiava and James-Michael Johnson stumbling around.

But every so often, the football gods throw the Ravens a curve. In 2015, the plan was to transition the defense by having:

  • Williams and Jernigan on the line, with veteran Chris Canty holding the fort until #2 pick Carl Davis blossomed.
  • Pro Bowler C.J. Mosley taking over leadership of the linebackers, as Suggs and Dumerville wound down and Courtney Upshaw (the #2 pick in 2012) came into his own.
  • FS Matt Elam (the #1 pick from 2013) and SS Will Hill (an undrafted free agent who surprised) leading the secondary (the corners are old and not very good).

And then Elam tore his bicep (he’s out for the year) and Suggs went on IR in the first game. So the Ravens are short on both players and veteran leadership.

But thankfully, Baltimore’s veteran Pro Bowl quarterback was able to place the team on his back and carry it, ensuring that the offense scored often enough to take any pressure off the defense, while it regrouped.

Oh, wait– that’s in an alternate universe. In this one, the Ravens have Joe Lack-O, the overpaid, underachieving tease who always looks like he’s ready to move to the next level, but never actually gets there. At the precise moment the team needed him. Lack-O began to do what he pretty much always does– play just well enough to lose.

  • In the opener, the Ravens held Denver to 19 points. Flacco naturally dropped a steaming mound of dung. he went 18-32 for 117 yards (3.7 per pass) with two interceptions– one a pick-six, the other with 36 seconds left at the Denver 16, helping the Broncos win 19-13.
  • Baltimore’s defense let Oakland score 37 points? He went 32-45 for 384 yards and 2 TDs, to lose 37-33.
  • The defense allowed 28 points to Cincinnati, but did return a fumble for a score. The offense scored only 17 points (though Flacco put up good fantasy stats).

Last week’s game really was vintage Lack-O. The 0-3 Ravens need to win; Ben Roethlisberger tries to help them, by getting injured again and putting 35-year-old Mike Vick at the controls.

Baltimore’s defense sacks Vick 4 times and holds him to 124 yards passing and 4.7 yards per pass. They also force 2 fumbles (though Pittsburgh recovers both). Pittsburgh scores 20 points.

So do the Ravens. Baltimore’s QB throws for 5.7 yards a pass, tosses a pick, takes 4 sacks and fumbles 3 times (losing it once).

Down 20-17 with 1:01 left, he does go 2-2 for 37 yards, getting the Ravens into field goal range to send the game into overtime. But he goes 1-3 for 11 yards in overtime, and it takes the Steelers going 0-2 on fourth down conversions (the second one on the Ravens’ 33) and RB Justin Forsett and Javorius Allen gaining 24 yards to set up a 52-yard field goal.

I’ve been told I don’t understand Flacco’s value to the Ravens. I think I understand perfectly. In 15 playoff games, he’s had 7 good games, 5 of which were just lights-out fantastic (one of those being the Super Bowl). But he’s has 3 marginal games and 5 absolutely terrible ones in the playoffs.

And there are always games where the result doesn’t match the expectations you make of a great QB. In the last month of the 2014 season, the Ravens nearly blew the playoffs:

  • November 30: 34-33 loss to San Diego: Leading just 30-27, with 3:40 left, a 67-yard kick return gives Flacco the ball on the San Diego 30. They get only 17 yards, settle for a field goal and Philip Rivers gets the game-winning touchdown.
  • December 21: 25-13 loss to Houston: It’s game 15, the Ravens desperately need a win and the opponent has Case Keenum at quarterback. Flacco goes 21-50 with 3 INTs.
  • December 28: 20-10 win over Cleveland: The Browns have lost 5 of their last 6 and start have Connor Shaw at QB. But they’re leading 10-6 with 7:33 left in the game, and the Ravens don’t put it away until an interception and a score with 3:40 left.

Change those two losses to wins, and the Ravens win the division and don’t end up needing to win the Wild Card game in Pittsburgh. (I’m not sure if they would have had the first-round bye, but they would have been tied with New England and Denver.)

The reason I’m stressing Flacco’s shortcomings is that his ability to perform (or lack of it) should be one of two factors deciding the game. The Baltimore defense is beatable. It gave up 37 points to Oakland and 28 to the Bengals. Giving up 20 points to Pittsburgh with Vick under center (he’s 3-7 in his last 10 starts, with 4 good games) is a bad performance.

The Ravens aren’t running the ball extraordinarily well (3.9 per carry; Forsett has 4.2), so you’d expect them to have to throw. But the Ravens’ three leading receivers– in both catches and yards– are Smith (29-37 for 373 yards and 2 scores), WR Kamar Aiken (11-18 for 165 yards and a TD) and TE Crockett Gilmore (10-13 for 151 yards and 2 scores).

Gilmore is Out (will not play) and Smith is Doubtful (51-75% chance he will not play). In all likelihood, Flacco will have to beat the Browns by throwing to Aiken (a fringe player a year ago), Williams (a rookie with 7 catches for 84 yards), WR Marlon Brown (8-15 for 75 yards) and maybe Forsett (12-19 for 41 yards) .

If Joe Flacco were a great quarterback, we would be able to say “The great ones always find a way to win.” Because he’s Joe Flacco, all we can say is “Who knows?” He has 5 touchdown passes and 5 interceptions– two weeks of 2-1, one of 1-1 and one of 0-2. Lord only knows which player will show up Sunday.

Browns Preview

I can’t say anything that I haven’t already said. Less than 10 months ago, this team– which had lost four straight games to fall out of the playoffs– went into Baltimore on the last day of the regular season, and led the Ravens (who had to win or miss the playoffs) for 52:27 of the game.

Cleveland’s starting lineup is different at 10 spots. Unless you feel that:

  1. Connor Shaw is a better quarterback than Josh McCown
  2. Terrance West is a better running back than Duke Johnson
  3. Nick McDonald is a better center than Alex Mack
  4. Billy Winn is a better defensive end than Randy Starks
  5. John Hughes is a better nose tackle than Danny Shelton
  6. Buster Skrine can outcover Tramon Williams
  7. Taylor Gabriel is superior to Brian Hartline
  8. Jim Dray adds more value than Malcolm Johnson
  9. Craig Robertson is superior to Chris Kirksey
  10. “Poke” Cameron is a better all-around tight end than Gary Barnidge

You should assume the Browns will perform substantially better.

The only one of those 10 that favors the 2014 team is Robertson-Kirksey. The tight end one you could argue. In fairness to Poke, Miami QB Ryan Tannehill (77.1 rating, 6.3 yards per pass, 7-5 TD-INT ratio) is having his worst season since his rookie year, and Poke– 12 catches on 28 targets for 170 yards (14.2 per catch) and no scores– can’t do anything unless he has a catchable ball.

That said, Barnidge is a vastly superior blocker (he’ll do it if asked, though not always well) and his 2015 output dwarfs Poke: 16-21 for 235 yards (14.7 yards) and 2 scores.

But will the Browns put forth a much stronger effort than they did last December? We don’t know.

Game Outcome

If you’re handicapping a game between two disappointing teams, a good way to do it is simply to say “Who has better reasons for disappointing?” That’s the Ravens:

  1. The Ravens have played teams with a record of 12-4; the Browns’ opponents are 8-7 (Tennessee had their bye week).
  2. The Ravens have had vastly more injuries than the Browns.
  3. Despite both points, the Ravens have scored 8 more points than the Browns and allowed only 2 more.

If the Browns had been playing hard, I’d be thinking “upset”. The Ravens aren’t nearly as strong as they were a year ago. But they aren’t. And Josh McCown doesn’t handle pressure– either from defenses or from players, coaches, fans or writers looking for leadership.

The Ravens are 24-8 lifetime and 9-1 in the last 5 years. It’s always close– the worst blowout was 24-10 in 2011, with Seneca Wallace playing. But it’s always in Baltimore’s favor.

Prediction: Ravens 20, Browns 10.


2 thoughts on “Browns Preview: Game #5 (@ Baltimore)

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