Nine opportunities have come and gone, and the Cleveland Browns are still without a win. As hope is fading, many see Thursday night’s divisional showdown with the Baltimore Ravens as the final legitimate chance to avoid a catastrophic 0-16 season.
The Ravens are coming off a Week 9 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, which snapped a four-game losing streak, and look to build on the triumph against the 0-9 Browns. Baltimore has proven to be extremely inconsistent in the first half of 2016, opening up an opportunity following a short week of practice for Cleveland to catch them by surprise.
Of course, even if they do, they must do so for four quarters. When the same two rivals met at FirstEnergy Stadium in Week 2, the Browns jumped out to a 20-0 lead. This commanding edge was completely squandered though by the end of the game, as Cleveland could not sustain their elite play for more than a half.
This week could be a much different story. The Browns probably won’t score the first 20 points of the game, but then again, the Ravens will most likely be subdued before rattling off 25 straight. Regardless, it will be far from easy for a winless football team still in search of their identity. In order to pull off the upset in front of a larger audience than normal, the Browns will need to pay special attention to these five areas of the game.
Browns rookie receiver Corey Coleman was silent in his first game back from injury last week, as the first-round draft pick is still completing the healing process. While Coleman’s ineffectiveness was insignificant in Week 9, Week 10 will provide an opportunity for him to make a difference.
The Browns need Coleman to shine, even with another standout wide receiver in Terrelle Pryor. This is due to Baltimore’s stout defensive unit which ranks second in the league against the run and seventh against the pass.
Cleveland has had success going to Pryor in recent weeks early in the game, but his effectiveness is soon limited as defenses adjust. Since the Browns are going to have difficulty running the ball against the Ravens defense, they will need to incorporate more than one weapon on a consistent basis to sustain drives and maintain a consistent offensive game plan throughout the game. If they can use Pryor, Coleman, and maybe even Gary Barnidge significantly in the receiving game, their offense won’t fizzle when it matters most.
If Coleman can break out this week, as head Coach Hue Jackson is anticipating, the rookie will also become better acclimated at the NFL level. With the rookie expected to be a valuable piece of this franchise in the future, they need him to play an active role before he gets too used to being irrelevant.
The red zone is such a key area for the Browns tonight. Though Baltimore’s defense is one of the best in the league statistically, they have had their ups and downs this season. The Browns should be able to move the ball against a team that excels against the run, since Cleveland doesn’t run much anyway. It won’t be hard for the Browns to get yards and first downs, but finishing drives won’t be as simple.
Where the game will be decided for the Browns is inside the Baltimore 20-yard-line. Linebackers Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, and Elvis Dumervil always seem to step up when the opponent is on the verge of a touchdown. Cleveland must find some way to work the middle of the field against them using Gary Barnidge, or possibly Duke Johnson on a screen pass.
The matchup inside the red zone does not appear to be a favorable one for Cleveland, but it is one they must find a way to have success in. This means that the Browns simply cannot settle for field goals on possession after possession. Even if it means taking several risks, every option must be considered. No stone should be left unturned in a primetime game of this magnitude.
In the first meeting with Baltimore, Cleveland surrendered over 100 yards to tight end Dennis Pitta. Even though Pitta does not strike the average football fan as a major receiving threat, his dominance in Week 2 should, in hindsight, come as no surprise. Cleveland’s struggles against sizable tight ends has become a recurring theme this season.
Slowing down Pitta will be quite a challenge for a unit of linebackers who have simply not covered tight ends well enough all year. Christian Kirksey and Demario Davis will once again be the keys, as their pass coverage can change the dynamic of a drive. Safety Derrick Kindred may also be critical against Pitta if the Browns do indeed decide to bring more heat on quarterback Joe Flacco.
But it’s not just Pitta that is capable of taking over the game by controlling the middle of the field. The Ravens also have Crockett Gillmore, a tight end who had a spectacular game in Cleveland last season. The 6-foot 6, 260-pound 24-year-old shares similar skill sets with Pitta, and can surprise a team as a reinforcement tight end.
Though these two big targets may seem to be the most dangerous over the middle of the field, the Browns can’t afford to sleep on fullback Kyle Juszczyk. This bruising 248-pound Medina, Ohio native can slip out of the backfield in a hurry and do damage against possible tacklers downfield.
Cleveland must control the middle of the field defensively in order to have a chance to win this game. Week after week, they are struggling in this area. Reversing this trend would be an enormous step on their way to relevance once again.
If the 31st-ranked Cleveland run defense can hold its own against the likes of Terrance West and Javorius Allen, the Ravens will be in numerous third-and-medium to third-and-long situations throughout Thursday’s primetime contest.
This seems quite possible, and opens up opportunities for defensive coordinator Ray Horton to bring more pressure than he is accustomed to bringing. Not only does this surface an opportunity, it seems like a must.
Cleveland has been struggling to rush the quarterback with any less than six pass rushers. Their defensive line is stagnant, and a solid Baltimore offensive line should be able to have their way with them. The secondary of the Browns also serves as a weak link, no matter how many players they drop into coverage.
In addition to all this, Baltimore’s quarterback, Joe Flacco, is a true pocket passer. Cleveland won’t have to worry much about keeping containment, at least any more than they ever will. The only way for Cleveland to disrupt Flacco’s rhythm, which he can easily get into early in the game against a weak secondary, is to bring intense pressure. If this is the case, fans should look for rookies Carl Nassib and Emmanuel Ogbah, as well as Jamie Meder, to be in on all of the action.
They may give up a 25-yard screen pass or two, but they must persist. Bringing relentless pressure is a risk, but it seems to serve as the best chance for the Browns to flip the script on a Ravens offense poised for an outburst.
In Weeks 1, 4, 5, 6, and 7, Cleveland won the coin toss, deferred, and surrendered a touchdown within the first five minutes of the game. In Weeks 2 and 3, the Browns lost the game based on their play in the final five minutes.
This team has shown massive amounts of improvement in certain areas, including their pass offense led by Cody Kessler. Typically however, flashes of brilliance are witnessed at random points in the middle of the game, but the offense has fizzled by the end. Or, a combination of poor clock management and insufficient execution down the stretch along with unfortunate circumstances costs the Browns a chance to win.
The pain this fan base would feel if the Browns lost yet another game against their bitter rival in this fashion would be hard to put into words. On the other hand, the jubilation and relief of their first win in primetime against the Ravens would be extraordinary. The wide difference between these two outcomes may come down to the first minutes, and the final minutes.
It isn’t a key which can be explained with a true football strategy, but winning the first five and last five minutes of the game is necessary. Disciplined, mistake-free football with impeccable clock management during these key moments would go a long way for a Cleveland team so desperately seeking to close out a single football game.
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