Nov 6, 2016; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh (center) congratulates wide receiver Chris Moore (10) after recovering a blocked punt for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports
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The Ravens host the Cleveland Browns tonight in a crucial AFC North game. Here are my 3 three keys to victory for the birds.
Thursday night will feature smash-mouth football at it’s finest. Division rivals Baltimore Ravens (4-4) will host the (0-9) Cleveland Browns at M&T Bank Stadium. The Ravens come in as the clear favorite in a game that is a must win for the division. A win keeps Baltimore in first place in the division and sends the Browns on their way to their worst season in franchise history. This is the first Thursday game for both teams and it should bring a loud crowd to Baltimore.
As mentioned in my preview yesterday, this game could prove to be a trap game if the Ravens come out flat after a short week of preparation. The Browns came into Baltimore last season and stunned the Ravens in a 33-30 overtime game. The Ravens are coming off a bruiser against Pittsburgh and should not take this game lightly. With a good chance of going 0-16 this season, the Browns essentially have nothing to play for and are completely out of playoff contention. I would not be surprised to see head coach Hue Jackson pull some stunts to throw the Ravens off.
On paper the Ravens should win this game easily. The defense finally seems to be coming together and Joe Flacco has played some of his best games against the Browns. He has owned the Browns with a 14-2 record since he entered the league in 2008. The offense has struggled all season and this game could prove to be a breakout for offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and company. Here are my 3 keys to victory for the Ravens tonight.
Not to much of a surprise, the Browns come into tonight’s game ranked 31st against the run. According to reports, Ravens offensive guard Marshall Yanda is doubtful to play with a shoulder injury. It is expected that he will be replaced by either Ryan Jensen or John Urschel. The absence of Yanda will hurt, but it should not slow down the Ravens from running the ball. Both Urschel and Jensen have experience playing with the starting line this season.
Starting running back Terrance West should have a field day running through the Brown’s defense. After signing with the team in 2015, West is proving that he is capable of being a #1 back. Rookie running back, Kennith Dixon is dealing with concussion protocol; so it looks like West will receive the majority of the carries tonight. If the offensive line can create holes and movement in the trenches, I see no reason why West shouldn’t have over 100 yards.
While big 10-20 yard runs from West would be great, those 3-5 yard carries set up for more manageable 2nd and 3rd downs. These short, but effective runs keep the defense on the field and chew up clock. It will also set up the play action pass, giving Flacco plenty of opportunities to launch it deep against the banged up Browns secondary.
A bit of a wild-card here, but I believe the importance of tight end play in this game is crucial. What once was a go to position for the Ravens, has been absent in the past couple seasons. Injuries have kept Crockett Gilmore and Maxx Williams sidelined for most of the season. Starting tight end Dennis Pita had his best season in the first meeting against the Browns, catching for over 100 yards.
For the Ravens to be successful in the passing game Dennis Pitta will need to be that security blanket that Joe Flacco can go to in tough 2nd and 3rd down situations. Wide receivers Breshard Perriman and Kamar Aiken have struggled to catch the football this season, so Pitta needs to be that third option behind Smith Sr. and Wallace. Pitta has not caught a touchdown since the 2013, when he was sidelined with a broken hip.
Flacco’s game relies heavily on checking down game, especially to the tight end. Jason Witten put up his best game of the season against the Browns with 134 yards and a touchdown. If Pitta can turn back the clock to before the hip injuries, he could have a big game tonight. A match-up with the Brown’s linebackers and secondary proves to be in favor of Pitta and I would not be surprised to see him be targeted multiple times in the end zone.
The Browns are the most inconsistent team in the league when it comes to the quarterback position. Good news is that Josh McCown, who has been a thorn in the Ravens side, will not be starting. The quarterback carousel has landed Cody Kessler with the start for the second week in a row. He is coming off a 35-10 loss to the Cowboys where he threw 203 yards and 1 touchdown.
The Ravens defensive front had a very impressive performance against Big Ben and the Steelers on Sunday. While they only were able to sack Ben twice, they made him uncomfortable the whole game. The pressure led to bad throws and the Ravens secondary dropped two or three easy interceptions that game. Ironically the only interception came from defensive lineman Timmy Jernigan, off of a tipped pass.
Pressure to Kessler early in the game is a major key. The Cowboys were able to get to him for 4 sacks last Sunday. If the linebackers and defensive line can make him uncomfortable in the pocket, it will lead to many rookie mistakes. Forcing the Browns away from the passing game will make them commit to the run, which the Ravens have no problem defending. They held one of the best running backs in the league in Le’Veon Bell to just 32 yards rushing on 14 carries.