8:25 PM EST, NFL Network – Line: Ravens -10, Over/Under:45
It’s back to the future at M&T Bank Stadium as the Baltimore Ravens, the franchise that once upon a time was the Cleveland Browns, meets the current Cleveland Browns in an AFC North battle on Thursday Night Football. Stop us if you’ve heard this before, but the Browns (0-9, 4th in AFC North) are once again rebuilding. Indeed, there are few constants in life: death, taxes, and a Cleveland Browns’ Rebuilding Project. All jokes aside, after four different Head Coaches and a pair of General Managers over the past seven years, this long-suffering franchise has hit the proverbial Reset Button once more, fundamentally altering the structure of their Front Office and Coaching Staff to it’s core with the designs of finally building a winner in Northern Ohio. After all, the Cavaliers got it right, and the Indians came close, so why can’t the Browns be next? Well, that would imply they win some games, which at this juncture of the season they have yet to do. Give credit to Hue Jackson for being willing to take over such an expansive renovation, but it’s gradually become more and more clearer as to just how far this group has to go before they can even remain competitive. For all intents and purposes, 2016 will serve as Year Zero in Cleveland, as Management has made the decision to part ways with a number of underperforming players (many who were high draft picks over the past few years) and high-priced starters, leaving the roster largely full of youngsters and journeymen. As a result, they’ve been pretty poor on both sides of the ball; the Browns rank twenty-ninth in points scored (18.7) and thirtieth in points allowed (30.3), thirtieth in Total Defense (421.6), next-to-last in Rush Defense (146.4), and dead last in Net Yards per Pass Allowed (7.8), all the while yielding the second-most passing touchdowns in the league thus far (22). Many of their problems could be attributed to a remarkable Rotating Door at the most important position in the game, Quarterback; Cleveland has started three different signal-callers this season, with as many as six different Browns throwing a pass. Injuries have ravaged the depth chart, as both Robert Griffin III and Josh McCown have each missed extensive time with an assortment of ailments, leaving Third Round Rookie Cody Kessler to take the majority of the reps under Center. Strictly by the numbers, Kessler hasn’t been bad, completing 67.5% of his attempts with a solid TD/INT Ratio of 5/1, but as we all know, statistics rarely tell the whole story. Jackson has had to take a very conservative approach with the youngster, rarely imploring him to stretch the field, evidenced by his meager 6.12 net yards per attempt, and the fact that he’s only averaging 191.7 yards per game. Essentially, he’s getting the ball out of the pocket quickly in favor of short, high-percentage throws, but as a result, isn’t consistently challenging defenses and building drives. Pass Protection has been a major issue here too, as he’s been sacked fourteen times, while Browns Quarterbacks in general have been dropped for a loss twenty-six times. With that said, there has been one bright spot to emerge from this mess in the Backfield, and his name is Terrelle Pryor. Simply put, the versatile Pryor has been willing to play anywhere Jackson needs him to, taking snaps as a Receiver, Rusher, or even Quarterback, which he initially played in College and for a brief time when he entered the NFL. With outrageous size and athletic ability, the 27-year old has made plays wherever he’s lined up, while developing into a very productive Wideout; Pryor has featured heavily on the perimeter, hauling in forty-six passes on eighty-two targets for 579 yards and four touchdowns, both of which lead the team. With Kessler entrenched as the Starter at Quarterback (at least for now), and Pryor having cemented himself as the go-to guy in the passing game, along with the healthy return of Rookie Wideout Corey Coleman (who missed six games with a broken hand), perhaps Cleveland can create an identity over the second half of the campaign, as a foundation is needed to be put in place to build upon. Tonight’s encounter with Baltimore may serve as fertile ground for said growth; when they met in Week Two, Jackson’s charges jumped on the visiting Ravens early, scoring twenty points in the First Quarter, only to relinquish twenty-three unanswered points over the final three frames of action. Coleman played a huge role in their early success, reeling in a pair of touchdown passes from McCown in the eventual 25-20 defeat.
Meanwhile, it’s quickly become a season of peaks and valleys for the Ravens (4-4, 1st in AFC North), who after beginning the season on a three-game winning streak, immediately suffered a four-game drought, which ultimately cost their Offensive Coordinator, Marc Trestman his job. Fortunately for John Harbaugh and his charges, the traditionally stout AFC North has been mired in mediocrity this season, as both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals have unexpectedly struggled throughout the first half of the campaign after each qualified for the Postseason two years in a row. Potentially poised to take advantage of such chaos is Baltimore, who came away from Sunday’s meeting with Pittsburgh all the better with a much-needed 21-14 victory. The hosts looked revitalized from their Bye Week, jumping on the visiting side early, scoring the first thirteen points of the game. Quarterback Joe Flacco opened things up early, hooking up with Mike Wallace on a short pass that the speedster managed to manufacture into a ridiculous ninety-five yard touchdown, while the defense relentlessly harassed Ben Roethlisberger in his first game back after undergoing minor surgery to his knee. The Ravens Defense, which has been solid all year, neutralized the prolific passer, relegating him to 23-of-45 passing for 264 yards, a touchdown and an interception, while sacking him twice and forcing a pair of fumbles. They also managed to keep versatile Tailback Le’Veon Bell contained in both the running game and the passing game, bottling him up to the tune of seventy total yards on twenty touches. With that said, a furious rally from the visitors nearly came to fruition if not for one of the most embarrassingly bizarre attempts of an On-Side Kick, which effectively ended the contest. Granted, it was all about getting the win and taking hold of the division, but in hindsight, it’s difficult to see where exactly this team has improved over the past month. They continued to struggle running the ball with any regularity, accumulating just fifty yards against a defensive front that had been gashed of late by the Dolphins and Patriots. Baltimore has been terrible on the ground thus far, averaging a mere 81.8 rushing yards (28th Overall) on just 3.5 yards per carry (28th Overall). Injuries have hampered the Offensive Line, while Terrance West (445 yards 3 TD) is the only Tailback to distinguish himself in the Backfield. Despite his strong arm, and despite the change in play-calling, Flacco continues to throw many, many short passes, completing 207 of 338 passes (both ranking among the league’s most), while only averaging 5.44 net yards per attempt, the second-lowest such figure of his career. Furthermore, Sunday’s performance marked the first time this season since the Opener that the former Super Bowl MVP attempted LESS than forty passes in a game. Like his counterpart tonight, Pass Protection has been a problem, causing the 31-year old to check down far more often than he’d like. With vertical threats like Wallace on the outside, this offense is not geared for the possession-style passing attack, but without a decent rushing game to keep defenses honest, it’s going to be Flacco or bust in the Charm City. Thankfully, the defense has once again held up it’s end of the bargain; folks in Baltimore are well acquainted with great defense, and this incarnation of the Ravens has been damn good, allowing 19.1 points (9th Overall) on 298.7 total yards, the second-fewest in the league, while racking up eighteen sacks and fourteen takeaways.
Predicted Outcome: Ravens 24, Browns 13