By Tony Grossi
The Morning Kickoff …
The long, long season: The Baltimore Ravens were my Super Bowl pick this year. But as they arrive at their season mid-point Sunday in Cleveland, they are not looking like a Super Bowl team.
“Who’s guaranteed to get there?” Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome said to me from his office in Owings Mills, Md., where Hurricane Sandy’s destructive remnants had largely passed by Tuesday afternoon. “Houston? New England? The Falcons? It’s still wide open, far as we’re concerned.”
The Ravens met the Houston Texans in their last game in a matchup of teams with AFC-best 5-1 records. The Texans two-stepped all over them, 43-13.
That was the first game the Ravens played without linebacker Ray Lewis (torn triceps) and cornerback Lardarius Webb (knee). Lewis, 37, is a future Hall of Famer and the team’s inspirational leader. But truth be told, Webb, 27, was the more hurtful loss.
“It was an adjustment period, that first week,” Newsome said. “But I think the bye week came at a very good time for us.”
Adjustments are being made on defense and on offense. The Ravens are shaky on their defensive and offensive lines. Their offense has been schizophrenic – explosive at home and underwhelming on the road.
But the shocking revelation about this Ravens team so far has been their very un-Super Bowl-like defense.
Eye-popping numbers: Newsome has always espoused the way to win the AFC North is with a physical defense and running the ball on offense. Now, the very fabric of the team is unraveling.
Since the 2000 season, the Ravens’ defense has ranked second overall in yards allowed per game (291.5) and second in rushing yards per game (91.5). Through seven games this year, the defense has posted alarming figures. It is 28th in total yards (400.0) and 30th in rushing yards (142.9).
“We haven’t stopped the run as well, but we just haven’t tackled as well as in the past,” Newsome said. “That’s been one emphasis (in the bye week). We’ve got to get back to good form tackling and quit worrying about making the Sportscenter hits.”
Newsome continued, “And those three-and-outs on offense affect the defense, too. We’re running that speed-up offense and that can put the defense on the field a lot.”
The Ravens committed to upgrading their passing game because they didn’t think they could advance deep into the playoffs with defense and running alone. Quarterback Joe Flacco got off to a hot start operating a no-huddle offense this season, but he has cooled of late, especially on the road.
Like most offensive coordinators nowadays, Cam Cameron hears constant criticism for forsaking the run and not giving all-around back Ray Rice the ball enough. Rice is averaging 19 touches a game.
“All I can say is our game – which I never thought I’d say – is getting closer to the college game,” said Newsome. “It’s spread formations, 60 percent in the shotgun. When you’re in the shotgun that much, you’re limited in running the ball.”
Lots can happen: After Baltimore’s resounding loss in Houston, coach John Harbaugh termed the game in Cleveland a “must-win.”
Here’s why: In the Browns’ expansion era, division teams that lose a game to the Browns generally don’t make the playoffs. The only team to avert this distinction was Baltimore in 2001, when the Browns won both meetings yet the Ravens survived to earn a wild card. The two losses cost them the division title and home-field in the playoffs.
The Ravens know the Browns are a better team than the one that lost in Baltimore, 23-16, on Sept. 27. Cornerback Joe Haden was still idle under suspension in that one, and Ravens wideout Anquan Boldin had nine catches for 131 yards. Quarterback Brandon Weeden and running back Trent Richardson were making just their fourth NFL starts, and receiver Josh Gordon had not yet made his mark.
The Browns are expected to have their dynamic duo at defensive tackle available in this game – Ahtyba Rubin, who played in Baltimore but missed the past two games, and Phil Taylor, who has missed all the games after offseason pectoral muscle surgery.
This is the first time in a long time the Browns are in the right physical and psychological state to compete with the Ravens. Laying a licking on them would hurt the Ravens. They still have two games to play against Pittsburgh.
“It’s hard to win this division,” Newsome said.
Historically, it doesn’t happen if you lose to the Browns. Newsome and Harbaugh know that.
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 44 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to email@example.com
Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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