NFL Preview - Cleveland (0-2) at Baltimore (1-1)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - There have been some surprising results that have transpired during the early stages of the 2010 NFL season, but two things have remained status quo over the first two weeks. The Baltimore Ravens continue to play stellar defense, and the Cleveland Browns still have trouble winning games.
The Ravens carry a streak of eight consecutive quarters without giving up a touchdown into Sunday's home opener with the fellow AFC North member Browns, who'll be venturing into M&T Bank Stadium seeking to put a pair of close and frustrating losses in the rear-view mirror.
After yielding a mere 176 total yards in a spirited 10-9 road win over the 2009 playoff-participant New York Jets in Week 1, Baltimore's vaunted stop unit kept Cincinnati out of the end zone over the entire 60 minutes of this past Sunday's showdown with the defending AFC North champions. Unfortunately, the group couldn't prevent Bengals kicker Mike Nugent from booting five field goals, or their own quarterback from turning the ball over.
While the defense was again outstanding in last week's stinging 15-10 defeat to Cincinnati, Ravens signal-caller Joe Flacco endured one of the most miserable days of his professional career. The third-year triggerman completed a subpar 17-of-39 passes for 154 yards and was intercepted four times, with two of those picks directly leading to Nugent field goals that provided the winning margin.
Baltimore was able to overcome three giveaways in its narrow victory over the Jets, but enters this week's play with a league-worst minus-seven turnover margin.
Mistakes have plagued the Browns over the course of this young season as well, with turnovers and costly penalties the difference between a possible 2-0 start and the winless moniker the long-suffering team brings into Sunday's divisional clash.
Cleveland had built an 11-point first-half lead in its 2010 opener at Tampa Bay, but failed to score over the final two quarters and committed three pivotal turnovers that helped the Buccaneers rally for a 17-14 win. It was more of the same in last week's home tilt with Kansas City, with the offense once again going cold after intermission and the Chiefs coming up with two second-half field goals to scratch out a 16-14 decision.
Kansas City scored 10 of its points off takeaways, the most critical being cornerback Brandon Flowers' interception and 33-yard touchdown return of a pass from Browns quarterback Seneca Wallace in the second quarter. Cleveland was also whistled for nine penalties amounting to 78 yards on the afternoon.
Wallace finished with 229 yards and a touchdown on 16-of-31 passing while standing in for regular field general Jake Delhomme, who suffered a reported high ankle sprain during the Tampa Bay game and is unlikely to be unavailable for Sunday's matchup either.
Cleveland is now a woeful 1-8 in September over the past three seasons following its two recent setbacks. The club lost its initial four games and 11 of its first 12 contests in 2009 before ending the year with four consecutive wins.
Baltimore holds a 15-7 lead in its all-time series with Cleveland, including home-and-home sweeps of the Browns in 2008 and 2009. The Ravens were 34-3 winners when the Browns visited Baltimore in Week 3 of last season, and completed the sweep with a 16-0 decision on a Monday night in Cleveland in Week 10. The Browns swept the 2007 home-and-home, including a 33-30 overtime win at M&T Bank Stadium
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh is 4-0 against the Browns as a head coach. Mangini is 0-3 against the Ravens as a head coach, including a loss during his tenure with the Jets (2006-08), and is 0-2 against Harbaugh head-to-head.
Mangini served as an assistant coach with the Ravens during the 1996 season, their first in Baltimore.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
The Cleveland offense did some good things early on under Wallace's (229 passing yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) command last week, as the athletic ex-Seahawk engineered a 10-play, 96-yard touchdown drive in the first half and hooked up with big-play specialist Joshua Cribbs (5 receptions, 1 TD) for a 65-yard touchdown late in the second quarter. The Browns mustered a paltry 55 total yards and three first downs after the break, however, and the team's overall lack of playmakers was evident in that performance. Mangini acknowledged afterward the team's need to get the ball more in the hands of the dynamic Cribbs, and the All-Pro return man figures to see more snaps at receiver on Sunday, especially with usual starter Brian Robiskie (2 receptions) questionable to play with a hamstring injury. Tight end Evan Moore (3 receptions), Cleveland's current leader with 87 receiving yards, will almost surely sit out after sustaining a concussion in the Kansas City game. Counterpart Benjamin Watson (7 receptions) served as Wallace's preferred target last Sunday, with the offseason pickup hauling in four passes for 62 yards. Converted fullback Peyton Hillis (76 rushing yards, 2 TD, 7 receptions) and 2009 late-season standout Jerome Harrison (85 rushing yards, 4 receptions) have been sharing carries for a ground attack that's produced a modest 88.5 yards per game through the opening two weeks.
Don't expect the Browns to get their running game untracked this weekend. Baltimore surrendered a league-low 3.4 yards per rush attempt last season and didn't allow more than 86 yards on the ground in last year's meetings with Cleveland. The front seven, headlined by perennial All-Pro inside linebacker Ray Lewis (14 tackles, 1 sack) is fierce, with the two-time Defensive Player of the Year operating behind two tremendous run-stoppers in tackles Haloti Ngata (12 tackles, 1 sack) and Kelly Gregg (7 tackles). The Ravens have been even better in defending the pass thus far, an impressive feat considering game-changing free safety Ed Reed will be sidelined until at least late- October while recovering from hip surgery. Over the first two games, enemy quarterbacks have managed just 219 passing yards and a 46.4 completion percentage on a re-designed secondary led by cornerbacks Chris Carr (10 tackles, 2 PD) and Fabian Washington (4 tackles, 3 PD), and the defense as a whole has limited the opposition to a meager 14 percent (4-for-29) rate of success on third downs. The Ravens still have yet to come up with an interception this year, however, and the pass rush beyond three-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (10 tackles, 0.5 sacks) can be spotty at times.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
Baltimore presently ranks 30th out of 32 NFL teams in scoring (10.0 ppg) and 25th in total yards (270.5 ypg), subpar numbers indeed for a unit that includes one of the game's premier running backs in Ray Rice (130 rushing yards, 6 receptions) and a deep and experienced corps of pass-catchers. Much of the blame has fallen upon Flacco (402 passing yards, 1 TD, 5 INT), as it's apparent the former first-round pick's accuracy and decision-making haven't been up to his customary standards, but the Ravens also haven't run the football with the same authority we've usually seen during the Harbaugh era. Rice has averaged just 3.5 yards per attempt over the first two weeks, though the hard-nosed back did have an encouraging 87-yard, 16-carry showing against the Bengals, while the line will be without one of its best run blockers for a third straight test with massive right tackle Jared Gaither still hobbled by a lingering back condition. If Baltimore is able to run more effectively on Sunday, that may make it easier for Flacco to connect to a quality cast of receivers featuring physical wideout Anquan Boldin (12 receptions, 145 yards) and a pair of steady veterans in 36-year-old Derrick Mason (3 receptions) and tight end Todd Heap (10 receptions).
Lost in the Browns' latest poor start is the sound overall play of a defense that's been energized by solid offseason additions like linebackers Scott Fujita (12 tackles, 0.5 sacks) and Chris Gocong (12 tackles), cornerback Sheldon Brown (7 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PD) and rookie free safety T.J. Ward, the team's leader with 22 tackles. Although the competition may have been a bit suspect, Cleveland has permitted a respectable 300 yards per game and forced four turnovers through its initial two outings. Coordinator Rob Ryan runs an aggressive scheme designed to create constant pressure on the quarterback, and seems to have the players to make it work. Outside linebackers Marcus Bernard (4 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and Matt Roth (10 tackles) are two capable edge rushers, while three-time Pro Bowl tackle Shaun Rogers (2 tackles) is one of the league's best at collapsing the pocket when playing hard and used properly. The run defense has also improved after ranking an unwanted 28th in that category last year, but still remains a bit of an issue. This week's hopeful return of inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, who missed 10 games in 2009 and the first two of this season with a pectoral injury, should help matters.
Points could be at a premium in this one, therefore there are only a smattering of appealing offensive options on the fantasy side. This looks like a good week for Rice to rebound and show off the skills that made him a likely first-round choice in preseason drafts, so start him with confidence. Boldin's also a worthy selection as the top target in the Baltimore passing game, and Heap has good value in points-per-reception leagues. Flacco owners shouldn't sever ties with the talented young quarterback, but keep him benched until it's clear he's over his present funk. There's little to like among Cleveland players. Hillis has scored a touchdown in two straight games, but given that the Ravens have yet to allow an opponent in the end zone and he's in a backfield time-share with Harrison, the versatile back is a rather risky play. Cribbs is a must-use in return-yardage leagues, but offers minimal upside in standard systems. Cleveland's lack of scoring punch makes the Baltimore defense an obvious pick this week, but the Browns' has some sleeper potential here as well.
With Baltimore still stewing from a tough and somewhat controversial loss within the division and playing in front of what should be a charged-up crowd in its home opener, the Browns look to be in a bad spot again this week. While the defense appears good enough to allow Cleveland to hang around against a Ravens team that's had its troubles putting up points and holding onto the football, an offense that can barely dent the scoreboard on mediocre opponents won't pose a threat to the formidable Baltimore 'D'. Behind a bounce-back performance out of Rice and another dominant one on the other side of the ball, look for the Ravens to carve out a methodical but relatively effortless victory.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 17, Browns 6
09/26 02:53:57 ET