The Browns appear to be on the rise heading into the second half of the season because of the renewed hope veteran quarterback Jason Campbell provided this past weekend in his first start with the franchise, a 23-17 loss on the road against the unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs.
Meanwhile, the defending Super Bowl-champion Baltimore Ravens have been struggling to find their way and are more vulnerable than in recent memory.
The Browns (3-5) will have a chance to capitalize when they face the Ravens (3-4) at 4:25 p.m. Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium. Both AFC North rivals have losing streaks, the Browns three games and the Ravens two.
The Ravens defeated the Browns 14-6 in Week 2, when quarterback Brandon Weeden started and suffered a sprained right thumb in the fourth quarter. Campbell entered the game with 3:34 left deep in the Browns’ territory and didn’t do much to inspire, completing 1-of-4 passes for 6 yards, the result of an underhanded toss on fourth-and-10.
Campbell, though, was much better Sunday against the Chiefs, who have the NFL’s fifth-ranked defense. He completed 22-of-36 passes (61 percent) for 293 yards and two touchdowns without an interception, posted a passer rating of 105.4 and took just one sack. He provided the offense with a lift, earned the start against the Ravens and gave the Browns a new outlook moving forward.
Still, Campbell and Co. will need to overcome psychological hurdles to play well enough to prevail in the final game before their Week 10 bye. The Ravens have defeated the Browns in 11 consecutive games, meaning quarterback Joe Flacco and coach John Harbaugh have yet to lose in the series. The Ravens are also coming off their bye and are 5-0 following the bye during Harbaugh’s tenure.
Jeff Zrebiec covers the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun. He discussed the team in the following question-and-answer session:
Q: What are the main concerns the Ravens are facing coming off their bye?
A: “Honestly, it’s a pretty long list. Aside from generating a steady pass rush, their return game and the right leg of kicker Justin Tucker, the Ravens really haven’t done anything consistently well this year. But just to focus on their main concerns, I think the biggest one is their inability to run the football. They are 27th in rushing yards per game (74.0) and 32nd in yards per carry (2.8). Those numbers pretty much speak for themselves. While the Ravens were at their best during the postseason run last year when they opened up the offense and relied on Joe Flacco’s arm, they still need to run the ball to set up other things. The offensive line play has also been subpar for most of the season. There have not been enough holes for running back Ray Rice and Flacco is getting hit too much. On defense, the Ravens haven’t been able to stop the run in three of the past four games. That was not expected to be a problem after they beefed up their defensive line but it has been lately.”
Q: What’s wrong with Rice this season?
A: “It’s a combination of things. One, I don’t think Rice has been healthy. He only missed one game with the hip injury, but it has clearly lingered. Rice hasn’t had the explosiveness or the elusiveness that he’s had in past seasons and the injury is probably the most logical explanation. He did look better against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the last game, and I’m sure the bye week helped him as well. I also think the Ravens have made sure to get backup Bernard Pierce involved, so Rice has never really got into a rhythm. He has more than 15 carries in a game just once this season. That’s not a recipe that is going to allow a guy like that to be very successful. And finally, the run blocking hasn’t been good. There haven’t been a lot of holes for Rice or Pierce to run through.”
Q: What reasons might there be to think the Ravens will have a stronger second half of the season?
A: “One of the characteristics of a John Harbaugh-coached team over the previous five seasons is that it really improves as the season goes on. This year’s team hasn’t shown that yet, but the Ravens are coming off a bye, they feel like their offensive line was solidified with the acquisition of left tackle Eugene Monroe and they are getting healthier. The Ravens had so much turnover from last season and so many new faces playing key roles. The expectation is that the chemistry between Flacco and his pass catchers will get better and better with more game experience and the defense will clean up some of the communication issues that arose earlier this season from having so many new guys.”
Q: Which matchup should the Ravens worry about most when they face the Browns?
A: “The Ravens are effusive in their praise of the Browns’ front seven. Nose tackle Phil Taylor and outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard are two guys that have given the Ravens problems in the past. Taylor against first-year starting center Gino Gradkowski, who has struggled this season, is obviously not a matchup that favors the Ravens. The Ravens have also struggled to cover tight ends, so Jordan Cameron could be in for a big day.”
Q: Can you finish this thought: The Ravens won’t be upset by the Browns as long as … ?
A: “They protect Flacco and contain the Browns up front. Flacco rarely puts up eye-popping numbers against the Browns, but he always does just enough to beat them. Flacco appeared to finally get in a decent rhythm late in the Ravens’ last game, so if he is well protected and the Ravens are able to run the ball a little bit, he should be able to pick up where he left off.”