There has been plenty to discuss in regard to the Baltimore Ravens (3-7) and Cleveland Browns (2-8) in the past week. Unfortunately, Monday night’s prime time matchup between these two teams has not been at the forefront of that discussion.
Baltimore is coming off of a much-needed victory over the Rams, but that win came at a significant cost. The storyline for the Ravens throughout the week has been the loss of two of their biggest weapons on offense in that game. Joe Flacco and Justin Forsett are just the latest to join a long list of Ravens lost for the season due to injury. Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh will take what is left of his battered team into Cleveland to take on the struggling Browns.
For the Browns, it is Johnny Manziel’s off-the-field antics that are once again making headlines. Almost as quickly as he was named the permanent starting quarterback by head coach Mike Pettine, Manziel was demoted to third string. Manziel's undoing would come as a result of a video surfacing of him partying in an Austin, Texas, night club during Cleveland’s bye week. The struggling Browns were already in a state of turmoil heading into their Week 11 bye, but Johnny Football's off-the-field distractions only serve to add fuel to the fire heading into tonight’s matchup against the Ravens.
This will be the 34th meeting all-time between these two AFC North rivals, whose ties go deeper than their divisional affiliation. Baltimore has dominated the series, especially in recent years, winning 24 of the previous 33 games against Cleveland. The Ravens and Browns last played each other in Week 5. Cleveland came away with a surprising 33-30 overtime victory in that matchup.
Baltimore at Cleveland
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET (Monday)
Spread: Cleveland -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Next Man Up for Baltimore
It would be an understatement to say that the injury-plagued Ravens will be shorthanded heading into this matchup. The Baltimore offense has been especially hard hit. The loss of key players such as Steve Smith, Breshad Perriman, Dennis Pitta, and Jeremy Zuttah earlier this season, combined with the loss of Joe Flacco and Justin Forsett last week, has all but decimated the Ravens' offense. Baltimore could be without as many as seven players this week who started on offense in Week 1.
While Baltimore still has a few guys remaining that are capable of making plays on offense, true star power is sorely lacking. One bright spot this week could be running back Javorius “Buck” Allen. He is far from elite, averaging 3.9 yards per carry, but he should find running room against a porous Browns defense. Allen can be a commodity as a pass catcher as well.
Wide receiver Kamar Aiken and tight end Crockett Gillmore also have proven to be capable receiving options. That said, their success came with Flacco under center. It could be an entirely different story with Matt Schaub throwing their way. It will be interesting to see just how well this patchwork offense can move the football. Expectations are that it will be a legitimate struggle, even against a generous Cleveland defense.
2. Cleveland’s Struggles on the Ground
The Browns' inability to stop opposing run games has been well documented this season and remains a major issue of concern heading into Week 12. Cleveland ranks dead last in the NFL against the run, allowing 139 yards per game. While the Ravens' rushing attack is weakened without Forsett, Cleveland will still have a tough time limiting Allen. The rookie rushed for 58 yards on just eight carries against the Browns in Week 5.
The Browns' struggles on the ground are not just exclusive to the defensive side of the football. Cleveland’s 3.3 yards per carry on offense this season also ranks dead last in the NFL. To make matters worse, they have scored just two rushing touchdowns all season. In the first meeting against Baltimore, Browns running backs Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson, combined for just 71 yards rushing on 23 carries. There is nothing to suggest that the Cleveland run game will fare any better this time around.
3. Josh McCown and Matt Schaub
McCown has to be considered an upgrade over Johnny Manziel, especially for this game. In Week 5, McCown threw for 457 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions against Baltimore. He also ran for a TD. McCown does not seem to be in the plans as the long-term starter for the Browns, but he gives Cleveland the best chance of winning against a depleted Ravens team.
It was not too long ago that Schaub was a Pro Bowl quarterback with a solid track record. Sadly, that is no longer the case. Schaub will be making his first start on Monday night since ending his career in Houston in 2013 on a sour note with six consecutive losses and a significant drop off in production. Based on preseason performances and practice reports, Schaub seems to have regressed even further. He no longer has the tools to make up for Flacco’s absence. Schaub is the biggest liability in the beat-up Ravens offense moving forward.
The Ravens' offense wasn’t exactly explosive prior to Week 12, but this unit may officially be dead in the water without Joe Flacco and Justin Forsett leading the attack. While the Browns rank among the NFL’s worst defenses, many of Cleveland’s defensive issues should be alleviated this week playing against a significantly shorthanded Ravens offense. At the very least, Baltimore will have a tough time finding the end zone with Matt Schaub at quarterback. Defensively, the Ravens have the ability to limit an anemic Cleveland rushing attack, but a shaky Baltimore secondary could prove vulnerable against a solid Browns passing game led by Josh McCown, Gary Barnidge, Travis Benjamin and Duke Johnson.
The Ravens were not at full strength when these two teams last met in Week 5, but they were in much better shape than they are now, and Baltimore still managed to lose that game at home to Cleveland. It’s difficult to imagine that current circumstances would allow the Ravens to go into Cleveland and get the win this time around. If there is a silver lining for Baltimore, it is that a loss will put them on the inside track for the top pick in next year’s draft. That actually goes for both teams.
Prediction: Browns 24, Ravens 14
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.