One of the more difficult parts of trying to explain and predict football is that everything is interconnected. For example, it's pretty non-controversial to say "the Cleveland offense was awful in week one". But the more interesting and relevant question to the Ravens is "WHY was the Cleveland offense awful in week one?" Was it because Brandon Weeden is a terrible quarterback? Or is Weeden an average quarterback that looked like a terrible quarterback because of a terrible offensive line and terrible wide receivers? Was the rushing offense fine and simply underutilized? Or was it underutilized because it was awful? The answers to these questions are important if we want to figure out whether the Ravens defense will be successful against the Browns offense, and I'm going to do my best to answer them by taking an in-depth look at each part of the Browns offense.
The Offensive Line:
I'll start with the Browns offensive line. It's not as if the Browns don't have any good pieces on their line. Alex Mack is a very solid center and Joe Thomas is probably the best left tackle in the NFL. But it might not be good enough to compensate the sheer degree of awfulness that is the entire right side of the Browns offensive line. First, former Baltimore Raven Oniel Cousins is filling in for the injured Shawn Lauvao at right guard, and he was entirely ineffective in the opener. Not only was he ineffective at pass protection and run blocking, he also committed several key penalties, one of which negated a Cleveland touchdown. Since Lauvao is out for Sunday's game, it is likely that Cousins will both continue to start and struggle until they find an acceptable replacement.
The play of Mitchell Schwartz, who plays next to Cousins at right tackle, is likely going to be one of the deciding factors of Sunday's game. Schwartz had a phenomenal rookie year last year and was one of the top right tackles in all of football. But against the Dolphins, Schwartz was ineffective at stopping Cameron Wake off the edge and Wake ended up finishing the game with 2.5 sacks. Yes, Wake is a pro-bowl caliber defensive end, but Schwartz will be matched up against another elite pass rusher in Elvis Dumervil against the Ravens. If the Mitchell Schwartz that showed up against the Dolphins shows up again against the Ravens on Sunday, Brandon Weeden is going to be in for a long day of getting pressured in the pocket.
Another one of the biggest questions about the Browns offense is what they have in their quarterback Brandon Weeden. Personally, I think much of the criticism of Weeden is a little harsh and stems from the irrelevant fact that he is older than most second-year quarterbacks. Yes, while 29 is very old to be a second-year quarterback, I definitely don't think age alone is a disqualifying reason he can't eventually become an average starting quarterback. I also think is final line against the Dolphins overestimates how terrible he was. While he threw three interceptions and only one touchdown, two of those interceptions were not his fault, and bounced off the hands of his receivers to Miami defenders. One could easily hypothesize that if Weeden has a better supporting cast of receivers and better pass protection, he might be able to transform into an average quarterback.
But Weeden isn't surrounded by those tools, and it's pretty clear that while the lackadaisical offense isn't entirely his fault, he doesn't have the necessary skillset to elevate the players around him. He completed less than 50 percent of all his attempted passes against the Dolphins and looked lost for much of the game. If the Browns beat the Ravens on Sunday, it almost certainly won't be because of Weeden.
The Browns are a run first offense and the reason why is simple: Trent Richardson. Richardson is an athletic freak of a running back that was taken third overall in the 2012 draft. But despite said athleticism, it would definitely be premature to crown Richardson an elite running back as of now. In 2012, he only averaged 3.6 yards per carry, which ranked 40th in the entire NFL. And it didn't look like he improved much from 2012 against the Dolphins, gaining only 47 yards on 13 carries.
So what are his problems? First, even though he is great at running through contact; he sometimes ignores smaller, obvious holes while searching for larger running lanes that never materialize. But the bigger issue is the Browns shoddy offensive line play. Until they start making second level blocks and taking linebackers out of the equation, Richardson isn't going to be the big play threat that other elite running backs are.
According to the Browns offensive coordinator Norv Turner, he to give Richardson at least 20 touches on Sunday. So Ravens fans should figure for him to be a large part of the Browns offensive game plan.
If you think the Ravens have a bad wide receiver situation, a good way to immediately feel better is take a look at the hand of cards that the Browns have been dealt at that same position. Josh Gordon, the Brown's top wide receiver, is currently serving a two game suspension for the violation of the league's drug policy, and the rest of their pass catchers aren't very skilled. Greg Little, the Browns number two receiver, has never lived up to his potential and has some trouble catching the ball even when he is completely open. Other contributors for the Browns including Travis Benjamin and Davone Bess, but don't expect them to do too much damage. A good quarterback can make below average receivers work in an offense, and vice versa. But Brandon Weeden is not the kind of quarterback that is going to elevate the play of their receivers. So despite weakness of the Ravens secondary, the Browns don't have the kind of dynamic playmakers at wide out to fully take advantage.
The Browns tight end Jordan Cameron, in one of the lone bright spots for the team on Sunday, had 9 receptions for 108 yards and a touchdown. Cameron is physically imposing (he's 6' 5" and 245 pounds) and plenty athletic, but neither was essential to the success that he had against the Dolphins. While I'm not sure if it's a result of Norv Turner's scheming or Cameron's talent (it's probably a combination of both), Cameron was terrific at finding the space between zone defenders and using that space to create a fair amount of yardage after the catch. There usually wasn't a defender anywhere close to Cameron on any his receptions, because they were either committed to the blitz or playing deep to stop a big play. By my count, Cameron picked up about half on all of receiving yards when the Dolphins blitzed 5 or more players. When the Ravens blitz on Sunday, they need to keep an eye on Cameron, who at least on Sunday looked like one of Weeden‘s favorite outlet options.
Despite the ugly showing of the Ravens defense against Denver, they shouldn't have too much trouble with the Browns offense. Not only do the Browns lack the offensive line to contain the Ravens pass rush, they also lack the dynamic playmakers to be successful even when there isn't much pressure on the quarterback. The question is not whether or not the Browns will have an effective offense against the Ravens, but how ineffective said offense will be.