If these aren’t the Ravens of old, then these aren’t the Browns of Week 2.
Their quarterback is different. Their running back is different. Their top receiver is healthy. Their young stud tight end continues to blossom.
Jason Campbell is now under center as the third different quarterback to start for Cleveland this year. Former Ravens tailback Willis McGahee is the Browns’ top rusher after the trade of Trent Richardson to Indianapolis. Wideout Josh Gordon is back after missing the first two games of the season. And Jordan Cameron’s 49 receptions rank first among NFL tight ends while he has added team highs of 596 receiving yards and six touchdown catches.
This Cleveland team has managed to put together three straight wins - over the Vikings, Bengals and Bills (oh my) - and gave the 8-0 Chiefs fits a week ago. It’s also the the same one that enters the contest 3-5, having lost three games in a row.
But the Ravens feel they’re taking on a much-improved Browns team from the one they saw in Week 2.
“They are better. They’ve continued to improve,” coach John Harbaugh said. “We’ve played Campbell a number of times, and he’s an athletic guy with a strong arm that has been around and knows how to make plays. We respect him tremendously. Their offensive line has improved. The skill players have improved. Josh Gordon, obviously, continues to get better the more he plays. We know Willis very well as a running back and a downhill-type of back. Jordan Cameron is really coming on as a premier tight end in the National Football League. He runs every route, and he does it really well, and he’s a go-to guy for whatever quarterback they are playing with. So, offensively, they have taken some strides.”
Linebacker Jameel McClain is excited about going against an overhauled Cleveland offense that includes McGahee, who the Browns signed after trading Richardson.
“I definitely look forward to going against Willis. He’s a good guy and a past teammate, obviously,” McClain said. “So I know about Willis and I know Willis, but more importantly, the team is different. It’s a different team than what we’ve seen in the beginning. They’re doing a lot of different things, a lot of good things. A lot of people thought they were going to roll over once the whole Trent situation went down, but obviously they proved a lot of people wrong and they’re still playing a lot of good football.”
Although so much is different, defensive coordinator Dean Pees made a point to say that the schemes are much the same.
Norv Turner is still the offensive coordinator even if he has a different set of personnel at his disposal for the Browns’ second meeting with Baltimore this season.
“You’ve got to just get ready for the system. It’s Norv Turner’s system. When it’s all said and done, it’s still his system,” Pees said. “(He’s) probably not going to ask the quarterback to do things that he can’t do. He’s got enough of a package over the years that he’s got a lot of things that he can go to Campbell with. I don’t think it will be much different than what he did with (Brandon) Weeden.
“The difference I think in this game for us is the fact that (Gordon) is back. Here’s a guy who can take the top off of a defense in a hurry, where we didn’t play against him the first time. And you can’t focus all the attention on him because, to me, they have one of the best tight ends in the league - if not the best. That guy is a go-to dynamic tight end in my estimation, and I think he’s really a good, good football player.
“So the system is what the system is. And the fact that Willis is in there ... Willis is a lot like Richardson in a way. This isn’t a bounce-out, try-to-get-the-edge runner. This is a downhill thumper, which is what Richardson was. So I don’t see a great deal of difference. It’s different names, but I just don’t see a whole lot of difference in the offense.”
Overall, the Browns rank 24th in the league in total offense, 25th in points per game and 26th in rushing.
Their defense is another story. The Ravens’ still-searching offense will be going up against the seventh-ranked unit in the NFL, a defense that is holding opponents to 320.4 yards per game, including just 216.8 through the air per contest (sixth in the league).
Cleveland ranks 12th in allowing 103.6 rushing yards per contest and 15th with 22.4 points permitted per game.
“They do a great job stopping the run; I think that’s quite evident,” offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said. “You look at them statistically, almost in every category, they are somewhere up in the top 10. They do a great job, they’re physical group up front, and they’re big. Phil Taylor does a great job of not only just being a great run stopper, but this guy can rush the passer and push the pocket. He’s active and agile up and down the line of scrimmage. You saw him make several plays against Kansas City, just moving down the line and moving that 335 pounds as fast as you’ll see any big man.
“The outside linebacking corps is very, very good - (Paul) Kruger and (Jabaal) Sheard. Their inside linebacking corps is tremendous. All around, (T.J.) Ward from the safety position - in terms of the run game - is having a tremendous year.”
So Harbaugh goes into this one expecting another tough matchup. Even though Baltimore has won 11 straight against the Browns, six of the last seven meetings have been decided by 10 points or fewer.
“Every time we play them, it’s a tough game, it’s a physical game,” Harbaugh said. “They’ve run the ball on us, they’ve played great defense against us over the years, their pass rushers are legitimate pass rushers. It’s always a fight right down to the finish, so we know it will be that kind of game again - at least that’s what we are expecting and preparing for.”