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Thursday Night Preview: Can the Ravens Stay Atop the Tightly Contested AFC North?

In a logjam atop the AFC North, Baltimore gets a favorable home matchup against the winless Cleveland Browns.

The Baltimore Ravens take on the Cleveland Browns in one of the most unpredictable divisions so far in 2016. As our own Austan Kas previewed yesterday, this division is going to go down to the wire.

As Austan noted, the Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Cincinnati Bengals are within a half game of one another, and they are pretty closely bunched up in our team rankings, which are based off of our nERD metric. The Bengals rank in the highest at 17th, while the Steelers (22nd) and the Ravens (23rd) slot in closely behind them.

The Browns, meanwhile, are ranked 31st, and at 0-9, they are trying to avoid the same fate as the winless 2008 Detroit Lions.

Tonight's game between Baltimore and Cleveland is a tale of two very different teams. One is very poor on offense with a very strong defense (the Ravens), and one features an average offense and a very bad defense (the Browns).

Who will come out on top on this matchup?

Quarterback Breakdown

The Browns have decided to turn the reigns over to rookie Cody Kessler to see what kind of prospects he has for the franchise moving forward. Kessler has been pretty strong as a rookie, and our own Jim Sannes channeled his inner Nostradamus over the summer in assessing the young quarterback's chances.

It turns out Jim may be right as Kessler is playing pretty well. Among the 33 quarterbacks who have at least 100 drop backs, Kessler checks in 11th in terms of Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back. In terms of Passing Success Rate -- the percentage of drop backs which result in a positive NEP gain -- Kessler is 12th with a success rate of 49.4%.

Playing in his 9th NFL season, former Delaware Blue Hen and Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco has not enjoyed much success in 2016. Amongst the same group of quarterbacks highlighted above, Flacco is one of six passers to record a negative Passing NEP per drop back, ranking 29th with a mark of -0.01. In terms of Success Rate, it doesn't get any better for Flacco -- he's still ranked 29th.

So while the Browns may have the decided edge in the passing attack, how do the running games stack up?

Running Back Play

The Browns lead back, Isaiah Crowell, has been a very effective player this year. In terms of Rushing NEP per carry among the 29 backs with at least 75 attempts, Crowell checks in 12th. In terms of Success Rate, Crowell is a little less effective, ranking 19th at 40.5%. But Crowell has been a beast in the passing game. ranking fourth in Reception NEP per target among backs to see at least 20 looks.

For the Ravens, the picture is a bit murkier. Terrance West, who had assumed lead back duties for the Ravens, saw the field for only 29 offensive plays (41%) Week 9 against the Steelers, per Pro Football Outsiders. Kyle Juszczyk actually saw the most playing time in the back field with 34 plays (49%) while Kenneth Dixon got 20 snaps (29%).

Perhaps the reason for the Week 9 timeshare is West's inefficiency so far this season. West ranks 20th in Rushing NEP per carry among backs with at least 75 rushes, and he's marginally worse in terms of Success Rate at 39.4% (21st).

All in all, this is a poor Ravens offense, ranking last in the league, per our metrics. Can their defense save the day?

Defensive Matchup

The Ravens defense has been fantastic so far in 2016. Per our schedule-adjusted per play rankings, the Ravens' D ranks 4th while the Browns' defense check in 30th.

The Ravens have been pretty good against the pass so far, coming in 11th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. That run defense, though, is ferocious -- they rank tops in all of football, according to our numbers.

In four games this season, they've held the opposing team's leading rusher to under 50 yards, and they stacked up the league's best rushing offense, the Buffalo Bills, to a meager 65 rushing yards on 24 attempts. As good as they have been, they surely won't forget that in Week 2, Crowell was pretty productive, toting the rock 18 times for 133 yards and a score.

The Browns, however, have been awful on defense. Unfortunately for them, both the pass defense and the run defense are equally atrocious. Per our metrics, the pass defense ranks 31st while the run defense checks in 29th. Recently, the run defense has been particularly poor -- over the last three weeks, they've allowed an average of 203.3 rushing yards per week to the Bengals, New York Jets, and Dallas Cowboys.

In terms of Adjusted Sack Rate at Pro Football Outsiders, Baltimore has logged 18 sacks on their way to an an adjusted rate of 7.0%, good for 9th best. The Browns, meanwhile, get to the quarterback only 5.0% of the time (25th).

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