Colt McCoy's protection has improved each of the past three weeks. Now he is in for his biggest test of the season when the Browns host the Ravens on Sunday.
The Ravens lead the NFL with 28 sacks - nine of them against the 49ers' Alex Smith on Thanksgiving night. They are well-rested and hungry for more. The Ravens are 8-3 and tied for first with Pittsburgh in the AFC North. The Ravens have to beat the Browns to keep pace.
McCoy has been sacked 26 times and has been hit 64 times in 11 games. Four teams have given up more quarterback hits, but each of those teams have played at least two quarterbacks this season.
McCoy has started every game in his second season with the Browns and so far has lived to line up with the first team in the next practice. One Monday he had both knees wrapped. His right shoulder was pummeled in the Jacksonville game Nov. 20. Last week he left the locker room with a sore right elbow after banging it on a player's helmet while scrambling on the third play of the game in Cincinnati.
McCoy has to make it through the next five games to become the first Browns quarterback since Tim Couch in 2001 to go wire to wire as the starter. Four days after playing the Ravens he has to face the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
"You have to trust your guys," McCoy said. "You have to trust your running backs. You have to trust your offensive line to pick up the protection and you have to trust your guys to get open. That's how it is week to week.
"This week they are really good up front. At least numbers coming into this game, they've pressured more than anybody we've seen. We've got a lot on our plate, a lot to handle, but we're excited about the challenge."
The Browns haven't beaten the Ravens since sweeping them in 2007. The Ravens have sacked a bevy of Browns quarterbacks since then - Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, Seneca Wallace and McCoy - a total of 12 times while going 6-0 since the Browns won 33-30 in overtime in Baltimore four years ago. The Ravens sacked Wallace twice while winning 24-17 in Cleveland last year.
The Ravens did not sack McCoy when they beat the Browns, 20-10, in the 15th game of 2010 but it didn't matter because McCoy threw three interceptions and had a passer rating of 27.0 (career low) while playing in a wind chill of 13 degrees in Cleveland. According to the play-by-play, McCoy wasn't even hit once.
"If you get in a known passing situation, watch out, because they're going to pin their ears back and do everything they can to get home," Thomas said. "Every year when we play them they're going to give us our best challenge because they put some impressive specimens out on the field. We have to keep it close. That's the key a lot of times; keep the game close so you can keep the defense off balance."
Suggs has 12 sacks against the Browns. No other player in league history has equaled that. Four of the 12 were against Thomas.
--Rookie receiver Greg Little, coming off the worst game of his blossoming career, will try to rebound against one of the best defenses in the NFL when the Browns play host to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.
Little was targeted 13 times in Cleveland's 23-20 loss to the Bengals. He caught five passes and was charged with four drops. It did not help that Bengals rookie A.J. Green was targeted four times and made three catches for 110 yards.
Little is going to be Colt McCoy's go-to receiver until general manager Tom Heckert finds somebody better. That won't happen this season, and as far as coach Pat Shurmur is concerned, Little has the potential to be an elite receiver like Green despite what happened in Cincinnati.
"He's no longer a rookie in my eyes," Shurmur said. "He's played a lot of football, and he's steadily become more and more productive, and more and more professional.
"He dropped too many balls. Catching the football is very important -- focus and concentration. Forget the last play and move on to the next play. The fact he didn't speak or answer questions tells me it bothered him."
Little slipped out of the visitors' locker room in Paul Brown Stadium before reporters could grill him about the dropped passes. However, he spoke this week about what he has to do to avoid a repeat of what happened in Cincinnati.
"Obviously, I was definitely upset at my performance," Little said. "I took the time to cool off. I play with a high passion and high emotion. I got dressed and figured everybody would come up to me at once.
Nobody showed up. I kind of left a little earlier than I usually do."
Colt McCoy never stopped going to Little. Little's last drop was on a throw down the middle with 27 seconds to play when the Browns were down 23-20. A catch would have given Cleveland a chance to run another play or two to get into field-goal range for a chance to tie the score. Instead, McCoy's pass to Joshua Cribbs on fourth down was incomplete.
McCoy will look for Little on Sunday. The passes will have to be quick to neutralize the Ravens' pass rush.
"I've got all the confidence in the world in the receivers, and I know they have all the confidence in the world in me," McCoy said. "On a day where we're getting drops, you just have to continue to show them that you're confident in them, continue to bring them along."
Little leads all rookies with 47 catches. Green has 44 catches and seven touchdowns. The Ravens, well rested having not played since Thanksgiving night, rank third in the NFL defensively. Their pass defense is ranked fifth.
Little compared his bad day to a basketball player who is in a slump at the free-throw line. He said he is confident he'll get the problem corrected in practice as the Browns continue getting ready for the Ravens.
"I have to do a better job ensuring the catch rather than trying to get up field," he said. "Some days you can't throw the (basketball) in the ocean. Some days you can't hang on (to the football). It's definitely something I can learn and grow from."
Little has a chance to set a record for Browns rookie receivers. The record of 66 was set by Kevin Johnson in 1999.
SERIES HISTORY: 25th regular-season meeting. Ravens lead series, 17-7. The Ravens have beaten the Browns six consecutive times.
--Eric Mangini lasted two years as the Browns' head coach. The closest he came to beating the Ravens was 24-17 on Sept. 26 last year. The Browns led 17-14 early in the fourth quarter, but the Ravens scored 10 unanswered points in the last 10 minutes.
--Pat Shurmur is in his first year as head coach of the Browns. At some point this week, he plans on telling his players that the Ravens were the Browns before Art Modell moved them to Baltimore in 1996. He admitted some of his players aren't aware of the significance this game has for some fans in Cleveland.
"Some of the young players don't know the history of our game," Shurmur said. "It's just because they're young. If you ask guys who the best players in each franchise were to ever play, they don't go back beyond the ones they've seen the last couple years, so I think that's some of what you're dealing with.
"I think the history of what's gone on here is important to know, and at some point, I'll talk about that with them. But professional football players find a way to play well regardless of whom the opponent is and the history of the organizations, and I think that's the focus. Watch who these guys are on tape, understand what their matchups are, understand what the plan is and go play. I think that's the focus."
--Baltimore certainly has dominated the series, but in 2007, the Browns swept the Ravens, winning 27-13 in Cleveland and 33-30 in overtime in Baltimore. The only other series sweep for the Browns was in 2001.
The 33-30 game was noteworthy because at the end of regulation, Phil Dawson's field-goal attempt hit the gooseneck support after going over the crossbar. The ball bounced back onto the field. At first officials ruled the kick was no good, and then they reversed their decision. Dawson won the game in overtime.
--Browns-Ravens can hardly be called a rivalry based on ticket demand. Stubhub.com was selling $44 seats for $9 on Monday and as low as $4 on Wednesday. They are seats in the upper deck of the west end zone opposite the infamous Dawg Pound. Two weeks ago when the Browns hosted Jacksonville, the same seats were $2 the Friday night before the game.
BY THE NUMBERS: 3-17 -- The Browns' record in their past 20 games against AFC North opponents, going back to 2008.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We can't be in slumps. It's important that we all perform, and we've got to perform all the time." -- Coach Pat Shurmur.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Browns waived Pro Bowl long snapper Ryan Pontbriand on Tuesday. He had been with the team since Butch Davis selected him in the fifth round of the 2003 draft.
The new snapper is Christian Yount, who made the Buccaneers as an undrafted rookie just before the start of training camp. He was waived on Oct. 25 when Andrew Economos, Tampa Bay's regular long snapper, returned from an injury.
"Today, I lost a long-time teammate," kicker Phil Dawson said in a tweet. "He has been with me more than any teammate I have had. I will miss him. He was the best."
Low snaps by Pontbriand directly impacted missed field-goal attempts by Dawson late in two of the past three games.
--S T.J. Ward did not practice Thursday. He has missed three straight games with a foot injury and is not expected to play Sunday.
--RB Montario Hardesty was limited with a calf injury. He has missed four straight games and did not practice Wednesday.
--S Mike Adams returned to practice. He was out Wednesday with a sprained shoulder. He said he "took a veteran's day off."
--DE Jayme Mitchell is recovering from an ankle injury and was limited Thursday. He did not play against the Bengals.
--LB Quinton Spears did not practice because of a hamstring injury. Spears is third on the team with five special teams tackles.
GAME PLAN: It is imperative the Browns have at least moderate success running the ball. If they don't, they will have to stay in max-protect all day just to keep Colt McCoy from being crushed.
Peyton Hillis rushed for 144 yards in the first game between the Browns and Ravens last season, but Baltimore held him to 35 yards on 12 carries in the second meeting last year. The Ravens won both games. He missed the teams' first meeting this season.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Browns LB Titus Brown vs. Ravens RB Ray Rice -- With starting LB Scott Fujita on injured reserve and the other linebackers moved around to cope with his absence, the Ravens could attack Brown in the middle. Brown has played in seven games and has just one tackle. Rice leads the Ravens with 772 rushing yards.
Browns LT Joe Thomas vs. Ravens LB Terrell Suggs -- This is a matchup of two Pro Bowl players. Thomas is the Browns' best offensive lineman, and Suggs leads the Ravens with nine sacks.