The first time the Ravens faced Cleveland, the Browns defense was missing a critical piece: cornerback Joe Haden.
The third-year defender was suspended from Weeks 2-5 for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy, and his absence left a big hole in the Browns secondary. Haden returned to the lineup three weeks ago, and since then the Browns are 2-1 and appear to be on the rise heading into Sunday's game against the Ravens.
"I think he's one of the top corners going now," Head Coach John Harbaugh said on a conference call with the Cleveland media. "They probably can do a little more with him out there than they could with most corners, and I just think he's a difference-maker."
Haden is arguably the Browns best defender, possibly even the team's top player. The former first-round pick and Maryland native has emerged as a shutdown corner, and teams have started to simply avoid throwing his direction. His mere presence changes the way offenses try to attack the Browns defense.
"He's one of the best young corners in the league and there's definitely been a difference in their defense since he's been in there," wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "They're playing better since he's been back and they already had a tough defense."
"He is an outstanding player," Browns Head Coach Pat Shurmur added. "He has great skill and ability, loves to play the game, and we're glad he is back."
Haden has played in half of the Browns games this season, and the difference with him in the lineup has been considerable.
Here's a closer look at the numbers:
Opponents: Bengals, Bills, Ravens, Giants
Average points allowed: 30.5
Average passing yards allowed: 279.5
Total passing touchdowns allowed: 10
Opponents: Eagles, Bengals, Colts, Chargers
Average points allowed: 16
Average passing yards allowed: 259.5
Total passing touchdowns allowed: 5
Joe Flacco and the Ravens took advantage of Haden's absence in their Week 4 meeting, as Flacco threw for 356 yards, his second-highest total of the season. Veteran receiver Anquan Boldin took over in that game and finished with 131 receiving yards on nine catches.
If Haden had played in that game, it could have gone much differently.
"I think that when I'm out there, I make a difference," **Haden told the News Herald** Wednesday.
Boldin spent much of that game matched up against cornerback Dimitri Patterson, but that will likely change on Sunday with Haden back in the lineup. The Browns mix up their coverage in the secondary, but if a receiver like Boldin gets hot, Shurmur said the Browns could decide to just match Haden up against him one-on-one.
"We'll play zone and man, and we pressure in different ways. You can't always just match Joe up, but if there is a receiver that we feel like warrants being matched, then of course we have the ability to do it," Shumur said.
Also, having Haden in the lineup could give the Ravens even more of an incentive to stick with the running game, which has been a priority in recent matchups with the Browns. Flacco threw for an average of just 145 passing yards last season against the Browns, and running back Ray Rice ran for 204 yards during the game in Cleveland.
The Ravens have tended to go with a ground-and-pound approach in recent years in the often-windy Cleveland Browns Stadium, and having to go up against Haden again could be an added deterrent to throwing the ball.
"He's a real playmaker," Harbaugh said."He's got great feet, a great feel."