Winless Browns face Flacco and fearsome Ravens defense
(Reuters) - The heavily criticized replacement referees will be in the spotlight again when the Baltimore Ravens host division rival Cleveland on Thursday, but it is quarterback Joe Flacco who most worries the Browns.
National Football League referees have dominated the news since the widely criticized touchdown call on the final play of Monday's primetime game between the Seattle Seahawks and visiting Green Bay Packers.
Baltimore's Flacco has been among the most outspoken players on the issue of the replacement referees, saying last week that they were "affecting the integrity" of the game.
But it is Flacco's ability to run the Ravens offense that winless Cleveland are most concerned about heading into the AFC North division clash.
In Sunday's dramatic 31-30 win over the New England Patriots, Flacco threw for 382 yards and three touchdowns while looking increasingly comfortable in a no-huddle offense.
"I've always been a Joe Flacco fan," Browns coach Pat Shurmur said on Tuesday. "I always thought he's been a good quarterback, a top-level quarterback in this league."
While the focus with the Ravens is so often on their bone-crunching defense, Shurmur says he is not surprised at all about the form of Flacco and the Ravens offense this season.
"Someone was trying to kind of council me up about Joe Flacco, if he's taken the next step? I mean you're looking at a quarterback that's led his team to the playoffs the last four years," said Shurmur.
"They have (running back) Ray Rice, they've got a veteran receiver in Anquan Boldin and then Torrey Smith. They've got some outstanding players and they're playing extremely well.
"When you watch them play I think they've made an effort to become more explosive as an offense and I think that's showed up in the first three weeks."
The Browns are relying largely on two rookies - quarterback Brandon Weeden, who has six interceptions and three touchdowns from his opening three weeks, and running back Trent Richardson to cope with the threat of a defense featuring 13-time Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis and eight-time Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed.
Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees is particularly impressed with Richardson's rushing.
"Richardson is everything that everybody talked about in the draft and coming out of Alabama. The guy is physical, he's strong. He's never going backwards. He's always falling forwards," said Pees.
"You get in a short-yardage situation, he's really exceptional. He is an exceptional, exceptional back. He's going to be something to deal with for probably a long, long time."
(Reporting by Simon Evans in Miami; Editing by Frank Pingue)