On Sunday, the Cleveland Browns take on the Baltimore Ravens to kick off the NFL regular season. I am mixing up the preview format this year, as opposed to comparing each team position-by-position. Instead, I am going to analyze a few advantages, disadvantages, or general thoughts about the two teams.
How Do You Stop Lamar Jackson?
- Over at The Ringer, it was asked, “Can NFL answers solve Lamar Jackson?” It’s the same thing I think about every time the Browns play him. Last year, I said that Jackson is not built to be a quarterback who can strictly drop back to pass if he needs to rally from being down by 2-3 scores. To an extent, that’s how Cleveland handed Baltimore one of their two regular season losses in 2019.
- Greg Roman has the perfect system for him, as evidenced by his MVP numbers last year. He completed 66% of his passes and threw for 36 touchdowns to just 6 interceptions. He rushed for 1,206 yards and 7 touchdowns. The one wrench that we’re seeing formed has been in the playoffs for the past two seasons, when defensive coordinators throw a creative, new look at Jackson, leading to turnovers.
- In the chess match that is the NFL, the pandemic-shortened offseason did Cleveland no favors. The Ravens have some challenges they have to adjust for, like replacing a player the caliber of offensive guard Marshal Yanda, but overall, I think the continuity of their well-oiled machine will allow them to get off to a fast start in 2020.
- Cleveland, on the other hand, has a new head coach, new systems, new players, new members of the offensive line, etc. Change was good and necessary for Cleveland. Is it possible that the “unknown” of their potential catches Baltimore off guard? Sure! But the more likely scenario would be there being some bumps in the road. Think of how crisp the Chiefs looked in the opening game vs. the Texans.
- I am looking forward to Cleveland’s offense in 2020, particularly with the team’s ground game. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt begin the season being healthy, and one could say that the Browns have the two best running backs in the AFC. Distributing their usage is still a tricky balance to make sure both backs get into the flow of the game, but hopefully that is a good problem to have.
- The Vikings were 6th in the NFL last year at 133 yards rushing per week. The Browns’ running game was 4th in the NFL last year in yards per carry at 4.84 YPC. Cleveland’s success came from the likes of Chubb breaking tackles, not superior run blocking from his offensive line or a great commitment to the running game by Freddie Kitchens. What we have in 2020 is: A) a greater commitment to the run by Kevin Stefanski; B) use of the zone blocking run scheme; C) and an upgraded offensive line at the tackle positions.
- The Ravens’ run defense statistics were a bit misleading last year. They were 5th in the NFL in allowing just 93.4 yards rushing per game, but that was often because teams were falling behind and had to abandon the run. They allowed 4.39 YPC on the season, which ranked 21st in the NFL.
- The Ravens knew this and bolstered their run defense this offseason, trading for Calais Campbell and signing Derek Wolfe. Campbell was the “Run Defender of the Year” by Pro Football Focus, and Wolfe is a solid interior run defender too. It’s also worth noting that veteran defensive tackle Brandon Williams, who missed the game where Cleveland won in 2019, is healthy and ready to go too. For Baltimore’s strength up front, there is some youth and inexperience at the linebacker position — so while Baltimore’s defense could be better against the run, a strong rushing attack like the one Cleveland has can still persevere.
Cleveland’s Defensive Test
- The Browns are talented up front on the defensive line, with some improved depth too. Those guys will be key in their discipline against Lamar Jackson and the Ravens’ constant misdirections. The cornerback position is missing some pieces, but Baltimore doesn’t deploy too many deep receiver looks, and Terrance Mitchell starting is not a downgrade to Greedy Williams. We’ll also see a veteran safety unit in Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo, both of whom will have to keep an eye on tight end Mark Andrews.
- The biggest question mark is certainly at the linebacker position. Even with Joe Schobert and Mack Wilson last year, the group wasn’t anywhere close to being above average. Now, Schobert is gone and Wilson is hurt, leaving the team with B.J. Goodson, Sione Takitaki, and Jacob Phillips, with Malcolm Smith and Tae Davis also in the mix. Wilson was upset this offseason that the media was touting the group as one of the worst-ranked units in the NFL. I understand the passion that these players have, but the ranking is just conveying how inexperienced and unproven the group is.
- On top of that, it’s not an inexperienced group full of first- and second-round picks. There are guys who are low budget players right now who are starting by default. It would be amazing if somehow, this group overachieved and played their asses off at such a high level. But the likelihood of that happening is not very good, and teams like the Ravens are definitely going to take advantage of this group. I think Cleveland needs to jump ahead early for a chance to win, but I don’t think the linebacker play will be solid enough to build that lead long enough to force Baltimore to become one-dimensional.
Here are predictions from multiple staff members at DBN.
Chris Pokorny: “I’m excited about the Browns in 2020 and the season starting, but this is the wrong opponent for Cleveland to get started with. Baltimore, like Kansas City, is such a well-oiled machine with their offensive system, and I think that will benefit certain teams (compared to others) greatly in a shortened offseason.
The Browns’ running game will show some promise, but I worry about things snowballing against a team like Baltimore. Cleveland’s best chance of winning this week is if Lamar Jackson shows some rust, like fumbling the ball off of a run from not having taken much contact this offseason, or having a pass picked off after a lengthy drive. You’ll never fully shut Jackson and the offense down from moving the ball entirely, but you can still find an opportune window for mistakes. I’m just not banking on it happening in Week 1.” Ravens 27, Browns 20
Thomas Moore: “The Browns will open the season in Baltimore with a simplified, but solid, offensive gameplan that features a heavy dose of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, with some play-action passing sprinkled in for fun. That will be enough to help keep the game close, but there are just enough exploitable holes in the defense that the Browns will continue their streak of Week 1 losses by dropping a close one to the Ravens.” Ravens 17, Browns 14
rufio: “Lamar Jackson gets his on the ground, and JK Dobbins shows the world that he probably should have been drafted earlier. But Lamar also throws a few INTs, Baker protects the ball well enough, and Odell breaks loose on a few plays that remind us why we were running in the streets when we got him. The Browns overcome some early season sloppiness to win a close one.” Browns 28, Ravens 24
Barry Shuck: “On paper, the Browns are in a much better place than last year. The offensive line should be more prevalent as the season unwinds which can only help Baker Mayfield in his Year 3. However, I think the teams that have the coaching staff in place from last year with the same offensive coordinators plus the same system will be much better off in the first third of 2020. Not having any preseason games have placed these “newby” clubs behind on everything. The Ravens have only added to their madness and have almost every single player coming back (including the league MVP) while the Browns have their third offensive coordinator in three years and have had zero on-field trial-by-fire live games to go by, adjust and learn what works and what does not. If you have ever coached at any level, you know how important practice games are.” Ravens 44, Browns 17
Josh Finney: “Prediction: I’ll wake up at 9ish, think about the game with a mixture of glee, anticipation, and horror. Roast will go in the instant pot around 11ish, the first beer will be cracked at 1230, and for a blissful 45 minutes or so, the craziness of the world will be muted by the sheer joy of the Brownies on the field again.
A few early haymakers will likely make everyone feel great about OBJ’s return to health and Chubb’s talent, but the sloppiness and lack of practice time are going to crush this team, early. It won’t feel that close.” Ravens 38, Browns 20
Dan Lalich: “It’s week one, and without any preseason tune-ups I think both teams will struggle with communication and execution offensively. This will lead to a sloppy low scoring game that is ultimately decided by one or two big plays.” Browns 11 Ravens 5
Who do you think will win, Browns fans? Let us know in the comments section below.