As hard as it may seem to accept, the Browns are still in the hunt for a playoff spot in the AFC despite their 6-6 record. But they don’t have much room for error during their final five games of the season.
Cleveland has lost four in a row to the Ravens, including a frustrating defeat two weeks ago in Baltimore.
The Browns were mostly healthy when the week began, but then COVID-19 knocked out tight end David Njoku, linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. and punter Jamie Gillan, while a concussion suffered on the final play practice on Friday will sideline cornerback Greg Newsome II.
Then there is the loss of right tackle Jack Conklin, which creates a major issue and one that Cleveland may not be able to sufficiently address.
Nevertheless, the game must go on, so here is everything you need to know as Cleveland enters “crunch time” on Sunday against Baltimore.
Records: Cleveland is 6-6. Baltimore is 8-4
Division records: Cleveland is 1-2. Baltimore is 1-2
Kickoff: 1 p.m.
Stadium: FirstEnergy Stadium, Cleveland
Announcers: Kevin Harlan, Trent Green, Melanie Collins (sidelines)
Radio: 92.3 The Fan (WKRK), ESPN 850 WKNR and WNCX (98.5)
Announcers: Jim Donovan, Doug Dieken, Nathan Zegura (sideline reporter)
Last meeting: The Ravens won the last meeting, 16-10, in Week 12. (Boxscore)
All-time series: The Ravens lead the all-time regular-season series, 34-11. The Browns last win at home against Baltimore came in Week 5 of the 2018 season.
Weather: 44 degrees and sunny, with no precipitation and winds out of the southwest at 17 MPH. (weather.com)
Uniform: The Browns will be wearing brown jerseys and white pants.
Injury report: Browns - Questionable: defensive tackle Malik Jackson (knee), defensive tackle Jordan Elliott (knee) and safety Ronnie Harrison Jr. (ankle). Out: tight end Harrison Bryant (ankle), wide receiver Anthony Schwartz (concussion), cornerback Greg Newsome II (concussion), tight end David Njoku (COVID-19), linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. (COVID-19) and punter Jamie Gillan (COVID-19).
Ravens - Questionable: cornerback Anthony Averett (knee), tight end Nick Boyle (illness/knee), defensive back/linebacker Anthony Levine Sr. (knee), fullback/defensive lineman Patrick Ricard (back), defensive back Brandon Stephens (shoulder) and cornerback Chris Westry (thigh). Doubtful: wide receiver Miles Boykin (finger). Out: offensive lineman Patrick Mekari (hand).
The line: Browns -3
A Few Things to Watch For
Second verse, same as the first on defense?: The Browns did about as good a job o defense last time against the Ravens as they intercepted quarterback Lamar Jackson four times and held him to a quarterback rating of 46.5.
They mostly held Jackson in check as a runner as well, although he did have a game-high 68 rushing yards.
The defense could not find a way to bring Jackson down, however, as they registered just two sacks despite bringing a fair amount of pressure. That allowed Jackson to keep plays going by eluding the rushers, which led to two big plays to tight end Mark Andrews, most notably a 13-yard touchdown pass.
It will be interesting to see how the Browns defend the Ravens on Sunday: will they come out with the same game plan and that this time they can get to Jackson before he makes a play, or will defensive coordinator Joe Woods mix things up?
Not having Newsome will hurt, but the play of linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Cleveland’s three safety package might be enough to turn the outcome around this time, as Woods said on Thursday (quote via a team-provided transcript):
“I think that is one of the strengths of our defense. I just think we can run at all three levels of our defense in terms of rushing the passer, covering and things of the nature. I think it showed itself a little in that game. The production was good. I wish we could have made a couple more plays, but that is what I feel like we are capable of doing.”
Get the offense going: The Browns probably can’t count on getting four interceptions again this week, so it will be up to the offense to finally shake off the malaise that has seen Cleveland score more than 17 points just once in the past seven games.
Not having Conklin and Njoku hurts, but after a week off, running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt should be as close to full health as possible — which means this could be as good a time as any to unleash one of the league’s best rushing offenses.
That did not work the last time the two teams played as the Ravens put as many defenders in the box as they could, limiting Chubb and Hunt to 36 yards on 15 carries.
However, as everyone saw on Monday night when the New England Patriots ran over the Buffalo Bills despite the Bills knowing exactly what was coming, sometimes it is just about exerting your will on the defense and taking what you want, rather than accepting what the defense gives you.
The Pittsburgh Steelers also kept running the ball last week against the Ravens despite some early frustrations, which did not go unnoticed, according to left guard Joel Bitonio (quote via a team-provided transcript):
“They did a good job, especially in the fourth quarter. They just kind of were OK with the two or three-yard runs early in the game, and then they broke a couple late in the game. It was not the prettiest, but they did have some body punches, and they ran the ball a bunch of times. It was really gritty by them. They fought for that. We saw that and we noticed it. It is something that we are going to try and figure out ourselves.”
One final note on the offense: despite the four interceptions, the Ravens still ran 20 more plays than the Browns and held the ball for 37 minutes. Cleveland’s offense needs to not only convert on any mistakes by the Ravens, but also hold onto the ball a bit more to give the defense a rest as they chase Jackson around the field.
Fixing a hole: Anything the Browns might want to do on offense could be all for naught if they can’t solve the issue at right tackle now that starter Jack Conklin is lost for the season.
The Browns have tried to plug the hole primarily with Blake Hance, a backup guard who is doing his best to try and play tackle with predictable results as he is the team’s lowest-graded lineman on a weekly basis. The situation came to a head in the last game against the Ravens, as Hance allowed three quarterback pressures and went home with a passing grade of just 25.4 from Pro Football Focus.
There have been rumblings throughout the week that Cleveland will give rookie James Hudson III a chance on Sunday. Hudson filled in at left tackle against the Minnesota Vikings and the Los Angeles Chargers when Jedrick Wills Jr. had to leave those games, and had the start in Week 6 against the Arizona Cardinals. That did not go so well, however, as Hudson allowed three pressures and finished with a team-low grade of 51.5 from Pro Football Focus.
Hance, Hudson, some combination of both or whatever the Browns come up with needs to work if they want to have any hope of keeping their playoff chances alive.
A final quote
Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt (via a team-provided transcript):
“There is a fine line. We still have two great runners and really three. I feel really good about that group of guys. I have seen many times where there is a free runner or a free guy in the hole and Nick (Chubb) or Kareem (Hunt) will make him miss or run him over. That is part of the deal when you load the box. The other part is we have to use our play-action game and our run-action game to get them back out of the box there and get back into shell. It is a combination of sticking with the run and trusting our guys are going to break tackles and make guys miss, even he is unblocked. We believe in those guys.”
These are just a few things to keep an eye on; now it is time to have your say. What are you looking for from the Browns in Sunday’s game against the Ravens?