8:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Ravens -3, Over/Under: 46
The once and former Cleveland Browns face off against the current incarnation of the franchise, as the Baltimore Ravens look to sweep the season series against their bitter rivals in a MAJOR divisional matchup ripe with Playoff implications from FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. My, oh my, what a difference a year has made for the Ravens (7-5, 3rd in AFC North), who this time last year were running roughshod over the National Football League en route to a franchise-best 14-2 finish on the strength of a relentless rushing attack that had left nothing but carnage in their wake, led by MVP-winner Lamar Jackson (63.8%, 2,055 YDS, 6.05 NY/A, 17 TD, 7 INT, 63.1 QBR). This season though, they’ve seen the rest of the league catch up to their schemes, with Jackson taking a step backwards, which has left them fighting for their Playoff lives in the convoluted AFC at just two games over .500. Oh, and did we fail to mention what has become arguably the most highly-publicized COVID-19 outbreak in the league thus far? Simply put, no team has been more adversely effected by the virus than these guys, who have seen their schedule completely upended with each of their last two outings postponed to later dates due to a whopping TWENTY-THREE members of their roster and staff testing positive. However, John Harbaugh has managed to keep his side afloat in the face of such adversity, and following Tuesday’s 34-17 victory over the Dallas Cowboys (more on that in a bit) his troops appear refocused and ready to make one last assault to return to the Playoffs. And as fate would have it, a familiar foe is standing in their way…
After losing four out of five games following their Bye Week, the Ravens fell out of the Playoff field altogether and must now proceed forward with ZERO margin for error while hoping for a little help along the way. Fortunately for Harbaugh’s charges, the remaining schedule is far from arduous, featuring dates with the likes of the Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants, and Cincinnati Bengals to round things out, with those three teams posting a combined record of 8-27-1 (.222). With that said, the Browns are up first, and while they currently sit two games ahead of Baltimore within the AFC North, the birds should be confident in their chances of dispatching their bitter rival, particularly given how profoundly they defeated them in the Season Opener. Talk about one-sided affairs, for that 38-6 drubbing was never in question as the Ravens humiliated Cleveland on every level, with the aforementioned Jackson thoroughly outplaying his counterpart, Baker Mayfield. The reigning MVP made it look easy folks, deftly completing 20-of-25 passes for 275 yards and three touchdowns, while rushing for another forty-five yards on seven carries, hooking up with (Sophomore Receiver) Marquise Brown (41 REC, 555 YDS, 13.5 Y/R, 4 TD) for five catches and 101 yards, and trusted (Tight End) Mark Andrews (38 REC, 454 YDS, 11.9 Y/R, 6 TD) for five receptions of his own for fifty-eight yards and a pair of scores. However, Jackson has struggled to maintain that level of consistency passing the football, for he hasn’t been nearly as effective as he was last season in which the Sophomore Signal-Caller accounted for a whopping FORTY-TWO touchdowns, while rushing for 1,026 yards, an NFL record for his position. (Offensive Coordinator) Greg Roman crafted the attack to his unique skillset, with Baltimore evolving into a bonafide juggernaut on this side of the football, leading the league in scoring (33.2), first downs (386), rushing yards (206.0), and yards per carry (5.5). Apparently, the rest of the league has caught up to Roman and his schemes, for they have employed a variety of tactics in slowing Jackson; opposing Defenses have steadfastly taken away the middle of the field for the young passer, forcing him to attempt to stretch it outside the hashmarks, where he hasn’t been nearly as accurate and a young Receiving Corps has yet to find much traction at all. Opponents have also gone out of their way to set the edge in an attempt to confine him to the pocket, and limit the outside runs that he had exploited so frequently in the past. Additionally, they’ve blitzed the 23-year old with far more success, disrupting the time it takes for the longer vertical routes to form. In this case, the numbers don’t lie, folks, for Jackson has experienced steep decline in a slew of categories, including completion percentage (66.1% to 63.8%), yards per attempt (7.8 to 7.0), touchdown percentage (9.0% to 5.8%), sack percentage (5.4% to 7.6%), net yards per attempt (7.13 to 6.05), and QBR (82.3 to 63.1). Furthermore, he’s been pressured much more (16.2% to 21.3%), leading to more sacks through eleven games (24) than he had suffered in fifteen outings last year (23), while finding far less success when scrambling to escape the rush, averaging just 6.6 yards per scramble in comparison to the robust 11.0 from a year ago. However, it hasn’t all been on his shoulders though, for the supporting cast around him hasn’t been the best either; the Offensive Line saw (All-Pro Guard) Marshal Yanda retire in the Offseason, while (Left Tackle) Ronnie Stanley has been languishing on Injured Reserve with a fractured/dislocated ankle since Week Eight. And then there is the aforementioned Receiving Corps, which (General Manager) Eric DeCosta has failed to bolster in the Offseason; the Ravens have seen just 1,368 yards attributed to Wide Receivers thus far, which translates to a mere 67.3% of their passing offense, by far the lowest such figure in the NFL. So is it any wonder that they rank last in passing this season? Through twelve games they’ve attempted the fewest passes in the league (314), rank next-to-last in yards (182.4), and twenty-fourth in net yards per attempt (5.96). Sure they’ve continued to rush the football with more success than anyone (169.0 Y/G, 1st Overall), but when you compare that to last year’s showing, they’re churning out 37.0 fewer yards, which is a rather sizable difference.
When we last saw the Ravens, they returned to full strength to make a statement in their aforementioned 34-17 drubbing of the Cowboys last Tuesday Night from M&T Bank Stadium. After a strange First Half which saw both Quarterbacks intercepted on tipped passes and each Kicker miss relatively easy field goal attempts, the hosts took full control of the affair following intermission; Baltimore punted after a quick three and out, but proceeded to score on their final three successive drives, with Jackson finding Brown for a 20-yard touchdown (his second of the night) in the Third Quarter, while J.K. Dobbins (83 CAR, 451 YDS, 5.4 Y/A, 4 TD) finished off the final possession with a five-yard rush into the end zone. In the end, Harbaugh’s troops rung up 401 total yards, gashing the NFL’s worst run defense for a staggering season-high of 294 yards on thirty-seven carries, featuring three players amassing over seventy yards, including Jackson (13 CAR, 94 YDS, 1 TD) and Dobbins (11 CAR, 71 YDS, 1 TD) along with Gus Edwards (101 CAR, 487 YDS, 4.8 Y/A, 4 TD), who led the way with 101 yards on only seven attempts. Jackson didn’t have to do much passing, but he was effective enough in completing an efficient 12-of-17 attempts for 107 yards and a par of scores, with Myles Boykin (15 REC, 191 YDS, 12.7 Y/R, 2 TD) the recipient of his other touchdown toss. On the flipside, Dallas was thoroughly overwhelmed on the ground, yielding 7.9 yards per carry on the night, with only themselves to blame for not making the most of their time in possession; the visitors totaled 388 yards of Offense and held the football for 32:26 largely due to their success on fourth down (3-of-4), but frequently saw their drives bog down in the host’s side of the field, and left plenty of points on the table in missing three field goals.
Meanwhile, standing in their way of a possible return to the Playoffs are none other than the Browns (9-3, 2nd in AFC), who are in the midst of the long-awaited franchise renaissance that many expected to happen last season. Who cares if the revolution is a year late? Cleveland has waited EIGHTEEN years to return to the Postseason, and with nine wins through their first twelve games they’ve managed to achieve that mark for the first time since all the way back in 1994, when some guy by the name of Bill Belichick was cutting his teeth as their Head Coach. Many Coaches, Quarterbacks, and exponentially more losses later, the Dog Pound stand poised to return to the Playoffs, winners of four in a row following their Bye Week, though these last four games could prove absolutely SEISMIC to their fortunes; two games behind the Pittsburgh Steelers and two ahead of the Ravens within the AFC North, Kevin Stefanski’s charges face each of those rivals during this stretch, with a quick Meadowlands two-step against the Jets and Giants sandwiched in between. A swing from the pendulum of fortune in any particular direction could potentially see them ascend even higher within the division, but could also see them plummet down the standings in what is a convoluted Playoff field, even with the league allowing for a third Wild Card this season due to the effects of COVID-19. With all that said, how have they gotten to this point, and do they have what it takes to progress even further?
Where the 2019 Browns crashed and burned in a spectacular blaze of controversy, bluster, and theatrics, the current iteration of the team has been largely successful by simplifying things and getting back to basics. Stefanski, the clear frontrunner for Coach of the Year, has worked wonders in his first season in Cleveland, quickly identifying what his charges are built to do well, and mercilessly exploiting it along the way, which in this case is running the football. (General Manager) Andrew Berry made a concerted effort in bolstering this part of the Offense during the Offseason, spending the Tenth Overall Pick in the 2020 NFL Draft on (Tackle) Jedrick Wills out of Alabama, and signing fellow Tackle, Jack Conklin, alongside (Tight End) Austin Hooper (30 REC, 286 YDS, 9.5 Y/R, 2 TD) to lucrative deals in Free Agency. These transactions were all telltale signs of the club’s intentions under Stefanski, who was responsible for the Minnesota Vikings’ punishing ground game over the previous two seasons. So with that context, it’s no surprise that the Browns have been one of the elite teams in the league in regards to the run, churning out a prolific 157.8 yards per game (2nd Overall) on a healthy 4.9 yards per carry (4th Overall). By and large this has served as the barometer for their success, for Cleveland has averaged 175.4 yards per contest via the run in their nine victories in comparison to 104.7 yards in their three losses thus far. (Tailbacks) Nick Chubb (133 CAR, 799 YDS, 6.0 Y/A, 7 TD) and Kareem Hunt (171 CAR, 739 YDS, 4.3 Y/A, 4 TD) have flourished within Stefanski’s scheme, with the former returning from an MCL injury that kept him out of action for five weeks, unsurprisingly coinciding with his team’s current torrid form; since returning following the Bye, Chubb has averaged 116.0 yards on a healthy 6.1 yards per carry, registering three scores to boot. Of course, running the football with such success also makes things much easier for everyone involved, particularly (Quarterback) Baker Mayfield (62.7%, 2,442 YDS, 6.84 NY/A, 21 TD, 7 INT, 70.5 QBR), who in taking a backseat to Chubb and Hunt has quietly put together his finest campaign as a Starting Quarterback in the National Football League. The former Heisman and No. One Overall Pick struggled mightily as a Sophomore in 2019 for a variety of reasons, including poor pass-protection, even poorer playcalling, and a general lack of discipline and accountability that saw the previous Coaching Staff lose their jobs. However, Mayfield himself was at fault as well, struggling to progress through his reads, while forcing the football into crowded windows far too often en route to tossing nearly as many interceptions (21) as touchdowns (22). Much as he did with Kirk Cousins in Minnesota, Stefanski has simplified the game for his young passer, insisting he play complementary football with the run game, which coupled with improved protection and better decision-making has led to the most efficient version of Mayfield that we’ve seen in his three years as a professional. The 25-year old has exhibited growth across the board in a slew of categories, including completion percentage (59.4% to 62.7%), yards per attempt (7.2 to 7.5), touchdown percentage (4.1% to 6.4%), interception percentage (3.9% to 2.1%), sack percentage (7.0% to 4.9%), net yards per attempt (6.17 to 6.84), and QBR (51.2 to 70.5). Furthermore, during this current four-game winning streak he has completed 65.4% of his passes for an average of 232.0 yards on a robust 8.63 net yards per attempt, with six touchdowns and most importantly ZERO turnovers, as Cleveland has outscored the opposition 100-84 over that span. Tonight’s meeting with Baltimore will serve as a measuring stick for how much he’s grown and it will be interesting to see how he and his teammates will adjust after the aforementioned beatdown that they suffered in the Season Opener. Simply put, Mayfield was terrible in that particular affair, completing 21-of-39 passes for just 189 yards, a touchdown and an interception, while suffering a pair of sacks. Despite enjoying a good deal of success via the run, rushing for 138 yards on twenty-seven carries, the visitors routinely shot themselves in the foot in losing a pair of fumbles, and converting a miserable 3-of-15 on third and fourth down, while getting penalized on eight occasions for a loss of eighty yards. Needless to say, this is their do-over, and let’s see if they can take advantage of it.
When we last saw the Browns, they authored arguably their strongest performance of the campaign, or at least in the First Half as they bested the Tennessee Titans, 41-35. The hosts brought an onslaught upon Tennessee through the first thirty minutes of action, leading 38-7 at Halftime and outgaining them 376 to 148, scoring on all six of their drives. Mayfield was in the zone throughout the first two periods of play, completing 19-of-24 passes for 290 yards and four touchdowns, highlighted by a 75-yard strike to (Receiver) Donovan Peoples-Jones (7 REC, 164 YDS, 23.4 Y/R, 2 TD) early in the second stanza. The visitors would climb back into the contest, but in the end the hole that they dug for themselves was simply too great to crawl out of. In the end, Cleveland had amassed 457 total yards on twenty-six first downs, including 118 of the rushing variety on thirty-six carries, and converting a healthy 10-of-17 third and fourth downs, while possessing the football for a commanding 36:46. As stated earlier, Mayfield was outstanding in completing 25-of-33 attempts for a season-high 334 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions, spreading the ball to ten different teammates, with (Receiver) Jarvis Landry (54 REC, 676 YDS, 12.5 Y/R, 2 TD) hauling in a team-best eight receptions on ten targets for sixty-two yards and a score, while Rashard Higgins (25 REC, 400 YDS, 16.0 Y/R, 3 TD) and Peoples-Jones totaled ninety-five and ninety yards respectively with each reeling in a touchdown. The aforementioned Chubb rushed for eighty yards on eighteen carries, with Hunt adding thirty-three on fourteen attempts.