J.D. Bagley, @jdbagley5
After a tough loss to the defending NFC Champs, the Browns have another tall task ahead of them as they travel to Baltimore this week to take on the division-leading Ravens. Lamar Jackson has arguably been the league’s most improved player through the first 3 weeks of the season, making Baltimore look like a legitimate threat to New England and Kansas City in the AFC. Cleveland still has plenty of work to do if they want to be discussed among those 3 as one of the top teams in the conference. It all starts on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium. Can the Browns avoid 1-3 and take the division lead a quarter of the way through the season? Freddie Kitchens and Baker Mayfield, the fierce competitors that they are, will be up for the challenge.
The biggest question surrounding this matchup is how the Browns will respond to adversity. Baker Mayfield is all too familiar in situations under pressure and mass scrutiny, though he seems to come out on top every time. Head Coach Freddie Kitchens has been saying all the right things to the media throughout the week, but can he prove it on game day? These questions likely won’t be answered until the final whistle Sunday, but it will be interesting to see what type of changes are made from last week's loss. Through 2 career starts against the Ravens, Mayfield has a 1-1 record, averaging 359 yards passing per game with a 4:4 TD to INT ratio. Despite the fact that Baltimore lost key defenders C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle, and Za’Darius Smith via free agency this past offseason, this Ravens defense is still capable of playing at an elite level. Life won’t be comfortable for Mayfield on the road in a hostile environment, but these are the type of games the Browns have to win if they strive to be a great team. As most know, the Browns offensive line has been a poor unit to this point in the year, specifically the tackle positions. Going up against the Ravens front 7 isn’t going to make things any easier. Look for Freddie Kitchens to run more two-tight end sets this week, keeping an extra blocker or two in line to give Mayfield more time to throw in the pocket. Demetrius Harris, Pharaoh Brown, and Ricky Seals-Jones will likely split these duties again this week with David Njoku remaining on IR. If Baker has time to sit in the pocket and scan the field rather than being flushed out immediately, this offense has the potential to turn into a dangerous group. Although it would be great to see Mayfield have tons of time in the pocket, the part of his game he excels at is getting the ball out of his hands quickly. Freddie Kitchens’ play calling needs to be an even balance between taking shots downfield and taking what the defense gives you. Short, high percentage throws mixed with a heavy dose of Nick Chubb was a huge part of the Browns offensive success in the latter half of 2018. Kitchens need to find a way to incorporate all of these concepts at the right times to make his play-calling effective and successful. Last week, Chubb played an astounding 97% of the snaps. While he is still the unquestioned lead back, that number is unlikely to stay as high as it is due to Dontrell Hilliard now being a full week removed from concussion protocol and D’Ernest Johnson getting his share of snaps.
The obvious key here for the Browns defense is containing Lamar Jackson. Last year, in their only meeting with Jackson as the starter, the defense tried honing in on stopping the run as he wasn’t respected much as a pure passer. The effort wasn’t good enough as Jackson rushed 20 times for 90 yards and 2 scores, ultimately leading the Ravens to a 26-24 win. Regardless of how defense’s gameplan for him, there’s a good chance, he will still find success. The goal is limiting that success, which will once again won’t be easy with Lamar developing greater passing qualities over the last year, making his game tougher to defend. Starting cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams both did not practice again this week (hamstring) and have been ruled out for the second straight game. While Terrance Mitchell and T.J. Carrie played pretty solid filling in last week, this is an obvious downgrade from Ward and Williams. Starting strong safety Morgan Burnett also didn’t practice this week and will likely be a game-time decision. It wouldn’t shock me at all if we see Lamar Jackson take some downfield shots to Marquise Brown knowing the situation at hand. Arguably the league’s best defensive player through 3 weeks, Myles Garrett, will have his hands full with Ronnie Stanley, the best left tackle he will have faced so far this season. His 6.0 sacks are 2nd in the NFL to only Shaquil Barrett of the Tampa Bay Bucs. Unless the game script steers them in a different direction, the Ravens will lean on the run for the majority of the game with plenty of threats including Jackson, newly acquired Mark Ingram II, Gus Edwards, and 4th round rookie Justice Hill. First year general manager Eric DeCosta and former GM Ozzie Newsome have done a superb job with this roster over the last two years, surrounding Lamar Jackson with the tools he needs to succeed. Jackson loves throwing to the tight end, especially last year as a rookie. The Ravens went out and spent their first two picks in 2018 on tight ends Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews who have turned into reliable safety blankets for this offense. Without at least 3 defensive starters, Cleveland will go up against another above-average offense for the 2nd straight week. But, after the way they played against the Rams, missing the entire starting secondary, I have confidence this unit will do enough to keep them in the game until the final whistle.
The first shot at a division opponent lies ahead for Baker Mayfield and the rest of this Browns teaming looking for their first win in Baltimore since 2015. Starting the season 1-3 with games coming up @ San Francisco (3-0), vs Seattle (2-1), and @ New England (3-0) is not a situation the Browns want to be in, let alone fall 2 games back in the division. It’s time to put the product on the field and get this team rolling. Freddie Kitchens and Baker Mayfield, it’s all on you.