Welcome to the scouting report, a weekly column where Jake brings you a few thoughts on the Ravens upcoming opponent for the week, based on their last few games. He’ll run through what they’ve looked like recently, how he thinks that’ll translate to their matchup with Baltimore, and how he expects the Ravens to exploit some of what he saw.
Brownies, oh Brownies. The offseason champion is off to a pretty rough start in comparison to their relatively high expectations, with their latest game against the Rams serving as another disappointing notch in a somewhat unexpected 1-2 start.
Make no mistake, the Rams are a tough team and this was going to be a big ask regardless of the start Cleveland got off to, but the Browns had a very realistic chance at winning this game and might wind up regretting not doing so as a difficult schedule in the first half of the year only continues. They now head to Baltimore in a pivotal matchup with the 2-1 Ravens and need a win to keep pace with them through the first quarter of the year; let’s take a look at what they’ve put out there so far to see how this game might end up unfolding:
A different type of offense
Part of the reason the Browns were so hyped this season was because of big play potential on offense. If you take off your purple-tinted glasses and take a look at what they acquired, that was for fairly good reason.
Cleveland was a very explosive offense in the second half of 2018, particularly in the passing game – they finished with a ranking of 17th overall in DVOA with a 7.8% pass efficiency ranking, numbers that probably would’ve been even higher if not for Hue Jackson fooling around with Tyrod Taylor at quarterback in the first quarter of the year. So why wouldn’t an offense like that who lost zero skill players and added a talent like Odell Beckham not soar to even further heights?
In short, they seem to have gotten away from the fundamentals a bit, which starts with Freddie Kitchens, Baker Mayfield, and some of their issues along the offensive line. According to several pundits covering Cleveland, all three of the play caller, quarterback, and offensive line are off to a rough start and it’s compounding the issues with their attack. Kitchens is calling things too aggressively too often, Mayfield is holding the ball too long in looking for these deep shots and with a line that’s lost players to both trade and injury, the Browns offense isn’t set up well to continuously hit those explosive plays through the air.
The result is an overall DVOA of 27 through the first two weeks of the season, and another uneven performance against L.A. on Sunday night in a losing effort. They looked somewhat crisper in this game, with Mayfield more willing to look to the short and intermediate throws which was a focus for him after their week 2 win:
“I think it’s a learning curve needing to know when I have to take my shots and then check the ball down and get completions,” Mayfield said after the Jets game in week 2. “It’s a little difficult at times, but like I keep harping on, just get completions.”
He looked more in tune in taking those shorter throws in the Rams game, but still only managed a 50% completion rate with a critical interception to lose the game; he was also was sacked another three times, bringing his total tally to 11 on the season through three weeks. All in all, it looks like this Browns offense doesn’t necessarily have a quick fix that can save them in the short term, but having great talent is always a nice consolation in that respect.
Kitchens will need to find a way to make things simpler for Mayfield, but also to hit a few deep shots that will help grow the gunslinger’s confidence. Easier said than done of course.
The shield is mightier than the sword
For all the talk about the Browns offense not living up to the hype, it’s hard to say the same thing about their D. This was another legit unit last season grading out at 12th in total DVOA, and added more talent in Olivier Vernon, Sheldon Richardson, Greedy Williams, and Mack Wilson who’s off to a nice start at linebacker.
At 10th in total DVOA, most of the juice in their pass rush is coming from Myles Garrett – of their 10 sacks to start the season, he’s accounted for six, including one Sunday night in which he forced a critical fumble on Jared Goff. Interestingly, the other four have come from 2 each that were produced by Morgan Burnett and T.J. Carrie (two secondary players).
This isn’t to say that their pass rush is a combination of Garrett and smoke and mirrors as Vernon is off to a nice start with a well-balanced 73.3 PFF grade, and may also indicate that an over-reliance on stopping Garrett could lead to big plays from his supporting cast. Speaking of which, there are guys to worry about behind him as well.
Joe Schobert returns at middle linebacker and has looked strong to open the year with a 75.3 grade from PFF (which tilts more towards pass coverage with a 75.2 grade there and a 66.5 in run D), and rookie Mack Wilson has impressed next to him as a mid-round pick. Their secondary isn’t to be trifled with either.
While they haven’t quite played up to their potential yet (with Denzel Ward being particularly victimized after allowing seven catches on 12 targets), they had a decent showing on Sunday night against L.A.’s high powered offense. Carrie and Juston Burris both came away with interceptions of Goff and had him looking somewhat confused throughout the majority of the game.
It’s no small thing to hold a Sean McVay offense to just 20 points, even in your own building, and that’s just another indicator that the Browns D is clearly the unit that’s keeping them afloat through the first few weeks of the season.
The Browns have looked shaky to kick 2019 off, particularly compared to what their expectations were. I’m still expecting a dogfight on Sunday though, as their players and coaches know what a loss in Baltimore may mean for their hopes of being a playoff team.
Cleveland’s offense will need to turn it around to keep things competitive – Mayfield’s inability to consistently hit deep shots may be in store for a turnaround, as Baltimore’s defensive communication issues have led to multiple breakdowns in the secondary this season. The Browns will need to hit those deep plays though, as another uninspired dink-and-dunk type game won’t work against the Ravens D at home who not for nothing are still at 9th overall in DVOA.
The real war is going to take place with Cleveland’s front seven and Baltimore’s offensive line. With Garrett playing as well as he is, a lot of focus is going to be placed on him towards the edges, which will then leave players such as Matt Skura and Bradley Bozeman left to deal Larry Ogunjobi, Sheldon Richardson, and whoever else the Browns will be rushing around them.
Lamar Jackson has shown he can be a really effective passer when given time to throw, and that was put to the test against Kansas City when he had to resort to streetball to keep the offense moving through the air. The running game is also going to be a key in that, just like it was in getting the Ravens back into the game against the Chiefs.
The Browns only have one premiere defender over a grade of 70 in terms of run defense per PFF (Richardson at 73.8) and they grade out at a –1.8% efficiency in that respect per Football Outsiders metrics, good for 20th in the league. Jackson has made the statement that he can in fact throw the ball, but at their core, the Ravens are a ground and pound football team, and with the numbers bearing out the way they do here, Greg Roman would be wise to embrace that on Sunday.
With the home field advantage on Sunday, Baltimore would be smart to get back to the basics and do what they were built to do on Sunday: run the heck out of the ball on offense, and stop teams from making plays over the top on D. If they can manage to do so, there’s no reason they can’t walk out of M&T with a W, and a significant step on the rest of the division through the first quarter of 2019.