The 2020 NFL season is finally upon us with the Ravens opening their season against the Browns on Sunday. After splitting games last season, this should be another AFC North brawl between two heated rivals.
Here are five keys for Baltimore to emerge victorious over Cleveland in Week 1.
1) Contain Nick Chubb
The Browns walloped the Ravens in Week 4 of the 2019 season, largely in part to RB Nick Chubb gashing Baltimore’s defense for 165 rushing yards and three touchdowns. This would be the Ravens’ final loss of the regular season, catapulting them to a 12-game win streak.
The defense was overhauled with inside linebackers Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort, defensive tackles Domata Peko Sr. and Justin Ellis, and DE Jihad Ward joining the team to help shore up the run defense. SS Chuck Clark also took over for Tony Jefferson shortly after when Jefferson tore his ACL against the Steelers. The final topping was acquiring All-Pro cornerback Marcus Peters from the Rams for a fifth-round draft pick.
The results? The defense went from bottom five in total yards following back-to-back losses to finishing the season ranked fourth.
Baltimore did a much better job against the run in Week 16 when they beat Cleveland 31-15 and held Chubb to just 45 rushing yards on 15 carries. That same defense then went on to allow the league leader in rushing yards, Derrick Henry, to rush for 195 yards on 30 carries in the playoff loss to the Titans. Since then, there has been even more personnel change. Run-stuffing DT Michael Pierce signed with the Vikings in free agency and Bynes signed with the Bengals.
Despite these two losses, Baltimore’s defense should be much better against the run in 2020, thanks to the additions of DEs Calais Campbell (PFF’s highest-rated DL against the run in 2019) and Derek Wolfe (PFF grade of 68.1 against the run in 2019, but otherwise great against the run throughout his career), and Brandon Williams moving back to his natural position at nose tackle (91.2 PFF grade against the run from 2017-2019 while at NT.)
2017-2019— Gordon McGuinness (@PFF_Gordon) August 5, 2020
Brandon Williams at NT
Overall Grade: 90.1 (4th)
Run Defense Grade: 91.5 (2nd)
Brandon Williams at other interior DL spots
Overall Grade: 65.7 (91st)
Run Defense Grade: 71.5 (63rd)
More Brandon Williams at NT please pic.twitter.com/eyELe6rUrZ
Replacing Bynes at inside linebacker is rookie first-rounder Patrick Queen. The Ravens also drafted Malik Harrison in the third round. Harrison was particularly good against the run in 2019 with a PFF run grade of 87.5, but it’s unclear how much he will see the field in place of L.J. Fort alongside Queen. It’s fair to wonder how the rookies will hold up against what should be a dangerous running scheme under new head coach Kevin Stefanski, however. The revamped line will have to do the dirty work to make life easier on the rookies in their first start.
2) Pressure Baker Mayfield
With the new additions on the defensive line comes a much-improved pass rush. While Campbell only recorded six sacks in 2019, he has been one of the NFL’s best pass-rushers on the defensive line for years now, winning Defensive Player of the Year in 2017 with a career-high 14.5 sacks with the Jaguars. Wolfe provides a major upgrade as well (seven sacks in 2019.) Adding these two alongside Pro Bowl OLB Matthew Judon should do wonders for one of the league’s worst pass rushes in 2019.
Although the Browns’ offensive line is set to be much improved following the signing of RT Jack Conklin and drafting of Jedrick Wills Jr. in the first round, there is no telling how the unit will form in their first game together. Wills is also transitioning from playing RT in college at Alabama to now playing LT in the NFL. Starting C J.C. Tretter is also in danger of missing Sunday’s matchup.
Making Baker Mayfield uneasy early in the game could have lasting benefits throughout the game. In 2019, Mayfield had the lowest QB rating when not facing pressure, mainly in part to Mayfield losing trust in his line. According to PFF, Mayfield was responsible for 10 sacks in 2019 — a team-high. Pressuring Mayfield early on has the potential to throw him off his game for the rest of the day.
3) Limit big plays from Wide Receivers
While the first year of Odell Beckham Jr. as a Brown was disappointing, he appears to be healthy now after dealing with injuries throughout 2019. Beckham and his best friend and college teammate at LSU, Jarvis Landry, make for one of the NFL’s best-receiving duos. The Ravens have two All-Pro corners up for the challenge in Marlon Humphrey and Peters, but they will have their hands full.
Humphrey was extremely successful against Beckham in 2019, although, as previously mentioned, Beckham was hampered by a sports hernia. Beckham has since had surgery and appears to be healthy again entering the 2020 season.
Odell Beckham Jr. vs. Marlon Humphrey in 2019:— PFF (@PFF) September 8, 2020
Marlon Humphrey - 80.8 coverage grade when OBJ was the targeted receiver in two games last season.
OBJ - 58.3 receiving grade in those two games.
Who will come out on top in their matchup this Sunday? pic.twitter.com/XVYILRI3f1
Landry, on the other hand, had no issues against Baltimore last season. In two games against the Ravens, Landry had a total of 241 yards on 15 catches, although 165 of his 241 yards came in the first matchup before the acquisition of Peters and return of CB Jimmy Smith. The return of nickel CB Tavon Young is massive for the Ravens as well, since Landry does his best work from the slot.
The release of veteran FS Earl Thomas leaves a massive question mark on the back end of the defense — one that DeShon Elliott will have to answer in his third season and first as a starter. Elliott has suffered season-ending injuries in both of his first two seasons after being drafted in the sixth round by Baltimore, leaving him with little game experience. For all of the criticism that Thomas took last season, there is no denying his impact in the passing game. Opposing quarterbacks stayed away from Thomas. Conversely, Mayfield will likely look to test Elliott through the air.
Beckham and Landry will assuredly make plays. Limiting the explosive ones will be key.
4) Exploit linebackers and safeties in the passing game
In the last meeting between these teams, TE Mark Andrews caught six passes for 96 yards and two touchdowns. That was with ILB Joe Schobert, who left in free agency to sign with Jacksonville. Cleveland is now left with uncertainty at the position, especially with starting WLB Mack Wilson being ruled out for Sunday’s game. Rookie Jacob Phillips is listed behind Wilson on the depth chart, but former Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith and Tae Davis are other potential options to fill the spot. Expect a heavy dosage of Jackson to Andrews this week with a possible side of RB Mark Ingram or rookie J.K. Dobbins in the passing game.
The Browns also lost rookie FS Grant Delpit to a torn Achilles during training camp, prompting a trade with the Jaguars for Ronnie Harrison. Harrison pairs with Karl Joseph now. Both players finished the 2019 season with PFF grades in the sixties, although Joseph is much better in the box.
With both CB Greedy Williams and Kevin Johnson also ruled out for Sunday, expect a few deep shots in the passing game — an admitted area of focus for Jackson and the offense this offseason.
5) Run the ball, run the ball, run the ball
Cleveland finished the 2019 season ranked 30th in run defense, giving up 144.7 rushing yards per game. The bad news for the Browns is that, other than the return of DE Myles Garrett, the defense doesn’t appear to be in a much better position to defend the run this season — oh, and they play the team that broke the single-season rushing record in 2019.
While the Ravens lost All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda this past offseason, they also added one of the best running backs in the draft in J.K. Dobbins. Baltimore’s offense may not break the rushing record again this season, but they are still in line to potentially repeat as the best rushing attack in the NFL. With the inexperience the Browns have at LB, the Ravens should be able to do what they do better than anyone on Sunday — and that’s pound the rock.