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Ravens Week 1 Film Preview: will Hollywood see a shadow?

Whether or not and how often Denzel Ward shadows Brown will dictate the Ravens offense

Baltimore Ravens Training Camp Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Marquise “Hollywood” Brown’s offseason has been the stuff of legends. At this point, the lines may blur between Hollywood and Rocky Balboa training in the Russian mountains.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit too far but you get the point. There is no indication of anything other than a breakout year from the Ravens 2019 first-round pick. Following a delicate, yet successful rookie season, Brown has showed nothing other than massive potential, which started in Week 1 of 2019 with his 4-157-2 line against the Miami Dolphins, then concluded with 7-145 in the Ravens’ disappointing playoff loss.

In 2019, Brown tied for the league lead with six touchdowns when aligned in the slot. He was also quite successful against man coverage, ranking 18th in success rate in Matt Harmon’s “reception perception”.

Brown has game-breaking speed and is a jitterbug, full speed route-runner, who knows how to manipulate zone coverage at a high level. The Ravens top receiver had his coming out party last year, but this year will be where he establishes himself as one of the best targets in football. Whether that happens Week 1 against the Browns or not depends on how much attention the Browns decide to pay to Hollywood.

With injuries to Browns defensive backs Greedy Williams and Grant Delpit, Cleveland opted to trade for Ronnie Harrison, sending a 2021 draft pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars in exchange. The Browns top cornerback, Denzel Ward, is ready to go. That sparks my first question of this preview:

Will the Browns have Denzel Ward shadow Marquise Brown?

The way I look at it, the Browns have two options. The first is that they can elect to have Ward follow Hollywood for most of, or all of the game. The second is keeping Ward on one side of the field and rely on other defensive backs to cover Brown. Either way, that causes a chain reaction in the chess match.

If the Browns choose to have Ward shadow Hollywood, then the Ravens will be able to easily expose which coverage the Browns are using on a given play. They can do so by simply motioning Hollywood across the formation. If Ward follows, the Browns are going to be running man coverage (cover-0, cover-1 or cover-2 man under) the majority of the time. That will allow Lamar Jackson and the Ravens offense to make adjustments at the line and find the matchup they want.

Jackson has been working on (what he calls) “The Tom Brady stuff” this offseason, with teammate Mark Ingram orating that Jackson is significantly ahead of where he was last year before week one. If Jackson is able to get a jump on man coverage, the Browns might be in trouble. No passer generated a higher EPA or accounted for more touchdowns against man coverage last year. Additionally, Jackson’s ability to scramble with second and third level defenders back’s turned isn’t an ideal outcome for any defensive coordinator. Finally, Mark Andrews will feast against the Browns injured and inexperienced linebackers/safeties in man matchups. His success rate was among the best of all receivers in 2019 against the two groups.

If the Browns don’t choose to shadow Brown (which I believe is the more logical idea for Cleveland), then they will be able to play more zone, keep their eyes on Jackson and try to deal with Hollywood. This will allow the Browns to disguise coverage and keep Jackson on his toes in comparison with running a man heavy game-plan. The problem? Brown has shown a propensity for manipulating zone coverage, as well as finding soft spots between zones. Brown showed that ability off on touchdown receptions against the Steelers and Jets respectively.

Brown’s ability to run a full route tree, at full speed (Lincoln Riley believes routes should be run at full speed, which was instilled into Hollywood Brown at Oklahoma) and track the ball overtop will leave those outside of Baltimore’s jaws on the floor in 2020. Brown’s teammates and fans have seen it coming.

Expanding beyond just Brown, Cleveland has one matchup capable of exploiting the Ravens offense and stifling them. The Browns four-man defensive front of Myles Garrett, Sheldon Richardson, Larry Ogunjobi and Olivier Vernon is explosive. With Marshal Yanda gone, the Browns will be foaming at the mouth ready to attack the Ravens interior offensive line in order to wreck the Ravens offensive game plan. The best methodology to counter the Browns defensive line is to use their own aggression against them.

Ways that the Ravens offense can perform football jiu-jitsu include:

  1. Using their expansive read option variations to isolate a defender, then making the correct read determined by how patient or aggressive the said defender is. Find the weak link there.
  2. Deploying wham and trap blocks (in pass protect as well) to allow overaggressive interior defenders to take themselves out of plays.
  3. Utilizing quick screens and/or jet sweeps to force the defense to work laterally at the snap.
  4. Utilizing empty back shotgun alignments to put Lamar Jackson in space, where he often embarrassed defenses in 2019.

With these four tools in the toolbox, the Ravens will be able to hide certain deficiencies that a new offensive line combination may present against a talented Browns front. Utilizing new toys Devin Duvernay and J.K. Dobbins in motion and on screens has the potential to manufacture easy first downs and get the Ravens offense in rhythm, as both can certainly create after the catch.

The Ravens would also be wise to use 12, 21 and 22 personnel to force the Browns to match with their inexperienced linebackers. Sionne Takitaki, B.J. Goodson and Jacob Phillips have limited starting experience at the NFL level. Mack Wilson, who was a projected starter, will miss the game due to injury in all likelihood after being unable to practice all week. The Browns did add former Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith when Wilson sustained injury, although he hasn’t played at a relatively high level in quite some time.

Using heavier personnel should force the Browns to send in their linebacking corps, where the Ravens can then use their versatile backs and tight ends to spread the field and expose the Browns linebackers in coverage. Jacob Phillips was impressive at times at LSU alongside Ravens’ LB Patrick Queen, who also figures to be targeted early on in an effort to test his wit.

Flipping over to the defensive side of the football, new HC Kevin Stefanski will call the Browns’ plays offensively. He comes from a similar system as former Ravens’ HC Gary Kubiak, who assisted Stefanski in Minneapolis last year. Stefanski used the least 11 personnel of any offense in football last year, which is expected to continue in Cleveland. The Browns acquisitions of run blocking tackles in Jedrick Wills and Jack Conklin will be a major improvement over the Browns dreadful bookends from 2019. New TE Austin Hooper will give Baker Mayfield a reliable, traditional in line tight end for the first time in Cleveland, which seemingly always helps young NFL passers.

Stefanski’s scheme is zone heavy, creating cutback lanes for runners, while utilizing play action and designed rollouts in the passing game to split the field in half for his quarterbacks. Baker Mayfield’s metrics have been night and day in favor of heavy personnel and designed rollouts as opposed to 11 personnel and throwing from the pocket without play action. With a bolstered offensive line and more fitting scheme, Mayfield could enjoy a quality season.

The group to watch for the Ravens defense is their shiny new defensive front, led by Calais Campbell. Campbell spoke with local media regarding the matter at hand:

NFL film guru Brian Baldinger eloquently professed what happened in Week 4 of the 2019 regular season in regard to the Ravens being unable to stop the Browns outside run concepts.

Clearly, the Ravens front office saw the ability to defend outside run concepts as their Achilles’ heel defensively.

After parting ways with Patrick Onwuasor, Michael Pierce, Chris Wormely and Kenny Young, the Ravens renovated their front seven. Returning Brandon Williams, who is built like a center, back to the 1/0 technique, will allow him to dominate the A-gaps exclusively, where he played well enough to earn his current contract. Alongside Williams, Campbell and Wolfe present considerably more length and radius against the run, as well as veteran experience with their combined 276 regular season starts. The fact that teams will only be able to double team one (occasionally two on duo and dive concepts) of Campbell, Williams and Wolfe, should result in significantly higher run stops, particularly outside the hashes.

In that same Week 4 matchup, the Ravens didn’t trust their outside linebacker rotation, which led to some sluggish play from Matthew Judon, who played in an alarming 88% of defensive snaps that day, along with eight special teams snaps. Judon was clearly exhausted (as any edge defender who plays 88% of snaps would be) and missed a key tackle in the second half on a Nick Chubb touchdown run. This year, the Ravens should be able to rotate at will, with Pernell McPhee, Tyus Bowser and Jihad Ward all able to provide relief. If the Ravens revamped defensive front struggles to remotely contain the edge against Stefanski’s outside zone and pitches, it means one of two things:

  1. The Browns aren’t to be reckoned with, or . . .
  2. The Ravens didn’t do enough to solidify their front.

I would expect the Ravens to line Calais Campbell and Matthew Judon to the field side early in the game, disallowing the Browns from controlling the line of scrimmage on the wide side. Testing rookie LT Jedrick Wills by putting an elite defender like Campbell in his gap would also be wise. As stout as Wills was at Alabama, there’s no defender with Calais Campbell’s intelligence playing in the SEC.

The Browns also figure to test new starters Patrick Queen and DeShon Elliott in the passing game. Queen was among the best off-ball coverage linebackers in college football last year, while Elliott has made eye catching plays in his limited reps during the season. The best thing the young duo can do is avoid taking themselves out of plays by over-pursuing. Younger, inexperienced players often seek to “play fast” allowing themselves to overrun or “take the cheese.”

Whether or not the Ravens will have Marlon Humphrey follow Odell Beckham Jr. is up in the air as well. The Ravens invested significantly in Marcus Peters, but Humphrey is clearly the better matchup for Beckham. The Browns will want to get Beckham on Peter’s side of the field and see what damage they can do. While Peters is an outstanding corner, Humphrey’s style of play proved frustrating for Beckham in 2019.

The game, as usual, will come down to the play in the trenches. If the Ravens can control the line of scrimmage defensively, keep their linebackers clean, and relatively prevent Mayfield from connecting with Beckham on double moves (CC: Stefon Diggs in 2019 under Stefanski) then they will be in good shape defensively. The Ravens front against the Browns offensive line should be a strength on strength matchup, which will be pivotal in determining how the rest of the game plays out following the opening possessions.

Prediction: Ravens 30, Browns 20