Welcome to “The Dossier” a weekly look across the aisle at the Ravens’ opponents, and how they stack up on paper as a matchup. This Week 1 edition features a perpetual thorn in Baltimore’s usually strong side, the Cleveland Browns.
The Matchup: Cleveland Browns @ Baltimore Ravens
The Setting: M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore, Maryland
The Forecast: Scattered showers and thunderstorms. High 84F. Winds SSW at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of rain 40% (per The Weather Channel)
The stakes: A week one win within the division - no better foot to get off on than that
The spread: Baltimore is favored at -7.5
There was maybe no bigger disappointment in football in 2019 than the Cleveland Browns. Baker Mayfield’s promising rookie season coupled with the addition of Odell Beckham Jr. had the masses believing they’d be chucking it all over the yard, and several of their defensive additions seemed to indicate they’d be strong on that side of the ball even after the loss of Gregg Williams.
Strangely, it’s that last factor that seemed to weigh so heavily on the Browns last season. Despite his reputation as a punchline ever since the bountygate scandal, Williams stepped into a dire situation as the interim coach after Hue Jackson in 2018 and had Cleveland playing their best football in years. Understandably, the Browns opted to move on from Williams but their high-risk play to pair Mayfield with then-offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens in a head coaching role seriously backfired.
Now, Cleveland finds themselves in the all too familiar no-man’s land that they’ve been languishing in for 20+ years at this point. This time though, they have some things to hang their hat on, including the talent that Mayfield still unquestionably has. That, and a well put together defense are reason enough to think that Cleveland could very well pose a problem to Baltimore in the hunt for the AFC North crown in 2020 - for that reason, it’s only fitting they face off in Week 1.
On paper, the hiring of Stefanski seems to be the right move for a QB like Mayfield who’s seeking a bounce back this year. The former Minnesota offensive coordinator helped to put Kirk Cousins back on track last season, and his ability to do so bodes well for a player of Mayfield’s caliber. He’ll do so by simplifying the game for the former number one overall pick, as detailed in a January article from Sports Illustrated’s Pete Smith from around the time the Browns hired Stefanski:
“What that means for Mayfield is utilizing a substantial amount of playaction, where he’s already experienced significant success, but more movement before the throw,” Smith wrote. “Fakes off of stretches, bootlegs and naked rollouts. Not only does it change the amount of field Mayfield has to work, but it changes the angles defenses have to deal with, which makes the offense less predictable and more difficult to defend. Mayfield offers more mobility, which is an asset and may give the offense a few additional options on how to take advantage. He also has more arm strength, so it can be more aggressive, attacking down the field. The Vikings passing attack can change over the course of a game, going from a quick passing game that gets the ball out quickly to more aggressive throws down the field, both down the sideline and the middle of the field.”
What’s interesting about all of this is things shouldn’t have gotten so off the rails in ‘19 in the first place given all the talent that Cleveland possessed at the skill positions. It didn’t work because of Kitchens ineptitude in several respects, as well as a decline on the offensive line after a few losses along it. The additions of Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills at the bookend tackle spots should really solidify things in the offensive trenches, as should one of their big ticket free agent acquisitions, tight end Austin Hooper.
With a 78.3 overall grade from PFF for the entirety of 2019, Hooper was very respectable for the Falcons last year, landing himself an alternate spot in the Pro Bowl. Despite the fact some believe the Browns overpaid a bit for him, it stands to reason that they did so seeing his fit not only with Stefanski, but with Mayfield’s strengths as well. That is, throwing intermediate and deep to the middle of the field:
Via Next Gen Stats, that’s what Baker did best last year, and Hooper should be able to cash in following a 2019 that saw him go for 10.1 yards per reception and 9 receptions beyond 20 yards. This will of course be aided by the better protection up front and the heavier emphasis on play action that Smith’s piece alludes to.
As far as other receiving threats go, Odell Beckham understandably gets a ton of attention, and after a solid if unspectacular 2019 season, he should still be a primary threat for the Browns. As far as this matchup goes though, the Ravens would be wise to keep an eye on their other former LSU receiving threat, Jarvis Landry who actually outpaced Beckham in receiving yards last year, and had him beat in PFF’s receiving grades (80 to 69.4). Landry absolutely smoked the Ravens in week four last season with eight catches for 167 yards, with most of them coming after the catch, something that Wink Martindale was able to tighten up in their second matchup (and would be wise to keep an eye on for this one as well).
Finally, the Browns main offensive threat needs no introduction - one of the best running backs in the league in Nick Chubb. His 88.7 PFF rating was good for best in the league, and Ravens fans don’t need to again hear about the beating he gave them in certain spots in 2019. With Stefanski’s new concepts and the Browns new blood on the offensive line, the combo of Chubb getting to the outside with the threat of play action looming, Baltimore’s defense should have their hands full in Week 1.
Cleveland’s defense is also incredibly talented, and will be coordinated by another new face on their coaching staff. Joe Woods was brought over from San Francisco to lead this unit, and if he learned anything from Robert Saleh, he should be able to maximize all this potential to at least some degree of success.
Myles Garrett returns from a tumultuous 2019 season in which he posted an elite 86.5 PFF grade, and led the Browns to eighth overall in the league in terms of pressuring the quarterback (those figures dropped off after his suspension). On the other side of him, Olivier Vernon had a nice season as well collecting four sacks good for an 80.4 PFF grade while also only playing 10 games. If those two can keep up their form over a full 16 games, their presence along with a strong defensive line that includes Sheldon Richardson and new addition Adrian Clayborn will make for the beginnings of a beastly front seven for Woods to work with.
Behind them, the Browns don’t have much in the way of a proven linebacking corps. Mack Wilson came into the league with promise last season but wasn’t able to translate it into consistent strong play; as far as young players on their defense goes, he certainly remains a name to watch. Outside of him, Malcolm Smith was brought in to shore things up in the middle of their defense as a vested veteran, but there aren’t many other established names to touch on here.
Similar problems exist in their secondary - Denzel Ward is a legit number one corner, but behind him, the only established names are Terrance Mitchell (solid but unspectacular with a 63 PFF grade), and Greedy Williams who’s another promising corner that had an up-and-down rookie year. With Grant Delpit’s injury at safety, Ronnie Harrison is probably their top option in that stable, but has still yet to fully establish himself after coming into the league from Alabama (and will also still be learning Woods’ system to a degree after recently coming over in a trade from Jacksonville).
Cleveland figures to bounce back from a 6-10 record to some extent, but it may be a tall task in a Week 1 road game against a strong division rival in the Ravens. Having said that, there’s no reason this can’t be a close game.
The Browns have given the Ravens plenty of trouble over the last few years, and after a tumultuous offseason for the league as a whole (and no preseason to fully tune things up) both teams will likely still be figuring some things out on Sunday. With Baltimore a somewhat heavy -7.5 favorite here, my money would on the Browns to keep things tight and cover that spread, while the Ravens walk away with the W.
Jake’s official prediction: Ravens 30, Browns 24