The Ravens escaped with a win on the road against the Chicago Bears and without starting quarterback Lamar Jackson last Sunday to improve to 7-3 and remain in sole possession of first place in the AFC North. The Browns barely escaped with a win as well against the winless Detroit Lions to improve to 6-5 and stay alive in the race for the division. Cleveland now travels to Baltimore for a showdown on Sunday Night Football.
Here are some of the key matchups for the game to keep an eye on.
Myles Garrett vs. Alejandro Villanueva
Defensive end Myles Garrett will look to strengthen his case for Defensive Player of the Year on Sunday night against veteran left tackle Alejandro Villanueva. It’s no secret that Villanueva has struggled this season in pass protection, both at right tackle to start the season and at his natural position of left tackle for the Ravens. According to PFF, the 33-year-old tackle has allowed seven sacks and 38 pressures this season, resulting in a pass-blocking grade of 51.1 — No. 101 out of 124 eligible tackles.
On the flip side, it would be hard to find an edge rusher playing better than Garrett has through the first 11 weeks as the fifth-year defensive end leads the league in sacks with 13 to go with 45 total pressures.
Highest pressure pct in the NFL this season:— NFL on CBS (@NFLonCBS) November 24, 2021
Micah Parsons 19.8%
Maxx Crosby 18.1%
Randy Gregory 17.3%
Myles Garrett 17.2%
Matthew Judon 17.2%
*min. 150 pass-rush snaps pic.twitter.com/M1TTJiswZC
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman will have to provide plenty of help for Villanueva against Garrett, such as using double-teams or chip blocks. Tight end Nick Boyle made his season debut last week after suffering a gruesome knee injury last season and is an ideal candidate to help keep Garrett at bay if he is healthy enough for the task. Fullback Patrick Ricard and tight end Eric Tomlinson are other players that could prove useful in slowing Garrett down on passing plays.
Ravens’ front seven vs. Browns’ rushing attack
Baltimore will have their hands full with the league’s top-ranked rushing attack this week. Cleveland’s offensive line has been one of the best in the NFL since last season. Behind the Browns’ beefy group of maulers is potentially the best running back duo in football in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, the latter of whom is hopeful to return to action this week from a knee injury suffered in October.
The Ravens could potentially be without two critical players on the defensive line as defensive tackle Brandon Williams has missed the last three games and defensive end Calais Campbell is currently in concussion protocol and will have to clear it in order to play this week. Baltimore would be without their top two run stuffers upfront if neither player can suit up for Sunday’s game, which in turn would mean a larger workload for the remaining players on the defensive line — something that could spell trouble against such a powerful ground attack.
Tackling at the second level of the defense will be critical for the Ravens. Baltimore has struggled with missed tackles this season. Inside linebackers, safeties, and cornerbacks will have to do their part in containing the run. Missed tackles at the second level of the defense are how big plays materialize — something Chubb is quite adept at. According to PFF, 625 of Chubb’s 851 total rushing yards have come after contact.
Marquise “Hollywood” Brown vs. Denzel Ward
The Ravens’ leading receiver missed last week’s game with a thigh injury. Brown has since returned to practice and is expected to return to the lineup for Sunday night. The former first-round pick has elevated his game to another level this season as evidenced by his 719 receiving yards and six touchdowns in the nine games he has played. Brown’s dangerous downfield speed helps to open up the rest of Baltimore’s offense and wide receivers in the passing game, but he will be facing a worthy opponent this week when he lines up across from cornerback Denzel Ward.
Ward, selected with the No. 4 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, has been one of the better young cornerbacks in the NFL since arriving in Cleveland. Ward’s 4.32 speed makes him one of the few cornerbacks able to match the speed of Brown, who is currently tied for third in the NFL in receptions over 20 yards with 14. Brown was kept quiet in the Ravens’ loss to the Miami Dolphins two weeks ago and the offense struggled to find any rhythm through the air. Getting the electric playmaker involved will be important for quarterback Lamar Jackson this week. Ward will likely be tasked with covering Brown when the Browns run man coverage on defense.
Ravens’ secondary vs. Browns’ tight ends
Under Head Coach Kevin Stefanski, Cleveland’s offense has been centered around the rushing attack and multiple tight ends. Baltimore’s attention will have to center around tight ends as well when quarterback Baker Mayfield drops back to pass on Sunday night. Former first-round pick David Njoku leads Cleveland in receiving yards with 372 while fellow tight end Austin Hooper is third with 261.
According to cbssports.com, the Ravens’ defense has allowed 678 yards and six touchdowns to opposing tight ends this season although the unit has performed much better against the position recently, most notably holding Mike Gesicki of the Dolphins to zero catches. Safeties Chuck Clark and Brandon Stephens are two options in coverage against the Browns’ tight ends, but cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Jimmy Smith are as well.