The Baltimore Ravens will be back on the road in Week 4, where they’ll face off with the Cleveland Browns on Sunday afternoon. They are underdogs against their AFC North division rival, who are coming off a commanding win over the Tennessee Titans in Week 3. However, games aren’t won on paper or decided by betting odds.
There are some pivotal matchups between individual players, units, and players and coaches that will go a long way in determining the outcome of this Week 4 contest.
Below are a handful of those key battles that could prove to be deciding factors.
Ravens’ offensive line vs. Browns’ Pro Bowl pass rush duo
Through the first three games of the 2023 season, Cleveland has the top-ranked defense in the entire league. The unit is allowing historically low numbers through the air and is led by a ferocious pass rush. Their elite edge rusher tandem of Myles Garrett and former Raven Za’Darius Smith has allowed the secondary to play at an elite level as well.
Defensive ends are usually the responsibility of offensive tackles primarily. However, Browns’ Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz moves his two disruptive pass rushers all around opposing fronts to identify and exploit any mismatches. Garrett went viral after Week 1 when he lined up over Cincinnati Bengals’ center Ted Karras and started doing basketball moves pre-snap. He proceeded to cross him over and generate almost instantaneous pressure.
Step 1: Have Myles force the QB to drive up in the pocket— Jake Burns (@jake_burns18) September 11, 2023
Step 2: Have AWalk rush with an eye on QB movement off Myles' pressure
Step 3: Rally to the football
Fun formula with your 5-down pressure package. pic.twitter.com/CzoxaWYcyN
Smith made a name for himself in the league with the Ravens during the first four years of his career. He continued to perform highly with the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings before joining the Browns this offseason.
Thankfully, the Ravens will likely be getting their best offensive linemen back just in time for this matchup. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley and center Tyler Linderbaum returned to practice this week, albeit as limited participants. Both players are regarded among the best in the league at their respective positions and have missed the past two games due to injury. Having their best interior and perimeter blocker will certainly provide much-needed reinforcements against such a formidable front seven.
WR Zay Flowers vs. CB Denzel Ward
The Ravens’ first-round rookie wide receiver has been one of the brightest standouts on offense thus far. Flowers is the team’s leader in targets (25), receptions (21), receiving yards (188), and scrimmage yards (205).
He will face his toughest challenge to date against Browns’ two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Denzel Ward, who is playing some of the best ball of his career in 2023.
Denzel Ward in single coverage this season:— PFF CLE Browns (@PFF_Browns) September 21, 2023
▫️ 8 targets
4 forced incompletions
▫️ 2 receptions allowed (for 14 yards)
39.6 passer rating allowed
Three-time Pro Bowl veteran Odell Beckham Jr. and 2021 first-rounder Rashod Bateman are trending toward not playing Sunday. They have yet to practice this week due to injury, meaning Flowers will see a lot of Ward early and often.
The six-year veteran possesses versatility to move inside if needed. Browns’ nickel corner Greg Newsome is slated to return to the starting lineup after missing last week’s game with an elbow injury.
QB Lamar Jackson vs. LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah & S Grant Delpit
The last time these two teams played, both Jackson and Owusu-Koramoah were out with injuries. Whether the Ravens’ star quarterback opts to stay in or leave the pocket, he’ll likely be spied by the Browns’ athletic third-year linebacker. Owusu-Koramoah has dangerous closing speed to make clutch open-field tackles for minimal gains, but corralling Jackson is easier said than done.
Even with running backs Gus Edwards and Justice Hill back on track to play Sunday, expect to see more quarterback runs worked into the offensive game plan. That could be in the form of scrambles and/or designed runs. There will probably be a lot of instances when Jackson and Owusu-Koramoah are one-on-one in the open field.
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah has shown mass improvement under his new DC Jim Schwartz— Mac (@tha_buffalo) September 26, 2023
2023 missed tackle rate- 7.1%
(14.9% in 2022)
(17.4% in 2021)
On pace for 40 run stops which would be a career high
Break out season incoming #DawgPound
In addition to being the last line of defense if Jackson breaks into the open field, Delpit will also be trying limit him through the air from the strong safety spot. The fourth-year pro has been a ball magnet and big-play machine through the three games this season. He has an interception, fumble recovery, two deflections, 16 total tackles, a tackle for loss, and a quarterback hit. Delpit will spend a lot of time in the box, roaming the intermediate level to offer run support and take away throwing lanes over the middle.
CB Brandon Stephens vs. WR Amari Cooper
It appears that the Ravens will be without three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey for the fourth straight game. That means the task of defending the Browns’ four-time Pro Bowl wideout will be Stephens’ responsibility primarily.
The fourth-year pro has more than admirably filled in as the team’s No. 1 corner. He’s played 100 percent of defensive snaps and has made several impressively clutch plays in coverage and run support.
Cooper spends most of his snaps lined up on side of the field where Stephens spends most of his time. The nine-year veteran leads the Browns in receptions (17) and receiving yards (243), yards per catch (14.3), and is tied for the lead in targets (25). Stephens is currently allowing a career-low 86.5 opposing passer rating and has allowed 19 completions on 27 targets for 167 yards, according to Pro Football Reference.
Mike Macdonald vs. QB Deshaun Watson
The Browns’ three-time Pro Bowl quarterback is coming off his best game since joining the team. Against the Tennessee Titans in Week 3, he completed 27-of-33 passes for 289 passing yards, two touchdowns, and a 123.4 passer rating in a resounding win. In the two games prior, he played extremely poorly and struggled with both accuracy and turnovers.
Watson faced Macdonald’s defense once last season after serving his suspension for violating the NFL personal conduct policy. He was held to 161 passing yards on 28 attempts and 18 competitions, was sacked three times, and threw just one touchdown following a Ravens’ turnover. The Browns only managed to record 13 points in that low-scoring affair.
Macdonald has several games worth of tape on Watson. He can devise a game plan that will hopefully force him to regress to that mistake-prone quarterback he has been since returning from a long hiatus.
Expect to see the second-year play-caller continue to get creative with multiple safety looks to disguise pressures and coverages, especially if veteran free safety Marcus Williams returns.
The high-priced ball hawk is one of the best center fielders in the league. He brings a dangerous play-making element to the position and can free up others to be deployed elsewhere in unique ways. That includes Kyle Hamilton, who can spend more time at nickel where he is still the most effective.
As a rookie last year, both of Hamilton’s sacks came in games against the Browns. He’s coming off a sensational performance in Week 3, where he recorded three sacks in the first half. Now, he’ll be looking to make Watson pay for holding onto the ball for too long.