The reigning MVP & Co. welcome the Browns to Baltimore for season-opening AFC North showdown
Expectations abound for the Cleveland Browns and the Baltimore Ravens in the 2020 NFL season. The Ravens are thinking Super Bowl or bust, but the Browns are just trying to make the playoffs, something they haven't done since Everybody Loves Raymond and The West Wing were winning Emmys (2002).
But before they can run, the Browns have to learn to walk... and talk (West Wing joke)... and it starts by keeping a head coach for at least one full calendar year. Since selecting Baker Mayfield in the 2018 draft, Cleveland has had four head coaches, the newest being former Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanksi, part of (more) wholesale changes for the franchise. Stefanski was brought in to guide (another) new age of Browns football and lead a rudderless Cleveland franchise that could use that laugh track far more than Raymond ever did.
The 2019 Ravens were the best offensive unit in the NFL, leading the league in scoring at 33.2 points per game, outscoring opponents by almost 250 points, never scoring less than 20 points, and becoming the first team in league history to average at least 200 yards rushing and passing per game. Baltimore absolutely dominated teams on the ground and shattered the NFL team rushing record with 3,296 combined yards — led by Lamar Jackson's own record-smashing 1,206 yards rushing by a quarterback en route to being named league MVP. But it was all for naught as the Ravens were exposed by Derrick Henry and the Titans' rushing attack in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, ruining what seemed like a Super Bowl destined season. Now, record-breaking stats be darned. The only thing that matters in Baltimore in 2020, is hoisting another Lombardi Trophy.
Cleveland at Baltimore
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 13 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Ravens -8
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Baker be better?
The 2020 Browns will only go as far as their franchise quarterback will take them, and in 2019 that wasn't very far following a promising rookie season. Mayfield's flaws were exposed last year (22 interceptions, 59 percent completion rate, 78.8 passer rating) despite the high expectations and additions of big-play receivers in Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. While Beckham and Landry got theirs (2,200 yards, 10 touchdowns combined), Mayfield and the rest of the Browns passing game stalled. The third-leading receiver last year was running back Kareem Hunt who totaled just 285 yards receiving in a suspension-shortened eight-game season.
Stefanski's offensive scheme seems to play perfectly into what Mayfield and the Browns need. In 2019, the Vikings had the third-most rushing attempts in the league, which allowed Kirk Cousins to do damage on play-action plays (14 touchdowns). Mayfield is a much more efficient thrower using play-action (97.7 rating in 2019) than on standard throwing play designs (17 interceptions, 73.0 passer rating). With the addition of tight end Austin Hooper and a full season of Hunt, Mayfield now has the opportunity to spread the ball around through the air in what should be a more balanced offensive attack for Cleveland.
Week 1 will be a great opening test for Stefanski's blueprint and a useful measuring stick for Mayfield's progression as Baltimore boasts one of the NFL's best pass defenses from last year (2nd passer rating, 6th in passing yards allowed). Even with the loss of safety Earl Thomas III, the Ravens still boast two First-Team All-Pro defensive backs in Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters and a revamped front seven.
2. If it ain't broke...
With a limited training camp, no preseason games, the entirety of head coach John Harbaugh's staff returning, and nearly every offensive starter coming back, it makes sense that Baltimore would stick to what they do best in Week 1 against Cleveland — run the ball. Guard and likely future Hall of Famer, Marshal Yanda, is the only starter not back from last season, meaning every one of Baltimore's offensive weapons is returning, including every featured ball carrier. Yanda's loss will be huge, but last year's second-ranked offensive line according to Pro Football Focus should be more than capable of picking up where they left off a season ago.
Baltimore is expected to utilize at least three, if not four, running backs per game with 30-year old Mark Ingram II (1018 yards, 10 touchdowns in 2019) leading the charge and second-round pick J.K. Dobbins carrying a healthy load as well. The addition of Dobbins may mean less designed running plays for Jackson, allowing him to focus on the development of his deep throws and finding receivers outside the numbers, making an already deadly offense purely lethal.
While the return on Myles Garrett is great, Cleveland is without last year's leading tackler in linebacker Joe Schobert (free agent, Jacksonville), defensive tackle Andrew Billings (opted out), and rookie safety Grant Delpit (injury, Achilles). This spells trouble for a defensive unit that was one of the league's worst a season ago at stopping the run, ranking 30th in yards allowed per game (144).
Expect more of what we saw from Baltimore's record-setting offense last season on Sunday against Cleveland.
3. Run the darn ball
The Titans found the secret recipe to beating the Ravens in last year's playoffs. Sure, it seemed simple enough, just have Henry torch the Ravens for 195 yards on the ground which in turn sets up the play-action passing game for Ryan Tannehill. But perhaps it was actually the Browns that provided the Titans the blueprint for beating the Ravens way back in Week 4 of last season.
The last time these teams met at M&T Bank Stadium, Mayfield played arguably his best game of the season (342 yards, 1 touchdown, 102.4 passer rating), but it was Nick Chubb going nuts for 165 yards and three scores that opened up the passing game and lead to a 15-point Cleveland romp over Baltimore.
Teams playing catch-up in the second half of games tend to not run the ball as much. Thus, Baltimore's middle of the road run defense from a year ago (4.4 yards/carry) was masked by their elite offense. That crippling defensive mediocrity was the focal point of Baltimore's front office this season. Gone are defensive linemen Michael Pierce, Domata Peko, and Chris Wormley, as are free agent linebackers Josh Byrnes and Patrick Onwuasor. In are Calais Campbell, Derek Wolfe, and rookie linebacker Patrick Queen, giving the Ravens at least three new starters in their defensive front seven.
The who's-who of new faces could be the deciding factor in who wins this game, but none will likely be as impactful as the aforementioned Hunt, whose playmaking ability has proven to be a game-breaker in years past. Hunt could prove to be an invaluable weapon and changeup to Chubb coming out of the backfield, both carrying and catching the ball. Look for Stefanski to give Chubb and Hunt at least 20 touches each to keep Baltimore's offense off the field and the game out of Mayfield's hands.
On paper, the Ravens and Browns look like two offenses that are capable of domination. Looking at skill position players, that's true, both are stacked. It strictly comes down to quarterback play. And until Mayfield can prove he's the leader he claims to be — give me the reigning MVP and the Ravens to cover at home against an uncertain Browns defense.
Prediction: Ravens 32, Browns 20
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.