The Baltimore Ravens and the Cleveland Browns are separated by just two games. In Cleveland, the Browns (6-6) are 4-2, while the Ravens (8-4) are 3-3 on the road. So then why does it feel like these two teams are having two completely different seasons right now? The two teams have played extremely similar schedules to this point. Glaring differences between the two are the fact that Baltimore defeated the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers, both games that the Browns lost leads in.
Depending on how this weekend plays out, Cleveland could hold one of the AFC Wild Card spots come Monday. Without a game last week due to the bye week, the Browns don’t have any momentum – not good momentum or bad. The Ravens, on the other hand, are coming off of a loss last weekend to the Pittsburgh Steelers. They too haven’t yet locked up their quarterback, who has as many playoff victories as Baker Mayfield does. Before fully diving into the preview of the matchup between the Browns and the Ravens, here are seven takeaways from the bye week.
1) Recharged Browns
Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski told the media on Monday that the team feels recharged coming off the bye. Mayfield has been playing injured since the Week 2 win over the Houston Texans and hasn’t had to take a hit. In the Week 12 game against Baltimore, running back Kareem Hunt experienced some tightness in the injured calf he was returning from IR from. That’s not to mention all the little knicks and knacks that guys are dealing with.
The rest of the season is a tough stretch for the Browns who still have to play through the entire division again. Last season, much was made about the use of the bye week and how the team used it to propel themselves into the playoffs. There’s a lot of hope riding on the prospect that they can do it again after a rather slow start to the season.
2) Injuries/COVID Mounting
Having time to get away from the field, or even from the sport for a moment has to feel good, but it can be risky in today’s world. Under COVID restrictions last year, the players had limited options. This year, however, much of the world is open to the athletes, as it has been throughout the season. As with the general public, going into public spaces comes with the risk of contracting COVID. While it is unclear what activities led to positive COVID tests among a number of Browns players this week, the impact on their availability sure puts a damper on “recharged” feelings ahead of the rematch with the Ravens.
Tight end David Njoku, linebacker Anthony Walker Jr., and punter Jamie Gillan have all been placed on the IR/COVID-19 list and aren’t expected to be available. Additionally, the Browns have picked up a number of injuries this week. Tight end Harrison Bryant, wide receiver Anthony Schwartz, and cornerback Greg Newsome II are all out Sunday as well. Safety Ronnie Harrison is listed as questionable, as well as defensive tackles Jordan Elliott and Malik Jackson. The team will be without right tackle Jack Conklin as well, who is out for the season after getting reinjured in his return to the field in Week 12. Amidst all of the news, it was interesting to learn about the versatility of linebacker Mack Wilson, who is an option at both punter and long-snapper.
3) Jacob Phillips Returns
The loss of Walker due to COVID could be mitigated somewhat by the projected return of the second-year linebacker, Phillips. He had surgery earlier this season to repair a torn bicep tendon sustained during training camp. While there isn’t the expectation that he’ll jump off the screen with his play, having him back is welcome.
Phillips has struggled to stay healthy on the field in his young career, playing just nine games last season. In pass coverage, Phillips is a bit of a liability, but how his athleticism pairs with that of Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah could be promising. Phillips was a third-round pick out of LSU, and he recorded 25 combined tackles in 2020, one of which was for a loss. He’ll be working back into the fold alongside JOK, Wilson, Malcolm Smith, and Sione Takitaki.
4) Stefanski Doesn’t Sound Too Committed to Change
To the average fan watching the Browns on Sundays, the game plan doesn’t seem like it should be that hard. Does the team have one of the best graded offensive lines? Yes. Are Hunt and Nick Chubb healthy? Yes. Ok, give it to them. However it has to be done, just give it to them. That did not seem to be the approach of Stefanski in Week 12 against the Ravens. As written in last week’s 7-on-7, the pair combined for just 36 yards on 15 carries and five targets through the air.
In Monday’s media availability, Fred Greetham asked Stefanski about giving Chubb and Hunt more opportunities on the field, the head coach agreed, but later drew back when asked about it again. “We want to be mindful and intentional about why we’re doing what we’re doing [if you play Chubb and Hunt together].” The question as to whether Stefanski is over-analyzing things is a valid one. A simple stat-check will show that the Browns are 0-4 in games that they gain less than 100 yards on the ground, including the first game against Baltimore. What’s the worst that could come from playing the two together?
5) Message of the Week: Team Focus
When it comes to player leadership on the Browns, the trio of Mayfield, Myles Garrett, and Jarvis Landry fill the role. On Wednesday, Mayfield set the expectation that the team has to “have that singular focus” and “block out everything else”. When Garrett spoke to the media on Friday, however, the tone was a bit different. After initially stating that he feels the team is ready, he noted later that he hasn’t seen the attention to detail from the team this week that he wanted to. As stated above, the team’s season is in no way “lost” at this moment, and a win on Sunday can have a major impact. Leadership from the players doesn’t seem to be getting through though, and that’s not good.
6) Cleveland Got the Help They Needed
Short of a tie between the Ravens and the Steelers, the last six days have gone pretty well for the Browns. Last Sunday, the Cincinnati Bengals lost, and Pittsburgh got the better of Baltimore. The Steelers then lost on Thursday night to the Minnesota Vikings. Cleveland still sits in last place in the AFC North at 6-6, but now has a chance to pull within a game of the Ravens in their second head-to-head. The Browns will then have to keep pace with the rest of their schedule until Week 16. In the final two games of the season, they’ll conclude with Cincinnati in Cleveland after playing Pittsburgh on the road.
7) Continued Friction Between Garrett and Joe Woods
Cleveland’s defensive coordinator, Woods could be in his final days of wearing a headset on the Browns’ sideline. Garrett went public a couple of weeks ago about his distaste for the scheme that Cleveland plays, notably a non-blitzing one. When asked on Friday about how to approach the Ravens after the success they had against them in Week 12, Garrett brought up the scheme again. Noting that the Dolphins, and more recently the Steelers, had success increasing the pressure, the current Defensive Player of the Year candidate said it would be seen if Cleveland decides to follow that similar recipe for success.
In their last matchup, the Browns did blitz Lamar Jackson more than they tend to, and the Browns did so effectively. The pressure was key to generating the four interceptions thrown by Jackson, and they limited his rushing yards to 68 on 17 attempts.
Looking Ahead to Week 14
The feeling around the Browns organization seems to be one of underperformance. Coach Stefanski has hardly gone a week without saying that he needs to coach better and the team needs to play better. There is a sense of frustration, and rightfully so. What there doesn’t seem to be, however, are optimism and answers. For the third time, the season isn’t lost. But the question of “Who are the Cleveland Browns?” still remains. Are they a running team or a passing team? Are they contenders or pretenders? Could they be on the brink of another change in the coaching ranks and at quarterback? The confusion is frustrating to anyone who expected the Browns to make a run this year.
In a sit-down for a social media video on the team’s accounts, Baltimore’s head coach John Harbaugh gave his approach to Sunday’s game in Cleveland. “Most teams at the end of the year are who they are. They’re the same animal so to speak, and we are too,” he said. “You try to prepare the best that you can for what you think you might get, but the bottom line is we’ve gotta go play our game. We’ve gotta play Raven football. We’ve gotta play our best game of the year. It’s a championship opportunity in December, and that’s what we’re looking forward to.” The message could be the same for Cleveland. Unfortunately, does anyone even know what “Browns football” is right now?
1) The Ravens’ Hangover After a Loss
In the Jackson era in Baltimore, the Ravens have lost consecutive games in each of the last two seasons. If that’s a trend, then they’re likely due to repeat it, and it could be this weekend. The Browns have been preparing for the Ravens for the better part of three weeks, and still got close to getting them in Week 12.
When rebounding back from a loss this season, Baltimore has come out on top in a close game the following week. After dropping their season opener to the Las Vegas Raiders, the Ravens beat the Chiefs 36-35. Coming off of the bye week after losing to the Bengals, they squeaked by in overtime against the Vikings. Following their loss to the Miami Dolphins, they got by the Bears 16-13. This pattern suggests that the Browns should once again find themselves in a close one with Baltimore. Can they be the team to take advantage?
2) Position Battle?
There may be a position battle on Sunday that Cleveland fans may not like. With Gillan out due to COVID, the team decided not to have Wilson punt, but instead signed veteran Dustin Colquitt. Gillan affectionately embraced as “The Scottish Hammer” on the shores of Lake Erie, has struggled at times this season. Since pinning 28 punts inside the 20-yard line in 2019, Gillan has struggled to reach near that total, even when factoring for less action.
To be fair, it isn’t like Colquitt is pinning teams back with efficiency either. There’s a reason that he was available after being released by the Atlanta Falcons last week. Still, an opportunity has presented him to earn a shot. Special teams players are revered in Cleveland, and a strong performance against Baltimore could put some pressure on Gillan.
3) How much is Baker Used?
Cleveland’s general manager Andrew Berry told the media last week that he expects that Mayfield has his best football ahead of him this season. With an extended amount of time off, there could be a sense that the quarterback’s shoulder and other ailments have lessened. At the end of the day, the team needs to know if they have to pursue other options at the position.
Despite the team’s strength on the ground, there appears to be a commitment to expecting Mayfield to generate the wins weekly. Given Stefanski’s remarks above, it wouldn’t appear that sentiment has changed. Rather than taking the Harbaugh route to “play our game”, Cleveland’s approach seems to be about more than just winning. Sunday should tell a lot about that stance.
4) Key Injury Updates for the Ravens
Baltimore suffered a big blow last week when cornerback Marlon Humphrey went down for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. It is another injury in the long list of them that the team has dealt with this year. The bad was countered with some positive news that defensive tackle Calais Campbell should be set to go.
Campbell is a force up the middle and a welcome sight for the Ravens. Especially since they are taking on one of the best offensive lines in football. Returning from an illness, Campbell’s body should be fresh, and his appetite on the field will be fierce. At 35 years old, he’s no longer the force he once was, with just over a sack on the season in 11 starts. Still, his value in stopping the Browns on the ground is key.
5) How to Beat the Ravens
To those on the outside of the organization, the Browns are a running team. After sitting atop the rankings for ground offense, Cleveland has started to slip. Still, opponents aren’t likely to sleep on the threat. That includes the Ravens, who have already seen what Chubb can do against them, as he did in 2019. Whether they do run or not still relies a lot on the position of Mayfield and Stefanski.
There’s hardly a trend to the Ravens’ success this year. Whether it’s limiting teams on the ground, forcing turnovers, or how Jackson performs, the results aren’t consistent. With eight games on their record decided by six points or less, it really comes down to end-game execution. Twice they’ve survived in overtime. In the game against the Steelers, they went for the victory on a two-point conversion and came up short. As mentioned before, this is likely to be a close contest again on Sunday. The Browns just have to have the ball at the end of it all. If they can do that, they’ll have a great chance of winning.
6) Stefanski is Getting Aggressive
There’s a different side to Stefanski that is starting to show. This week, he noted that the offense needs to produce and score points. That’s key to any game but is more aggressive than he’s been. To take his statement further, he should’ve qualified it with “in the fourth quarter”. The point has been made in last week’s piece about the team’s struggles in the fourth quarter. Again, the Raven’s have played in tight games all season. Cleveland’s inability in Week 12 to score in the second half cost the Browns the game. Points, in general, are great, but points, when they matter, are better. Hopefully, Stefanski’s deep-dive uncovered some answers to that puzzle.
7) Home-Field Advantage (?)
The Dawg Pound is one of the most recognized groups of fans in sports, let alone the NFL. For the last 20 years, those in attendance have seen a lot of losses. Still, one factor to watch on Sunday is the element of home-field advantage. Mayfield has had unparalleled success when playing at FirstEnergy Stadium when compared to any other Browns quarterback. This season has been more of the same, as the team’s 4-2 home record suggests. In a rivalry game, however, things can get ugly real fast.
It was following the home loss to Pittsburgh this season that Mayfield attacked the commitment of the fans. If you don’t recall, the Browns were booed while on offense. With the Ravens in town, the expectation for a victory is arguably greater than when facing the Steelers. If Mayfield throws an early interception, or if the offense at all struggles to keep pace, watch out. Cleveland may once again turn on their quarterback before he has a shot to redeem himself. Should that happen, the game could be over before it officially ends.
Follow Jonas Clark on Twitter @jarkclonas
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