Mark Andrews has played 79 games over his five-year NFL career, enough to see every flavor of defense, every level of talent — enough to know that Game No. 80 could be something different.
“You don’t see a team like this very often,” the Ravens tight end said Wednesday, because most, if not all, of the defenses he’s faced had established quite reasonable baselines for production. Like, say, giving up at least one touchdown and over 200 yards per game.
Not the Cleveland Browns. At least not these mid- to late-September 2023 Browns. After a 27-3 win Sunday over the Tennessee Titans, Cleveland leads the NFL in virtually every significant defensive category: scoring defense (10.7 points per game, though it’s allowed just one offensive touchdown total), yards allowed per game (163.7, almost 90 yards ahead of No. 2) and yards allowed per play (3.2, almost a yard better than the second-place Ravens), among many others.
“That’s about as good as you can get,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.
Now quarterback Lamar Jackson, coordinator Todd Monken and the Ravens have to figure out how to beat it Sunday. As if facing the NFL’s best defense and first-year coordinator Jim Schwartz isn’t difficult enough, the offense could also be missing projected starters at running back, wide receiver and along the offensive line.
Where do the Ravens go from here? There weren’t a lot of answers in Sunday’s overtime loss to the Indianapolis Colts. There could be even fewer in Cleveland.
1. How do you run on the Browns?
Cleveland ranks second in the NFL in run defense DVOA, according to FTN, behind only the Philadelphia Eagles. It ranks second in yards allowed per game, also behind the Eagles. It ranks second in yards allowed per carry, behind the Titans.
That the Browns trail anyone in any run defense stat is a minor surprise, considering their biggest accomplishment: The average opposing ball carrier doesn’t even make it back to the line of scrimmage before he’s touched.
According to TruMedia, the Browns are allowing an NFL-best minus-0.64 yards before contact per carry, the second-best mark since the stat was first tracked in 2006. Only two teams in that span — the 2009 Arizona Cardinals (minus-0.73 yards per carry) and 2008 Minnesota Vikings (minus-0.16 yards per carry) — have ever finished a season in the red.
Cleveland typically plays with heavier boxes, but its defensive structure does not lend itself to easy solutions in the run game. Browns defensive ends Myles Garrett and Za’Darius Smith typically line up in a “wide-9″ alignment, one gap over from their opposing offensive tackles, which can leave the linebackers behind them responsible for fitting the run on inside carries.
Opposing offenses have not found a reliable workaround. The Browns lead the NFL in the rate of carries stopped for no gain or negative yardage (35.7%) and have allowed the lowest share of carries converted into a first down (8.9%), according to TruMedia.
“It’s not just a posture that’s built to stop the run,” Harbaugh said. “They have a way of playing the run, and that’s how they do it. We played that way in Philadelphia with [defensive coordinator] Jim Johnson over the years. That defense’s type of style has been around for quite a long time. They’re very good at it. … They have excellent players, and they’re playing really hard and well, and we respect them.”
Solution: Rely on Jackson to make magic. He’s averaged a remarkable 6.1 yards and 0.24 expected points added per carry against Cleveland over his career. The Browns’ speed on the edge and at linebacker will limit his effectiveness outside the tackles, but the Ravens’ interior can create daylight up the middle, especially if center Tyler Linderbaum is healthy.
2. How do you pass on the Browns?
Cleveland’s pass defense has so far avoided the NFL’s most fearsome aerial attacks. In Week 1, the Browns faced a hobbled Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals in a rainstorm. In Week 2, it was Kenny Pickett and a Pittsburgh Steelers offense missing starting wide receiver Diontae Johnson. In Week 3, they got an even more limited Titans team.
Cleveland made life hell for all three. The Bengals and Titans finished with 67 and 68 passing yards, respectively. The Steelers went for 200 yards, a huge chunk of which came on wide receiver George Pickens’ 71-yard catch-and-run score. The Browns’ defensive success rate on pass plays entering Week 4, which measures how well they keep offenses off schedule on a down-to-down basis, is 79.2% — nearly 13 points higher than the NFL’s best mark since 2000 (66.4%), set by the legendary 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense.
“I believe every defense is going to have its strengths and weaknesses, but for right now those guys are flying around,” Jackson said. “All phases of the defense are flying around to the ball, playing great defense.”
There’s a star at every level. Garrett is third in the NFL in sacks (4.5) despite being double-teamed on 25% of his pass rush snaps, according to ESPN. Linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah has the sideline-to-sideline speed to shadow Jackson. Cornerbacks Denzel Ward, Greg Newsome II and Martin Emerson Jr. have allowed a combined 16 catches on 40 targets in coverage, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. Grant Delpit is Pro Football Focus’ third-highest-rated safety.
The Browns don’t mind forcing the issue, either. Despite having Garrett and Smith, both of whom rank in the top 10 of ESPN’s pass rush win rate among edge defenders, Cleveland ranks ninth in the NFL in blitz rate (32.0%). Opposing quarterbacks have combined to complete just nine of 26 passes for 82 yards against five or more Browns pass rushers, according to NGS.
“They fly around,” Andrews said of Cleveland’s defense. “Obviously, good secondary, good safeties. [That] linebacker group, they are shifty, so we’re going to have to bring it. We’re going to have to be prepared.”
Solution: Lean into play action. Pickens’ touchdown in Week 2 came after a run fake, which slowed the Browns’ pass rush and drew in their linebackers just enough for Pickett to throw into a window behind them. Because of the Browns’ wide alignment up front, their linebackers have to be proactive about clogging gaps as run defenders. That can leave them vulnerable to play action.
3. How do you avoid turnovers?
This is more of a Ravens problem than a Browns problem. Cleveland, for all its defensive dominance, has just two takeaways this season: an interception and a fumble recovery against Pittsburgh. Garrett’s strip-sack against Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill on Sunday, the only other fumble the defense has forced, bounced right into the hands of running back Derrick Henry.
The Ravens’ offense hasn’t been especially turnover-prone this season, with just four giveaways in three games, tied for 13th most in the NFL. But Jackson has had ball security issues, losing two of his four fumbles, including one Sunday that led to an Indianapolis field goal.
“Most of them [happened when I was] in the pocket,” said Jackson, who ranks fourth among starting quarterbacks in turnover-worthy-play rate, according to Pro Football Focus. “I had that one against the Texans when I was trying to make a guy miss, but most of them have been in the pocket, trying to throw the ball. … I have to do a better job at [protecting] it. It affects the game.”
That’s a concern with Ravens running backs, too. Kenyan Drake, called up from the practice squad Sunday, fumbled on his first touch against the Colts after a long catch-and-run. Melvin Gordon III, meanwhile, has fumbled at least four times in three of the past four seasons.
Solution: Hold on tight — but don’t hold on for too long. Jackson’s had fumble trouble when he’s looked to bounce around a crowded pocket. His margin for error gets even slimmer whenever Garrett’s tearing around the edge.