Lamar Jackson is used to questions about high-profile quarterback matchups. The Ravens star just doesn’t think much of them. He’s playing the defense, the answer usually goes, not the quarterback.
On Wednesday, Ravens inside linebacker Patrick Queen was asked something similar: Was there any motivation in facing a Cleveland Browns team with its own elite defense? Unlike Jackson, Queen did not exactly reject the question’s premise.
“It’s a lot of motivation,” he said. “It’s a lot of talk right now, and we just want to talk with our pads, honestly. We just want to go out there and dominate on play at a time, have fun with it, talk a little trash on the field and go at it again.”
The NFL’s top two defenses will reunite again Sunday in Baltimore. In Week 4, the Ravens (7-2) turned 296 yards of offense into four touchdowns. The Browns (5-3), starting rookie quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson in place of the injured Deshaun Watson, turned 166 yards into one field goal in a 28-3 home loss. Here’s what to watch in the AFC North rivals’ Week 10 matchup.
1. Over the season’s first month, quarterback Lamar Jackson and the Ravens’ passing offense had a glaring weakness. Dogged by injuries and hampered by growing pains, they just didn’t have good answers for man coverage.
Against man-to-man looks from Week 1 to Week 5, Jackson completed 54.8% of his passes for 5.4 yards per attempt, two touchdowns and two interceptions, according to TruMedia. He also took six sacks and lost two fumbles, dragging his expected points added per drop-back, which accounts for scrambles, to a ghastly minus-0.47 per play. Among regular starters, only the Seattle Seahawks’ Geno Smith and New England Patriots’ Mac Jones were worse.
No opposing defense tested that vulnerability more often than the Browns. In Week 4, Cleveland lined up in man coverage on 47.9% of its plays, according to Pro Football Focus. On Jackson’s 12 drop-backs against man, he went 4-for-7 for 12 yards, was sacked three times and scrambled twice for 6 yards. Overall, he managed just two first downs.
Ravens wide receivers Rashod Bateman and Odell Beckham Jr., who’ve missed time in practice this week with injuries, missed that Week 4 game. So did left tackle Ronnie Stanley. Jackson, meanwhile, has dramatically improved his production against man-to-man over the past four weeks: 65.6% accuracy, 9.1 yards per attempt and 0.16 EPA per drop-back.
But even with a deeper, more in-tune offense, Ravens coordinator Todd Monken should expect to see more of the same from the Browns on Sunday. Cleveland leads the NFL in man coverage rate (43.3%).
“Like any game we go into, we have to have a plan where Lamar feels comfortable where to go with the football, no matter whether they’re playing man, zone, types of zone, types of man that are good versus all,” Monken said Thursday. “I think that’s the part of it, is having enough skill guys that make it difficult to play man. The more guys you can have that can win, the better job you can do of uncovering those guys the more fun it is. The fewer guys you have of that and the worse job you do of uncovering them, then you get covered, you’re holding on to the ball, and you hope he runs around and makes a play. And that’s what we’re trying to avoid, obviously.”
2. Three years ago, J.K. Dobbins waited and waited for the flashes of skill he’d shown early in his rookie season to translate into a bigger role in the offense. It was a difficult balancing act for then-coordinator Greg Roman; the Ravens’ running back depth chart also featured Mark Ingram II and Gus Edwards. Dobbins didn’t have his first game with double-digit rushes until Week 7.
With the recent emergence of another rookie, Keaton Mitchell, Monken now has his own timeshare to manage. He indicated last week that he favors a committee approach at the position, but he said Thursday that it was too early to comment on how Mitchell’s nine-carry, 138-yard performance Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks would affect his role over the rest of the season.
“We’ll see,” Monken said. “Games go different ways, but I think with any player, when you get your opportunity, you take advantage of it, and that leads to more opportunities. I think that’s the simplest way to put [it] in anything in life. If you’re given an opportunity, and you’re successful at it, you’re going to get more opportunities. You deserve it. You earned that. He’s earned that.”
Justice Hill led the Ravens with 13 carries Sunday, finishing with 40 yards in the 37-3 win, but he has not been an especially efficient runner this year. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Hill’s averaging 0.3 yards under expectation per carry and has a success rate of 41.4%. Edwards is averaging 0.4 yards over expectation per carry, with a 44.5% success rate.
3. The Browns’ Watson had one of his best games of the season Sunday, finishing 19-for-30 for 219 yards and two touchdowns against a woeful Arizona Cardinals defense. But Cleveland did not ask him to do much.
Watson, still dealing with the shoulder injury that first sidelined him in Week 4, racked up most of his yardage on a handful of deep throws to top wide receiver Amari Cooper, who had completions of 59 yards (37 air yards), 49 yards (39 air yards) and 17 yards (16 air yards).
Mostly, though, Watson settled for layups and easy looks. According to NGS, 22 of his pass attempts Sunday were thrown 9 yards or fewer downfield. Eight went to targets behind the line of scrimmage. Watson averaged just 3.8 yards per attempt on those shorter throws.
His hopes for another productive day could rest on Cooper, whom the Ravens held to one catch for 16 yards on six targets in Week 4. Even more impressive, cornerback Marlon Humphrey and safety Marcus Williams were unavailable that game. If hamstring injuries don’t sideline them Sunday, the Ravens’ secondary should be well equipped to limit Cooper.
“We have to be able to account for where he lines up and the things that he does from those particular angles,” defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said Thursday. “I think the guys did a good job of recognizing that the first game, and the way the game played out, it was hard to get to some things they probably had game-planned. So that’s something we’re going to have to account for as the game goes along, for sure.”
4. Watson acknowledged Wednesday that his shoulder is still not 100%, calling it a “work in progress.” He said he was “focused on just making sure that I’m staying healthy.”
Considering the state of the Browns’ offensive tackles, that might not be easy. Top left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. (knee) was placed on injured reserve Thursday, joining top right tackle Jack Conklin, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 1. Rookie Dawand Jones, who’s started the past seven games at right tackle, missed practice Wednesday and Thursday with knee and shoulder injuries.
Cleveland’s bookend tackles Sunday could be Geron Christian, who was signed to the Browns’ practice squad on Halloween, and James Hudson III, who has started just seven games over two-plus NFL seasons. Against a Ravens edge rush led by outside linebackers Kyle Van Noy (five sacks), Jadeveon Clowney (3.5) and Odafe Oweh (two), and spiced up by Macdonald’s unique pressure packages, Watson might not have much time to himself in the pocket.
“Guys are just trying to or want to get sacks, and once you get one, it brings the energy as well,” Oweh said Wednesday. “It just shifts in that direction, so I just feel like a lot of guys are being more intentional about their role.”
5. At 7-2, the Ravens are a good bet to make the playoffs. These next two weeks could reveal whether they’re a decent bet to earn the AFC’s top seed as well.
According to The New York Times’ playoff simulator, the Ravens have about a 95% chance of advancing to the postseason. With a win Sunday, those odds go up to about 98%. With another win Thursday against the Cincinnati Bengals, they start to approach 100%.
Two AFC North victories could also tilt the balance of power in the battle for AFC supremacy. According to the Times, the Ravens would have about a 47% chance of earning the No. 1 seed and a wild-card-round bye if they improve to 9-2. If the Kansas City Chiefs, who enter their bye this week sharing the AFC’s top spot, lose at home to the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 11, the Ravens would become the Times’ odds-on favorite (52%) to earn home-field advantage.
In a worst-case scenario for the Ravens — back-to-back losses to the Browns and Bengals — their playoff odds would drop to about 79%. They would also no longer be favored to host a wild-card-round game.