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Can the Browns Finally Slow Lamar? The Biggest Keys to MNF’s AFC North Clash

By: Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads, Greg Gifford

Though they started 6-2, including an impressive 38-6 win over the Cleveland Browns in Week 1, the Baltimore Ravens find themselves on the outside of the expanded playoff chase as the AL North rivals meet again tonight on the shores of Lake Erie.

The Ravens, a half-game behind the seventh-seeded Miami Dolphins, hope to carry some momentum into the matchup after snapping a three-game losing streak with a 34-17 win over the visiting Dallas Cowboys in Week 13.

They’ve won 21 of the last 25 meetings in this series after Lamar Jackson completed 20 of 25 passes for 275 and three touchdowns – two to tight end Mark Andrews – in the opener.

The Browns, however, are seeking their first five-game winning streak since 1994 when someone named Bill Belichick was coaching the team. Coming off a 41-35 shootout win at Tennessee, they hold the fifth seed and now sit just 1.5 games behind the AFC North-leading Pittsburgh Steelers.

Using our advanced data, we’re taking a closer look at some of the keys to tonight’s critical divisional matchup.

WHEN BALTIMORE HAS THE BALL

The Ravens are very run-heavy (+6.4%) according to our Play Expectancy Model, which uses various game status inputs to determine the likelihood of run or pass. Because of Jackson’s unique abilities, they run more option than anyone in the NFL, both with read and pitch options.

One might expect this would come in the form of classic zone reads, but the Ravens actually incorporate read-option into more of a gap-blocking scheme. This means they often have guards pulling (they lead the league in power calls), along with reads on their duo runs (a double team-focused run scheme with no pulling linemen).

Although not as much as the Browns offensively, the Ravens are among the top teams in the league in terms of moving the pocket for their QB. Expect to see a lot of play-action and bootlegs, as well as some sprint outs and RPOs, in order to capitalize on their run game and keep Jackson’s legs active and dangerous.

That’s certainly proven effective in this matchup. In his last four meetings with Cleveland, Jackson has thrown for nine touchdowns and two interceptions while also rushing for 304 yards and two scores.

This time, he’ll see a Browns defense that runs a ton of seven-man zone-based schemes with very few one-high man coverages or blitzes. Cleveland tends to prefer middle of the field open coverages like quarters and quarter-quarter-half (39% total). It will also play Cover 3 over a third of the time, often with a wrinkle of putting one of the corners in man coverage on an outside receiver.

Browns middle linebacker B.J. Goodson may be the key player for the Browns in this matchup. With a defensive tackle number (93), he plays like a big man off the ball. A stellar run defender, Goodson is one of just a handful of starting linebackers who average fewer than one yard allowed per tackle attempt in the run game. When he gets an opportunity to tackle, he stops the ball carrier in his tracks.

Goodson will have to tackle in a few different ways against the Ravens’ four-headed rushing monster features Mark Ingram II, bulldozer Gus Edwards and elusive runners J.K. Dobbins and Jackson, both of whom force missed tackles more than 20% of the time.

Edwards will be a fascinating tackle challenge for Goodson. He averages 3.4 extra yards per play-ending tackle, despite only forcing missed tackles 12% of the time. He’s a rusher who will lower his head and seek out contact.

Any time Edwards and Goodson meet, you’ll be able to hear it.

WHEN CLEVELAND HAS THE BALL

The Browns run the ball about 5.4% more often than the average NFL team. When they hand the ball off, expect to see a wide variety of blocking schemes, both with and without pullers.

The Browns use an outside-zone scheme on about 30% of their runs (seventh most in the league), while also running gap-pull looks like power and counter about 25% of the time. It might be surprising in today’s NFL, but Cleveland runs virtually no option plays, so don’t expect to be seeing many RPOs or zone reads.

One of the key matchups will be the Ravens’ interior vs. the Browns’ interior, specifically Brandon Williams and Calais Campbell against Joel Bitonio, JC Tretter, and Wyatt Teller. According to our metrics, Bitonio is the best run-blocking left guard in football this year, allowing just 17 disruptions in 342 opportunities (6.3% better than the average LG).

Teller, meanwhile, ranks third in run blocking among all right guards, allowing just 17 disruptions though in slightly fewer snaps. And Brandon Williams is the second-best run-defending interior lineman in the NFL, according to our data over the last three years that is skewed toward recent performance. He generates disruptions more than 10% as often as an average player, and Campbell is just percentage points behind.

The Browns’ ability to run the ball will depend on whether their interior can overpower the Ravens’ front. Nick Chubb has run for 799 yards and seven TDs in his eight games this season, but he’s totaled 105 yards with no scores in his last two meetings with Baltimore.

In the passing game, the key for the Browns the play-action. They run straight play-action drops on 15.5% of their dropbacks (fifth most in the league), and call the most play-action bootleg passes of anyone in the NFL. Baltimore is allowing 7.7 yards per play against play-action drop concepts (well below the league average of 9.1) and 6.5 against boots (slightly worse than the NFL average of 6.3).

The Ravens figure to remain one of the most aggressive teams in football tonight. They bring five-plus rushers almost a third of the time, second only to the Pittsburgh Steelers. A lot of these blitzes are zero-blitz schemes, with no safety help deep down the field.

Outside of their Cover Zero, the Ravens generally defend with the middle of the field closed, split fairly evenly between Cover 1-man and Cover 3.

Baker Mayfield struggled in the first meeting, completing 21 of 39 passes for 189 yards with one touchdown and one interception while getting sacked twice. But he’s thrown for 592 yards with six scores in his last two games and hasn’t thrown a pick since Week 7.

 

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