Most everything in life isn’t guaranteed, and even less is forever, but we can bank on one truth about this Sunday’s game in Baltimore.
The Ravens are going to run the football.
Anyone who has watched Baltimore’s first three games of 2019 can come away with a similar conclusion. The Ravens have attempted the second-most rushes in the NFL this season per game with 37, trailing only San Francisco (38) in the category, and have ripped up 5.9 yards per rush, best in the league among NFL teams with at least 60 rushing attempts this season. Their 216.7 rushing yards per game lead the NFL by a margin of more than 20 yards per game, and it’s for good reason: They have multiple running threats on the field at all times.
In case you haven’t heard of him by now, Baltimore’s starting quarterback Lamar Jackson is about as dangerous of a dual-threat quarterback as has existed in the NFL since the heyday of Michael Vick. Browns defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said as much Thursday, and it doesn’t take much viewing of the Ravens’ games to understand for oneself how Jackson’s mobility can completely change the complexion of a game.
It’s not just scrambles with Jackson, either. Sure, he can escape and gain yards when the pass isn’t open, but Baltimore is also designing runs for the quarterbacks, some more viable long-term than others. Jackson will run read options, both traditionally and inverted, he’ll run a speed option, and he’ll even line up and run behind lead blockers in a traditional iso or power run.
It might not seem conducive to long-term health, but right now, it is effective. And it’s establishing a base for Baltimore that is making the passing game significantly easier for Jackson.
In what might be familiar to Browns fans, the Ravens have used their established ground game as a foundation for the passing game via heavy use of play action. With a quarterback who’s always a threat to run, play action out of zone reads and pistol-set handoffs gives defenders additional pause to make sure that yes, the Ravens are indeed attempting a pass and not attempting to dupe a defense to create a massive lane for Jackson to run through.
As a result, Jackson owns a sparkling 7-0 TD-INT ratio through three games. It’s a product of a passing game that has seen wide-open receivers on a frequent basis.
How frequent? Jackson has attempted exactly zero passes into double coverage this season, according to Next Gen Stats. For comparison’s sake, Baker Mayfield has attempted 6.4 percent of his passes into double coverage, the highest rate in the NFL.
A lot of that has to do with the run with a couple of possible outcomes. One could be the inclusion of an additional defender in the box to stop the run, leaving one less room to create an advantageous pass-coverage situation such as double coverage. The other: play action is keeping defenses as honest as the run, forcing them to read before reacting and shortening their time to properly defend.
All of it is working for the Ravens. But how can the Browns stop it?
Cleveland has demonstrated through three weeks it can stop the run in the traditional sense. The Browns have bottled up both Le’Veon Bell and Todd Gurley, allowing just 3.15 yards per carry combined between the two. But this week’s opponent presents a special challenge thanks to the presence of Jackson.
He teams with running backs Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards and rookie Justice Hill to create a legitimate rushing attack on nearly every down. The group’s power-running style complements Jackson’s well to create a dynamic approach that should always be monitored by opposing defenses. Cleveland has the horses up front to stymie this attack but needs to continue to do what it has done well in the first three weeks: maintaining gap integrity, rushing with discipline and not trying to do too much individually.
The threat expands beyond the designed run, though. In the case of a drop back to pass, all it takes is for one rusher to get a little too far upfield before Jackson can take off and make a man miss with a simple juke that’s worth at least 5 yards, if not more. That can be the difference between a first down and forcing a punt.
The Browns will need to be more disciplined than ever, maintaining contain and depth in rush lanes. And above all, their first priority should be Jackson.
“We stop 8, that’s it. Really, he’s their offense,” defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi said during an appearance on Best Podcast Available. “He runs the ball well, he can throw, his receivers make catches for him, things of that nature. Once you stop the run, you stop 8, then you can really start getting after him, kind of take them out of phase of what they want to do.”
Check out photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Ravens Sunday by team photographer Matt Starkey