1. Respect the pass
Baltimore runs the ball better and more often than anyone. That includes its quarterback, Lamar Jackson, who leads the NFL in quarterback carries despite starting just six games.
That doesn’t mean the Browns can discount Baltimore’s passing attack, however. While slowing the run is a priority, they’ll need to do so with discipline. That’s because Baltimore’s proficient rushing attack accentuates its play-action passing game.
Jackson threw a 68-yard, play-action touchdown pass to Mark Andrews last week. The Browns’ discipline will be key in avoiding a similar outcome.
“Do not disregard (Jackson’s) arm strength,” Browns coach Gregg Williams said. “He can throw it a long way, too. You are compensating so hard in the run game that all of a sudden he understands how to fake a guy open and get somebody open.”
2. Overcome the atmosphere
Baltimore’s home crowd will present a bigger challenge than any atmosphere the Browns have played in this season. Offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens considers Sunday’s game the third “playoff atmosphere” the Browns will play in since he started calling plays.
The first was in Houston, where Baker Mayfield threw three first-half interceptions. The second was Denver, where Mayfield admitted the win wasn’t pretty but still led the go-ahead touchdown drive. This one will trump both of those.
It’s not just that Baltimore clinches the division with a win. It’s that it’ll probably miss the playoffs altogether if it loses. Barring a Bengals win in Pittsburgh or a Colts-Titans tie, Baltimore needs to win or it’ll watch the playoffs from home.
The Browns know this and are prepared for anything from a team motivated by desperation.
“Hopefully, we can go in and handle the situation and the environment well and then get a taste for what the playoffs are all about,” Kitchens said. “We will see how we handle it. I know that we are going to go in there and let it out there and see.”
3. Value offensive possessions
It sounds simple to say “taking care of the ball” is a key to the game, but Baltimore’s clock-control offense enhances the importance of every play on every possession.
Baltimore’s out-possessed its opponents in every game but one — coincidentally, the one game it lost. Its run game not only exhausts defenses, but also forces more precision from opposing offenses by allowing them fewer opportunities to score on its top-ranked defense.
So yes, avoiding turnovers is always important, as is scoring when presented an opportunity. But against a team that limits your opportunities and boasts an elite defense, those goals are emphasized.
“I think (Ravens Head Coach) John (Harbaugh) has done a fantastic job, maybe the best in the league on what they have to do to how they manage the game and how a few of possessions there are in a game,” Williams said. “Now every play even becomes more of a priority, yes.”
4. Prevent big scramble plays
Jackson’s ability to run propelled Baltimore to the top of the league’s rushing leaderboard. But his athleticism is just as much of a weapon in the passing game.
Containing Jackson’s speed is hard enough when he runs by design. But when the defense thinks they’re defending the pass and he takes off? That stresses every level of the defense.
So it’s imperative the Browns mold passing pockets that leave few outside scrambling lanes.
“(We have to) corral him and do not let him outside of the pocket,” defensive end Myles Garrett said. “We know he is special when he can make things happen with his feet. Get outside and he can throw on the run and he can make people miss. Do not let him get that opportunity.”