You wanted a statement win? You got it!
The Browns traveled to Nashville to take on the then-8-3 Tennessee Titans and put together arguably the greatest half of football in Cleveland Browns history. They dominated a quality opponent on both sides of the ball and raced out to a 38-7 lead that would guarantee an important victory that left the team at 9-3 through the first three quarters of the season. As is the case often in the NFL, you must quickly turn the page and get back to work.
It is Monday Night Football in Cleveland with the surging Browns taking on the 7-5 Baltimore Ravens, who handed the Browns the worst loss of their season back in Week 1.
The Ravens have lost four of their last six games. This is as big of a game for the Ravens as it is the Browns with a ton at stake in the ultra-competitive AFC playoff picture. These teams have split the head-to-head series in each of the last two seasons, and the Browns want to make sure that happens for the third straight year. Lamar Jackson's numbers are down from his 2019 MVP season but he is still among the most dangerous weapons in the entire league, and his prowess running the football is the main reason why the Ravens once again boast the league's top rushing attack.
Slowing down the Ravens on the ground will be important on Monday, but it is not the only key to focus on as we dive into this week's Winning Mix.
1. Get out to a fast start and run our offense for 4 quarters
I've bumped this one up to No. 1 for this week because the Ravens, more than any other team, need to play with the lead to be effective. The best way to ensure they don't have the lead is to take it yourself, something the Browns have exceled at this year.
So far in 2020, the Browns are undefeated when leading after the first quarter, leading at halftime or leading after three quarters. In eight of the team's nine wins, the Browns were up at the half and handled their business to earn the win.
The Browns want to be able to run their offense and utilize an effective ground game combined with play-action passing to put points on the scoreboard. They do not want to have to go to more of a drop-back oriented passing attack and chase points against the extremely talented front of the Ravens. They want to keep the Ravens defense off balance, and that will come with a quick start and the threat of run or play-action pass on every down.
Furthermore, the Ravens feel the exact same way about the need to have a quick start on their side. They want to rely on their read-option base offense that features the talents of Jackson and their stable of excellent running backs. Much like the Browns, they want to build off the run by utilizing play-action passing and play their style of offense. The Ravens, like the Browns, do not want to chase points as a drop-back passing team, especially in the fourth quarter, where they have been completely ineffective as a comeback team. This year, the Ravens are 0-4 when trailing after three quarters, so it is clear the Browns need to get out to a nice lead and then put the Ravens away late.
2. Keep the pocket clean and give Baker the time he needs
In the Browns' Week 1 loss to the Ravens, Baker Mayfield was under pressure on 29 percent of his pass attempts and posted one of his lowest quarterback ratings of the season at 65.0. Over the last six games, Mayfield has thrown for 11 touchdowns with one interception and a quarterback rating of 112.7. During that span, he has been under duress on only 19 percent of his pass attempts, which is second-lowest in the entire league. Keeping Mayfield clean is of tantamount importance against the Ravens. Through the first six games, the Ravens had 22 sacks but have produced only six in their last six games (fewest in the NFL during that span) despite being the highest blitzing team in the league. When you blitz and don't get home, your defense can be vulnerable, so it should be no surprise that the Ravens have lost four times in six tries during this span of pass rushing futility.
During this six-game stretch, Mayfield has been scintillating from a clean pocket, completing 71 percent of his passes, averaging 9.3 yards per attempt with 11 touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 124.0. Mayfield should have time to throw behind the incredible Browns offensive line and pick apart what has been a recently exposed back seven. I would fully expect Mayfield to target rookie linebacker Patrick Queen often Monday, as Queen enters the game as the worst-graded linebacker in the NFL by Pro Football Focus both overall and in pass coverage. If Mayfield is well-protected and he's able to exploit some of the weaknesses in the Baltimore defense while taking care of the football, his quarterback rating is likely to top 100 again this week.
Amazingly enough, the Browns are 9-0 and are averaging more than 31 points per game when Mayfield's quarterback rating is better than 70. The Browns have also now won 13 straight games when Mayfield's quarterback rating is greater than 100, like it was in each of the last two games. Four straight quarterbacks and five of the last six have produced ratings of 80 or better against the Ravens. During that span, three quarterbacks have produced ratings of 100 or better after allowing only one such quarterback performance (Patrick Mahomes) in the first six games of the year.
3. Contain the Ravens run game on early downs, force them into obvious passing third downs
While the Ravens are not rushing the ball at their historic 2019 pace — when they lapped the rest of the league by 1,000 yards at the end of the season — they are still the top rushing offense in 2020 and are incredibly dangerous on the ground. The Ravens lead the league in yards per carry (5.2), runs of 20-plus yards (21) and are tied for second with three runs of 40-plus yards. The Browns boast the league's eighth-ranked run defense and are allowing just 4.1 yards per carry this season. Even better, the Browns have avoided giving up big plays on the ground, surrendering just four runs of 20-plus yards on the season, the fourth-lowest total in the league.
It is critical the Browns stop the run early and force the Ravens into a passing team. Jackson has struggled all season in obvious passing situations and has failed to generate big plays and first downs through the air. The Ravens have thrown for only 105 first downs this season, which is second-fewest in the NFL ahead of only the winless Jets. They have just 28 pass plays of 20 yards or more, which ranks as third-fewest in the league, and have only two pass plays of 40-plus yards, the fewest in the NFL. You want the ball in Jackson's hands as a passer in 2020. Last year, he made teams pay and, believe it or not, led the NFL in games with 3-plus touchdowns after tossing a trio of scores or better in eight games. This year, he has done so just once, back in Week 1 against the Browns, which is something they do not want to let him repeat.
Limiting big plays in the ground game and making Jackson throw to score also has two other benefits. First of all, it makes them convert multiple third downs on every drive, meaning that they ultimately have to score from the red zone. Though they were a top red zone offense in 2019, the 2020 Ravens are the 25th-best red zone team. Last year, Jackson accounted for 32 red zone touchdowns (27 passing, five rushing). This year, he has produced only 14. Putting the Ravens in obvious passing situations also allows the Browns to get after Jackson with their excellent pass rush. The Ravens lost their All-Pro LT Ronnie Stanley to a season-ending injury back in Week 8. Since his injury, Jackson has been under pressure on 36.4 percent of his passes and has a quarterback rating of just 50.0 when under siege (excluding the Dallas game). The recipe for defensive success sure seems to be a game plan that forces the Ravens to beat you as a one-dimensional passing team.