The Browns are back from their bye with a five-game season and everything at stake remaining.
Three of the final five games are in the division, four are in the conference and all are against teams with playoff aspirations. It all starts Sunday against the AFC North-leading Baltimore Ravens, a team that beat the Browns, 16-10, in the last game before the bye. In that game, the Browns intercepted Lamar Jackson four times but could not generate enough points off those takeaways for the win. It was a stinging loss to be sure, but the Ravens come to Cleveland struggling a bit, having lost three of their last six games. Their once potent offense has failed to top 20 points in four straight games and five of the last six. The defense just lost corner Marlon Humphrey for the season and is now without both of its top corners and free safety on defense, not to mention the numerous starters they've lost on offense.
The Ravens have had an uncanny ability to pull out close games but lost their first tight one last week when they could not convert a 2-point attempt at the end and fell to the Steelers, 20-19. The Browns are fresh coming off their bye and need to get hot in December to qualify for the postseason. This is a massive game and, in many ways, the playoffs start now, so let's look at three keys to a critical Browns victory in this week's Winning Mix.
*1. Score 20-plus points *
In five of the last six games, the Browns defense has held their opponents to 16 points or fewer, which is elite scoring defense. Unfortunately, the Browns are just 3-3 in that span, despite the fact that scoring exactly 17 points in all six games would have yielded a 5-1 record. If the Browns found anything during the bye week self-scout, we must hope that it was the secret to unlocking an offense that has really struggled — with the exception of the Bengals blowout — to score. They'll look to find the formula from a planning and execution standpoint that enables the Browns to extend drives on third down, avoid third down whenever possible, produce chunk plays, avoid negative plays and, most importantly, get the ball into the end zone. The way that the Browns defense has been playing lately means that if the Browns can reignite the offense, the hot streak can start Sunday against Baltimore.
As noted above, the Ravens have struggled on offense themselves lately, failing to reach 20 points in five of their last six games. Putting 20-plus on the board Sunday will force a Ravens team that is struggling to protect Jackson to put the ball in the air. Jackson was sacked seven times last week and has thrown an interception in four straight starts with eight total during that span. It should also be noted he has been sacked 21 times in his last five starts, going 2-3 as a starter during those games. The pressure of making the Ravens chase points will be very important, and it begins with a fast-starting, potent Browns offense.
2. Get the Wide Receivers Going
I know the Browns must reestablish the running game and produce more than the 17 carries for 40 yards (2.4 per rush) than they had against Baltimore in Week 12. That starts with getting the Ravens out of their loaded boxes and making sure the Browns runners get past the line of scrimmage before taking contact — something that did not happen in Week 12. One way to get the offense jump-started and help release some of the pressure on the Browns runners is to attack the depleted Ravens secondary with chunk plays to the wide receivers. Baltimore is now without both of its elite starting corners, so the Browns are working against backup corners and must take advantage. Add in the fact the Browns likely will be without their leading pass catcher in TE David Njoku (reserve/COVID-19 list) and it becomes all the more imperative that the Browns wide receivers play a major role Sunday.
In the Ravens' last three losses, opposing wide receivers have totaled 43 catches for 698 yards (16.2 yards per catch) and three touchdowns. On a per-game basis, that amounts to 14.3 receptions for 232.7 yards and a touchdown from opposing wide receivers, and that was with Humphrey in the lineup. The Browns receivers, led by Jarvis Landry (six catches for 111 yards), produced 10 catches for 139 yards and no scores in the Week 12 loss. That 13.9 yards per catch is the lowest any receiver group has averaged against the Ravens since the Los Angeles Chargers back in Week 6.
The Ravens play a lot of Cover 3 (25 percent) and Man 1 (27 percent), so the outside receivers are basically in one-on-one situations throughout the game. The Browns must win these matchups, create separation and then make the catch when the ball arrives. This the game for Landry to continue his recent run of excellent play and for a now healthy Donovan Peoples-Jones, who leads the team at 18.9 yards per catch and three touchdowns, to have a signature game. Add in the fact the Ravens have allowed 82 explosive pass plays this year — third most in the NFL — and the stage is set for the Browns passing attack to come alive with the connection between Baker Mayfield and his receivers as the key.
3. Fly Around and Generate Takeaways on Defense
In the last meeting, the Browns defense absolutely played well enough to win, limiting the Ravens to just 16 points, forcing four interceptions, two sacks and a season-low 3.9 yards per play. The offseason additions to stack the defense with speed and length were on full display as all three safeties, who played a ton together in both big nickel and dime packages, each had an interception. Rookie LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah had arguably his best game as a pro, racking up a career-high 12 tackles, 1 TFL and 0.5 sacks as he chased and harassed Jackson from sideline to sideline. Jadeveon Clowney was a one-man wrecking crew up front, and your stars Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward continued their elite-level play. It was a defensive masterclass by Joe Woods and his players that produced one of the worst offensive performances for the Ravens since Jackson became the quarterback. In fact, Jackson would have the worst quarterback rating of his career, 46.5, in that Week 12 meeting against the Browns thanks to his career-worst four interceptions.
The challenge for the Browns defense is to do it again Sunday. The Browns did a great job of only allowing short completions with limited yards after the catch and forcing incompletions or interceptions on vertical throws. Other than the two miraculous plays to Mark Andrews on the Ravens lone touchdown drive, the Browns forced Jackson to be just 3-of-10 for 65 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions on passes of more than 10 yards in the air. Jackson averaged a season-low 5.1 yards per attempt against the Browns despite averaging nearly 10 air yards per attempt, his second-highest figure of the year. Limiting those big plays and forcing Jackson to make quick decisions into tight windows will lead to more turnovers for the Browns defense and should propel them to the all-important win.
Despite the loss in Week 12, the Browns remain 9-1 all-time under Kevin Stefanski when forcing two or more takeaways. It should also be noted the Browns need to once again be clean on offense, which they were not in the loss to Baltimore. The Browns sit at 10-1 all time under Stefanski in games in which they do not turn over the ball. The Browns have unfortunately turned it over in five of their last seven games. They are 2-0 in the two games without a single giveaway and 1-4 in the five with one. Keep the sheet clean at FirstEnergy Stadium, and go get that W.