Division familiarity brings another good test for Ravens offense

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Any lingering concern regarding Lamar Jackson’s brief health scare against Seattle evaporated Wednesday with the Ravens quarterback practicing fully and not even appearing on the injury report ahead of Sunday’s AFC North clash with Cleveland. 

That means Jackson will now have the opportunity to do something he hasn’t been able to do since the end of the 2020 campaign because of injuries, which is to start and finish a return matchup with a division opponent. With much made of Jackson improving to 18-1 against NFC opponents — who aren’t as familiar facing such a uniquely talented quarterback — over the last three weeks, the Browns’ top-shelf defense facing Baltimore for the second time this season will bring another good test for Todd Monken’s offense, which has now eclipsed 30 points in three straight games after not doing it once over the first six contests of 2023.

While it’s an understatement to suggest Deshaun Watson and the Browns will have their hands full against the NFL’s top scoring defense, how Jackson and the offense fare against Cleveland may help reveal how much more dangerous the red-hot Ravens can become even with a challenging schedule over the second half of the season. Many variables have changed — beginning with a different offensive coordinator — but it was right around this juncture in each of the last two seasons that the offense began to backslide even before Jackson was lost to injuries in December. That troubling reality was a reason why the Ravens moved on from Greg Roman at the end of last season. 

Familiarity is what makes any division matchup challenging, especially for Monken and the Ravens as they try to replicate what worked in the 28-3 win at Cleveland in Week 4 and come up with new wrinkles for the best defense they’ve faced so far this season.  

“You do take a lot of that and then you try to extrapolate a little bit what their answer might be [and] then what you’re going to need to do to counter that,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “It’s kind of a guessing game there, but you don’t want to stop the play for them. You want to make sure that you test them a little bit, and I’m sure they’ll test us.” 

Though obviously a decisive victory, that first meeting was a peculiar one with Watson being a surprising game-day scratch, which pressed 2023 fifth-round quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson into a start he had no business making early in his rookie year. To be fair, the Ravens weren’t immune from key injuries either with left tackle Ronnie Stanley and wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Rashod Bateman out for the offense and cornerback Marlon Humphrey, safety Marcus Williams, and outside linebacker Odafe Oweh missing from the defense. 

The outcome may have been predictable for a Cleveland offense that hasn’t been all that good even with Watson at quarterback, but the Ravens offense benefitted from two short fields created by interceptions for two touchdowns and only came fully alive in the second quarter with two long touchdown drives to take a 21-3 halftime advantage. The Browns defense limited Baltimore to 27 yards on 10 plays in the opening period and only 47 yards on 22 plays in the second half. 

For what it’s worth, the Browns’ top-ranked pass defense has played the most man coverage in the NFL this season while Jackson hasn’t performed as well against man coverage compared to zone. Jackson was just 4-for-7 for 12 yards against man coverage while going 10-for-11 for 167 yards when Cleveland was in zone in Week 4, according to Sharp Football. Of course, the X factor making many teams reluctant to play too much man coverage against Jackson is his scrambling ability, but you have to wonder if Browns defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz tweaks his approach after such an extreme split in that first meeting. 

“You just go back and watch the things that they did well against us — when they stopped us from completing drives — because they might try to piggyback off that,” said Jackson, who threw for two touchdowns and ran for two in that first meeting. “And [we] try to watch ourselves against other teams because they might try to do things that they did to stop us.” 

We know each side of the ball doesn’t play in a vacuum as the Ravens defense has a distinct edge on paper playing against a Cleveland offense that’s been mediocre — or worse — this season, making Baltimore the favorite at home. But the individual matchup that could be the most pivotal to Cleveland’s chances of pulling off an upset is four-time Pro Bowl defensive end Myles Garrett going up against Stanley, who has been inconsistent since returning in Week 5 from the knee injury suffered in the season opener. 

Especially with Jackson having already fumbled 10 times this season, the last thing the Ravens want is Garrett to wreck the game and potentially give the Browns offense an extra possession or two on a short field. In Week 4, he collected a sack and two other quarterback hits with Pro Football Focus crediting him with five pressures on 22 dropbacks resulting in a pass attempt or sack. Garrett could also move around the defensive front, which is notable for the interior line as well as right tackle Morgan Moses as he works his way back from a shoulder injury this week. 

“The tape speaks for itself. He’s a guy that has all the tools. Just his size, strength and speed, it definitely makes it challenging,” center Tyler Linderbaum said. “It’s someone you definitely have to know where he’s at. That starts with the game plan. That starts with this week and just trusting our fundamentals and technique to get the job done.” 

While many players on both sides know each other well, what Monken cooks up against a defense seeing the Ravens for a second time marks an important checkpoint for an offense still chasing a higher level of consistency. Last week, we saw a few more designed runs called for Jackson, more running out of 11 personnel than in previous weeks, and a breakout performance from speedy running back Keaton Mitchell, who has the potential to be a home-run threat for this ground attack moving forward. 

With return AFC North tilts against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh still to come and other upcoming opponents having more and more film and data on this Ravens offense to review, Monken must continue to keep opponents on their heels as he did in the blowout wins over Detroit and Seattle.

“There are so many layers to that that people are studying and so much information we get — who’s on the field, where they’re lined up, what the motions look like, [and] what call was made before that in terms of sequencing of calls,” Harbaugh said. “We really do study – coaches at this level study – all those things, so it’s very nuanced in terms of keeping people off balance. I do think Todd has done a very good job of that. 

“But the bottom line really is execution. When it’s all said and done, all that stuff really is important, but really the most important thing is that you execute the play as well.” 

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