The Ravens are going to Cleveland for what could be the game of the week in the NFL.
It’s an early-season battle between AFC North foes, both currently sitting at 2-1, who both stand a very realistic chance of winning their division.
Here are my thoughts heading into the game, all in 50 words or less:
The mood this week reminds me of two weeks ago before going to Cincinnati, except without the revenge factor. The Ravens offense is hungry coming off a lackluster showing. Baltimore is still banged up. The Ravens are going into hostile territory. Baltimore tends to thrive under these conditions.
Roquan Smith’s comments this week apparently became bulletin-board material in Cleveland. He doesn’t care. A throwback on and off the field, Smith loves being the bully and backs it up. “If somebody needs extra motivation, then you’re not playing the game for the right reason anyway,” he said Friday.
Ravens Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken and outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney both said there’s no extra motivation this week in their returns to Cleveland. I believe that the team’s success supersedes their personal narratives, but they’re still people. They want to show their best selves to their former employers.
While Baltimore’s defense has been locked in on preparing for Cleveland’s offense, you better believe that the Ravens have taken note of the rankings and hype around the Browns’ No. 1-ranked defense. Besting that unit, both offensively and defensively, is another motivation going into Sunday’s game.
These are the kinds of games you keep Patrick Ricard for. Ricard doesn’t have quite as big a role in Monken’s offense, but I expect he’ll be a key part of the plan to try to neutralize Browns pass rusher Myles Garrett, especially if Ronnie Stanley (doubtful/knee) doesn’t play.
Garrett is a great player, but that’s been the case for a while. In 10 games against the Ravens, Garrett has six sacks. That’s not bad, but he hasn’t wrecked games. That’s the mission this time around as well. He’ll get wins, but the Ravens can’t let him take over.
The matchup between the Ravens’ tackles and Browns OLB Myles Garrett headlines the battles.
I don’t know how serious Deshaun Watson’s throwing shoulder issue actually is (he’s listed as questionable), but I suspect he’ll play. The bigger question is how much it’s affecting the Browns’ gameplan or Watson’s ability to air it out Sunday. Rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson could get some snaps as a curveball.
Nick Chubb was the Browns’ best offensive player before his knee injury, but I still expect they’ll run a fair amount, especially if Watson’s arm is hurting. Cleveland’s offensive line is its strength. It reminds me of the Colts, who kept pounding Zach Moss and popped some long runs.
Browns Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz said “we’re gonna try to take the fight to him,” speaking of Lamar Jackson. The Colts blitzed Jackson 40% of the time, way higher than their season average. The Ravens will need some quick answers in Cleveland, while possibly being short-handed at receiver.
Baltimore’s wide receiver depth is being put to the test already. Without Odell Beckham Jr. and Rashod Bateman, Jackson’s top targets will be rookie Zay Flowers, Mark Andrews, Nelson Agholor, and Devin Duvernay. It’s still considerably better than what the Ravens had in Cleveland last season.