Although the Browns are in the midst of yet another reboot, last year’s Week 4 upset in Baltimore has the Ravens on edge, with questions surrounding a new look of their own on defense.
Heading into kickoff, three positional matchups will take center-stage in Week 1:
BALTIMORE OFFENSIVE LINE VS. CLEVELAND DEFENSIVE LINE
With the retirement of future Hall-of-Famer Marshal Yanda, the Ravens have an impossibly-large pair of cleats to fill.
Free-agent signee D.J. Fluker will take Yanda’s position at right-guard, having drawn the unenviable task of containing a formidable Cleveland defensive line that returns all of its starters, including former Pro Bowlers Myles Garrett, Sheldon Richardson, and Olivier Vernon. Making matters worse, incumbent Ravens center Matt Skura is returning to live-game action for the first time since a season-ending knee injury last November, raising more questions than answers.
For either side to win the battle in the trenches, one unit will need to exploit the slightest mistakes of the other, with the Ravens’ cumulative experience in this offensive playbook as the probable X-factor favoring them over Cleveland’s new defensive scheme.
BALTIMORE RUN DEFENSE VS. NICK CHUBB & KAREEM HUNT
Last season, the Ravens’ most glaring weakness was the run defense, having surrendered 193 rushing yards in Week 4 to Nick Chubb and the Cleveland Browns, and 217 yards to Derrick Henry and the Tennessee Titans in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
Both losses revealed issues that were masked by Baltimore’s dominance on offense, giving general manager Eric DeCosta urgency in beefing up the defensive line, including the additions of Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe in free-agency.
After serving an eight-game suspension to begin the season, Kareem Hunt teamed with Chubb to form a devastating duo at the end of 2019, helping the Browns go 4-4 in that span after beginning the year at a dismal 2-6. The tandem combined for 870 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns for nearly 4.7 yards-per-carry — a huge concern for the Ravens, even without factoring in Hunt’s greater contributions in the passing game.
Despite this, Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale has had a full offseason to learn from his unit’s mistakes, and will have the benefit of continuity that new Browns offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt will inherently lack.
LAMAR JACKSON VS. CLEVELAND PASS DEFENSE
No matchup analysis of the Ravens is complete without factoring in last year’s most important X-factor, Lamar Jackson.
All eyes are on Jackson’s jump to his second full season under-center, with the benefit of two full (albeit, unique) offseasons as QB1 under his belt. In his third professional season, the reigning league MVP will need to write an encore to his 2019 masterpiece, to prove that his accolades were no fluke.
The first major test will be a Browns pass defense that ranked 7th in the league last season, led by fellow 2018 first-round draft-mate Denzel Ward at cornerback. However, Ward may be the last man standing in his secondary; fellow corners Greedy Williams and Kevin Johnson have been mainstays on the injury report, as Williams has dealt with a shoulder injury while the newly-acquired Johnson is week-to-week, recovering from a lacerated liver.
Additionally, rookie safety Grant Delpit is out for the season, while veteran free-agents Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo form the latest tandem in the defensive backfield, replacing departed safeties Damarious Randall and Morgan Burnett. Cleveland acquired safety Ronnie Harrison in a late trade on September 3rd, but may not have him ready for significant action by kickoff.
Conversely, Jackson returns to quarterback a Baltimore offense that retained most of its starters, hoping to showcase the fruits of his offseason labor with his skill-position players.
THE FINAL WHISTLE
There is no reason to believe that the Ravens will falter to a Browns team led by a novice head coach in Kevin Stefanski. Barring a surprising turn of events, Baltimore should handily beat Cleveland and start the season 1-0 at M&T Bank Stadium.
History, Box Scores, and Statistics: Pro Football Reference