In their 25th season opener, the Baltimore Ravens gave no quarter to the overmatched Cleveland Browns, handing their AFC North rivals a soul-crushing 38-6 defeat that spoiled the debut of Cleveland’s rookie head coach, Kevin Stefanski.
Returning the majority of a roster that finished a league-best 14-2 in 2019, the Ravens ensured that the new-look Browns would look similar to the “same old Browns” rather than the championship-winning Browns of old, marking Cleveland’s 16th winless season-opener since 2005 — their only consolation being a draw in 2018 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Extending their streak of Week 1 victories to five consecutive seasons, Baltimore showcased the next step in the team’s evolution, with all of their offseason additions playing prominent roles, while old faces unveiled new wrinkles in playing the same tune that got them to the postseason dance just a year ago.
Much of Jackson’s success came from a rotation of fresh, explosive receivers exploiting a Cleveland defense that was missing many key players, including starting cornerback Greedy Williams (shoulder) and nickelback Kevin Johnson (liver). The dynamic duo of Jackson and tight-end Mark Andrews connected on two key touchdowns, including a one-handed grab on their first offensive possession, giving them a lead from which Cleveland could never recover.
With minimal time in training camp and the lack of live-game action, the inexperience of Browns defenders in new coordinator Joe Woods’ system showed, as Baltimore was able to distribute the ball to seven different targets, even in spite of Cleveland’s pass rush. Though Myles Garrett was able to get penetration and bring Jackson down for a loss, he was otherwise a non-factor throughout the game. Jackson’s efficiency through the air, particularly, was key in a game where the rushing attack was largely contained — ironic, given the bulletin-board material provided earlier in the week by Cleveland defensive-tackle Sheldon Richardson, claiming that Jackson won’t “turn into [Green Bay Packers quarterback] Aaron Rodgers anytime soon,” and that Baltimore would “do what they do best [and] run the ball.”
Rodgers’ 364 passing yards and four touchdowns against the Minnesota Vikings were impressive, but not necessary in a game where the Ravens’ opponent posed no remote threat in the scoring column after the first quarter.
Jackson’s offseason labors were fruitful, connecting with Marquise Brown on five completions for 106 yards, including a long 47-yard bomb on Brown’s first reception. Receiver Miles Boykin showcased elusiveness on a 25-yard completion in the second quarter, while rookie Devin Duvernay’s first career reception yielded an explosive 11 yards on a screen.
The continued development of Lamar Jackson as a passer was a key storyline heading into his third professional season, and his masterful performance against an aggressive — but ultimately, toothless — Browns defense, gives reason to believe that Jackson will orchestrate another Pro Bowl season and, possibly, a second league MVP trophy.
GROUNDED IN VICTORY
Though balanced in playcalling (30 rushes, 26 pass attempts), the Ravens offense in Week 1 did not achieve the same parity in yardage as they’d averaged last season, netting only 107 rushing yards to 298 passing yards.
However ineffective the gameday trio of Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards, and J.K. Dobbins were in gaining meaningful yards, the rookie Dobbins was the star of the group, widening the score on a 3-yard rush in the second-quarter, and hammering home the victory with a 2-yard scamper in the fourth. In a season of milestones, Dobbins was the first rookie in Ravens franchise history to score two rushing touchdowns in their professional debut.
For most teams, 68 combined rushing yards from their running-back corps would be a respectable outing — but for a unit that contributed to setting the all-time record for most rushing yards in a single-season, Week 1’s performance fell short of their lofty standards.
Part of the blame falls on an offensive-line shuffle forced by the departure of left-tackle Ronnie Stanley in the third-quarter; Stanley’s injury appears to be minor, but the line’s rust was evident even with his presence in the first half, where the Browns defensive-line was a frequent visitor at the line-of-scrimmage. Rookie right-guard Tyre Phillips played admirably in place of the retired Marshal Yanda, but his learning curve still showed on plays where he needed to make smarter decisions on shifts towards the strong-side.
In spite of these growing pains, Baltimore will need stronger play from their cadre of running-backs and linemen, as the Ravens’ identity remains rooted in the team’s threat to successfully run out of any personnel-set on any given play.
Eschewing stats and scores, the resurgence of the Ravens’ old-school defensive identity was never more evident in the bluster of cornerback Marcus Peters after a defended pass against Odell Beckham, Jr.
Holding Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield to 210 passing yards and only one touchdown, the Ravens secondary showed no ill effects after parting ways with mercurial Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas prior to the season. Thomas’ replacement, DeShon Elliott, delivered an earth-shattering tackle as an early-season declaration that the Ravens’ faith in the third-year safety was well-placed. Alongside Chuck Clark in his second stint as the unit’s on-field signal-caller, the tandem did well in eradicating the deep ball, allowing only three completions of more than 20 yards on 39 pass attempts; all were fruitless for the Browns, resulting in no points on those drives.
An unexpected contribution in coverage came from newly-acquired defensive-end Calais Campbell, dropping back in coverage to tip a pass into the hands of Marlon Humphrey for the game’s first turnover on the Browns’ opening drive. The pair of Campbell and fellow free-agent Derek Wolfe provided an immediate boost to the Ravens’ defensive front, filling gaps that had been exploited by Cleveland last season. However, the Browns were still able to chip away at Baltimore’s defense for a combined 138 rushing yards, allowing both Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt a handful of chunk plays that will raise concern as teams continue to test one of the Ravens’ few (but glaring) weaknesses.
Starting a pair of rookies for the first time in franchise history at inside-linebacker, Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison flew to the ball and made frequent appearances on the box score, with Queen finishing as the Ravens’ leading tackler in a solid debut. Their continued efforts will become necessary as the defense finds its footing with a starting lineup bearing no resemblance to last year’s Week 1 depth chart.
Thus far, rumors of the Baltimore Ravens’ demise remain unfounded.
While the offensive-line and run defense both remain a work-in-progress, Lamar Jackson has picked up where he left off, carrying the Ravens to a blowout victory over a woeful Browns team in the midst of another reboot.
NFL teams don’t pick who they play, but they control how they perform, and Baltimore avoided the dreaded “trap game” by smothering their opponent in all phases.