RAVENS // BROWNS OVERVIEW
The biggest surprise on the Browns has been their defense, as they rank fourth in total DVOA, and 13th in takeaways. Only six teams have more sacks than the Browns.
Of course, the “surprise” has nothing to do with personnel, and has everything to do with the fact that Gregg Williams is the man scheming this defense. Personally, I’m ignoring those DVOA numbers, as Cleveland is a strong “splash defense” with Williams’ aggressive, “get after the quarterback and take away the ball” style of play — but in terms of actually preventing the offense from moving the ball and scoring points, they have been below average. This is good news for a Baltimore offense that has started the year hot, ranking 10th in yards per game and fifth in points per game.
On the other side, Baltimore’s elite pass defense will return their best player this week in Jimmy Smith. Through four weeks without Smith, Baltimore ranked second in yards allowed per game and third in points allowed per game. This will be a tough test for rookie Baker Mayfield and the upstart Cleveland offense.
RAVENS PASS OFFENSE
Baltimore has had a resurgence through the air this year — with Joe Flacco looking like the quarterback who helped Baltimore win a Super Bowl during the 2012 season, leading the Ravens so far to top-12 marks in DVOA, passing yards per game, and passing touchdowns. Flacco has aggressively worked the zero-to-15-yard portions of the field, while mixing in five to eight deep shots per game.
On defense, the Browns aim to keep everything in front of them — doing what they can to get after the quarterback, and attacking on short-area throws in an effort to force turnovers and create splash plays. While this leads to a low aDOT and a low catch rate (an impressive combination), it also leads to the Browns being one of the worst teams in the league after the catch, as their aggressiveness provides opportunities for pass catchers to work in open space at times with the ball in their hands.
The leading man on the Ravens is John Brown, who tops the NFL in average depth of target, at 21.9 (4.6 yards higher than second-place man DeSean Jackson), and who ranks fourth in the NFL — behind only Julio Jones, Corey Davis, and Odell Beckham — in percentage share of team air yards. Brown has some nuance to his route tree, but he is being used almost exclusively downfield, with Willie Snead and Michael Crabtree each perfectly capable of handling the short-area throws. This makes this a difficult spot for JB to hit, as the Browns aim to take away exactly what he wants to do. He has seen target counts on the year of four, 10, nine, and seven, so he’ll absolutely remain involved here. Efficiency will likely be an issue, but the big-play upside remains.
Crabtree and Snead continue to work as doppelgängers to one another, with Snead seeing six to eight targets each game and Crabtree seeing six to 10 — and with the two of them running nearly identical route trees, and working the same areas of the field. This offense is built around the idea of Brown going deep and these two providing bodies underneath, making each guy fairly interchangeable in this attack. Snead has the slightly better matchup, running more of his routes over the middle, and has an xYAC/R (expected YAC per reception) of 4.8 compared to 3.1 for Crabtree. Neither of these is an elite mark. Each guy has been little-used in the red zone this year.
Behind the wide receivers, Hayden Hurst is expected to join the already-crowded Baltimore tight end rotation this week.
RAVENS RUN OFFENSE
After finishing last year as one of the top run defenses in the NFL, Cleveland enters Week 5 with a number seven DVOA ranking against the run, and if we take away Marshawn Lynch’s 52-yarder last week, Cleveland is allowing only 3.6 yards per carry to running backs on the year.
This is bad news for a Baltimore backfield that has yet to get on track, with Alex Collins maxing out at 18 carries and 68 yards so far. He is averaging only 3.5 yards per carry to begin the season, and he has had issues in pass protection that are keeping him off the field on passing downs. While he has averaged two catches per game so far, he has topped six receiving yards only once. He has also had fumbling issues that could keep him off the field when the Ravens get closer to the goal line.
Collins is sharing time with Javorius Allen, who has looked underwhelming on the ground at only 2.4 yards per carry, but who has retained his role in the pass game with 19 targets through four games.
Either guy will need a defensive breakdown or a multi-touchdown game in order to be worth a roster spot.
BROWNS PASS OFFENSE
In the first start of his career, rookie Baker Mayfield played much better than his line suggests — as his 21 of 41 passing was sprinkled with at least six drops, and his pick six was a result of one of these drops. Raw rookie Antonio Callaway and football-lazy athletic freak David Njoku were the main culprits, but Jarvis Landry got in on the fun as well (much to my chagrin), creating a more disappointing debut than Mayfield should have had. The Browns find themselves in a tight spot now, as they have three NFL-caliber weapons in the pass game: Callaway, Njoku, and Landry; but because of the massive pile of mental mistakes Callaway has built up through the first few weeks of the season, the Browns are talking about scaling back his snaps — and because Njoku has not bothered to learn how to run sharp routes, Cleveland is failing to squeeze major production out of him as well.
The Browns do not get an easy test this week, against an elite Ravens defense. Without Jimmy Smith, the Ravens have allowed the lowest catch rate in the league (shaving almost 18% off the league average rate), while ranking third — behind only Carolina and Jacksonville — in YAC allowed per reception. There are no areas of the field where Baltimore is weak against the pass, creating a difficult situation across the board for Cleveland’s aerial attack. Baltimore is allowing only 275.8 total yards per game.
If you feel compelled to go here, Jarvis Landry has double-digit targets in three of four games so far and should land in that range again.
If Callaway sees his snaps scaled back, Rod Streater or Damion Ratley would stand to see more snaps, though the true beneficiary would be Rashard Higgins, who has already averaged five targets per game across the last three weeks. Honestly, the best bet in this group for upside remains Callaway, as scaled-back snaps would still likely lead to five to seven targets, and he has plenty of explosive upside on these looks.
Baltimore has been middling against the tight end this year, giving Njoku the best theoretical shot at production. He has huge, athletic-driven upside, but he’ll need some things to go right in order for that upside to pay off this week.
BROWNS RUN OFFENSE
Baltimore ranks ninth in yards allowed per carry and fourth in rushing yards allowed per game, as their passing attack is forcing teams to go more pass-heavy in return than they would like. Cleveland has run-blocked at an above-average rate, ranking 12th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards; though Baltimore’s defense ranks fifth in adjusted line yards themselves.
Carlos Hyde has played well enough to maintain his lead in this backfield, but Nick Chubb has earned more snaps with his explosive play as well. We should still expect 18 to 22 touches for Hyde (he has 22 or 23 carries in three of four games so far), though he’ll need to hit for a long run or a couple touchdowns on these carries, in a difficult matchup, as he has only seven targets on the year.
Expect Chubb to step in for anywhere from four to eight carries this week, while Duke Johnson will continue to soak up limited work in the pass game.
I am writing up all these lower-total games first this week, in an effort to find upside pieces in tourneys, or to find low-priced guys who can help us fill out the top end of our roster; but this is a spot that appears unlikely to be on the board for me outside of large-field stuff. Even then, it’s simply “upside-hunting” on guys like John Brown and David Njoku — guys who can post a truly start-worthy score, even in a difficult matchup. You could throw Jarvis Landry onto that pile, though even with his price lowered this week, he’ll have a hard time justifying what you’ll have to spend.
Each offense has done a good job protecting the football this season, but each defense is in play this week as a strong unit. Expect at least one or two turnovers from Baker Mayfield, with a few sacks taken, giving Baltimore a path to a decent “floor” game at DST. Neither team profiles as particularly likely to smash, but each is an acceptable way to fill out a roster.