The lead up to the 2020 season was unlike any other offseason in the history of the NFL. With the country dealing with a pandemic, the league was forced to make changes to try to keep players safe and comply with COVID-19 related guidelines. The NFL Draft was done remotely. Free agents were signed without visits to their new teams. The number of practices was reduced. Preseason games were cancelled entirely. Ultimately, the necessary precautions implemented by the NFL resulted in less time for teams to prepare for the start of the regular season.
It is very likely that the first few weeks of the 2020 NFL season may look a lot like preseason games. The players aren’t in “football shape,” they’ve yet to play a single snap against a real opponent and many teams are just now breaking in new playbooks. The teams with the greatest advantages heading into the 2020 season are the teams that look a lot like they did in 2019. The 2020 Ravens have the same General Manager, Head Coach, Offensive Coordinator and Defensive Coordinator. They bring back their MVP QB and a total of ten starters on offense. On defense, they return a pair of All-Pro CBs and a total of seven starters.
With all that in mind, our first edition of Battle Plans has a bit of an overarching theme, exemplified by the first section under offense…
Keep it Simple
On Sunday against the Browns, the Ravens should play the same way that they did on offense in 2019. Behind one of the NFL’s biggest offensive lines, the Ravens should establish the run by handing the ball off early and often. Successfully executing the most basic running plays in Greg Roman’s playbook will build the offense’s confidence and help to limit mental mistakes.
On defense, the Browns are breaking in a brand-new group of safeties and a pair of starting linebackers. They’re also dealing with multiple injuries in their secondary. If the Ravens can stick to the basics and find a rhythm on offense, they should come out of M&T Bank Stadium with a win on Sunday.
Attack with Hollywood
Despite a foot injury that hampered him throughout the season, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown put together a nice rookie campaign that ended with 46 receptions for 584 yards and seven touchdowns. In the lead-up to his sophomore campaign, Brown got his foot healed and put on a significant amount of muscle. He’s had a full offseason to work with Lamar Jackson and is now fully established as the number one WR in Baltimore. As one of the fastest players in the NFL, I think that Brown has a chance to remind a lot of fans around the NFL of Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill in 2020.
The Browns Safety group underwent a massive overhaul this offseason. They signed Andrew Sendejo and Karl Joseph in free agency. Then they drafted Grant Delpit, who is now on the injured reserve with a torn Achilles, in the 2nd round to be their starting Free Safety. Just last week, they traded a 5th round pick for former Alabama Safety Ronnie Harrison. Sendejo, Joseph, Harrison and second year player Sheldrick Redwine are all more comfortable closer to the line of scrimmage than they are as single high, or “Free” Safeties.
On Sunday, the Ravens should take advantage of Cleveland’s question marks on the back end of their defense by calling a few “shot plays” designed for Brown. After establishing the run early in the game, the Ravens should use play action to draw the Safeties towards the line of scrimmage and get the ball to Brown over the top. If Denzel Ward, who is a top-notch CB, can limit Brown’s impact with good man coverage, the Ravens will have to find other ways to get the ball into the hands of their best WR. A quick slant or screen pass to get the ball to Hollywood could be just as dangerous as a bomb downfield. It should surprise absolutely nobody that there aren’t many defenders in the league who are catching Brown in the open field.
Don’t leave Hollywood Brown on your fantasy team’s bench this week. Against the Browns’ Safeties, he could be in for a big game.
Scheme Against Garrett
Myles Garrett was the 1st overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft for a reason. Still just 24 years old, Garrett was a Pro Bowler and 2nd team All-Pro selection in 2018. Despite missing six games after the Mason Rudolph incident in 2019, Garrett is still averaging double digit sacks through his first three seasons in the NFL. In July of this year, Garrett signed a five-year, $125 million contract extension with the Browns that made him the highest paid defensive player in league history. Simply put, Garrett is exactly the type of player that offenses must plan around.
One way to slow Garrett’s pass rush is to run directly at him. The Ravens should use Orlando Brown Jr., Nick Boyle and Pat Ricard to make Garrett as uncomfortable as possible. At the most elementary level, running the ball right at the opponent’s best pass rusher behind your biggest OT, TE and FB prevents them from rushing the passer. Beyond that, running the ball directly at Garrett will hamper his pass rush on the plays where he gets a chance to do the thing for which he was paid $100 million guaranteed. A heavy dose of heavy blockers will tire Garrett out throughout the course of the game and prevent him from “pinning his ears back” to get after Lamar Jackson.
The way that the Ravens scheme their passing attack can also help to minimize Garrett’s impact on the game. Pass rushers need time to get to the QB. If the QB can’t find anywhere to go with the ball or the play takes a long time to develop, sack artists get their chance. The Ravens should limit Garrett’s opportunities by using a quick passing game. They can throw a quick slant to Hollywood Brown or hit Mark Andrews on a crossing route underneath. Every play that allows Jackson to get the ball out of his hands quickly is one less chance for Garrett to make a game-changing play.
Blitz All Night…Day
The 2020 Ravens defense has all the makings of a Top 5 unit in the NFL. After finishing 4th in yards per game allowed in 2019, they added Calais Campbell, Derek Wolfe and Patrick Queen to the roster. They also get back talented slot CB Tavon Young and will benefit from a full season of Marcus Peters. To put it plainly, there are simply not a lot of holes on the defense.
If one was going to pick out the “weakest” aspect of the Baltimore defense, it would have to be the outside pass rush. Pernell McPhee needs to be on a snap count to maximize his effectiveness and minimize his chance of injury. Tyus Bowser is a fourth-year player looking for a breakout year before he becomes a free agent. Jaylon Ferguson, who had 2.5 sacks during his rookie campaign, is still developing. Jihad Ward, a part time DL, is at his best when he is setting the edge against the run. Apart from Matt Judon, there are as many questions as there are answers at the OLB position.
After an abbreviated offseason, the Browns enter Week 1 with a 1st year Head Coach and Offensive Coordinator. They will be starting a rookie, Jedrick Wills, at LT. They’ll either be starting a player fresh off knee surgery, JC Tretter, or a rookie, Nick Harris, at C. Wink Martindale should take serious advantage of all of that and unleash the blitzes on Baker Mayfield on Sunday. Blitzes and stunts will test the communication of Browns’ players who are still getting used to a new system and a new playbook. Frequent blitzes will take some of the pressure off the pass rushers to win their one-on-one matchups and cause chaos in the Cleveland backfield. If Wink Martindale brings pressure from all over the field and keeps the Browns off balance, they could be in for a long afternoon in Baltimore.
Use Jimmy on Hooper
The 2020 Ravens defense returns two All-Pro CBs in Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters. They also bring back slot CB Tavon Young after he missed the entire 2019 season with a neck injury. For the first time in his career since being drafted by the Ravens in the 1st round of the 2011 NFL Draft, Jimmy Smith enters the season as the fourth CB.
Having Smith as the fourth CB on your roster is an incredible luxury. He is a highly-experienced CB who spent years covering the opponent’s best WR. At training camp it appeared that Smith was healthy and that he’d put on a good amount of muscle in the offseason. With Humphrey and Peters on the outside and Young in the slot, Smith may be asked to cover the opponent’s tight end in man coverage this season.
In March, the Browns gave former Falcons TE Austin Hooper $11 million a year to be their top option at TE. Hooper is a talented TE who has been to two Pro Bowls so far during in four-year career. On Sunday, Humphrey and Peters will have their hands full with the likes of Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. The front seven will be looking to slow down Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. If Smith can lock Hooper up in man coverage, it would take away a top option for Mayfield. It would also lay the foundation for a season that could see Smith in man coverage against great TEs like Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz.
Dominate the Line of Scrimmage
One of the Ravens’ two 2019 regular season losses came at the hands of the Browns in Week 4. In that contest, it was the Browns run game that set the tone and put them in the driver’s seat. Chubb carried the ball 20 times for 165 yards and three TDs. His last TD of the day was an 88-yard sprint to the end zone that put the nail in the Ravens’ proverbial coffin.
Since being drafted in the 2nd round of the 2018 NFL Draft, Chubb has quickly established himself as one of the better RBs in the league. In 2019, he was second in the NFL with 1494 rushing yards. With All-Pro CBs on their top receiving options, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the Browns give Chubb and Kareem Hunt plenty of work on Sunday.
Eric DeCosta and the Ravens front office made improving the defensive front seven a top priority in the offseason. DeCosta added Derek Wolfe in free agency for $3 million. He also landed Calais Campbell from the tanking Jaguars in exchange for a 5th round pick. In the draft, he added ILBs Patrick Queen in the 1st round and Malik Harrison in the 3rd round.
The Ravens will need to commit themselves to controlling the line of scrimmage on Sunday. They should allow their talented defensive backs to play one on one on the back end so that they’re able to commit more resources to slowing Cleveland’s rushing attack. A defensive front of Brandon Williams, Campbell, Wolfe, Matt Judon, Jihad Ward, L.J. Fort and Queen should be ideal for controlling the trenches. Williams, Campbell and Wolfe are not a trio that is easy to top between the tackles. Ward is a fantastic edge setter who can prevent Chubb from experiencing a ton of success on stretch plays. Queen should be allowed to run free and put double-digit tackles in the box score.
If the Ravens defense can control the line of scrimmage against the Browns, it’s likely that they’ll control the game.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch
Browns RB Nick Chubb versus Ravens ILB Patrick Queen
In Cleveland’s Week 4 win over the Ravens in 2019, the Ravens ILBs had a hard time limiting Chubb’s effectiveness. Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young got caught in the wash, overran plays and missed tackles. After Young was shipped to LA in the Peters trade and Onwuasor signed with the Jets in free agency, the Ravens made upgrading their ILB position a top priority in the draft. Queen was their 1st round pick and former Ohio State ILB Malik Harrison was a 3rd round selection.
In what will be a rarity for a Ravens team that doesn’t tend to start rookies early in their first professional seasons, it is likely that Queen will get the start alongside veteran L.J. Fort on Sunday. At LSU, Queen’s reaction time and speed made him a true sideline-to-sideline tackler who chased down RBs all over the field. The Ravens will need Queen to show off the reasons that they made him a 1st round pick on Sunday by reading, reacting and chasing down Chubb on the outside zone runs that hurt the Ravens in Week 4 of the 2019 season.
Queen’s ability – or lack therof – to slow Chubb down could have a major impact on the outcome of the game.