This team continually finds ways to win games in the most adverse circumstances and last week was no exception. I made the trip to Chicago to see the game, and walking along Lake Michigan hearing that Lamar Jackson would miss out due to the virus that ravaged the team last week made me instantly reset my expectations for the game. But maybe I shouldn’t have. This team finds increasingly miraculous ways to win.
How do they find a way to beat this Browns team? Find out below…
Stopping Chubb, the Wide Zone Grand Master
I love a running offense and I love loyalty. So, I was always predisposed to liking Kevin Stefanski. Stefanski joined the Minnesota Vikings in 2006 and held numerous jobs on his climb up the coaching ladder in Minnesota. Staying in one franchise as long as he did, as a coach, is relatively unheard of in the league today, especially for an obviously bright mind like Stefanski.
He finally got to the Offensive Coordinator position in 2019 and, while lucky enough to be mentored by Gary Kubiak, he led a top 10 offense in Minnesota that year. It was on the back of this that he got the gig as Cleveland Browns Head Coach, with many at the time questioning whether it was his eventual successor in Minnesota, Kubiak, who should take all the plaudits and the Browns had appointed another dud.
Not so fast, in the immortal words of Lee Corso.
Stefanski has put together a rushing offense so potent, it should strike fear into even the hardiest of run defenses. The Ravens are amongst the best in the league at stopping the run, albeit hindered by key injuries, and even they have their hands full in stopping Stefanski and his Wide Zone (also known as Outside Zone) offense this week on Sunday Night Football.
I’ve talked at great length about the wide-zone rushing offense in previous Battle Plans and the Ravens have been pretty good at stopping it so far. And while they’ve faced some of the best proponents of the scheme so far this season, they haven’t yet faced the Browns, who really are a special rushing offense.
Talking about the scheme first…unlike Inside Zone which looks to get vertical movement, the Outside Zone offense is predicated on lateral movement challenging the defense. This creates holes for the runner based on what the Offensive Linemen are able to get accomplished on their blocks.
Offensive Linemen have several different types of first step they can take to begin positioning themselves for a block. In Wide Zone play, they may take several different steps based on what they’re seeing in front of them; usually a slide step, drop step or bucket step depending on what alignment they’re facing from the defender across the way.
These steps though are always steps to the play-side of a run. In fact, you can generally spot an Outside Zone run when all the Offensive Linemen in unison take their first step, at subtly different angles, to the play-side of the run. Once they get on the move their job is to get to the outside shoulder of the defender they’re responsible for. If they get it, then they pin the man inside, if they don’t, then they keep blocking him sideways and run him to the sideline.
The beauty of the scheme is that it allows the Offensive Linemen to make blocks based on what they’re seeing from the defense and what they think they can make stick. It therefore though, leaves a burden on the Running Back to be patient, allow his blocks to develop and read the right hole to burst through. Nick Chubb, for me, is literally the best in the business for this.
The Running Back has three reads to make in the Wide Zone offense – if you want to read more about that, go back to the Battle Plan for the Vikings game. Essentially the back must choose whether to bang directly towards their aiming point, usually towards the B gap, bounce it outside the Offensive Tackle play-side, or bend it back towards the backside A gap on the cutback.
There are many backs who run this scheme efficiently, but Chubb is like a chess player running the scheme. I don’t want to stereotype but I’m pretty sure most chess players would get eaten alive playing football so bear with me. Making the right read in the Wide Zone scheme can be taught over time and developed. Chubb sees, almost Matrix-style with the green numbers and letters falling like he’s decoded the defense, multiple moves ahead into the second level.
Chubb doesn’t just select the best hole for the line of scrimmage and the first few yards of the run play. He regularly has the vision to see how blocks will develop at the second level and how defenders will react, leading to him breaking off a ten-yard run, getting yardage in big chunks.
What the Browns manage to do then, is run the ball efficiently through every gap. Football Outsiders rates how efficiently teams run the ball in five different directions. While there are other efficient running teams, no other team matches the Browns in being in the top ten for efficiency at running the ball through every gap. Every other team has at least one weaker lane, but not the Browns who are perfectly balanced.
They do this by mixing in a good dose of Power, Counter and Inside Zone too, which have different aiming points for the Running Back and different types of blocks for the defense to contend with. Stefanski’s scheme, run game play-calling, the Browns excellent Offensive Line and Chubb combine to form a dangerous rushing offense that’s hard to stop.
The Ravens offense though, through playing as a unit, is well built to stop the Wide Zone offense and has done so over the years and throughout this season. They will have to play at a high level to do so this week but the real test is on the edge, as the scheme is predicated on that lateral movement already mentioned.
There isn’t much you can scheme up to stop Wide Zone; most of it will come down to execution. The Ravens were pretty good stymieing the run last season against this Stefanski offense but they don’t have Matt Judon setting the edge anymore and Pernell McPhee hasn’t seen the field as much as he did last season (and is now on IR). This is a big test of Odafe Oweh’s run defense which has been good so far, and a challenge for Justin Houston as well.
The Ravens defenders need to instantaneously read their blocks and understand if they are play-side or back-side (watching out for the counter play to throw them off), and work their assignment, setting a physical edge if play-side and staying disciplined with pursuit when back-side.
In short, the Ravens need to play good fundamental defense against this Browns rushing attack to stop it.
Keep Njoku and Peoples-Jones quiet
While the Browns boast the number one rushing offense in the league, the passing offense has been less than stellar. Baker Mayfield is performing at around the league average, and while some of this might be down to the injuries he’s dealing with, some of it could be down to the receiver corps he has at his disposal.
Jarvis Landry has been dealing with injuries, Odell Beckham has left town, and the Tight Ends have not been as effective working underneath as this offense needs. They have been trying to push the ball down the field with an intended air yards of 8.7 yards per attempt, good for 4th in the NFL. They haven’t been especially effective at it but when they are it’s been using David Njoku up the seam and targeting Donovan Peoples-Jones a healthy amount. Unfortunately, relying on those two guys can be a recipe for disaster as they are inconsistent.
The Ravens shouldn’t be scared of the Browns’ underneath passing game and need to limit big plays so two things could be on the table for Sunday night. Firstly, rolling coverage to Peoples-Jones. I know this seems excessive for a receiver who hasn’t yet been a breakout star, but he’s shown flashes and he has been effective with the passes that have gone his way. If the Browns can get him going, then they can get their passing game going, so I’d mix in some bracket coverage for him early.
The Ravens should also consider working one safety in a robber technique to take away Njoku’s most dangerous routes – he can be tough to stop on deep crossers and digs when he comes across the formation. And he’s the Browns’ most dangerous runner to the Ravens once the ball is in his hands given some of the tackling issues in the secondary – he has speed and power.
Keeping the ball out of his hands in the first place is worth devoting some resource to.
Pressure with four, play man coverage behind
The Defensive Keys this week are dominated by stopping the Browns rushing attack. This is because they are number one in the league at running the football and most of the Ravens attention needs to be focused there this week. But, I’m adding a third key to success and the second for taking away the pass because the Ravens should have some success against this Offensive Line when rushing the passer.
While the Browns Offensive Line is very good, it hasn’t been as good in pass protection as in previous years. Some of that has been down to the loss of Jack Conklin, who has been designated to return from IR but may not return in time to face the Ravens in this first encounter between the teams.
They haven’t been blitzed all that much but still rank 30th in both sacks allowed and adjusted sack rate. They actually give up fewer pressures than you would expect for a team that gives up so many sacks but they can be got at. While the Ravens scheme is predicated on blitz packages – I’m not one who would be overly critical of Wink’s call on 4th down that led to the Marquise Goodwin touchdown last week – this might be a week for reigning in the blitz somewhat.
Not in reaction to that touchdown, but more because it’s the right thing to do against an offense that can struggle to keep Mayfield upright without facing too many pressure packages. It also allows the Ravens to keep more players out in coverage which can be difficult for this offense to contend with given that the players who work underneath have struggled.
Man coverage behind the pressure is also the right way forward, as Mayfield carves up heavier zone coverage and the Ravens defensive backs should match up well against these receivers.
Garrett, the wrecking ball
If ESPN The Magazine was running another issue and they chose to another Body Issue, I’d have an idea for their front cover: Myles Garrett on a wrecking ball. In fact, sometimes it’s fun to imagine him singing the Miley Cyrus song as he comes hurtling gleefully in towards your Quarterback. He is said wrecking ball, and it’s close to impossible to keep him out all game.
COVID slowed him down last year so you might be forgiven for forgetting what a dominant force he is off the edge.
If you had forgotten, he leads the league in sacks with 13.0 already and leads the league in pressures. He is as dominant as they come off the edge and you literally cannot block him one-on-one at all on obvious passing downs. Realistically, every time you drop your QB back you need to find some way of giving Garrett more to think about that just a one-on-one matchup that he will almost certainly win.
His monster game this year came against the Bears. The Ravens just saw how those numbers have probably skewed Garrett’s effectiveness – on Sunday the Bears Offensive Line looked like an Oprah Winfrey at Christmas Offensive Line – “you get a sack, you get a sack, you get a sack”. Although they did provide a useful blueprint for what not to do…
- Don’t leave Garrett 1-on-1 with a Tight End in pass protection
- Don’t try and cut block him; he’ll defeat it and close to the QB
- Don’t leave him singled up when rushing the passer inside; he’s stronger and far quicker than your Guard
Alejandro Villanueva has been the opposite of what he was in Pittsburgh (someone you can rely on in the run game but decidedly suspect in pass protection). As a result, you cannot simply put him out there on an island and hope for the best. This is not a best-on-best situation, so it’s imperative that the Ravens give Villanueva some help in the following ways…
- Limit the amount of vertical sets Villanueva takes. OL can take basically three approaches in pass protection: jump set, 45 set, or vertical set. Vertical set is the type of pass protection that most people conjure up when they think of an Offensive Tackle protecting the edge, setting backwards and running the arc with the edge rusher. The Ravens cannot put Villanueva in this position too often as it seriously compromises his ability to keep Lamar Jackson clean. Garrett will be able to plan to defeat vertical sets all day long with his combination of explosion and power.
- Give Villanueva help when facing Garrett off the edge in a variety of ways. The Ravens can help Villanueva with a chip from Running Backs when going out into the route – something they did with Latavius Murray to good effect last weekend. They can also line up a TE over his side of the formation to give him more to think about and certainly use that TE at times to double team Garrett – Nick Boyle being back really does help the versatility of this offense to deal with a number of threats. The Ravens should also use scheme to help out Villanueva, Garrett is by no means a deficient run defender but he’s certainly not the same as when he pins his ears back to rush the passer. Running the ball at him, even if it’s not to great effect, may help as part of a long-game to slow down his pass rush. This would also be a great game to work out how to run screens but I’m not holding out hope for the Ravens there so won’t include it here.
- Garrett is often lined up inside so it won’t always be Villanueva that faces off against him. The Browns have been pretty good scheming up pressure when Garrett is lining up inside to give him one-on-one opportunities against bigger interior Offensive Linemen who he can also over-power while having a significant athletic advantage over them. I talked about slide protection in recent weeks and the Ravens cannot allow one-on-one matchups inside for Garrett. I would adjust the slide protection calls to account for Garrett when he’s lined up inside.
Of course, the Ravens have an equalizer that others can only dream of in Jackson and hopefully he can break some big scrambles early that makes Garrett think twice about freelancing too much/limit the tools at his disposal in his bag to defeat his blocker.
I’ve written about this at length already but the Ravens have been very good in the passing game this year when facing a team with a defined coverage scheme that they can prepare for all week and scheme up to beat. Most teams in the NFL run a multitude of different coverages and employ plenty of disguise to keep Quarterbacks guessing when they step to the line.
But some are more chameleon-like than others; some change their spots regularly game to game and in-game. Some have no real tendencies to hang your hat on. The Bengals are a great example of this and a team who employed that variety of coverages to good effect against the Ravens.
The Browns also mix up their coverage at high rate and from the film, it looks as though it’s almost even across Middle of Field Open and Middle of the Field Closed coverages that I’ve talked so much about in previous Battle Plans. This means the Ravens are limited in what they can do to prepare a game plan and need to be ready to have their QB and WRs effectively read coverages and adjust.
It’s been referenced by many, including me, already this season, but the influence of Tee Martin and Keith Williams has brought more autonomy for the receiving weapons on the Ravens and these option routes for Mark Andrews, Marquise Brown and even now Rashod Bateman who looks to already be processing at a high level, need to be at the forefront of the game plan this week. You never are able to tell too well how much these are used week-to-week but the Ravens could have benefited from more of them in the Bengals game.
The receiver and the quarterback have to be on the same page of course for these routes to work and the Ravens have been better at that this season than any other so perhaps this is the game when that truly comes to the fore.
One thing the Browns don’t seem to do a lot of is split-field coverages that split the field in half and call for a different coverage scheme on either side of the invisible median. The Ravens have had to contend with some effective proponents of that this year but likely won’t see as much of that on Sunday.
Matchup of the Week
Wyatt Teller vs Brandon Williams (or Justin Ellis)
The Browns have one of the best interior Offensive Lines in the game, especially when it comes to run blocking. I could have picked Wyatt Teller or Joel Bitonio for this matchup, or even JC Tretter at Center, but it’s likely that the Guards will be the one blocking the Nose Tackles in a Wide Zone offense. And speaking of Nose Tackles, Brandon Williams is back at practice this week but you can substitute Justin Ellis for Williams if he can’t go on Sunday night. Jelly has been playing a solid nose for the Ravens these past few weeks and will play his fair share of snaps even if Williams returns.
My podcast partner Dev Panchwagh and I have been talking about Williams’ play this season. He’s playing at a level below the very high standards he’s set for himself over his years in Baltimore. There have been some lowlight bad plays from him and while he’s still consistently stout at the point of attack, he’s making less of an impact than he has in past seasons by splitting double teams and getting off blocks to make plays or make it possible for others to make plays. He will need to be at his best against Teller or Bitonio this week, in a big challenge for the interior run defense.