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Battle Plans: Slowing Chubb Always Key Against Browns

Jackson Browns Battle Plans
original photo: Shawn Hubbard/Baltimore Ravens
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The Baltimore Ravens find themselves a surprising 3-3 entering a crucial divisional contest against the Cleveland Browns. There would be many who call them the best 3-3 team in the league, but many Ravens fans would talk about the deep flaws that exist in this team, and the disparate range of issues that seem to rear their head in different weeks.

But the AFC North is a putrid division right now, and the Ravens must rack up the divisional wins to ensure they stay on top.

Here’s how they do that this week…

Defensive Keys

Chop down Chubb

Facing down the Browns means facing up to the fact that this is one of the most potent rushing offense masterfully orchestrated by the indomitable Nick Chubb and powered by a crushing Offensive Line. The Ravens did a good job of shutting down a very good Saquon Barkley-led rushing attack last week but this Browns running game is an entirely different proposition.

It’s a wide-zone offense where all the pieces have been playing well together for some time. They attack the edges of a defense with remarkable efficiency, but only do it sparingly, using that home run swing only to soften up the middle for the majority of their attacks. The Ravens have fared well against Chubb and this offense in past seasons, but that was when they had a formidable two-gap run defense and an unmatched proficiency at setting the edge. This facsimile of the Ravens defense is nothing like previous versions.

It’s hard to note this in a piece that normally talks about schematic changes that the Ravens might make to win the day, but the key this week is undoubtedly physicality. This is an Offensive Line that can bully you into submission so the Ravens Defensive Line and particularly its edge defenders must be ready to play a physical football game.

More on the Ravens coverage packages later, but they have played a lot more out of a two-high shell to ensure the more potent passing offenses in the league can be shut down. This type of defense, built by Vic Fangio, relies on Safety depth to stop the run, daring teams to run the ball with what looks like a numbers advantage in the box, only to find safeties quickly triggering against the run.

This is mainly ill-advised against the Browns because the single-high defense allows more gap discipline up-front. The Ravens could continue to use their two-high looks and rotate out of them into middle of the field closed coverages, but this is a gamble against such a potent rushing offense.

The other danger with a two-high “I dare you to run the ball” approach against the Browns is that once Chubb gets to the second level, it can be a recipe for disaster. The real skill of a Running Back is in his footwork; he should be proficient at setting up defenders, mostly with pressing his keys at the line of scrimmage. The very best backs, like Chubb, have their vision extend to the second level and they chart a path through traffic there before it even forms.

Chubb is able to anticipate how defenders will react and manipulate them, not just when he has his formidable Offensive Line in front of him amidst the melee at the line of scrimmage, but also out in space when he’s facing more mobile defenders. The Browns gain 1.62 yards per rush at the second level, tops the NFL by a considerable margin.

It’s why the Ravens must stop the Browns running game at the source. Stacking the box, like I argued against last week, preferring for the Ravens to find other ways to stop the Giants rushing attack, might be more of a necessity this week. You keep Chubb’s yards per carry down by stuffing him at the line of scrimmage when you get the opportunity. The Browns thrive in most statistical categories associated with the running game, but they are relatively middle of the pack in preventing their Running Backs from getting stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage.

But, committing additional resources to stop the run in this way, as well as potentially getting them into less advantageous second and third down distances, must go hand-in-hand with a plan to stop the surprisingly adequate Browns passing game. Read on…

Break Brissett

This Browns offense has been surprisingly good through the air with Jacoby Brissett at the helm. One of the football-related disappointment of the Deshaun Watson addition is that it overshadows how Kevin Stefanski’s coaching was starting to turn this Browns team into a more consistently tough out.

Through six weeks Brissett has been, on the whole, a solid version of himself – giving his team a chance to win and letting Stefanski’s scheme do the work. The run game, as already mentioned, can be so dominant that the passing game doesn’t need to do too much. When it tries to do too much, or needs to do too much, is when this Browns offense starts to sputter.

As it stands though, they are a top 10 offense in terms of efficiency and yardage, with a middle-of-the-pack passing offense a big part of that.

Brissett takes what the defense gives him, aided by Stefanski’s play design and play-calling to put up one of the best seasons of his multi-stop career. He’s shown what this offense could be when Watson returns from his suspension and adds more from the Quarterback position, but for now, this offense under Brissett is a formidable challenge.

Fortunately for the Ravens, the Patriots gave them a blueprint last week for facing down this Browns offense. They played a lot of single high and a lot of man coverage, much of which was an attempt to stay gap-sound against the running game, something the Ravens must replicate. But Brissett also struggled mightily to make the right reads against this coverage when it was paired with pressure packages.

The Ravens defense should, like any well-written super-villain, take in that which has hurt this team in the past. The way the Patriots attacked this Offensive Line using the blitz was reminiscent of the approach of a former Belichick coaching disciple – Brian Flores and his simulated pressures. The Ravens could deploy a similar tactic themselves to slow down the Browns.

The Offensive Line has been the bedrock on which this Browns offense has been built. They work well as a unit and are experienced enough to have seen a multitude of different looks and packages. That means that the best way to attack them is often to wait for them to make the first move.

The first move an Offensive Line makes is to tip their hand in terms of their protection scheme. Most NFL offenses use a combination of different protection schemes, but the half-slide is often utilized. It means the Offensive Line slides part of their protection to one side of the ball, either three or four players, but always involving the Center.

The Ravens could therefore attack this in two ways; firstly, the type of blitz that we’ve seen the Dolphins run so much to confuse this protection scheme – bringing second level defenders up to the line of scrimmage with rules to engage or drop depending on what the Offensive Linemen opposite them does. Or they could line up with two 3-technique Defensive Linemen, leaving the Center isolated to show the protection scheme early and then bring some of their excellent blitzers from the second level, delayed, to attack the weak-side late.

Of course, the Ravens should undoubtedly dial up the many pressure packages that are already in Mike Macdonald’s bag as a Ravens-legacy Defensive Coordinator. There have been many creative blitz packages already deployed by the first-time play-caller, but he may need to find some new ways to attack this outstanding Offensive Line.

Neutralize Njoku and Curb Cooper

Moving to a more one-high structure for this game and focusing more attention on the run, as well as deploying more pressure packages, should go hand in hand with more man coverage. The challenge for the Ravens on this front is the two primary receiving weapons on the Browns offense, as well as secondary threat Donovan Peoples-Jones.

Amari Cooper is one of the most effective Wide Receivers in the league, especially against Man, and this will be a solid test of the Ravens Defensive Backs; Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey are playing some of the best football of their careers as a tandem. They will be crucial as force players to stop the run this week, but the luxury of rolling these two out to cover Cooper and Peoples-Jones is welcome for this improving defense.

Cooper has over a third of this team’s air yards but Peoples-Jones accounts for almost a quarter himself, so teams that focus too much resource on stopping Cooper have found themselves burnt by the former Michigan man on the other side. The Ravens really shouldn’t have that problem this week.

The relative weakness of this defense though, remains defending the Tight End, and David Njoku has had success facing this defense, even amidst statistically down years for him. In 2021, he scored one of his four touchdowns on the year in Baltimore, and in 2020 he picked up 95 of his 213 yards on the season against the Ravens. Through six games he’s having the best season of his career and looking like a legitimate number one Tight End, something that has eluded him since his heralded entry into the league.

It’s very easy when discussing a potential game plan for the Ravens stopping Tight Ends, to focus on Brandon Stephens. Given his length and movement skills, he feels like the perfect foil for the more athletic challenges at the position. But this can be fool’s gold: covering elite Tight Ends usually involves a range of players and strategies.

Normally I’d move to talking about more coverage solutions for this, like adding a robber, but watching Njoku this year is to see a masterclass in getting him the ball early on shorter routes and letting him go to work after the catch. These initial receptions are usually either close to the line of scrimmage or in short areas underneath, often between the tackles.

That means Stephens will be crucial, but in using his length to get him to the ground as a ball-carrier when Njoku gets the ball in space at the line of scrimmage. This could be a week to use Kyle Hamilton to help on Njoku too, but I actually think the most crucial defender for Njoku this week will be Pepe Williams – on the face of it, a size mismatch for Njoku.

One thing that Njoku hasn’t entirely mastered yet is the basketball skills necessary to box out and make tough catches against close coverage. Williams in those short areas underneath will become more and more of a weapon for this defense given the timing and accuracy of his pass-breakup attempts. What better way to stop Njoku after the catch than to prevent him from getting the ball in the first place.

I’m certainly not suggesting a 5-10, 180lb corner covers Njoku all day, but his instincts and ability at the catch-point underneath could be crucial to changing a few of Njoku’s targets into incompletions.

Rashod Bateman Cleveland catch Browns
Shawn Hubbard/Baltimore Ravens

Offensive Keys

Unleash Lamar’s Arm

Lamar Jackson, in his career, hasn’t often let sub-par performance linger into a stretch of games. It is far more likely that he will bounce back with a vengeance against the Cleveland Browns this weekend. The Browns will answer with what they believe to now be their Lamar Jackson kryptonite: Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah.

JOK had an impressive rookie season and he played well in the Browns’ meetings with the Ravens. But the league is littered with former supposed Lamar Jackson killers, whether it be coaching schemes or players, and most eventually end up on the wrong side of a Jackson-drubbing.

Now, Owusu-Koromoah is a fine player, and will likely continue to have success against the Ravens during his career. But, despite his impressive athleticism, he can’t defend the whole field – no defender can. And Lamar has become a Quarterback that makes you account for a lot more than just his legs.

This season we have seen yet more progression from the Ravens QB. There have been some bumps in the road the last few weeks, but this was against some of the best defenses in the league and without some of his important options in both the pass and the run game. Before that, we saw Jackson taking this offense to new levels on the back of a slightly altered Greg Roman offensive scheme.

This is an ideal game to get-right. This Browns defense has had better results than its play suggests it might. Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric has the Detroit Lions as the least efficient defense in the NFL by some distance. 30 other teams are significantly better than the Lions in terms of defense. But in the middle of the chasm between the Lions and the rest of the league, sit the Cleveland Browns; also, considerably worse than everybody but the Lions.

They appear, based on the film, to be struggling with defending both the run and the pass equally, teams being able to choose to attack the Browns in whichever way suits them game to game.

The strength of this Browns defense has been with their edge pressure and their Cornerback play. But this year they are banged up in both areas and their coverage has seen more breakdowns than you would expect from such a talented core of players.

Defensive Coordinator Joe Woods has been an outstanding Defensive Backs position coach in both Denver and San Francisco but his time as a Defensive Coordinator, with the Broncos and the Browns, has been characterized by inconsistent play and mistakes from the defenders under his charge. The Ravens should use their passing concepts to challenge this consistently and see if they can force more miscommunication and coverage busts.

Jackson’s arm is a danger that teams now need to account for. The Browns seem less well equipped to defend Jackson through the air than they are to defend him on the ground, so I expect the Ravens to air it out and challenge this Browns’ defense with their passing game.

The Browns run a lot of Zone coverage so the Ravens should look to plenty of Cover 3 and Cover 4 beaters and plenty of counter-flow in their route combinations, as well as lots of pre-snap motion and motion at the snap.

Mark Andrews, as the Ravens primary receiver, is important in every game, but the Ravens might want to use him as a decoy plenty in this game. I’d like to see them employ a fashionable formation from the mid-2010s in this game in Y-ISO.

Getting Andrews isolated to one side of the formation can be a way to confuse the Browns secondary when blended with wisely deployed combinations on the other side of the field. The most obvious example was a busted communication in the secondary from the Browns when facing the Panthers in Week 1 that got Robbie Anderson open for a deep TD.

That time, the Panthers used a Sail concept that combines a vertical route like a 9 or a Post, with a deep Out route from the number 2. Anderson was open vertical, but receivers have also had success against the Browns in the honey hole that is targeted by deep out routes like the one featured in this concept.

Getting the band back together – Duvernay and Bateman

In years past Devin Duvernay has often been mentioned as an under-utilized weapon that the Ravens could get far more out of. That’s a distant memory this year, as Duvernay is seemingly maximizing his potential now as a valued member of the Ravens offense (last week notwithstanding).

Duvernay is getting the most out of his talent, thanks to his impressive development over his years in the NFL, but also in the way the Ravens are using him. He’s always been a danger when brought in motion or as a runner out of the backfield or on reverses. But the Ravens have found a way to unlock him in the passing game too.

He has always been more of a linear athlete, going back to his days at Texas. He’s a explosive but his breaks have always been less than sudden and when he has to make more hard-angle cuts, he’s less effective getting open.

What the Ravens have managed to do this year is build in more routes that allow him to take advantage of that linear speed by getting him running vertically or horizontally across the formation without too much change of direction required. The routes he has been successful on, normally include a good deal of speed across or up the field.

This is just smart development of their scheme and of Duvernay himself in allowing him to flourish in this way. However much of that work to get Duvernay open in certain combinations is dependent on the presence of a Wide Receiver who is able to expertly work other areas and challenge the defense in different ways. For this offense, that receiver is Rashod Bateman

Though Duvernay had a good first week sans Bateman, he managed only one catch last week against the Giants, who did not respect the Ravens Wide Receivers outside of Duvernay. Bateman practiced all week and is expected to suit up once again on Sunday. This is crucial for the concepts that the Ravens will need to use to attack the Browns defense.

For instance, if the Ravens want to use some spacing concepts to defeat some of the Browns Zone coverage, they will need someone like Bateman to run the hard-angle routes necessary to challenge some of the underneath zones. They can also put him in the slot and get him to attack the middle of the field with routes that feature more of a square cut. His feel for the soft spot in Zone will also be crucial.

Run it down their throat

I wouldn’t normally choose such a visceral sub-heading, but I do love the Ravens power running game and it should get a chance to do some pounding this week.

The final key is a brief and uncomplicated one. The Ravens should run all day, between the Tackles, with their staple Power running game. The strength of the Browns run defense is on the edges, where Jadeveon Clowney and Myles Garrett can play wrecking ball setting the edge.

The kick-out Power running game, or Counter run, gets the pulling lineman/men up against the end man on the line of scrimmage and the Ravens should focus most of their blocking, either in terms of numbers or scheme, on the edge. Where success can be had against this team, without as many numbers, is running the ball against its’ interior defenders.

The Ravens should have plenty of success running the football, even in the absence of JK Dobbins. While Kenyan Drake had a breakout type game last week, Justice Hill should return for the visit of the Browns to M&T Bank Stadium. His big Week 3 game featured many of the between-the-tackles style runs that should be successful for the Ravens this week.

Justin Madubuike
Photo Credit: Shawn Hubbard, Baltimore Ravens

Matchup of the Week

Joel Bitonio vs Justin Madubuike

For this you could also read Bitonio vs Calais Campbell; the Ravens interior Defensive Line has shown flashes of excellent play this season, especially when Campbell and Madubuike play together in the rotation. The Browns interior Offensive Line has been so good for so long, with Bitonio and Wyatt Teller holding down the Guard spots, with JC Tretter at the pivot.

Ethan Pocic has been solid in place of the retired Tretter, but Teller is out for this game, leaving Bitonio as the last man standing, for this week anyway. The Ravens interior Defensive Line could decisively win their matchups for the first time in a long time against this Browns’ Offensive Line. This is the matchup of the week because, if the Ravens are able to dominate the trenches, then all the schematic adjustments they make on defense will be far less important. Stopping the Browns running game without dedicating huge amounts of resource to it will be a recipe for disaster for this Browns offense.

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