When a team manages just six points in a professional game of football and ultimately loses by a margin of 32, one can be forgiven for assuming there are no positives to be taken from such a dire performance. That was certainly the initial feeling for many fans as the Browns were brutally humbled by the Ravens in Baltimore on Sunday.
But once the knee-jerk reactions and foul-mouthed social media tirades dissipate, it soon gives way to a modicum of perspective and thoughtful reflection. A proper, in-depth, assessment of what transpired on the field can be achieved. And positives can be gleaned from the game. That the Ravens are a powerhouse and obvious favorite to challenge for the Superbowl this season, hardly requires mentioning. An earlier CleSportTalk article mentioned the added difficulties that come early in a season with a new coaching staff implementing a new system and new ways of doing things that require time to bear fruit.
One feels some Browns fans need reminding of these most basic of facts. Taking the time to properly contextualize Sunday’s defeat may have given those fans, who habitually resort to nonsensical rantings on sports radio and Twitter, pause for thought before they demand this player or that player be cut or traded and are already prepared to throw the season in the trash.
Once this writer had vented his spleen and tweeted the hashtag #TankForFields, with tongue firmly lodged in cheek, he decided to survey the rubble of Sunday’s embarrassing loss to look for any rays of light. Three flickered through the cracks.
1. The Defensive Line
OK. The defense, as a whole, didn’t blow up the stats sheet when it came to sacks (2), turnovers (1), etc, and the d-line did struggle to consistently put pressure on Lamar Jackson and disrupt the passing game, which compounded the problem of having an inept starting secondary that was severely depleted by injuries. However, the defensive line quietly had a very solid showing on the field against the best running attack in football. Baltimore led the league last season, by a huge margin, in rushing yards per game, at 206. And that personnel remained largely the same in the backfield, except for the addition of, arguably, the best college running back from 2019 in JK Dobbins.
The Browns held that juggernaut ground game to just 107 yards and a modest 3.6 yards per carry, on 30 total rushing attempts (6.8 fewer attempts than they averaged in 2019). The Ravens’ longest run was just 16 yards. Completed by Jackson, of course. The D-Line amassed seven of the team’s nine tackles for loss with Myles Garrett recovering the fumble from Patrick Ricard. Cleveland’s lone takeaway.
Larry Ogunjobi finished top among all defensive players in PFF rankings with an overall score of 94.1 (the highest of his career) and appeared on PFF’s ‘team of the week’. Jordan Elliott also finished as one of PFF’s highest-graded rookies in week 1 with an overall grade of 76.4. 13th among his position group. We can look forward to the former Mizzou standout building on that debut performance and growing into a more dominant fixture on the line. But make no mistake, the Browns cannot let this be the benchmark for their defensive output game after game. But for a team that has habitually failed to neutralize the run on a consistent basis, this was a promising start to the season. It was also refreshing to see so few missed tackles.
2. The Offensive Line
Baker was sacked just twice by a front seven that boasts three pro-bowlers in Calais Campbell (five times), Brandon Williams (2018) and Matthew Judon (2019). Not to mention a stud rookie linebacker in Patrick Queen who had one of the two sacks and ripped the ball out from the arm of Nick Chubb to complete an impressive debut. That’s an impressive job of protecting your QB against one of the stoutest defenses in the AFC.
Mayfield also often found himself with plenty of time in the pocket as his O-Line protected him really well throughout the game. That Baker did not do better with his throws despite the sufficient protection is more down to his unnecessarily dropping back and gazing at the pass rush rather than at his wide-open receivers. Hopefully, this will get better as the weeks go on. Baker also led the league in air yard percentage (85.7) another testament to the good work of his line. The stat is also a good projector of future success for a QB, so look for a better showing from Baker on Thursday.
Surprisingly Wyatt Teller, along with David Njoku, graded highest among Cleveland’s offensive players (both over 90). Bitonio & Tretter were both good and graded in the top-12 at their position according to PFF. While Jedrick Wills, notwithstanding an ugly whiff on a pass block in the first half, had a decent debut before succumbing to injury. Conklin, who it was subsequently discovered likely played through a hand injury for part of the game, was also solid and earned a 73.1 overall mark. Good for 18th out of 58 in the league at the position.
The O-line had one of their most difficult tests in Week 1. They aced that test and have set an impressive yardstick from which to build on as the season wears on. Baker now needs to trust and have the confidence, that effective pass protection will be the norm week-to-week and look at his receivers more than the pass rush.
3. Running Game
The success of the rushing attack is another feather-in-the-cap for an already-praiseworthy offensive line. While the Ravens struggled at just 3.6 ypc, the Browns averaged 5.1 yards per rushing attempt. The tragedy is that Chubb and Kareem only clocked 23 rushes between them, totaling 132 yards. With the running game working so well, it’s strange that the playcalling leaned so heavily on trying to force a passing game that never found a rhythm.
Stefanski has an extremely reliable, explosive and evasive tandem in the backfield in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Using them effectively, with an O-Line unit that can force open huge canyons to sail through, will be critical to the team’s success and it is hoped that Stefanski grasps that better than he did on Sunday.
One thing to stress after the applause dished out to the three units above is that by no means is there a belief that they were at peak-performance and should be excused for their shortcomings during the game. Improvements still need to be made everywhere on the field and no position group should be satisfied with how they showed out this past weekend.
A 38-6 loss looks atrocious on a team’s resume; there’s no avoiding that admission. But on closer inspection, there is still a lot to be optimistic about heading into Week 2.
Let’s also remember the Browns were an Odell Beckham Jr dropped catch away from potentially heading into the locker room at half time down just 17-13 (at worst, 17-9). That mystifying drop, on the simplest of catches on the day, resulted in what was essentially a 14-point swing. Following the dropped catch and Baltimore taking over possession on downs, the Ravens, with under a minute left in the half, managed to march the ball down the field to make it 24-6 heading into the interval. This drained any momentum and morale Cleveland had at that point in the game.
Sometimes the final score doesn’t tell the final story. There is plenty to be optimistic about. Fans just need to keep calm and trust in what the coaches are building.