The AFC North has been one of the most competitive divisions in recent years with a combined record of 118-91 (.565 win percentage) since the start of the 2020 season and three different division winners in the last four full seasons.
In a division known for physical defenses, both will be featured prominently when two divisional rivals meet at Cleveland Browns Stadium on Sunday on CBS.
Both the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens are 2-1 (tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers and ahead of the struggling 1-2 Cincinnati Bengals) after interesting results last week.
After NFL Week 2, Cleveland appeared to be reeling. In its Sept. 18 loss to the Steelers, the Browns blew a fourth-quarter lead, and quarterback Deshaun Watson committed three turnovers, including a fumble that was returned for the game-deciding score.
More importantly, the Browns lost four-time Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb to a gruesome, season-ending knee injury. With their best offensive player lost for the year, Cleveland entered last week’s game in search of a new identity.
Jerome Ford has become the team’s lead back and Kareem Hunt was brought back in free agency, while Amari Cooper has stepped up with 14 catches for 206 yards over the past two weeks.
But really, the Browns’ identity this season has been their defense.
Cleveland smothered the Tennessee Titans in a 27-3 win last weekend and appears to have put together one of the most fearsome defensive units in football.
The Browns have allowed their opponents to gain just 21 first downs, the fewest in the first three games of a season since the 1970 Detroit Lions.
Fewest First Downs Allowed in First 3 Games – Since 1950
- 1. 1970 Detroit Lions (19)
- T-2. 2023 Cleveland Browns (21)
- T-2. 1999 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (21)
- 4. 1967 Green Bay Packers (24)
- 5. 1970 Minnesota Vikings (25)
According to our NFL prediction model, Cleveland is forecasted to win a wide-open AFC North with 10.1 projected wins, just ahead of the Steelers’ projection of 9.9 wins.
The Ravens aren’t far behind, with 9.4 wins but enter this matchup looking to rebound from a surprising 22-19 overtime loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
While Baltimore continues to adjust to new offensive coordinator Todd Monken, one silver lining from last week’s game was Lamar Jackson rediscovering his dual-threat dominance.
Jackson had 202 passing yards and 101 rushing yards with two touchdowns. Since Jackson became the full-time starter in 2019, the Ravens are 13-2 when he rushes for at least 90 yards.
Best Record When Player Has 90+ Rush Yards (Since 2019)
- 1. Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers (17-1)
- 2. Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts (15-1-1)
- T-3. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys (13-2)
- T-3. Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens (13-2)
- 5. Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles (10-2-1)
Cleveland’s unbending defense will present the toughest test yet for Jackson in the Ravens offense, but Baltimore’s defense is nearly as formidable. The Ravens are allowing a success rate of 31.0% on all plays – the third-best mark in the NFL.
Roquan Smith has been as reliable as ever as the centerpiece of the Ravens defense by excelling in coverage and boasting a 94.3% success rate on tackle attempts. That’s second best among linebackers with at least 75 defensive snaps.
Most sportsbooks’ point spreads have the Browns as the best bets and the underdog Ravens getting 2.5 points. Our model echoes that sentiment, giving Cleveland a 66.0% chance of improving to 3-1.
Oddsmakers have shown a lot of respect for both defenses and assigned a point total of just 40.5 for this game, among the lowest this week. And our final score projection comes in just under that mark at 40.
Will both defenses continue to dominate in this game, or can one of these offenses make enough plays to stay atop a loaded division?
BAL: Find Jackson Some Help
While the impact of Chubb’s injury on the Browns has garnered plenty of attention – and deservedly so – the Ravens are also looking to replace their top running back.
Star-crossed rusher J.K. Dobbins tore an Achilles tendon in the Ravens’ Week 1 win over the Houston Texans. Justice Hill missed last week’s loss with a foot injury, leaving Gus Edwards and Melvin Gordon III to share carries in the backfield.
Edwards is averaging 1.83 yards after contact so far this season, while Hill’s 1.50 and Gordon’s 1.40 indicate even less playmaking ability. All three are below 1.88 yards after contact, which is the average for running backs with at least 10 carries this season.
It might help that left Ronnie Stanley (knee) and center Tyler Linderbaum (ankle) have been practicing and appear ready to return after two-game absences.
But the result has been that Jackson has been asked to lead the running game as well as the aerial attack. He leads the team with 32 carries and 193 rushing yards and is tied for the team lead with two rushing scores.
While this game plan has placed a tremendous burden on Jackson’s shoulders, it has been reasonably effective. The Ravens have picked up 30 first downs on the ground so far this season (third in the NFL) and have a 36.3% success rate on designed running plays (a touch over the league average).
When the Ravens turn to the air, our numbers paint an interesting picture. Baltimore has a success rate of 49.5% on designed pass plays, the third-highest rate in the league and trailing only the high-flying offenses of the Miami Dolphins and Los Angeles Chargers.
But the Ravens are averaging a league-average 6.1 yards per designed pass play, meaning Jackson is able to move the chains through the air but has yet to generate many big plays.
Jackson is averaging 6.92 air yards per attempt, ranking 29th out of 33 quarterbacks with at least 50 attempts. That’s partially because 16 of his 84 passes this year have been screens.
The Ravens have just two passes of 25 yards or more this season – tied for last in the NFL – but they will have a hard time maintaining long, methodical drives against one of the best defenses in the league.
Baltimore will need either a big play downfield in the passing game (maybe from rookie Zay Flowers with the status of Odell Beckham Jr. and Rashod Bateman uncertain) or will need a rusher other than Jackson to create chunk yardage to score on Cleveland.
CLE: Generate More Pass Rush
Off to one of the best starts in league history, it’s almost difficult to decide where to start with the Browns defense. They’ve held opponents to a success rate of just 18.4% on all plays this season, less than half of the league’s average (38.5%).
Cleveland also leads in both run and pass defense individually, allowing a 15.7% success rate on the ground and a 19.8% success rate through the air. The Browns are allowing a ridiculous 0.5 yards before contact on rushing plays, forcing opponents into unfavorable down-and-distance situations.
When opponents turn to the passing game, they don’t fare much better, thanks to Cleveland’s airtight coverage. Martin Emerson Jr. leads all cornerbacks with at least 50 snaps in coverage by allowing just 3.13 burn yards per target and allowing his receiver to get open on just 18.2% of targets.
Cleveland’s other cornerbacks are nearly as good as Emerson, with Denzel Ward and Greg Newsome II ranking in the top eight among qualifying cornerbacks in open-allowed percentage as well.
When opposing quarterbacks have looked deep, they have had to deal with Grant Delpit, who had an interception against the Steelers and is first among safeties in burn percentage allowed at 22.2% (min. 50 coverage snaps).
If there is one area that the Cleveland defense could target for improvement, it’s the pass rush.
The Browns pressure opposing quarterbacks on 30.7% of drop backs, ranking 26th in the league. Myles Garrett has a pressure rate of 15.2%, which is about average for edge defenders with at least 20 pass-rush snaps.
While Garrett garners much of the attention, both from the media and opposing offensive coordinators, Cleveland’s best-performing front-seven player has been Kentucky product and edge counterpart Za’Darius Smith.
In his first season with the Browns, Smith has proven to be a valuable offseason addition. He has a 16.7% pressure rate – higher than the average of 15.6% among qualifying edge defenders.
If Smith and Garrett can turn up the heat against Jackson and the passing game, they could be headed to a 3-1 start. This season, just 42.9% of Jackson’s passes thrown while under pressure have been what we deem “well thrown.” That’s the worst mark among quarterbacks with at least 10 pressured attempts.
The Browns are just 6-14 over the past 10 seasons against the Ravens, but Cleveland has won two of the last three meetings and will be counting on a ferocious defense to swing this rivalry back toward Lake Erie.
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