Deshaun Watson has faced the Ravens before, but never as a Cleveland Browns quarterback. In 2019, the Ravens blew out Watson’s Texans in Baltimore, 41-7. A year later, the Ravens ran away from Houston late in a 33-16 road win.
On Saturday, Watson will make his third start for the Browns (5-8) — and his first start in Cleveland. The Ravens (9-4) don’t plan on rolling out the red carpet.
“We want to give him a not-so-soft welcoming,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said Tuesday. “It’s cool to welcome him to the rivalry. Hopefully, it won’t be a good rivalry welcoming for him.”
It certainly won’t be the high-profile quarterback matchup the NFL expected this offseason. The Ravens ruled starter Lamar Jackson out of Saturday’s game with a knee injury, clearing the way for backup Tyler Huntley to start. Watson, suspended for the season’s first 11 games for violating the league’s personal-conduct policy by committing sexual assault, as defined by the NFL, against massage therapists, has had an uneven return to action.
The Ravens won their first meeting, holding on at home in late October, 23-20. Here’s what to watch in the teams’ Week 15 matchup.
1. The uncaring football gods that devastated the Ravens’ cornerbacks last year, so clearing out the room that Kevon Seymour and Daryl Worley had to lead the group in snaps in a Week 16 blowout loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, has found a new AFC North target for 2022: Browns linebackers.
With weak-side linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah placed on injured reserve Tuesday, four Cleveland linebackers with at least one start this year have suffered season-ending injuries. Owusu-Koramoah (11 starts) is fourth on the team in tackles (70). Strong-side linebacker Sione Takitaki (eight starts) is third (71). Middle linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. had 13 tackles in three starts, and Jacob Phillips (four starts), his backup, had 46 tackles in seven games (four starts).
The Browns now have only one linebacker who made a tackle in the teams’ first meeting: Deion Jones, whose recent role until Week 14 had been mostly limited to obvious passing downs. Tony Fields, who played just one defensive snap over the season’s first seven weeks, and Reggie Ragland, who was signed off the Las Vegas Raiders’ practice squad last week and hasn’t played a snap this season, could round out the starting unit Saturday.
Cleveland has had one of the NFL’s worst run defenses all season, but it stymied the Ravens in Week 7, holding them to just 144 yards on 42 designed runs (3.2 per carry). Even with Jackson sidelined, the Browns will need a lot of help to repeat that feat.
2. It might not take much to fix the Ravens’ red-zone woes on offense. A healthy J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards could be enough.
The running backs, who combined for 188 yards on 28 carries (6.7 per attempt) Sunday against Pittsburgh, were two of the NFL’s best close-quarters weapons in 2020, their first year together. Dobbins converted 61.5% of his 13 runs inside opponents’ 10-yard line into a first down or touchdown as a rookie, according to TruMedia, while Edwards converted 47.1% of his 17 runs. Those rates ranked first and ninth, respectively, among players with at least 10 such carries that season.
Dobbins has two rushing touchdowns this season, both goal-line scores. He had a 4-yard run in Week 4 against the Buffalo Bills and added another 4-yarder Sunday against the Steelers, his first game back since undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery.
“I thought he did a great job of reading the holes, a little bit of patience — not too much — but just enough,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Wednesday. “J.K. is a really good player. I think after that procedure he had, I really think it visibly has helped him. So he’s physically closer to where he would like to be, but he does a really good job of finding the hole.”
3. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley hasn’t given up a sack in 174 pass-blocking snaps this season, according to Pro Football Focus. In the Ravens’ Week 7 win over Cleveland, he allowed two quarterback hurries on 19 snaps.
Stanley’s much-anticipated matchup with Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, though, never really materialized. Garrett, who primarily takes on left tackles, instead lined up across from platooning right tackles Morgan Moses and Patrick Mekari on 48 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, recording a sack and three quarterback pressures on 18 pass-rush snaps.
Garrett had just one pass-rush snap on the other side, where Stanley and Mekari also shared snaps, during which he recorded a pressure.
4. When Browns running back Nick Chubb is in, the Ravens tend not to leave anything up to chance. They want to make daylight hard to find.
Over Chubb’s career, the Ravens have lined up with a heavy box on nearly half of his 115 carries. On his 52 carries against eight or more Ravens defenders in the box, Chubb’s averaged just 3.2 yards per carry, and 0.52 yards before contact per rush, according to TruMedia.
Chubb’s been better versus lighter boxes, averaging 5.1 yards per carry on his 22 attempts against six or fewer Ravens defenders, but that production hasn’t been especially meaningful. His success rate against the Ravens’ light boxes is 31.8%, compared with 23.1% against heavy boxes. (A play is considered successful for the offense when it gains at least 40% of the yards to go on first down, 60% of the yards to go on second down, and 100% of the yards to go on third or fourth down.)
The Ravens mostly stuck to their tried-and-true plan in Week 7, when Chubb had 16 carries for 91 yards (5.7 per carry). But Cleveland seemed to attack mismatches during its final touchdown drive. Chubb had runs of 12, 12 and 22 yards on the seven-play, 75-yard march, all three resulting from no-huddle plays that kept the Ravens from making substitutions. Two of those carries came against six-man boxes.
The Ravens will have to be vigilant again Saturday. The Browns have run 14 no-huddle plays with Watson outside the final two minutes of halves, according to TruMedia. Mostly, though, they’ve looked to pass, with only four no-huddle runs over Watson’s two games.
5. If NFL games were only, say, 52 minutes long, the Ravens could call themselves one of the league’s best defenses. Unfortunately for coordinator Mike Macdonald, they’re just a little longer, and those final minutes in the second and fourth quarter have been trouble all season.
According to TruMedia, the Ravens rank fifth in the NFL in defensive expected points added per play over the first 26 minutes of halves. (EPA is a measure of efficiency that accounts for situational factors such as down, distance and field position.) Over the final four minutes, however, when offenses gear up for clock-draining drives or quick-strike attacks, the Ravens rank last in the league in EPA per play. Only the Minnesota Vikings have given up more total yardage in the final four minutes of a half this season.
With Steelers backup Mitchell Trubisky leading a five-play, 75-yard touchdown drive with less than four minutes Sunday, opposing quarterbacks are now 87-for-135 (64.4%) for 7.7 yards per attempt, seven touchdowns and five interceptions against the Ravens in those crunch-time scenarios. The team’s late-half run defense hasn’t distinguished itself, either, allowing 4.6 yards per carry.
“It’s definitely frustrating when you give up yards in those situations,” Macdonald said Wednesday. “It’s a situation that I think we need to improve on, in terms of our results. In terms of our process in those situations, I think we’re on the right track. We do game-plan it extensively, and when you look at the results on a per-drive basis, it’s hard to kind of pinpoint one or two things. So I think we’ve just got to keep chasing it and making sure our execution and communication is on point. And hopefully, we’ll get in those situations as the season comes on and come away with the wins.”
6. The Ravens won their first meeting against Cleveland on the margins, holding the Browns to two third-down conversions on 11 attempts while finishing 7-for-15 themselves.
If Cleveland wants a breakthrough, it’ll need more clutch play from Watson. In his two games since returning from his suspension, Watson is 6-for-18 for 60 yards (43.8 passer rating) with three sacks taken on third and fourth down. A gifted runner, he’s also scrambled just three times for 19 yards on late downs.
7. The Ravens are 5-2 in away games this season, tying the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs for the NFL’s second-best road record. (The Philadelphia Eagles are 6-0). The Ravens have a point differential of plus-46 away from Baltimore and plus-9 at M&T Bank Stadium this season.
8. After setting the Ravens’ all-time scoring record (1,473 points) Sunday in Pittsburgh, kicker Justin Tucker can add another record Saturday. With another made field goal, he’d pass kicker Matt Stover (354) for the most in franchise history. With two field goals Saturday, Tucker would finish with at least 30 for the eighth time in his career, extending an NFL record.
Ravens at Browns
Saturday, 4:30 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, NFL Network
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Browns by 3