John Harbaugh doesn’t really enjoy watching tape from last year’s 40-25 home loss to the Cleveland Browns, and he doesn’t mince words about it, either.
“The Browns came in and dominated the football game in so many ways,” Harbaugh said as he met with the media Sept. 9.
Now Harbaugh and the Ravens welcome the Browns back to M&T Bank Stadium Sept. 13 for the season opener in what will be an early litmus test of the Ravens’ revamped defense.
It also will open a 2020 season that is unprecedented in many ways. After a condensed training camp with daily COVID tests but no preseason games because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Ravens and Browns will take the field in front of no fans. Coaches, officials and sideline personnel will be required to wear masks.
On the field, the Ravens will face a Browns team with new schemes under new head coach Kevin Stefanski, while the Ravens, a trendy Super Bowl pick nationally, will unveil a revamped defensive front seven that was their top offseason priority. And with no preseason game tape, it will be the first look at both.
“It’s the opener,” Harbaugh said, “a lot of unknowns.”
What is known is that the loss to the Browns in Week 4 last year, coming after a Week 3 loss at Kansas City, proved to be the turning point of the Ravens’ season. That home loss dropped the Ravens to 2-2, and their historically stout defense had been gashed. It gave up more than 500 yards of offense in back-to-back weeks — a franchise first.
Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield threw for 342 yards and one touchdown, and the dagger was an 88-yard touchdown by Nick Chubb — the longest run ever against any Ravens team — that exposed weaknesses in the Ravens’ run defense.
A midseason makeover of the defense began almost immediately. Within two weeks, linebackers L.J. Fort and Josh Bynes had been signed, and cornerback Marcus Peters had been acquired via trade. Chuck Clark took over at safety after Tony Jefferson suffered a season-ending injury.
And after that reckoning against the Browns, who finished 6-10 last year, the Ravens never lost again during the regular season en route to a 14-2 record and runaway AFC North title. They amassed a franchise-record 12-game winning streak that included a 31-15 win at Cleveland in Week 16. Chubb ran 15 times for 45 yards in that game.
Yet a stunning divisional round playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans, in which Derrick Henry ran for 195 yards, proved to be the catalyst for more defensive changes, and when the Browns’ offense takes the field Sept. 13, they might not recognize the unit they line up against.
Seven Ravens defensive starters from that Week 4 loss are no longer with the team: defensive linemen Chris Wormley and Michael Pierce, inside linebackers Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young, and defensive backs Earl Thomas, Tony Jefferson and Brandon Carr.
By their actions in free agency and in the draft, the Ravens made clear that a revamped front seven that could successfully defend the run was a top priority.
The Ravens ranked No. 5 overall against the run last year, allowing 93.4 yards a game, but teams often abandoned the run late in games after league Most Valuable Player Lamar Jackson had staked the Ravens to a big lead.
When teams did run, they often had success: The Ravens defense ranked 21st in the league in yards allowed per carry (4.39) in the regular season, and then got run over by Henry in the playoffs.
The Ravens traded for Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell, they signed defensive lineman Derek Wolfe, and they selected inside linebacker Patrick Queen with their first-round draft pick. He is expected to start at inside linebacker alongside Fort. The Ravens also added inside linebacker Malik Harrison and defensive linemen Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington Jr. later in the draft.
Campbell was named Pro Football Focus’ Run Defender of the Year last season and Wolfe, like Campbell, gives the Ravens run-stopping and interior rush ability. The anchor up front remains veteran run-stuffer Brandon Williams, who missed that Week 4 loss to the Browns with a knee injury.
To be sure, the Browns’ running game represents a stiff test right away for this new-look front seven. Chubb ranked second in the league last season with 1,494 rushing yards, and Kareem Hunt is a potent complement.
“Brandon Williams takes pride in being the best run-stopping D-lineman in the league, so that’s his mentality,” Campbell said during training camp. “I told him, ‘Hey, I pride myself on being the best run-stopper in the game, too. So let’s go out there and dominate.”
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