No question, the visiting team will have a ton to play for Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium. The Ravens' challenge will be to impose their game and their will on the Cleveland Browns and NOT be the opponent that suffers if/when the visitors start living up to their hype.
To the surprise of many, it is the Browns' offense that has struggled to find its footing during the team's 1-2 start. The offense is loaded with playmakers, but there've been issues with quarterback Baker Mayfield's protection. He has faced a lot of pressure and been sacked 11 times. Only five teams have allowed more sacks.
The Ravens could win in any number of ways Sunday. But the simplest and most effective way, it seems, would be to continue hitting the Browns where they've struggled, namely, protecting Mayfield. Nothing deflates an offense more than a steady diet of pressures and sacks.
Can the Ravens' pass rush engineer such a performance? It's certainly an opportune time.
The Ravens' pass rush has been a primary point of scrutiny and conversation for months, since the departures of Terrell Suggs and Za'Darius Smith forced them to reimagine how they'd get that job done. Other primary talking points in 2019 have included whether Lamar Jackson could improve as a passer and whether the Ravens could identify a starting left guard, questions that seemingly have been answered. But what about the pass rush?
Through three games, the Ravens are tied for No. 16 in the league in sacks with seven. That might not be the kind of ranking they want, but it doesn't reflect a nightmare scenario, either. (A nightmare is the Denver Broncos with zero sacks in their first three games.)
Additionally, the Ravens lead the league in hitting opposing quarterbacks, having amassed 28 such hits, so they're definitely not lacking a presence up front. They also lead the league in the speed with which they hurry quarterbacks. On average, when their rush generates a "hurry," it does so in 2.54 seconds, according to NextGen Stats. That's almost a half-second faster than the league average (3.01).
In other words, some things about the pass rush are making the organization quite happy. Matthew Judon has recorded three sacks and nine quarterback hits. Pernell McPhee, with two sacks, is playing younger than his age.
On the other hand, the rush wasn't a consistent difference-maker in the Ravens' loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale dialed up all sorts of pressures, but they didn't stop Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes from having a big day.
Then, a day after the game, Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh generated headlines when he said a couple of the team's young pass rushers, saying Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams, "need to do better." Martindale echoed the sentiment, saying Bowser and Williams "just need to join the party."
Harbaugh further explained that snaps at Suggs' old spot, opposite Judon, are completely up for grabs, with Bowser, Williams and rookie Jaylon Ferguson as the options.
"None of those guys have stepped up, in my mind, and taken the reps, yet," Harbaugh said. "That's disappointing, so we'll see who's the man for the job. The ball is in their court."
It's clear the Ravens want and need their pass rush to be more than just what Judon and McPhee produce. Martindale's schemes can help, but not in all situations.
Martindale has other items on his plate this week as he seeks to patch up a secondary that has leaked and a run defense that also struggled at critical times in Kansas City. You can be sure Mayfield and the Browns will try to exploit what they saw on tape.
A hyped-up pass rush from the Ravens' defense could give the unit exactly what it needs on several fronts– helping the secondary, boosting the rush defense and generally generating more trouble for Mayfield on a day when the Browns really need a win and the Ravens would love nothing more than to send them home disappointed.