Predictions for Ravens vs. Browns
The Cleveland Browns were the sexy pick to win the AFC North during the offseason, but after getting off to a 1-2 start, they don't look quite as attractive to the pundits as they head to M&T Bank Stadium Sunday to play the first-place Ravens (2-1) in the division opener for both teams.
Of 61 pundits we looked at, 55 picked the Ravens to defeat the Browns this week. Fourteen of the 16 media members who predicted the final score had the Ravens winning, with four of them believing Baltimore would record a double-digit victory.
Of course, none of that matters once the game starts. Just like the preseason hype didn't matter. One thing for certain is that this is a pivotal game for both teams.
The Ravens would take a significant lead in the AFC North with a win, as they'd be 3-1 and every other team in the division would have at least three losses. However, if the Ravens lose, they'd have the same record as the Browns, but Cleveland would own the tiebreaker, essentially knocking the Ravens out of first place.
Here's a sample of what pundits are forecasting for the game:
Ravens defense will rebound this week and be the difference.
NFL Network's Bucky Brooks: "Even though [the Ravens defense] gave up more points than we probably wanted to see against the Kansas City Chiefs, I just like the way they're playing."
The Baltimore Sun's Daniel Oyefusi: "The Browns have struggled on offense and while the Ravens' pass rush has been inconsistent, Defensive Coordinator Don 'Wink' Martindale should be able to put the defense in some advantageous situations."
ESPN's Victor Cruz: "This Baltimore defense is for real; that's why I'm picking Baltimore in this game. As far as the Cleveland Browns, I'm just not seeing that consistency offensively, obviously with Baker Mayfield and getting the ball to his playmakers and the decision-making from the quarterback spot."
Ravens are likely to put cornerback Marlon Humphrey on All-Pro wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec: "The Ravens don't traditionally like having cornerbacks travel with certain receivers, but I think there's a decent chance that they make an exception this week, and use Marlon Humphrey on Beckham. Humphrey is an ascending player, but he's hardly a household name. The Ravens, though, believe he has the size and speed to match up with the opponent's top receiver."
Lamar Jackson and the Ravens offense will take advantage of a banged-up Browns secondary (they could be without three injured secondary starters in cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams and safety Morgan Burnett).
Sporting News' Tadd Haislop: "There's little reason to believe Lamar Jackson can't torch the Browns' banged-up secondary with complementary help from the ground attack."
NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal: "The feeling here is that the Ravens – who know exactly who they are offensively, even when Lamar Jackson isn't shooting straight (like last week) – are catching the Browns at the right time."
RPO's (run-pass option plays) will be key, and the advantage in that area goes to the Ravens.
NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah: "It's startling how much better [Mayfield] is when there's some type of run action involved in a play versus just a pure dropback situation, so they have to find a way under [Head Coach] Freddie Kitchens to get that cranked up a little bit. … The challenge is going to be they're not very good up front, and you look at the Baltimore Ravens, the names may change but they're still able to generate some heat with their front. … Whichever team can operate [RPO's] the best will win this football game. I believe the Baltimore Ravens will get it done against the Cleveland Browns."
The Browns' familiarity with Jackson will be a deciding factor in Cleveland's favor.
CBS Sports' Bryan DeArdo: "The Browns, unlike most teams, have already faced Lamar Jackson, as Cleveland nearly upset Jackson and the Ravens in Week 17 of the 2018 season. While Jackson is a vastly better player than the one Cleveland faced then, the Browns' familiarity with him should help them put together an upset win in Baltimore."
The battle between Ravens left tackle Ronnie Stanley and Browns defensive end Myles Garrett will be the key individual matchup.
Penn Live's Aaron Kasinitz: "The No. 1-overall pick in the 2017 draft, Garrett already has six sacks and eight quarterback hits through three games this season, both of which rank second in the NFL. Garrett has the ability to wreak havoc on the Ravens' offensive game plan and bother quarterback Lamar Jackson all afternoon. Baltimore counters with another talented yet lesser known young player in Stanley, who was a second Pro Bowl alternate last season. The Ravens will surely offer help to Stanley by double-teaming or chipping Garrett and designing plays meant to neutralize the star pass rusher. Still, Stanley will be the focal point of Baltimore's attempt to keep Garrett out of the backfield."
Steve Young Praises Lamar Jackson's Mindset
Jackson made headlines this week for saying that he preferred passing the ball over running. Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, a dual threat during his playing days, praised Jackson for having that mindset.
"To be a championship quarterback, I still believe that you're going to have to do it from the pocket, so I love what Lamar's saying, because what you do is, you have to tie your legs up in your mind," Young said on ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption" podcast. "If you're going to play quarterback, you have to wait. … And what does your instinct say? 'Go, get out, run!' No. Tie them up.
"And what he's saying is, 'I want to play quarterback. I don't want to be known for somebody who just makes these plays out of the pocket. I can always do that, but what I'm going to do is focus on the job at hand, and that is playing quarterback from the pocket.'"
All that said, Penn Live's Kasinitz noted that Jackson not only has improved as a passer, but he's also made strides as a runner.
"In the midst of his celebrated growth in one area of the game, he's provided constant reminders about the rare talent he carries as a runner," Kasinitz wrote. "While the highlights keep rolling in, statistical evidence suggests Jackson's elusiveness and effectiveness as a runner have improved from his first NFL season to his second — just his like passing numbers."
According to Pro Football Reference, Jackson averaged 6.2 yards per scramble last season, and that number has increased to 9.2 this season.
"An impressive feat considering that defenses regularly design schemes to clog Jackson's running lanes," Kasinitz wrote. "Jackson is also averaging 2 yards per carry after first contact this season, up from 1.3 last year. He's breaking tackles at a higher rate, too, according to Pro Football Reference, and his yards per rushing attempts have grown while his carries per game have shrunk."
Mark Ingram II 'Might Be Best Running Back in the NFL This Year'
It doesn't seem possible that a two-time Pro Bowl running back who has rushed for more than 1,000 yards twice and scored 60 career touchdowns could be underrated, but that may be the case with the Ravens' Mark Ingram II.
"Good Morning Football's" Peter Schrager selected Ingram as an underrated star poised for a breakout in Week 4.
"We spent all summer talking about Ezekiel Elliott and his holdout. We talked about Melvin Gordon and his holdout. Then we waxed poetically about Christian McCaffrey and Le'Veon Bell. Mark Ingram signed with the Ravens very quietly, and is fifth in the league in rushing and leads the NFL in rushing touchdowns," Schrager said.
"Lamar Jackson's having a great start to his career, [but] Mark Ingram is helping as much as anybody on that team. I am so impressed by what Mark Ingram's doing. He might be the best running back in football this year, and we didn't talk nearly enough about him when he signed with Baltimore this offseason."
To Schrager's point, Bell was considered the top free agent running back this offseason. He was repeatedly linked to the Ravens, although it was never clear if Baltimore was actually ever interested.
Let's give credit to NFL Network's Jeremiah and Brooks, who both predicted a big year for Ingram before the start of the regular season.
"To me, Mark Ingram leads the NFL in rushing. That's my hot take," Jeremiah said on the "Move the Sticks" podcast in August.
Brooks concurred: "Oh, I could see that one, because all eyes are going to be on [Lamar Jackson], so when he hands it, [Ingram] may hit some goal posts buck naked because everyone's going to be looking for Lamar Jackson to pull it. We saw Gus Edwards have tremendous success with Lamar Jackson at quarterback, so I would expect a really good running back like Mark Ingram to also have a tremendous amount of success running the ball."