The Ravens reshaped their front seven this offseason, and it will get its first big test in Sunday's regular-season opener.
Hosting the Cleveland Browns in Week 1 means the return of running back Nick Chubb to M&T Bank Stadium. When he came to Baltimore in Week 4 last season, Chubb rushed for 165 yards and three touchdowns during a 40-25 Cleveland victory. The play that broke Baltimore's back was an 88-yard touchdown run by Chubb in the fourth quarter, when he ran coast to coast untouched.
Months later, the Ravens suffered a crushing playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans when running back Derrick Henry dominated the game, rushing for 195 yards. It led to Baltimore investing heavily in its front seven this offseason through free agency, the draft, and trades.
They traded for Pro Bowl defensive lineman Calais Campbell, one of the NFL's best run stoppers. They signed veteran defensive lineman Derek Wolfe, who has made a living winning battles in the trenches. They drafted two of college football's best inside linebackers – first round pick Patrick Queen and third-round pick Malik Harrison. They drafted two young defensive linemen with intriguing potential – Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington.
With Chubb and teammate Kareem Hunt in the backfield, the Browns' running back tandem as good as any the Ravens will face all season. It's a good way to find out where Baltimore's run defense stands after the makeover.
"That's [Browns Head Coach Kevin] Stefanski's bread and butter, going all the way back in that system that he's been a part of," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "He talks about how important it is, and you can see it in the offenses that he's coached in the past. So, yes. It's going to be a big part of what we do, and we're about to find out, because we're going to play a really good running team on Sunday."
Led by Campbell, Wolfe and Brandon Williams up front, the Ravens believe they can have the league's best run defense. That's a lofty goal, but they have the talent to back it up. Campbell and Williams are Pro Bowl players, and Wolfe won a Super Bowl as part of a dominant defense with the Denver Broncos. Add the quickness of Queen and the physicality of Harrison, and the Ravens' defense is more athletic and faster than last year's edition.
It all looks good on paper, but the Ravens are eager to see their new defense on the field. They'll start getting answers on Sunday.
"You never know until you play the games," Harbaugh said. "That's why the games are played. That's the comparison that is real. Everything else is just speculation. But I'm encouraged. We have good players. They practice really hard. We go at it really hard in practice. It's not like we aren't prepared from a physical standpoint."
Browns Staying Mum on Identity of Play-Caller
The question of who will call the offensive plays in Cleveland has been kept secret from outsiders the entire offseason. It will either be Stefanski or Offensive Coordinator Alex Van Pelt, who joins Stefanski's staff after being with the Green Bay Packers as their quarterbacks coach last season. As of Monday afternoon, the Browns had not announced which coach will be dialing up the plays.
Stefanski was the Minnesota Vikings' offensive coordinator last season, but he doesn't have a long track record as a play-caller either. It's just part of the intrigue heading into Sunday's game. Even when the Ravens know who Cleveland's play-caller is, they won't have any preseason tape to help them study new offensive tendencies.
"We don't know those two guys – per se – as play-callers too much," Harbaugh said. "They both have experience, but it's not a vast amount of play-calling experience. So, we're going to play against the system and the players. And whatever plays are called, hopefully we can defend them."
Practice Squad Players on High Alert
The coronavirus pandemic has increased the size and importance of the practice squad this season. A new rule this year is that on gameday, NFL teams can call two players up from the practice squad, expanding gameday rosters from 46 to 48. With practice squads increased from 10 to 16 players, Harbaugh expects every player on the practice squad that was finalized Sunday to be ready to suit up Sunday if necessary.
"They should be a little more involved – probably – than normal years, because with the circumstances, they could be brought up to play; and that's something I think they all understand," Harbaugh said. "We did emphasize that to those guys this weekend, and I think that they took it seriously. I expect those guys to come out and be prepared, have great practices."