Initial thoughts, notes and quotes on the Browns’ 13-3 win over the Ravens on Saturday that featured a little snow, a lot of sloppiness and even more defense…
• It’s always a brawl with the Browns and Ravens. Both teams want to run the ball. Each team knows the other well. Add the frigid temperatures, the Browns breaking in a new quarterback and the Ravens playing a backup who was on limited practice time both because of the short week and having to clear concussion protocol, and you were never going to get beautiful football. The Ravens are a physical, aggressive defense that always wants to make it tough on opposing run games and generally gets its wish. The now-6-8 Browns were able to put together some long drives early, and though they didn’t finish them with touchdowns, they felt they found some plays that Deshaun Watson liked. Eventually, Watson was used as a runner. Nick Chubb didn’t have a bunch of long runs but he had some well-timed ones. Ultimately, the Browns stopped the Ravens on fourth down early and Chubb refused to be stopped late. Those weren’t the only key plays, but those swings plus the Browns’ takeaways allowed Cleveland to win despite some general ugliness and missed opportunities. The Ravens had their share of chances; the Browns seemed to be on the right side of the big swing moments.
• The Browns won the brawl. The Ravens helped by getting a little pass-happy and turning the ball over twice, but the Browns’ defense was excellent for most of the game and the long drives the Browns’ offense put together helped the defense stay fresh. Takeaways are so important and have been missing from so many Browns’ defensive performances in 2022, but Denzel Ward’s third-quarter interception was huge. John Johnson III stripped DeMarcus Robinson, and though the Browns didn’t turn that into points they continually kept the Ravens from gaining much offensive traction. All-world tight end Mark Andrews was not much of a factor. Huntley only extended a few plays with his feet. The Browns were just fine with Huntley becoming a pocket passer, and despite the Ravens running for 198 yards it felt like they didn’t run enough — and they managed just three points.
• Here’s how the Ravens’ second-half possessions ended: Interception, fumble, blocked field goal, turnover on downs, turnover on downs. On their last four possessions, they totaled just three first downs and 89 yards. That’s winning defense. The Browns even added some winning special teams plays with the blocked field goal and a punt by Corey Bojorquez that pinned the Ravens at their own 9-yard line in the fourth quarter. The Browns had a time-of-possession edge of more than six minutes, won the turnover battle and won on fourth downs — early and late. Where’s that defense been all year? It certainly showed up Saturday night. The Ravens previously hadn’t trailed by more than a touchdown at any point all season.
• The Browns mixed in some no-huddle offense. They liked that as a change-up partly because Watson likes it and is operating at least a bit of a limited playbook anyway; the other part is that the Ravens are so good defensively and know the Browns so well that Kevin Stefanski thought it could keep the Ravens’ linebackers a little less aggressive than they like to be. After the game, Browns Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio said he thought the Browns tried to maintain their energy and momentum by upping the tempo — and also that he believed it kept the Ravens in more base defensive calls. That meant less blitzing at some points and at others less guessing by linebackers Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen on plays the Ravens have seen dozens of times over the last three seasons. At the very least, consider it some subtle creativity for a team that’s still trying to get its quarterback comfortable and have some sustained success.
• Watson had a zone-read run early in the game that looked like it was always designed for him. Watson’s 17-yard run on third-and-7 with just over 13 minutes should have been the kind of play that seals the victory. More messy play and a couple more Ravens’ chances followed, but it was a big play. The Browns got the ball back with 9:30 left and though their 10-play drive ended with a second missed field goal, the Browns knew they’d need to add some wrinkles to the offense and they knew they’d be in trouble if Watson turned the ball over or struggled against the Ravens’ blitzes. He didn’t. Watson was only 18-of-28 passing for 161 yards, but he was able to avoid big mistakes, extend plays and find open receivers in some big moments.
• Stefanski on Watson: “He was seeing it very clearly. I thought for the most part we protected really well. I thought he was very poised and (made) good decisions. There are always plays that I know he can be better, I can be better, we can design better plays and all of those type of things, but I know I continue to see a guy who is just getting better and better.” Thanks to the defense, this week one offensive touchdown was enough.
• On Peoples-Jones’ touchdown catch, the Browns lined Peoples-Jones up in the backfield. They snuck him out into the play against the zone defense they were expecting, and Watson knew he’d have Peoples-Jones on kind of a checkdown look where Peoples-Jones did the rest. Getting up two scores put even more pressure on a struggling Ravens’ pass offense, and as noted above, the Browns didn’t get a bunch of chunk runs but Chubb got a few. Chubb finished on 99 yards as the Browns were able to kneel out to end the game, and the offense can say it saw some growth and was challenged by a really good defense. Style points be damned; 13 points worked just fine on this night.
• The Ravens just didn’t have enough offense. Justin Tucker missed one field goal try and had another blocked. Huntley couldn’t find much down the field, and the Browns held Andrews to three catches on seven targets. The Browns failed both before and after halftime in losses to the Dolphins and Bills; in this one, the Ravens ended the first half with a missed field goal and then had arguably their best drive end on Ward’s interception. The teams combined for one touchdown in six red-zone visits. Add the missed field goals and, well, the Browns would rather worry about York in winning circumstances versus the alternative. The Ravens slip to 9-5 and will fall out of first place if the Bengals win in Tampa Bay on Sunday.
• Daylen Baldwin is an undrafted rookie wide receiver the Browns signed a week into training camp. Baldwin made some impressive catches in camp, then got cut and ended up on the practice squad. He hadn’t been heard from in months before he got the call-up for this game and made two catches for 25 yards on a field goal drive in the second quarter. We’ll save the discussion about what Baldwin’s instant impact says about the drafting and overall construction of the receiver group, but it speaks well of Baldwin and the coaching staff that Baldwin was ready when called upon because David Bell was out. It appeared Baldwin suffered an injury and left the game, but there was no press box announcement on his status.
• I don’t think Ravens coach John Harbaugh regrets passing on an easy three points and trying to convert fourth down on the Ravens’ first drive. He regrets not converting it, obviously, as the Ravens for some reason ran with fullback Patrick Ricard and he didn’t get it. The Browns were pinned deep in their own territory and responded by going 14 plays on what was an impressive drive that likely would have ended in a touchdown if not for one well-timed blindside blitz on Watson. The Browns will take the progress they saw from Watson. They’ll take Myles Garrett making big plays late after Ward made one of the biggest. They’ll take 99 Chubb yards against the Ravens any day. They’ll take contributions from guys like Baldwin at the bottom of the roster, too. It was never going to be pretty, but the Browns risked things getting really ugly the rest of the way if they’d lost. They found a way, headlined by a top defensive effort, and Watson won his home debut. All involved will take it.
(Photo: Ken Blaze / USA Today)