When the Ravens and Cleveland Browns meet Sunday in Baltimore, the AFC North standings won’t look too surprising. The Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals are on top, followed closely by the Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers.
The quality of the division itself, though? Surprisingly disappointing. Heading into the season, the AFC North was regarded as one of the NFL’s better foursomes. But after six weeks, only the Ravens (3-3) rank among the NFL’s 10 most efficient teams, according to Football Outsiders. The defending AFC champion Bengals (3-3) are No. 12, and the Browns (2-4) and Steelers (2-4) are out of the top 20 altogether.
The Ravens know better than to look ahead, though. In a divisional game, anything can happen. Here’s what to watch in the teams’ Week 7 matchup.
1. Ravens tight end Mark Andrews and right tackle Morgan Moses both found themselves in a strange spot Friday: listed as questionable on the team’s injury report.
Andrews (knee), who missed practice Wednesday and Thursday, was limited Friday and indicated afterward that he’d be available Sunday, hasn’t missed a game because of injury in his four-plus seasons in Baltimore. The All-Pro was held out of the Ravens’ regular-season finale in 2019 and missed two games in 2020 while on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Moses (heel), who missed practice Wednesday and was limited Thursday and Friday, hasn’t missed a game since 2014, his rookie season, when he suffered a Lisfranc (foot) injury. He said after practice Friday that he was feeling good.
“It’s been, what, seven years or something like that?” Moses said, referring to his streak of games played. “We’ve got a couple more days left to get myself together, and we’ll see how it goes.”
Coach John Harbaugh acknowledged Friday that the Ravens’ short turnaround next week has affected their preparation for Sunday’s game and Thursday night’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“I don’t know if it will hold anyone out for one or the other game or not,” he said, “but that’s definitely something that’s kind of on my mind in terms of what’s the best way to approach it.”
2. As the Ravens have morphed into a pass-first team this season, one element of their passing game remains lightly used: run-pass options.
According to Sports Info Solutions, quarterback Lamar Jackson has dropped back just 11 times on RPO plays, which allow quarterbacks to read a defense’s leverages and either hand the ball off or make a quick throw. Seven quarterbacks have more RPO drop-backs entering Week 7, including dual-threat standouts Jalen Hurts (35), Patrick Mahomes (24) and Josh Allen (19).
Jackson, who’s 9-for-11 for 73 yards on RPO passes this season, relied on the concept more often last year. Part of that, offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Thursday, is by design.
“It’s more of a defensive choice,” Roman said. “There are some teams that are playing certain coverages to maybe take away RPOs, and that’s fine with us. We’re fine with that, but it’s pretty obvious that that’s what they’re doing. If that’s the case, then we move on to something else. It’s really that simple.”
Still, RPOs could be a goal-line wrinkle for a struggling red-zone attack. Jackson has attempted just two RPO passes inside the 10-yard line since 2020, completing one, according to SIS. The Buffalo Bills’ Allen and Kansas City Chiefs’ Mahomes each attempted eight inside the 10 last season, combining for six touchdowns and one interception.
3. Browns running back Nick Chubb was impressive as a rookie in 2018, nearly hitting 1,000 yards on the ground while averaging 5.2 yards per carry. But the breakout game of his breakout 2019 season didn’t come until Week 4, when he gashed the Ravens for 165 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries in a 40-25 win — the Ravens’ last loss until the playoffs.
Chubb made the Pro Bowl that season, and again each of the next two years, but game-breaking success against the Ravens has since eluded him. In the teams’ second 2019 meeting, he was limited to 15 carries for 45 yards.
In 2020, Chubb had 10 carries for 60 yards but lost a fumble in a season-opening blowout loss. In Week 14, he had 17 carries for 82 yards and two touchdowns in the Ravens’ wild prime-time victory, upstaged on the ground by Jackson (nine carries for 124 yards and two touchdowns).
Last year, when he finished second in the NFL in rushing, Chubb had his lowest rushing averages of the season against the Ravens: eight carries for 16 yards in a Week 12 loss, and 17 carries for 59 yards in a Week 14 win.
Chubb enters Sunday’s game leading the NFL in rushing (649 yards) and averaging a career-high 5.9 yards per carry. He remains as schematically versatile as any runner in the league, with 300 yards on zone concepts (5.4 yards per attempt) and 343 yards on gap concepts (6.6 yards per attempt), according to The 33rd Team. Cleveland won’t have All-Pro right guard Wyatt Teller (calf) on Sunday, but Harbaugh said Chubb runs “100 miles an hour with a lot of power.”
“You’re not going to throw an arm in there, you’re not going to throw a shoulder in there, an elbow or something like that, and knock him down,” Harbaugh said Wednesday. “You have to bring everything you’ve got. You have to wrap him up, and then everyone else has to come, too. … If he’s not the best back in the league, he’s one of [the best], for sure.”
4. Over the Ravens’ first two games of the season, first-round pick Kyle Hamilton averaged 40 defensive snaps. Over the next three weeks, he averaged 15.7 snaps per game. When Marcus Williams (wrist) was lost indefinitely to a wrist injury in Week 5, it was Geno Stone, not Hamilton, who paired with Chuck Clark as the team’s starting safeties.
But the Notre Dame product’s playing time surged in Sunday’s loss to the New York Giants (29 defensive snaps, 45% overall), and he could have an outsize impact in coverage against Cleveland’s most productive receiver. Tight end David Njoku leads both Browns tight ends and wide receivers in catch rate (77.1%), is second on the team in receptions (35) and barely trails wide receiver Amari Cooper for the team lead in receiving yards (347).
While no Ravens safety fared better in training camp repetitions against Andrews than Clark, Hamilton held his own against camp standout Isaiah Likely. His coverage this season has been inconsistent — eight catches allowed on nine targets for 130 yards, 74 of which came in the Week 2 loss to the Miami Dolphins, according to Pro Football Focus — but he has the size, strength and speed to match up with the physically impressive Njoku.
“That’s one of the reasons we loved [Hamilton] so much coming out of the draft, is he’s so versatile,” defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said Thursday. “So hopefully, we can start to unlock him as the season goes on, and you’ll see him in different spots where you might not have expected earlier, so that will be cool to see. I think we have great other options to cover [Njoku] as well. … Whoever ends up on him, we feel confident that we’ll get the job done.”
5. For the first time in his Ravens career, Justin Madubuike will be a game captain Sunday, a fitting honor for the third-year defensive lineman who’s emerged as the defense’s best run stopper.
According to PFF, Madubuike has graded out as the NFL’s 11th-best run defender among interior linemen. His average depth of tackle is just 0.8 of a yard downfield, one of the NFL’s lowest rates. He also has a career-high 2 1/2 sacks and is on pace to smash his single-season career bests in tackles (36), tackles for loss (seven) and quarterback hits (five), all set last season.
Madubuike can be a nuisance against zone-blocking schemes — too strong and too flexible to be uprooted on plays aimed at his side, too quick to be contained on plays aimed away from his side. And even at a listed 293 pounds, he’s strong enough to take on combination blocks in power-running schemes.
“On the front side, he gets great knock-back; he doesn’t lie to the game behind him, which is nice — formerly coaching linebackers, so I know the guys love playing behind him,” Macdonald said. “And then he’s so athletic that on the back side, he can stay alive and make it from the back side, too. So really, not just the wide zone, but all the gap schemes, too. He holds up well on doubles for a guy that’s not 330 pounds. So he’s got a really well-rounded game going right now.”
With defensive lineman Calais Campbell (foot) limited in practice this week but expected to play Sunday, Madubuike could be in for a busier-than-normal shift against Cleveland. He’s played between 34 and 45 defensive snaps in all six of the Ravens’ games, including a season-high 69% snap share against the Giants.
6. The Ravens have led for an average of 44 minutes, 35 seconds per game this season, an NFL high, and have trailed for an average of 2:09, an NFL low. But they’ve been outscored in the fourth quarter by a combined 64-22, including 45-10 in their three losses.
“We all want to make those [plays] at the end,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said Thursday. “We want the offense to be on the field for eight minutes at the end. We want the defense to go three-and-out at the end. We all want it, but when we spoke in the team meeting, I was like, ‘We actually need to relax some.’ We’re pressing so hard that it’s almost a reverse effect.”
7. After a Week 14 loss in Cleveland last season, the Ravens are 34-12 all time against the Browns. They’ve lost back-to-back games just twice in their series history: in 2001, the season after their first Super Bowl triumph, and in 2007, Brian Billick’s ninth and final season as coach.
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 6 1/2