Ravens remodeled front seven will get its first real test against the Browns Week 1
The Baltimore Ravens front seven will look vastly different when they welcome the Cleveland Browns to town for the 2020 season opener at nearly empty M&T Bank Stadium this upcoming Sunday. They reshaped the interior of their defensive line and injected some youth and elite athletic ability to the inside linebacker position.
Their AFC North division rivals boast arguably the most talented running back tandem in the league with Pro Bowlers Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. The last time Chubb came to Baltimore he was the driving force that helped the Browns hand the Ravens their most lopsided loss of both the regular and postseason.
His 165 yards and three touchdowns on the ground including a back-breaking 88-yarder where he went nearly from end zone to end zone untouched propelled Cleveland to a 40-25 victory. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be the last time that Baltimore was bludgeoned by a Pro Bowl running back in their own house during the 2019 campaign.
The Ravens regathered themselves and remodeled their defense on the fly after that embarrassing loss and went on a 12-game winning streak to close out the regular season. However, their promising championship hopes were dashed when Derrick Henry and the Tennessee Titans dominated the Ravens on the ground in the divisional round of the playoffs to the tune of 195 yards from the league rushing champion alone in a 28-12 defeat.
Even though the Ravens finished the regular season ranked third in total defense and () against the run, those two shellackings stuck with them and likely inspired their strategic methodology heading into the 2020 offseason. Through trades, free agency, and the draft, General Manager Eric DeCosta heavily invested in improving the front seven to help ensure that they don’t get dominated on the run this season.
His first major move and arguably the savviest from a value standpoint and the most seismic from a potential impact standpoint was the acquisition of five-time Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell who is an elite run stuffer and pass rusher via trade from the Jacksonville Jaguars in exchange for a 2020 fifth-round pick.
In free agency, he brought in former Denver Bronco defensive end Derek Wolfe after a deal with Michael Brockers fell through which could end up being one hell of a consolation prize in the end since Wolfe brings more of an interior pass rush presence in addition to being a great run defender. He was a starter and key cog on Denver’s dominant championship-winning defense that carried the carcass of Peyton Manning to the finish line in Superbowl 50 and he is an excellent wingman in the trenches that helps his edge rushers get more one on one opportunities.
In the draft, he spent four picks reloading the middle of the defense with young playmakers and adding additional depth to the interior of the defensive line behind Campbell and Wolfe with the selections of Justin Madubuike (Texas A&M) and Broderick Washington (Texas Tech) in the third and fifth rounds respectively.
At inside linebacker he selected LSU speedy standout Patrick Queen who shined in his lone season as a starter in the first round to be the starting MIKE after the team used a platoon of veterans, they signed off the street to offset the loss of four-time Pro Bowler CJ Mosley.
He then doubled down at the position in the third with the selection of Malik Harrison out of Ohio State who competed for the starting WILL spot in training camp and even though veteran LJ Fort is expected to starting according to the first initial depth chart that the t4am released on Sunday, he’s expected to rotate in. Both rookie linebackers bring a level of athleticism, energy, and quickness that was missing from the middle of Baltimore’s defense last season.
The Browns have a new head coach at the helm in long-time Minnesota Vikings’ assistant Kevin Stefanski who may or may not be calling plays for their offense this year but whose philosophy on that side of the ball is predicated on and built off the running game.
“That’s 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.”
Cleveland did some remodeling of their own this offseason by revamping their much-maligned offensive line from a year ago by signing Pro Bowl right tackle Jack Conklin in free agency and drafting Jederick Wills out of Alabama in the first round with the 10th overall pick.
Since there was no preseason this year and no opportunities to hold joint practices with other teams as result, Sunday will be the first time that the Ravens remodeled front seven gets to test their metal against an opposing team’s offense. Head Coach John Harbaugh isn’t buying into the hype surrounding his team until the game actually gets here and he can see how they perform but he believes that his players are talented enough and are prepared for the physical rigors of the season.
“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.”
The Browns have yet to reveal who will be calling plays for the offense this season and will likely remain a mystery until the season opener or close to it in order to maintain some semblance of a competitive advantage heading into Sunday’s matchup.
However, since there weren’t any exhibition games to watch film on and neither Stefanski nor first-year Offensive Coordinator Alex Van Pelt, who was the Packers quarterback coach last season, have extensive play-calling experience, the Ravens will have to try to figure out their tendencies on the fly as the game goes on.
“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.”
Ravens Defensive Coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale and his staff will be working in conjunction with the players on the field to figure how to slow down Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield and his host of explosive weapons at every skill position but he’s one of the more brilliant and aggressive masterminds on that side of the ball in the league and will have his players both new and returning at every level of the defense, especially the new-look front seven, prepared to do battle on Sunday afternoon.