NFL Week 4 Picks and Preview — Cleveland Browns (1-2) at Baltimore Ravens (2-1)

(Mark Ingram/Jay Biggerstaff photo courtesy Jay Biggerstaff/USA TODAY Sports)

This is the full preview(s) as seen on the Winners and Whiners and Stat Salt websites. The confidence rating for all picks on a scale from 1 to 5 is in parentheses.

Note: The 5/5 does NOT represent the best overall pick of the day’s games when there are multiple games, simply the best pick(s) from each individual game.

Both Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield have shown they have the potential to take center stage, but shining in that spotlight is a whole different story heading into their Week 4 showdown Sunday in Baltimore.

Jackson and the Ravens (2-1) are looking to bounce back from their first loss of the season, a 33-28 defeat at AFC West leader and unbeaten Kansas City last Sunday. Jackson had flashes of brilliance as he completed 22 of 43 passes for 267 yards and added another 43 on the ground while rushing for a touchdown, but the big passing plays that were available in wins over Miami and Arizona failed to materialize often against a higher-caliber opponent in Kansas City.

Mark Ingram did have his best game since joining the Ravens in free agency, totaling 103 rushing yards and three touchdowns as he and Jackson kept Baltimore within striking distance. The Ravens, however, allowed 503 yards and never got the ball back after Jackson’s nine-yard touchdown scamper pulled them within five with 2:01 to play.

Mayfield and the Browns — the “it” team of the NFL all summer — appear to have gotten a proper grounding with their 1-2 start. Playing their second prime-tame game in six days, Cleveland (1-2) learned there is a big difference bullying the woebegone New York Jets and trying to beat the reigning NFC champion Los Angeles Rams.

Cleveland’s first Sunday Night Football home game in 11 years ended with a 20-13 defeat to the Rams, with Mayfield often scrambling for his life as Aaron Donald tore through the Browns offensive line repeatedly and keyed a unit that finished with three sacks.

Mayfield had his chances to pull the Browns even later after a Justin Burris interception gave him the ball near midfield with 2:54 remaining, but after marching Cleveland to the Rams’ 4-yard line inside the final minute, Mayfield misfired on three passes before having his fourth-down throw in the end zone picked off by Damion Rantley.

Browns in Review

It is not that the Browns believe their press clippings, but more of their offensive line and iffy play-calling holding them back to a degree. Cleveland’s tackles struggled all game containing the Rams’ pass rush, which resulted in Mayfield scrambling and making off-balance throws, limiting his effectiveness as he completed just 18 of 36 passes for 195 yards.

The Browns sorely missed tight end David Njoku, who was sidelined with a concussion and will be evaluated during the week regarding his availability for this game. Jarvis Landry still hasn’t gotten into a rhythm playing as the No. 2 receiver and totaled three catches for 62 yards. Those numbers are not bad until you realize Mayfield targeted him nine times.

That has been part of a season-long trend in which Landry has totaled 10 catches on 23 passes thrown his way. He is third on the team in receptions behind Odell Beckham Jr. (16) and running back Nick Chubb (11).

Myles Garrett picked up his AFC-leading sixth sack in the defeat, and the Browns did not play all that badly defensively as they limited the Rams to 345 yards and forced three turnovers. One noticeable defense from the first two games was that Cleveland did struggle to get off the field as the Rams converted 6 of 14 on third downs after holding opponents to 4 for 24 in the first two games.

Ravens in Review

Jackson really has yet to be truly stopped in Baltimore’s three games this season, throwing for 863 yards and seven touchdowns without an interception while adding another 172 rushing yards and a score.

Yet the inability to get the ball in the end zone through the air also showed some of Jackson’s learning curve he still needs to finish. Kansas City used a mix of defenses and the tight coverage at times forced Jackson to throw to smaller windows with a varying degree of success.

That said, though, it is the rare moment where one can say the Ravens defense is the source of issues. Baltimore’s pass defense has been lit up the past two weeks by No. 1 overall pick Kyler Murray and Patrick Mahomes to the tune of 723 yards in the last two games, with seven pass plays going for 25 or more yards.

Baltimore’s pass rush has been hit and miss in those games, totaling just four sacks and getting to Mahomes just once on Sunday. Communication issues have plagued the Ravens secondary in these two games and they need to be fixed — quickly — otherwise Beckham and Landry could have simultaneous breakout games that everyone has been waiting for.

Browns run offense vs Ravens run defense

This sounds like a broken record from last week, but the Browns must find a way to give Chubb the ball early and often to take pressure off Mayfield and the passing game.

Cleveland did a better job of that last week versus Los Angeles as he finished with 96 yards on a season-high 23 carries, and he ripped off three runs or 10 or more yards. The key, as will be the case with the Browns seemingly every week, is sustaining what works on a week-to-week basis and not reinventing the wheel offensively.

“I think we are close. We are getting there. Every day, we are getting better,” said Chubb, who added he was comfortable with the extensive playing time as he was on the field for all but two offensive snaps. “Every game, we are getting better. It is just a process. We have a long season, a long way to go so anytime we have a chance to get better, it is good for us.”

After holding Miami and Arizona to a combined 41 rushing yards in the first two games, Baltimore was gashed by Kansas City’s combination of LeSean McCoy and Darrel Williams for a combined 116 on just 17 carries as both of them averaged better than six yards per rush.

“Defensively, I thought there were a couple of plays I wish we could have back. A couple of penalties I wish we could have back as well. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to play better, play more sound, play more fundamentally sound,” Ravens safety Tony Jefferson told The Athletic. “It’s Week 3, so get back to the drawing board 2-1, and I still think we’re in great shape. I still have faith in everybody in our locker room, and we just go from there.”

There are still plenty of new moving parts to a defense that lost a combined 71 starts when Terrell Suggs, Za’Darius Smith, C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle, and Brent Urban all left via free agency in the offseason. The talent is there — Baltimore allowed less than yards per carry in the wins over the Dolphins and Cardinals — but now it needs to step up against the better teams in the league.

Browns pass offense vs Ravens pass offense

There at times dissecting Mayfield is like the chicken-and-egg argument: is he good because of X or because he does Y? There are many different aspects to what makes a successful quarterback, and Mayfield is no different.

But some parts of his game that need improvement are beginning to stand out as opposed to being tendencies. One is his completion percentage of 56.5, which ranks 30th among 35 qualifying quarterbacks. This is noticeable because going back to his days at Oklahoma, Mayfield has never completed fewer than 64 percent of his passes in a season.

There is also the adjustments that come with opponents trying to take away your best option. In the case of the Browns, that is double-teaming Beckham. While that is nothing new to him from his days with the Giants, it is something Mayfield and offensive coordinator Todd Monken must take into account.

“Just have to take advantage of the matchups in other areas,” said Beckham, who has been targeted at least nine times in every game. “Start to open things up and do not allow the team to double, but it has been tough. Since my rookie year, that is just what it has been. I do not get man to man and someone following me all game. Just finding ways to take advantage of those matchups in other areas.”

With the departure of Weddle plus injuries to cornerbacks Tavon Young and Jimmy Smith, there would be some issues at times in Baltimore’s secondary. But the communication breakdowns have been an on-going issue since the season opener and have contributed in the Ravens allowing 13.63 yards per completion, the fourth-worst mark in the NFL.

The Ravens have given up 14 completions of 20 or more yards, which ranks in the bottom third, but those big plays have proven large — they 34.8 yards per completion on those plays is the seventh-highest average.

“We’ve got to chalk that up to communication. We never let that happen, and we relax for one moment, and boom — they hit us. It was a quick strike,” safety Earl Thomas said regarding the 83-yard touchdown pass to Mecole Hardman. “We knew speed was right there at No. 2 on the trips sides. That’s their fastest receiver. We’ve just gotta have eyes on him.”

The pass rush, or lack thereof, is another issue plaguing Baltimore. The Ravens have seven sacks, but Matt Judon and Pernell McPhee have combined for five of them — which means there needs to be more sources of an effective pass rush.

“They need to be better,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said, specifically referring to outside linebackers Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams. “We need to get more pressure, more sacks from those guys. They’ll probably tell you they need more reps. I would say earn more reps by doing something about it.”

Ravens run offense vs Browns run defense

Jackson’s skill-set is a unique look to the league, with perhaps only Buffalo and Josh Allen replicating it at any consistent level. Jackson, though, is a far more natural and better running quarterback than Allen and capable of ripping off big gains on every play.

Still, if all things were equal to the second-year quarterback, he would delegate the ground game more to Ingram.

That shift is not going to happen anytime soon since the Ravens specifically promoted Greg Roman to offensive coordinator because he helped develop Colin Kaepernick into the dual-threat quarterback he was at the apex of success. Jackson’s decision-making has raised the effectiveness of the ground game — Ingram’s 5.98 yards per carry is tracking to be a career-high after maxing out at 5.1 with New Orleans in 2016.

“We’ve got a whole bunch of guys on this team who don’t quit,” Ingram said after the loss to the Chiefs. “I wouldn’t rather run behind anyone else. They created some seams for us to run through. They dominated all game long. That’s testament to those guys.”

Cleveland’s run defense has improved with each passing week and did a solid job containing Rams running back Todd Gurley, who finished with 43 yards on 14 carries last Sunday night. The Browns have conceded just three runs of 10 or more yards in the last two games after yielding four in their Week 1 loss to Tennessee and allowed 3.81 yards per carry in the last two contests.

“Definitely one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks that I have seen since former (former NFL QB) Michael Vick, personally,” safety Damarious Randall said of Jackson. “He is very good, shifty, a very, very talented guy.”

Randall is hoping to return after being in the league’s concussion protocol the past two games and is placing an emphasis on his teammates staying in their lanes to prevent Jackson from getting loss on RPO plays.

 

“Discipline, guys knowing their responsibility and basically just doing your job because he is very talented and he will definitely punish you for making mistakes.”

Ravens pass offense vs Browns pass defense

Jackson had pile-up numbers against the Chiefs as he spent most of the game trying to rally the Ravens from a deficit, but there were still plenty of flashes of quality play.

One thing that did not happen last week, though, was getting Marquise Brown going early. The rookie did not catch his first pass until the end of the third quarter, but it was not out of lack of trying.

Jackson looked Brown’s way twice in Baltimore’s first possession and threw his way five times without success before hooking up on an 18-yard gain. With Cleveland’s secondary still dealing with a spate of injuries, it would not be surprising for Jackson to make it a point to establish Brown early, throwing to Mayfield’s former college teammate at Oklahoma.

The Browns have an injury-riddled secondary beyond Randall as they had just four healthy bodies in the defensive backfield at practice Wednesday. Cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams are dealing with hamstring injuries while safety Morgan Burnett is nursing a quad issue.

All three players missed last week’s contest, and it was a testament to the pass rush and the backups who all stepped up and made key plays to give the Browns a chance to at least pull even on the final possession of the game.

“I though the defense played incredible,” coach Freddie Kitchens said. “They kept battling. … Those guys did an incredible job.”

Garrett has recorded 1.5 sacks in three career games against the Ravens and got to Jackson once in the most recent matchup. Baltimore has conceded just six sacks overall, but three came last week as Kansas City’s secondary did well in coverage. That could be a big ask with Cleveland’s injury issues, but Garrett is a game-changer on that side of the ball and someone Baltimore must game plan against to be successful.

Special Teams and Other Things

Until he either relinquishes play-calling duties to Monken or makes better play calls, Kitchens is going to be on the hot seat until the Browns produce points on a consistent basis. There is only so many weeks he can take the blame before talk turns to why isn’t anything being done about it.

Cleveland’s special teams have been solid — Austin Seibert is 5 for 5 on field goals and punter Jamie Gillan continues to showcase an exquisite short game. The Scot has put 11 of his 17 punts inside the opposing 20 and helped limit opponents to five return yards.

The Ravens have said all the right things following a tough loss to the Chiefs, but the rubber has to meet the road this week with regards to their defensive communication breakdowns, especially in the secondary. Even with Earl Thomas a newcomer, he should be in Onwuasor’s ear constantly so that these mistakes do not happen.

Like the Browns, the Ravens’ specialists are in solid form. Justin Turner has yet to miss a kick among 11 PATs and five field goals, and when called into duty, Sam Koch has done well to pin down opponents. Three of his seven efforts have gone inside the opponents’ 20, and the Ravens have given up just nine yards on returns.

The Picks and Plays

The two games between the teams last year were decided by five points, with the lone matchup between Mayfield and Jackson a two-point affair. The flat touchdown spread as of the time of this writing makes this a challenging pick — there is compelling evidence to believe the Browns can turn this into a last-possession game, but it is tempered by the lack of confidence in Kitchens’ play-calling abilities.

If the Ravens clean up their communication issues, this game could be a straightforward win, but there is also a lack of confidence in this area. If Baltimore can make Cleveland one-dimensional — a challenge given how Mayfield tore into the secondary in the last meeting — it could also lead to a Ravens win.

The lean is to take the Ravens and lay the touchdown because there are fewer self-inflicting variables that affect Baltimore’s ability to score points.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Baltimore Ravens 28, Cleveland Browns 20

OVER 46 points (-115)

The first thing of note is the line has moved off the TD+FG total, which makes the pick a tougher sell. That said, even with Kitchens’ play-calling issues, the feeling is there are too many potential big-yardage plays and big-yardage scoring plays on both sides for the over not to hit.

The over is 3-0-1 in Cleveland’s last four games versus divisional rivals and 4-1 in Cleveland’s last five road games versus teams with a winning home record. The over is 6-2 in Baltimore’s last eight games against AFC teams and 5-2 in its last seven as a favorite between 3.5 to 10 points.

Prop Plays

The “5” in this instance represents the best prop bet of the three that will be listed in this space. Brown is not going to be limited to two catches for a second straight game, and his top-end speed against either Ward or fellow rookie Williams — neither of whom practiced during the week — guarantees Jackson is going to look his way at all three levels.

The fact this pick could deliver on as few as three completions is enough to warrant an aggressive play.

Two other yardage prop plays worth considering:

Marquise Brown OVER 73.5 receiving yards (-114) — BEST PLAY
Lamar Jackson UNDER 51.5 rushing yards (-114)
Odell Beckham Jr. OVER 78.5 receiving yards (-114)

The feeling is the Ravens will try to establish Ingram on a more consistent basis than letting Jackson try running the edges because he should be able to move the ball through the air to Brown and Andrews. Cleveland’s run defense is solid enough where it makes more sense for the Ravens to wear it down with Ingram’s bruising runs between the tackles, which should result in fewer rushing attempts for Jackson.

On the other side, primary receivers have fared well against Baltimore’s soft pass defense, and it should be no different for Beckham, who should reach double figures in targets for the third time in four games.

1st Half — Ravens -3.5 (-115)

The high-side hook prevents an aggressive play on the Ravens, who have shown more offensive upside in the first halves of their games compared to the Browns. That is also partially discounting the 42 they hung on the inept Miami Dolphins in the first two quarters in Week 1.

Cleveland has 28 first-half points but only two first-half touchdowns in the three games. The Ravens’ cohesion with Jackson running the offense makes them the pick.

UNDER 23 points 1st Half (-115) 

An anti-Browns pick based on the aforementioned settling for field goals, though Baltimore’s struggling pass defense is a concern. The same could be said in the other direction, though, which makes this pick tenuous.

Ravens OVER 13 points 1st half (-110)

The expectation is the Ravens will break off one at least one long touchdown in the first half, but this is also a confidence pick in Turner connecting on two PAT attempts to secure the over or potentially getting two field goal attempts to at least register a push.

 

 

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