Elvis Presley Sang It Best About Browns’ Task Vs. Ravens: ‘It’S Now Or Never’

If the Browns hope to beat Baltimore, they can't let tight end Mark Andrews strike this pose. (USA Today)

If the Browns hope to beat Baltimore, they can't let tight end Mark Andrews strike this pose. (USA Today)

Elvis Presley sang it best about Browns’ task vs. Ravens: ‘It’s now or never’

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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland.


Four downs on Browns (6-5) v. Baltimore Ravens (7-3)

First down: This is it.

Bill Belichick is most frequently credited with the saying, “The NFL football season begins after Thanksgiving.” That’s when playoff teams begin separating from the pack. In the case of the Browns, it can begin and end in the span of a three-hour game. When the NFL released the Browns' 2021 schedule on May 12, this nuanced sequence of Baltimore-bye week-Baltimore was instantly seen as the make-or-break stretch of the season. It has come to pass, indeed. The Browns have played below expectations all year, but they are fortunate to be in position to “make” their season. At 6-5 and currently seeded 11th in the potential 7-team AFC playoff field, “making” their season virtually requires the Browns to sweep the Ravens in this three-week period. Thus, an upset victory in the first game here only guarantees a lifeline through the rematch in Cleveland on Dec. 12. But winning in Baltimore gives the Browns a much-needed breather at their late-season bye week while the Ravens have to play in Pittsburgh on Dec. 5. It’s an undeniable fortuitous quirk for the Browns – but only if they win Sunday night in M&T Bank Stadium. A mere split in this series would leave the Browns at 7-6 and the Ravens, at worst, at 8-5. It would really be a two-game advantage for the Ravens with four games to play, though, because of the AFC tie-breaker. The Browns like to say they have to go 1-0. Well, 0-1 at this point is not going to cut it. Does the Browns’ season come down to a win in Baltimore, I asked safety John Johnson. “At the moment, yes,” he responded. “We have to win this one. Have to go 1-0. If we want to win the division, we have to win this game. Absolutely.”

Second down: F-i-n-i-s-h!

The Browns are the best three-quarter team in the NFL. They have held the lead entering the fourth quarter in nine of 11 games. The fact they are 6-5 overall points to the problem. They have blown three of those leads against Kansas City, the Chargers and Pittsburgh. Those are the games that have put the Browns in a must-win situation. They have been outscored in the fourth quarter, 89 to 52, and have been held scoreless five times in the fourth quarter. Conversely, the Ravens have made comebacks in the fourth quarter five times to win games. This dichotomy presents Kevin Stefanski with an interesting choice in his offensive game plan. Does he come out aggressively, as usual, to build a lead by throwing the ball? Or does he throttle down, chew up time with his strong running game, and attempt to keep Lamar Jackson off the field? Doing the former comes at the risk of another inaccurate passing day by Baker Mayfield. Doing the latter comes at the risk of keeping the game close enough for Jackson to pull out another comeback. We call back on go-to quote machine John Johnson for his opinion. “They’re not going to give up,” he said. “If we get a lead, we have to put them away. They’re a team that can creep back up on you. If we get a lead, we can’t take the foot off the pedal. We have to put them away.”

Third down: Big Dime, M.I.A.

Jackson’s heroic plays in Baltimore’s epic 47-42 win in Game 13 in 2020 probably had the greatest impact on the Browns’ offseason transactions. Recall that Jackson left the game because of cramping, only to sprint out of the locker room to complete a 44-yard touchdown pass to Marquise Brown with 1:51 to go, and then connected with tight end Mark Andrews three times to set up a 55-yard game-winning field by Justin Tucker. So the Browns concluded they needed more pass rush help and more speed on defense. GM Andrew Berry signed ends Jadeveon Clowney and Takk McKinley in free agency. To get more speed in the secondary, he signed safety John Johnson and nickel back Troy Hill, and drafted cornerback Greg Newsome and hybrid linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. JOK was advertised as the missing link, a speedy disrupter who could combine with the secondary to chase down running QBs like Jackson and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Arizona’s Kyler Murray. Defensive coordinator Joe Woods would creatively pair JOK with a three-safety, Big Dime look using Johnson, Ronnie Harrison and Grant Delpit to confound the Ravens’ Jackson-centric offense. Well, the Big Dime frankly hasn’t been worth a dime. The Browns are among the league’s worst defenses (24th-ranked) in giving up third-down conversions (43.1 percent). JOK’s rookie season has been a series of stop-and-go interruptions beginning with a positive test for COVID-19, a freakish weight room accident that required stitches on his head, a high ankle sprain and then an aggravation of the ankle injury. As a result, JOK has been on the field for only 268 defensive snaps (38 percent). Delpit has been relatively injury-free since hamstring issues in training camp, but has had only a few more snaps than JOK, 290 total (41 percent).

Fourth down: Cover the tight end.

Despite the additions on defense, the Browns have not much improved their coverage of tight ends. In Kansas City, Travis Kelce hit them for 6 catches for 76 yards and 2 touchdowns. Pittsburgh rookie Pat Freiermuth had 4 catches for 44 yards and the game-winning touchdown. New England’s Hunter Henry had 4 catches for 49 yards and a touchdown. In a losing cause, Detroit’s T.J. Hockenson had 6 catches for 51 yards. Baltimore’s Mark Andrews has been a Browns-killer since the former Oklahoma teammate of Baker Mayfield entered the league in 2019. In 6 games against the Browns, Andrews has 25 receptions for 330 yards and 5 TD. “Big, fast and great hands,” Stefanski said of Andrews. “He is a problem. He is hard to cover.” Some teams assign a bigger cornerback the task of trying to cover an elite tight end. The Browns use a variety of coverages – none of which historically has worked much.

The pick: Ravens 26, Browns 20.

My record: 6-5.