Despite best efforts, Cleveland Browns defensive success still hinges on linebackers

BEREA, OHIO - AUGUST 16: B.J. Goodson #93 of the Cleveland Browns works out during training camp on August 16, 2020 at the Cleveland Browns training facility in Berea, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
BEREA, OHIO - AUGUST 16: B.J. Goodson #93 of the Cleveland Browns works out during training camp on August 16, 2020 at the Cleveland Browns training facility in Berea, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /
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Cleveland Browns
BALTIMORE, MD – JANUARY 11: Jurrell Casey #99 of the Tennessee Titans tackles quarterback Lamar Jackson #8 of the Baltimore Ravens to cause a fumble during the third quarter of the AFC Divisional Playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium on January 11, 2020 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Todd Olszewski/Getty Images) /

There is a blueprint to slowing down the MVP

It’s an extremely difficult matchup for the Browns, and it should provide an example as to why Cleveland must not ignore the LB position, even if they want to run base dime. If you want to run with just one LB, that player needs to have an all-around skill set, plus a great athletic profile.

Right now, the Browns have a collection of linebackers who don’t have that all-around ability. Goodson and Phillips are run stoppers. Sione Takitaki was a run stuffer and pass-rusher at BYU and logged just over 100 defensive snaps as a rookie, so he’s still an unknown. Mack Wilson, who will miss the first few games of this season, was good in coverage at Alabama, but that skill didn’t translate to the NFL last year.

Malcolm Smith has a Super Bowl MVP in his back pocket, but his performance outside of that game has been average at best. The Browns have talent in that room, but it’s unproven, and the Ravens know that.

Mark Andrews is one of the best receiving tight ends in the NFL, and he should be targeted heavily on Sunday. The Browns would do well to put new addition Ronnie Harrison on Jackson as much as possible, as Harrison’s 6-3 214 pound frame in unique in the secondary. He will perform the role that Woods had in store for Delpit; moving around the field and providing support in a variety of different roles. If Andrews or Nick Boyle gets matched up against one of the linebackers, and that LB has no help over the top, things could get ugly.

It will be surprising to see three linebackers on the field for the Browns this week. Over his first two seasons in the league, Jackson’s worst games have come when the opposing defense uses a high number of defensive backs per play. In the Wild Card loss to the Los Angeles Chargers in 2018, Jackson faced 6.95 DBs per play.

In Baltimore’s 14 victories last season, defenses used an average of 4.45 DBs per play. That number jumped to 4.97 in their two losses to the Kansas City Chiefs and the Browns. The Tennessee Titans then beat them in the playoffs by using 5.39 DBs per play. It’s far from surefire causation, but there is a strong correlation here, and the Browns would do well to continue the trend.

For the LBs, pass coverage is likely going to be an issue. But against the run, they will need to be at the top of their game. Hopefully, the defensive line lives up to expectations and makes things easier for the rest of the defense; future Hall of Fame guard Marshal Yanda is now retired, which leaves the Ravens with D.J. Fluker, who has been inconsistent over the past few years.

When faced with read options, the defense should key into Jackson more often than not. It’s one thing to be beaten by Mark Ingram and J.K. Dobbins; it’s entirely another to consistently give up 10-plus yard runs to a quarterback. Having more speed on the field will hopefully help prevent Jackson from getting the edge, but it’s impossible to neutralize him completely.

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The Browns linebackers face a very tall task this Sunday, especially with the secondary banged up. It’s best not to expect too much, but at the very least, we’ll get a glimpse into how Joe Woods is planning on stalling Jackson over the next few years.