Jackson, Ravens set 2020 course with Cleveland up first
Two teams that know all about the weight of preseason expectations welcome the start of the regular season Sunday as the Baltimore Ravens take on the visiting Cleveland Browns.
The Ravens enter 2020 as the preseason pick to win the AFC North and contend for the Super Bowl. And why wouldn’t Baltimore be on any short list of title contenders with veteran head coach John Harbaugh, 23-year-old quarterback and reigning MVP Lamar Jackson, and 11 returning Pro Bowlers from a team that was 14-3 last season.
The incandescent Jackson is a huge reason for the Ravens’ sky-high expectations. Jackson threw for 3,127 yards and a league-high 36 touchdowns, against just nine interceptions. He also set an NFL record with 1,206 rushing yards as a quarterback with seven scores on the ground.
But a clunker in the divisional playoff round against Tennessee left some thinking Jackson still has something to prove as an NFL quarterback. Jackson said whatever external expectations exist won’t affect how he or the Ravens prepare.
“I really don’t care about the hype or what people expect,” Jackson said Wednesday. “I expect for myself and my teammates to go out there and produce and win games.”
The Browns, meanwhile, caved to preseason expectations a year ago. Cleveland was a chic pick to win the AFC North in 2019, but quarterback Baker Mayfield regressed, standout defensive end Myles Garrett missed the last the six games of the season with a suspension, and Cleveland finished 6-10.
After the season, owner Jimmy Haslam wiped the slate clean — again — by firing head coach Freddie Kitchens and general manager John Dorsey.
The latest leadership duo of head coach Kevin Stefanski and GM Andrew Berry are tasked with trying to get the franchise on track. Sunday will be Stefanski’s first game as an NFL head coach.
“We’re not interested in excuses. I don’t think anybody wants to hear them,” Stefanski said. “It’s hard for me to look far ahead and too far behind. I like where we are right now.”
Mayfield threw for 3,827 yards last year, but had 21 interceptions against 22 touchdown passes. He still has a full complement of talented skill position players — running back Nick Chubb, and flankers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. for example — and the Browns tried to rework the offensive line and added help at tight end during the offseason.
Stefanski will be Mayfield’s third head coach — fourth if interim coach Gregg Williams counts — in as many seasons as a professional.
“(That) could be an excuse if you use it, but that’s not what I’m doing here,” Mayfield said. “(The) singular focus is on this year and what we can do.”
Opening the year with a win would be a big statement for Cleveland. The Browns are just 1-19-1 in season openers since returning to the NFL for the 1999 season. The lone win came in 2004, against Baltimore, and Cleveland is winless in 15 straight season openers.
The Ravens won’t be expecting anything easy, however.
The Browns handed Baltimore its last regular-season loss, on Sept. 29, 2019, when Chubb rushed for 164 yards and three touchdowns on a defense that was at times a bit soft against the run.
Harbaugh tried to stiffen that front in the offseason with veteran acquisitions on the defensive line in Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe (13.5 combined sacks in 2019), and by drafting rookie linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison.
“It’s a rivalry game,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve had many knock-down, drag-out brawls with this football team and this organization. They played a great football game (last year) and beat us handily.”
–Field Level Media