The Cleveland Browns can barely run the football this year, but that shouldn’t matter much when they face the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night. The Browns can lean as heavily as ever on their passing offense and let it carry them to a win, based on how vulnerable the Ravens have been on defense in areas in which the Browns excel.
It’s not just that the Ravens rank 24th in passing yards per game allowed this year, at 257.0 on average—It’s how they are giving up those passing yards that plays into the Browns’ hands, especially with Josh McCown reestablished as the team’s starting quarterback. Baltimore’s pass coverage and tackling have been poor when defending deep passes, giving up the 11th-most receptions in the league that have gone for 20 or more yards, with eight going for 40 or more. These numbers reflect not only passes that have traveled in the air that far but also catch-and-runs that have netted opponents those big gains.
Though McCown hasn’t been known to throw deep, having only tossed 25 of his total 254 pass attempts this year for 20 or more yards downfield per Pro Football Focus, it could be a fruitful source of yards on Monday night. And even if those deep passes aren’t there, the Browns have three top-40 receivers in yards after the catch who could make the night a long one for Baltimore: tight end Gary Barnidge, running back Duke Johnson and receiver Travis Benjamin. Johnson ranks 15th in after-catch yards, with 316. Benjamin is tied for 30th, with 241. And Barnidge has 228, ranking him 36th. This is how Barnidge, Benjamin and Johnson have combined for 41 plays that have gone for 20 or more yards this year though McCown hasn’t thrown many deep passes, in terms of air yards.
Meanwhile, Baltimore’s defense has given up the eighth-most yards after the catch this year, at 134.5 per game. Even with Andrew Hawkins and Taylor Gabriel still sidelined with concussions, the trio of Barnidge, Benjamin and Johnson should be more than enough to take advantage of the specific areas in which Baltimore’s defense struggles to defend the pass.
What could help further this effort is the use of play-action passing. But because there hasn’t been much run-game production this year, just 14.3 percent of McCown’s attempts have been on play-action throws (it was 14.1 percent for Johnny Manziel), netting the Browns 324 yards and no touchdowns. But that doesn’t mean the Browns cannot attempt to break out more play-action passing, depending on the bye-week adjustments they’ve made to their run-game approach. Using Johnson in this manner, for example, could really pay off for Cleveland. McCown can fake the handoff to Johnson and then Johnson can do what he does best—slip behind the first wave of defenders to catch a short throw to the flat and let his legs and the Ravens’ poor tackling take care of the rest.
Cleveland’s passing offense is perfectly designed to take advantage of the things Baltimore’s defense have struggled with the most this year. With the yards-after-catch skills of Benjamin, Barnidge and Johnson and McCown having a career year, Cleveland should have few concerns about their ability to move the ball down the field on Monday.