Division rivals Ravens, Browns confront 'unknowns' in opener
By DAVID GINSBURG
BALTIMORE (AP) The Baltimore Ravens are poised to follow a bizarre training camp with a season opener shrouded in mystery.
They'll be playing Sunday in an empty stadium, facing a Cleveland Browns team with a new coaching staff that's provided no clue how they plan to employ a revamped offense.
"A lot of unknowns," Ravens coach John Harbaugh acknowledged.
About the only thing for sure is that Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson, the multi-faceted reigning NFL MVP, will be the focal point of an offense that last year set a league record with 3,296 yards rushing. That helped the Ravens win the AFC North with the best regular-season record in the NFL.
Beyond that, it's anybody's guess how this game plays out in a barren stadium during a world-wide pandemic.
"The unknowns are there (were) no preseason games. So, nobody has had any live tackling action, other than practice when we've had it," Ravens running back Mark Ingram said. "With no fans, everybody is going to wonder how the game-day atmosphere is going to be without fans and stuff."
The Browns will make their debut under first-year coach Kevin Stefanski, hired in January after Cleveland stumbled to a 6-10 record in 2019. Without the luxury of mini-camps or August football games, the Browns haven't had the kind of preparation befitting a team that's undergone a radical change in leadership.
"That could be an excuse if you wanted to use it, but we are not doing that," quarterback Baker Mayfield said. "We know what we have to do. We have installed everything. We are putting together a good game plan, and we will have that ready to roll. Everybody just has to go out there and execute it."
After getting run over in a playoff loss to Tennessee, the Ravens worked this offseason to fortify their run defense. General manager Eric DeCosta traded for Calais Campbell, signed free agent Derek Wolfe and drafted linebacker Patrick Queen, who will play in his first NFL game Sunday.
The new front will be tested by Nick Chubb, who last year ran for 165 yards and three touchdowns in Baltimore to lead the Browns to a 40-25 upset.
"This is a game where you have to stop the run," Campbell said. "If I'm a coach, I'm going to see how the guys' tackling is going to be. I'm going to run the ball at them downhill."
BUTCHER, BAKER .
This is a huge season for Mayfield, who stumbled in his second year and finished near the league's bottom in numerous statistical categories.
His 22 touchdown passes were offset by 21 interceptions, and now the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2018 knows it's time to step up his game.
"Out to prove I'm much better than what I've shown the two years prior,? Mayfield said this week.
The Browns are counting on Mayfield to bounce back, and his teammates have noticed his renewed commitment and focus.
"Baker has always been a competitor," center JC Tretter said. "That has always come out of him. He looks great and super dialed in."
Jackson set an NFL record last season for yards rushing by a quarterback, and he also tossed 36 touchdown passes. Obviously, stopping him is the No. 1 priority for every defense facing the Ravens.
"He is dynamic. He can run it and he can throw it," Stefanski said. "They have designed runs for him, and then he can take off on a pass play. I just think he is a great player."
Jackson understands the pressure associated with having to come up with an encore to last year's MVP season - and dismisses it.
"I really don't care about the hype or what people expect," he said. "I expect for myself and my teammates to go out there and produce and win games."
BACK IN TIME
The Ravens usually draw a boisterous throng of around 70,000 fans. Without them, they'll have to generate their own energy against a division rival.
"It's going to be something like a high school scrimmage," Ingram said. "You get off the bus and you usually meet a team on their field, or they meet you on your field. There weren't that many fans, but pads were clacking, whistles blowing, and (you're) making plays. I feel like our team, the offense is going to have to be rooting the defense, the defense rooting the offense. Both offense and defense, we're going to have to be rooting the (special) teams."
Manufactured crowd noise will be pumped over the loudspeakers in an effort to restore some of the typical atmosphere.
"It is going to be unusual. It is going to be a little eerie," Stefanski said.
In addition to Chubb, the Browns have a top-tier running back in Kareem Hunt.
"They have, by their own account, the two best backs in football," Harbaugh said. "Not just this year, but going back historically, that's been said in their camps. I can see why."
Despite gashing the Ravens last season, Chubbs has turned the page.
"New year," he said. "New game."
AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed.
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Updated September 10, 2020