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Browns have gone silent, but remain dangerous for Ravens | COMMENTARY

There hasn’t been a lot of barking coming out of Cleveland or its famed “Dawg Pound” this year.

Nearly a year ago the Cleveland Browns were the darlings of the NFL. They had a franchise-caliber player to build around in second-year quarterback Baker Mayfield and, once they signed top free-agent talent such as receiver Odell Beckham Jr, running back Kareen Hunt and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson to go along with running back Nick Chubb during the offseason, some league analyst had them winning the AFC North title.

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And then some predicted a spot in the playoffs followed by whispers of a Super Bowl appearance. Then the clock struck midnight, the bubble burst and the Browns turned into the Clowns for another year.

The optimism has been dialed back for the 2020 season, but the Browns have enough talent and a new head coach in Kevin Stefanski to make the season opener against the Ravens on Sunday at 1 p.m. at M&T Bank interesting.

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The Ravens were 14-2 last season and have this “Unfinished Business” mantra after a disturbing beat down by the visiting Tennessee Titans in a divisional playoff game last season. But a preseason without any exhibition games and a new coaching staff have added some intrigue to this first game.

“The first game is always interesting. You just never really know quite what to expect,” said Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman. “The team we’re playing has a new coaching staff, so you have to go back and really look at the history of the coaches and where they’ve been and what they’ve done.

“You never get a complete picture of what you might see, but you try to piece it together,” he said. “And our guys have been working really hard on a lot of different things because you really don’t know what to expect. It’s really a focus on yourself and your own execution. But guys are working hard, they’re very excited, and we’re looking to come out and play well this Sunday, obviously — looking forward to the challenge.”

Compared to a year ago the Browns have been relatively quiet, free of the carnival barkers. That’s a reflection of Stefanski, 38, a long-time assistant and former offensive coordinator with the Minnesota Vikings. Under former head coach Freddie Kitchens, the Browns were unorganized and lacked discipline.

So far, Stefanski appears to be a players-type coach who has gained their respect. He is technically sound and attentive to details. Few things seem to distract him. The Browns still have a lot of talent, especially at the skill positions with Chubb, Hunt, Beckham, receiver Jarvis Landry and tight end Austin Hooper.

They also invested in their offensive line during the offseason, drafting current left tackle Jedrick Wills in the first round out of Alabama and signing free agent and Pro Bowl right tackle Jack Conklin. Now, it comes down to a guessing game for the Ravens on what kind of offense the Browns will run and who will call the plays, Stefanski or offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt.

“We don’t know those two guys, per se, as play-callers too much,” said Ravens head coach John Harbaugh. “They both have experience, but it’s not a vast amount of play-calling experience. So, we’re going to play against the system and the players. And whatever plays are called, hopefully we can defend them.”

The Ravens should be familiar with the system since former offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak used it here in Baltimore in 2014. It’s basically power football with two tight ends. The Browns will probably rely on the short to intermediate passing but will occasionally take long shots down the field.

A lot of the success will be determined on the performance of Mayfield, whose production dropped of last season after a successful rookie year. Mayfield will be on his third head coach and system in three years.

Like the offense, the Browns have a solid nucleus of players to build around on defense. They have one of the better lines in the league with ends Myles Garrett, Olivier Vernon and ends Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi. The secondary has already been hit hard by injuries in training camp and the group could be without two starters Sunday in cornerback Greedy Williams (shoulder) and nickel back Kevin Johnson (liver). But they should have adequate replacements in Terrance Wilson and M.J. Stewart Jr.

The Browns, like the Ravens, are questionable at linebacker, especially inside where rookie Jacob Phillips is expected to replace the injured Mack Wilson (knee) and unproven Slone Takitaki might start at strong side. Because of the uncertainty about personnel and scheme, Roman probably spent last week studying the San Francisco 49ers where Browns coordinator Joe Woods called the plays last season.

The 49ers had one of the most talented defenses in the NFL and Woods turned his line loose in that scheme. The Browns don’t have as much skill, but they are expected to operate out of 4-3 base with a lot of sub packages.

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In recent weeks there have been reports that this offseason the Browns built this team to compete with the Ravens. They have the tools, a running game to slow Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson and a defensive line that can pressure him if the Ravens are forced to throw.

The Browns beat the Ravens in Game One of the series last year and they could pull another upset Sunday.

It’s just that this year the Browns aren’t talking about it.

Stefanski has squelched the noise.

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