The Cleveland Browns were the talk of the NFL during the offseason after several high-profile acquisitions, most notably trading for star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
Cleveland also signed former Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt, defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson and brought in former New York Giants defensive end Olivier Vernon, adding key pieces to an already young, ascending roster.
Pundits applauded the new-look Browns, who on paper appeared to be the most talented team in the AFC North. Many went as far as to crown Cleveland the team to beat in the division.
Lost in the shuffle of Browns mania were the Ravens, the reigning AFC North champions.
“We have a lot of free time and the media," safety Earl Thomas III said. “They were talking about OBJ and that tandem [with former LSU teammate and Browns wide receiver Jarvis Landry] and [quarterback] Baker Mayfield, the next savior, he had a hot start. And to add on to that, Coach [John Harbaugh] talked about it a couple times in meetings, so guys kind of got tired of it.”
The Browns have struggled to start the season, sitting second in the division with a 1-2 record. A win against the Ravens would put them in a tie for first place, with the tiebreaker giving them the edge.
“That’s just kind of the narrative the media created,” running back Mark Ingram II said of the hype for the Browns. "You have to play football at the end of the day. You can have as many players as you want to on paper, but if the guys don’t mesh and they don’t communicate well, they don’t play well together, it really doesn’t mean anything.
“We’re going to have to see them twice. That’s why you line up and kick it off. That’s why you line up and play football, to settle the score.”
Thomas adjusting to defense
Coverage issues continued Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs, as the defense allowed an 83-yard touchdown reception to wide receiver Mecole Hardman, who ran past the secondary and went unaccounted for.
Thomas reiterated a common talking point for the secondary, saying they need to improve their communication.
“We just got to be on the same page,” Thomas said. “We can’t be thinking different things versus concepts that we need to stop. The communication wasn’t there and that’s what we need to continue to work on."
Thomas, who spent nine seasons with the Seattle Seahawks before signing with the Ravens in the offseason, also said that he is still getting acclimated to the new defensive scheme.
The Seahawks primarily run a Cover-3 zone defense, where Thomas’ role in that scheme was to cover a deep third of the field and use his range to prevent big plays.
The Ravens utilize a more complex defense, which asks more of their safeties, forcing Thomas to line up all over the field and take on different roles.
“I feel like I’ve played pretty solid,” Thomas said. “The split safety stuff, I’m still getting used to that. Being in zero [coverage] in crucial situations, I’m still getting used to that. But with practice, I think I’ll get the hang of it.”
Plans for Garrett
The Browns have one of the league’s best young defenders in defensive end Myles Garrett. Through three games, Garrett — the top pick in the 2017 draft — is second in the league with six sacks and eight quarterback hits.
In three games against the Ravens, Garrett has recorded 1½ sacks and three quarterback hits.
“[The Browns] got a lot of guys that have been productive in the NFL,” offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. said, "just as far as [tackles for loss] and sacks and everything that they’re able to do from inside-out, the [defensive tackles] all the way out to the ends. They got a good amount of depth, too, so it’s going to be a big test for us.
“I’m sure [the Browns will] move [Garrett] around. I’m sure I’ll see him a little bit. I really don’t know what their plan is. I know that he does play both sides a little bit, so it’ll vary.”
Cleveland’s acquisitions of Richardson and Vernon give the Ravens what Harbaugh believes will be their hardest challenge of the season so far.
“Against the best pass rushers, you’re always going to use whatever tools you can, how you organize your protections and things like that," Harbaugh said. “This will be the best defensive front we’ve played yet, I’d say by a long way. This is one of the best defensive lines in football.”
Ingram paying dividends
Ingram has made an instant impact for the Ravens through three games. The two-time Pro Bowl selection is off to the best three-game start of his career, rushing for 257 yards and five touchdowns.
“We’re just running well, playing well,” Ingram said. “Offensive line is blocking great, receivers downfield blocking great. [Fullback-defensive lineman Patrick Ricard], all the tight ends, they’re doing a great job. We’re scheming up a lot of different runs. I’ve been able to run, [they have] given me some space, and [I have been] able to break some tackles and make some things happen.”
Ingram leads the league in rushing touchdowns and has the fourth-highest average in the NFL, adding a more dynamic element to the Ravens’ top rushing offense.
“We had high expectations for Mark coming in,” Harbaugh said. “It was a target for us in free agency and he came here and he’s excited to be here. He’s been a great leader, too.”
Four Ravens missed practice Wednesday. Tight end Mark Andrews (foot), cornerback Jimmy Smith (knee), Thomas (non-injury related) and safety/special teams ace Brynden Trawick (elbow) did not participate.
Linebacker Otaro Alaka (hamstring) and cornerback Marlon Humphrey (hip) were limited in practice.
The Browns had seven players miss practice, including three starters in the secondary: safety Morgan Burnett (quad), cornerback Denzel Ward (hamstring) and rookie cornerback Greedy Williams (hamstring).
Beckham (hip) and starting safety Damarious Randall (concussion) were full participants.
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Cleveland’s entire starting secondary did not play in the team’s 20-13 loss at home to the Los Angeles Rams because of injuries, but their backups held up, intercepting Jared Goff once and keeping him under 300 passing yards.