The Cleveland Browns, an enigma wrapped in drama and dysfunction, won for the first time since September on Sunday, earning a reprieve, for a few days anyway, from the pressure and tension of a disappointing season. So goes life in the NFL. Win and you’re heroic. Lose and you’re a bum. Was the victory a mirage, or are things improving?
Depends on who’s answering the question.
The penalties and turnovers are dropping. Over the past two weeks, the team hasn’t turned the ball over and has had 9 flags thrown on them for 110 yards, a good half earlier in the year. These are signs that discipline is being instilled and the players are taking to the coaching. Whatever the problems they’ve faced over 9 games, team unity hasn’t been one. Despite the horrid start, the players stick up for each other on the field and in the media, not letting the outside noise divide them. If there’s a sign that they have it in them to win 5 or 6 in a row, this is it.
For all the Freddie Kitchens’ hate, and he’s been bad, his poor choices and head scratching decisions have mostly come from a place of aggression.
A draw play on 4th and 9.
Calling timeout at the end of the first half against Seattle, before Baker Mayfield threw a pick and gave the Seahawks a chance to score.
Multiple times choosing to go for first downs in the red zone instead of kicking field goals.
Taking the ball to start games earlier in the season.
Calling deep drops and routes on passing plays with the offense struggling to create enough time for those routes to be successful.
The penalties and turnovers.
All these issues point to a level of incompetence from the coaching staff. At least, however, the head coach isn’t sitting on his hands, letting other teams dictate the action. Luck favors the aggressor.
It was brutal watching the offense fail to score on 8 consecutive snaps from the one yard line. Pee Wee teams would have lucked into a score on 8 tries. The offense has a mental problem in the red zone more so than a physical one. Nick Chubb pulled up on one run, cutting it inside instead of outrunning the defender to the corner. Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry both lost one-on-one matchups in the end zone. Baker is fidgety, afraid of a turnover. The play calling isn’t the problem; execution of those plays was lacking.
The final touchdown, however, was brilliance from the players and staff. By lining Beckham and Landry on the left side of the offense and Rashard Higgins alone on the right, Kitchens forced the defense’s attention left, giving Higgins a one-on-one matchup, which he won, and allowing Baker to make a beautiful throw.
With Kareem Hunt’s return, the Browns’ backfield is as dynamic as any in the league. Hunt was outstanding Sunday, providing a glimpse of what the offense can be if they perfect the timing and execution. A devastating lead blocker for Chubb, Hunt paved multiple running lanes for his teammate while catching 7 balls for 44 yards. Nick Chubb, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Kareem Hunt, Rashard Higgins, and Baker Mayfield. This offense is out of excuses. Get the ball into the playmakers’ hands and let them win games.
Now a Thursday nighter, at home, against the Pittsburgh Steelers. A division rival. Hated for their smugness and success. An organization that has everything this one craves. The only team pompous enough to put their logo on just one side of their helmet.
The Steelers have won four in a row after a 1-4 start. Mason Rudolph, Ben Roethlisberger’s replacement at quarterback, has been fine, completing 65% of his passes and throwing 11 touchdowns to 4 interceptions. He’s not completing passes downfield, however, averaging only 6.6 yards per attempt, 32nd in the league. The Steeler offense is in QB protection mode. They aren’t running the ball well either, though, ranking 27th in the league in rushing yards and 28th in yards per rush. The Browns defense must dominate Thursday.
Pittsburgh’s resurgence is linked to its defense. Second in the league in turnovers forced, they’ve feasted on other teams’ mistakes. Otherwise they’re slightly above average, ranking 12th in passing yards and 16th in rushing yards surrendered. Minkah Fitzpatrick, a safety picked up from Miami for a 1st round pick, has 5 interceptions on the year. Rookie linebacker Devin Bush has forced 4 fumbles. T.J. Watt has 9.5 sacks. Slowing these three will be key.
While the front seven is formidable, the secondary is a weakness. Plays designed to get the ball out of Mayfield’s hands and into his playmakers’ will be key.
The Pittsburgh front seven will try to harass Baker into turnovers. Expect blitzes from all over. Cam Heyward is a disruptive force at defensive tackle, and Bud Dupree is having a breakout year, already tying his career high with 6 sacks.
Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. If the Browns avoid them, they have an outstanding chance to win. Pittsburgh cannot keep up with Cleveland’s offensive talent. Can they execute?
This is the week. The Steelers have dominated the Browns since the return. If this franchise is anywhere close to overturning the culture of losing and becoming a perennial playoff contender, they must beat the Steelers. Browns punters have been kicked in the face, fans have been body slammed, and the organization has been embarrassed regularly by their rival. To earn any respect in the NFL, you must win division games. The failures of the season can be forgotten with 2 victories over Pittsburgh in the next 3 weeks. Thursday Night will show whether this team believes in themselves.
The Whip Around
1. The Colts are stumbling, lost without Jacoby Brissett and T. Y. Hilton. A loss to Miami is inexcusable, however, regardless of who’s playing. Linebacker Darius Leonard tried single-handedly to avoid the embarrassment, tallying 11 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, and an interception. One of the game’s best linebackers, Leonard and the Colts’ defense is being hung out to dry by their offense in recent weeks. Things haven’t looked the same for Indy since their upset in Kansas City. With three games on deck with division rivals in the jumbled AFC South, the Colts may play their way out of the playoff hunt, unfathomable a month ago.
2. Wide receiver screens are one of the most popular plays in offensive coordinators’ play books, yet seem to fail more often than not. One problem is when they’re called. Against zone defenses, when corners and safeties play farther off the line, receivers have room to operate and are gaining yardage on the quick throws. Too often, however, they’re called against man defense. Corners are attacking the receiver at the snap, causing lost yardage on most plays. Good quarterbacks read this and audible in or out of the play according to what the defense is showing. Bad QBs aren’t. Coordinators need to give their signal callers more freedom to get out of these lost plays when they see corners pressing up against their receivers.
4. Genius Sean McVay must skip his Mensa meetings. His innovative offense is being bogged down by penalties, turnovers, drops, and poor quarterback play. While the offensive line has been a disaster because of injuries and off-season losses, that’s no excuse. McVay is purported to be an offensive mastermind, capable of turning average players into Pro Bowlers. His 134 million dollar quarterback is regressing and his star running back has arthritis in his knee while playing in the toughest division in football. May be time to stop labeling football coaches geniuses.
5. If Aaron Rodgers is going to win another Super Bowl, this may be the year. Aaron Jones is having a breakout year, tied for the league lead in touchdowns and 10th in yards from scrimmage. He’s a threat as a runner and receiver, giving Rodgers another weapon to go to in crunch time other than Davante Adams. Green Bay hasn’t had as dangerous a runner since Ahman Green.
6. Ron Rivera made an outstanding coaching move Sunday, going for two after scoring a touchdown trailing by 14. Conventional wisdom says kick the extra point and get within 7. Going for two, however, gives the team better odds of winning. If you miss the 2, which they did, you’re still only down 8 and can tie with a score and 2 point conversion. If you succeed, you’re down six and can win with a TD and extra point. Overtime in the NFL is a crap shoot. Teams are better off doing whatever they must to win in regulation.
8. On his best day, Josh Allen in an average quarterback. He doesn’t have the accuracy or field vision necessary to succeed long term in the NFL. He can run and has a strong arm, though, qualities that will tantalize QB needy GMs for years to come. If Buffalo sneaks into the playoffs, it will be due to a combination of their defense and a crappy AFC.
9. The difference between quarterbacks on Monday Night was stark. While his team possesses more talent at nearly every position and was at home, Jimmy Garoppolo isn’t good enough to compete with Russell Wilson. No matter how well the 49er defense and running game perform, Garoppolo’s shortcomings will get exposed in crucial moments. Too often, his throws are off target and he doesn’t know what to do with himself inside the pocket. Come playoff time, San Francisco stands little chance against the Saints, Seahawks, or Packers, regardless of venue.
10. The annual Tennessee Beat a Super Bowl Contender Bowl was held Sunday, with the Titans upending the Chiefs in Patrick Mahomes’ return. Mahomes was outstanding, but Derrick Henry ran for 188 yards, Tennessee’s defense recovered a fumble for a touchdown, and K.C. botched a late field goal attempt that would have sealed the victory to keep the Titans’ playoff hopes alive. The Titans play up or down to their competition, surrounding head scratching losses with unforeseen victories. You tell me what they are.