The Cleveland Browns beat the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night. The record against their rival since returning to the league is 7-34-1. For the first time, Cleveland has beaten Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the same season. The sheer insanity of that statement is mind-boggling. A talented team that stumbled through the first half of the season is kind of, maybe gaining some momentum. The Cleveland Browns don’t do normal or successful all that well, however. They do lunacy and absurdity.
Social media has beat the Myles Garrett situation into the earth’s core. My thoughts are here. In the meantime, the Browns started a winning streak against two above .500 teams. Can they keep it going?
The offense, while still struggling to manage any consistency, has cut out the penalties and turnovers. Baker Mayfield hasn’t thrown an interception in three games. In those games, he’s tossed 5 touchdowns and completed 62.5% of his passes. The numbers aren’t jaw-dropping, but they represent an improvement. And while the team racked up 8 penalties for 121 yards on Thursday, the offense only accounted for one of those, an intentional delay of game before a punt.
Mayfield and Odell Beckham still can’t connect with any regularity. A long completion on an inside post route set up the first touchdown, but they weren’t on the same page on a second half third down. Beckham was open on an out for a first down, but Mayfield overthrew him, expecting a deeper route. When will it click for these two? Beckham is getting open, but too often he either drops a pass or Mayfield misses him. It may take another off-season before the duo becomes as dynamic as expected.
The same problems aren’t occurring for Mayfield and Jarvis Landry. Nineteen catches and three touchdowns in the last three games, Landry has taken over the number one receiver post, regardless of where he lines up. When in the slot, Landry is too good for the safeties and linebackers matched up on him. On his touchdown Thursday, the entire Steeler defense bit on play action, all breaking right while Landry and tight end Demetrius Harris scampered open to the left. Nick Chubb drew the defenses’ attention, leading to the easy touchdown.
The strength of the offense, without question, are the two running backs. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are most talented duo in the league. Chubb is third in the league in rushing, already with 1011 yards. Hunt is a brilliant pass catcher out of the backfield and has become Mayfield’s safety valve. He converted two long third downs on athletic receptions Thursday and has added a dimension rarely afforded to any offense. Freddie Kitchens must take advantage of his backfield wealth. Get creative with the play calling. Run some Wildcat. Try the option, with one back taking the snap. For the Browns to continue winning, they need to throw early to Beckham and Landry, then bleed clock with Chubb and Hunt.
Though the defense has forced turnovers in recent weeks, issues lurk. Garrett will miss the rest of the season, as will starting safety Morgan Burnett after tearing his Achilles on Thursday. The NFL also suspended Larry Ogunjobi for the Miami game. Backups on the line and in the secondary, the strengths of the unit coming into the season, are stepping into a pressure cooker. The late hits, holding, and pass interference calls haven’t subsided on the defensive side, and with a lot of talent sitting at home or on the sideline, the defense has to become more disciplined. This offense hasn’t proved it can win a shootout.
The overlooked position on defense, expected to be a weakness, has shined all season. Only playing two linebackers in most situations to get more defensive backs on the field, Joe Schobert and Mack Wilson are the most consistent forces on that side of the ball. Schobert is the defensive MVP, and it isn’t close. He beat the Steelers almost single-handedly, recording 7 tackles, a sack, 2 interceptions, and 4 passes defended. Whether stuffing the run, rushing the quarterback, or dropping in coverage, Schobert is dominating. A free agent at the end of the season, Schobert is adding zeros to his bank account each week.
Mack Wilson has excelled as the other linebacker in Cleveland’s base defense. An injury replacement when Christian Kirksey went on IR early in the season, Wilson has established himself after some rookie indecisiveness. He struggled against San Francisco by over pursuing himself out of position. Wilson’s become more disciplined in recent weeks, however, and is now the best run stopper on the team, along with Sheldon Richardson. He’s handled himself in pass coverage. On a big third down early in the 4th quarter, Wilson made a huge breakup of a Mason Rudolph pass to Jaylen Samuels, reading the play perfectly. Thought to be a position of weakness, the Browns’ linebackers are the most consistent unit on defense.
Not much needs analyzed concerning the Dolphins. Miami is a horrible team, tanking for draft picks. They’re in the early stages of a long rebuild and have no desire to win games. The Browns are at home and an eleven point favorite. Despite the drama of the week, the team has prepared themselves to deal with the outside noise by creating soap opera level story lines since March. They’ve had amble opportunity to learn how to deal with the circus.
Ryan Fitzpatrick could get hot and cause problems if the defense is lackadaisical. Fitzpatrick is 12th in the league in QBR (ESPN.com), and is intelligent enough to take advantage if the Browns are unprepared. He’s thrown 8 picks in 9 games, however, and has no discernible weapons around him. For a banged up and suspension-heavy defense, no opponent could be a more welcome sight. No excuses this Sunday.
The Whip Around
1. A play toward the end of the first half against the Rams encapsulates Mitchell Trubisky’s ability as a quarterback. With the Bears on the edge of field goal range, Trubisky couldn’t find an open receiver, scrambled outside the pocket with the sideline open to him, then took a sack instead of stepping out of bounds or throwing the ball away. Plays like this highlight his lack of awareness on the field and understanding of what his team needs from him. Chicago will be quarterback hunting once again this off season.
2. Frank Clark set the tone for Kansas City’s defense Monday night, recording a sack, forcing a fumble, and batting down a Philip Rivers’ pass. A mild disappointment so far in K.C., if Clark hits his stride in time for December and January football, Chiefs fans will forgive the slow start. With a defense that ranks 26th overall in yards allowed and 30th against the run, K.C. can forget about a Super Bowl run if those numbers don’t improve. Despite Patrick Mahomes’ greatness, even he won’t be able to put up 40 a game in the playoffs.
3. An offensive lineman celebrating a (overturned on review) rushing touchdown? Would have loved John Madden in the booth for this call.
4. Pass interference is so broken that the league should trash the entire rule and go back to the drawing board. It’s too subjective. In Baltimore-Houston, DeAndre Hopkins was interfered with in the end zone, an obvious call missed on the field and then upheld via replay. During Baltimore’s opening second half drive, the receiver and corner hand fought during the route, the ball was overthrown by 10 yards, and, after booing from the crowd, the referee threw a flag, resulting in a 30 yard gain for the Ravens. While Baltimore dominated and would have won regardless, these were two huge plays, both going against Houston and resulting in a 14 point swing. Too many NFL games are being decided by the whims of the refereeing crew.
5. After a hot start to his career, Kyle Allen is cooling off. He threw one of the most bone headed interceptions you’ll ever see on Sunday, handing the game to the Falcons in the first quarter. A 3-9 touchdown to interception ratio over the last 4, Carolina is 1-3 and slipping out of the playoff race. The turnaround for Allen has been drastic. 4-0 with 7 TDs and 0 picks after replacing an injured Cam Newton, the Carolina front office may want to wait before cutting ties with the greatest player in the franchise’s history.
6. Houston’s offensive line gets raked over the coals in the media, but their quarterback does them no favors. Deshaun Watson is 22nd in the league in release time, at 2.79 seconds (nextgenstats.nfl.com). While he makes spectacular plays when scrambling around, too often he’s stuck with the ball and takes a huge hit. The Texans would do well to design some quick hitting throws to get Watson in rhythm when the offense is stagnant. No one should ever hold a team with him and DeAndre Hopkins to 7 points.
7. There has to be a better way to guard elite receivers when they line up in the slot. The Panthers were in zone on 3rd and 16 Sunday while Atlanta lined 5 wide with Julio Jones in the slot. Carolina tasked Luke Kuechly with covering the deep middle of the field. While Kuechly is an All-Pro, he has no shot against Jones. Matt Ryan recognized the mismatch and burned Carolina for 48 yards down the middle of the field. It continues to baffle me why defenses spend the week devising plans to stop the game’s best receivers only to allow them to get matched up with linebackers, especially on third down. Carolina needs more corners and safeties on the field in that situation. It’s an unfair ask of Kuechly to guard that much turf.
8. 60% completion percentage, 11 touchdowns, 10 interceptions. Jared Goff has cratered this season, just in time to cash the 25 million signing bonus check the Rams gave him before the season. He’s due another 21 million on March 20 of next year. While the Rams wouldn’t admit it, is anyone involved with the franchise happy about that extension? Goff is an average quarterback, untradeable because of that contract, on a team built to win in the next 2-3 years. Sean McVay has his work cut out for him. Suddenly the Rams look very average.
9. New Orleans or Green Bay? Though San Francisco and Seattle will have a say, would there be anything better than a Brees-Rodgers matchup in January? Both are nearing the end and have never faced off in the playoffs. The Saints in snowy Green Bay for a chance to exorcise their haunting playoff exits over the past two years versus Aaron Rodgers, the king of playoff miracles? What could be better?
Green Bay-San Francisco
An exceptional slate of games this week. If Indy wins in Houston, they’ll give themselves a de facto two game lead in the division with two victories over the Texans. Philly needs a signature win after a so-so performance against New England. Dak is posting huge passing yardage numbers, but New England’s number 1 defense is a different animal. If San Francisco is a contender, they must win at home against Aaron Rodgers. Can Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey slow down Lamar Jackson? If they can’t, will anyone?