Though the difference in talent level from the first week was stark, the Cleveland Browns made a jump last Thursday, looking like a competent team for the first time since December 2018. Give credit to Kevin Stefanski. The first year head coach adjusted his game plan on a short week, a sign that he didn’t allow the thumping from Baltimore to overwhelm him. Cincinnati is no juggernaut, but he attacked their weaknesses on both sides of the ball. Pressure existed in this game despite the opponent. A loss would have been devastating, but Stefanski prepared his team well. They threw the ball early to get the lead, then handed it to their dominant running game to finish it. Defensively, they pressured Joe Burrow with the front four and forced him to throw the ball 61 times. The defense struggled again, and will throughout the season, however. Get ready for lots of shootouts.
Stefanski’s adjustments showed in the way he used his quarterback. He put Baker Mayfield in spots that allowed him to succeed, rather than force things he isn’t good at. Lots of play action early. Mayfield thrives using play action; the running game behind him is such a threat that defenses must respect it. Also, bootlegging Mayfield out of the pocket and into clear passing lanes accessed his creativity. The touchdown pass to Odell Beckham and throws to Jarvis Landry and KhaDarel Hodge pushed the ball down the field without Mayfield having to sit in a collapsing pocket waiting for routes to develop. He struggles in those situations. A nifty pick play on 4th and 2 to Landry, a beautiful design, gaining 21 yards. Stefanski understands his weapons and how to use them. When the opponent gets tougher, he must continue to put his guys in the correct spots.
Mayfield’s one mistake, an interception in the red zone, again showed his deficiencies reading the field. When he’s in the pocket, he’s a one read quarterback and can get fooled by defenses. He failed to see corner back William Jackson, leading to the pick. Stefanski and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt need to work with him on progressing through his reads, the next step in his development.
The defense was poor again, what’s to say? Linebacker Mack Wilson, corner Greedy Williams, and slot corner Kevin Johnson have all missed the first two games but practiced on Monday. All starters, their return is much needed. Any help in the back seven is welcome. Myles Garrett had a sack and a forced fumble, Sheldon Richardson blew up a screen on third down, recorded a sack and had two tackles for loss. Adrian Clayborn lived in the Cincinnati backfield before getting hurt, playing only 18 snaps. The defensive line is a force, providing something for this unit to grow from. But the linebackers and safeties struggle against the run and in pass coverage, and it’s hard to see where improvement will come from. Joe Woods is in for a long season.
Washington is next. They’re offense has struggled, giving the Browns’ defense a chance to get right. Ranked 24th in rushing and 31st passing the ball, Washington doesn’t have weapons capable of sustaining drives. Dwayne Haskins is meh. His offensive line does him no favors, but he misses easy throws and doesn’t make any outstanding ones, either. Terry McLaurin flashes, especially in the open field. Denzel Ward will shadow him. Antonio Gibson is averaging 4.1 yards per rush and has talent, but the rest of the offense is weak. The defense needs some success this weekend for a confidence boost.
Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt should have big weeks again. Chase Young has recorded 2.5 sacks in his first two pro games and Landon Collins is a Pro Bowl safety, but overall their defense lacks talent. Kyler Murray ran over, around, and through them on Sunday, throwing for 286 yards and a touchdown while running for 67 and two more TD’s. Baker should have success with the same recipe, minus the scrambling. Get Mayfield on the move early, rolling him outside the pocket to open passing lanes while mixing in play action passes to freeze the defense. Then give it to the workhorses. Chubb and Hunt totaled 210 yards on the ground Thursday night and can control games all season. The duo is quick and powerful, and the Browns offensive line has opened running lanes in each of the first two games. Once they get into the secondary, watch out. If nothing else, Stefanski has shown that his offense will be fun all season.
The Whip Around
1.Atlanta, come on. Forget about the idiocy displayed on the on-side kick (just fall on it!). Dan Quinn and company have an aversion to holding leads. Their defense generates zero pressure. Dak Prescott toyed with the Falcon secondary in the comeback, throwing for 450 yards and hitting 9 different receivers. Dan Quinn can’t be long for his job. Once a defensive wizard in Seattle, Quinn’s favorite unit can’t stop anyone. The talent level is low, and while they skewed toward offense at the top of their drafts until this year, he’s failed to develop any middle round talent. Quinn once was an excellent coach, but the PTSD from Super Bowl 51 has overtaken this franchise.
2. Gardner Minshew looks the part in Jacksonville. The starting quarterback, with little talent around him, kept dragging the Jaguars back into the game Sunday against Tennessee. This throw belongs in the Smithsonian.
3. Kenny Vaccaro proved too much for Minshew, however. A beautiful knock away of a pass in the end zone held the Jags to a field goal on a second half drive. Throw in 11 tackles, a sack, and another batted ball. Vaccaro reigned on an otherwise bad day for the Tennessee defense. The Titans have Super Bowl aspirations, but they’ll need more out of their defense. Late signing Jadeveon Clowney has yet to disrupt offenses and Tennessee is having trouble generating pressure. Their 2.5% sack rate is 30th in the league. Ryan Tannehill seems to have picked up where he left off, completing 70% of his passes and throwing 6 TD’s to zero picks. But giving up 30 to Jacksonville at home is troubling. They need more from Clowney and the rest of their defensive line.
4. Philadelphia resides in a winnable division with talent to do so, yet their once MVP level quarterback is off and too many guys are hurt. The offensive line has suffered through injuries. Though both played Sunday, starting tackles Lane Johnson and Jason Peters practiced sporadically last week. The line struggled in Week 1 against Washington, giving up 8 sacks, but allowed none on Sunday. And while the defense got bulldozed against the Rams, Carson Wentz deserves blame. He’s missing Alshon Jeffery, but he’s also missing throws. On back-to-back possessions against the Rams, Wentz threw a pick in the end zone, then missed a wide open Dallas Goedert for a score. What gives? Two touchdowns, 4 picks, and a 58% completion percentage won’t cut it for the likely MVP in 2017 before tearing his ACL. 2018 wasn’t much better, cut short for him too after injuring his back. Have the injuries caught up to Wentz? Or is the lack of play makers holding him back? DeSean Jackson is older, the rest of the receiver corps is unproven, and Miles Sanders missed Week 1 with a hamstring. The NFC East is winnable, but they’ll need health and a resurgent Wentz to compete.
5. And while we’re on hot messes at quarterback, look at Kirk Cousins. 11-26 for 113 yards and 3 interceptions on Sunday, Cousins gifted the Colts an easy one in Indianapolis. Minnesota was quick to ship Stefon Diggs to Buffalo this off season after a breakthrough playoff victory last year against New Orleans, but maybe that was fluky. Cousins has a history of botching big games, and one playoff victory, no matter how loud his proponents screamed after it, doesn’t change his history. Mike Zimmer believes in running the ball, and Dalvin Cook is special. But trading a number 1 receiver and placing the passing game onus on Adam Thielen looks to be a mistake. Cook has an injury history and just got paid. Cousins is off to a terrible start. A regression seems probable in Minnesota.
6. When will NFL coaches learn how to manage a play clock? With 1:45 left in the first half, Pittsburgh ran twice inside the five yard line before settling for a field goal while Vic Fangio allowed the clock to tick down to 39 seconds. Denver had two timeouts remaining. What gives? Yes, Denver was playing backup quarterback Jeff Driskel, but 1:30 is plenty of time to lead a team into field goal range. These coaches are overthinking themselves. Use your timeouts to give your offense as much time as possible to score points. That is still the goal, correct?
7. Raheem Mostert is fast. Like, fastest measured speed in the NFL (23.1 MPH, according to NextGen Stats) in the last two years fast.
8. NFL teams churn through head coaches at a staggering rate, yet Adam Gase still has a job. From his introductory news conference, it’s been obvious Gase isn’t a leader. He fancies himself a strongman, intent on clubbing his ways into his team. Doesn’t work anymore. Gase refuses to adapt, and his Jets teams are weaker because of it. His fights with Le’Veon Bell are public, and Jamal Adams ripped him before being traded to Seattle, calling out his leadership skills while claiming Gase doesn’t address the team, relying on other coaches for that duty. Gase is underwater, and the sooner Jets ownership and GM Joe Douglas realize it, the better. Sam Darnold’s once promising career is on the line. Time to move on.
9. Now with one of the best wide receivers in football, the Kyler Murray show in Arizona is must see. He’s completing 66% of his passes through two games, but his legs make him a fringe MVP candidate. The 158 yards rushing and 3 touchdowns in two games are impressive, and he doesn’t take hits. On his 13 carries in Week 1 against San Francisco, he only took one. He’s mastered the art of getting down, or out of bounds, and he’s so damn quick that defenders just can’t touch him. He struggles some in the pocket, but on the move his arm and accuracy shine, and Kliff Kingsbury knows it. The Arizona head coach puts his quarterback in advantageous spots. With DeAndre Hopkins and Larry Fitzgerald, Murray has receivers he can trust. The Cardinals are 2-0 and look impressive. The toughest division in football has a new contender.
10. Pittsburgh’s defense is beyond impressive. 7 sacks, 11 tackles for loss, 19(!!!) quarterback hits, and two turnovers against Denver on Sunday are eye-popping numbers. The pressure they’re applying on opposing offenses is staggering. After a disappointing season without Ben Roethlisberger last year, the Steelers are back in Super Bowl contention. They aren’t allowing quarterbacks to get comfortable, forcing them into poor decisions. The two match-ups against Baltimore, and Lamar Jackson, can’t come soon enough.