Once the season ends, it’ll be easy to look back upon the Cleveland Browns’ season and decide which victory was most important. The turning point. Could Sunday’s road grading, 307 yard rushing performance be the one? The offensive line pushed Dallas’ defensive front wherever they wanted, creating holes larger than Jerry Jones’ ego. In the past, on the rare Monday after a victory over a “Super Bowl contender”, the hype and back patting coming from Berea was unbearable. But this year is different and gives hope that, maybe, someone involved in the decision making in Cleveland isn’t guessing anymore.
Kevin Stefanksi’s demeanor is calm, unfettered, resigned. Gone are the silly penalties, mind twisting turnovers, and dumb, undisciplined play. Though only a month in, the head coach’s disposition cleansed the franchise. The victories are workmanlike, even expected. Though Dallas manufactured a 4th quarter rally, cutting a 27 point deficit to 3, the outcome never seemed in doubt. Stefanski didn’t panic, even calling an Odell Beckham reverse, which he housed, when a between the tackles run would have been more prudent. It was a sketchy play call, one that the fans and media would have roasted him for had it backfired. But it didn’t. The players executed and one of the most dynamic players in the league made a play. The players trust their coach. Built over a tough summer in which Stefanski had their backs, whether dealing with the pandemic or the social injustice many players have spent their entire lives fighting, he was there. In their corner. If this is what Kevin Stefanksi is, the Browns have enough talent for special things to happen.
Once again the offensive line and running game dominated. The most yards ever given up by a Cowboys defense on the ground, the rushing attack demoralized a team already reeling from a 1-2 start. The interior of the line is dominant. Here are the line’s positional ranks through 4 weeks, according to Pro Football Focus:
Wyatt Teller: 1
Joel Bitonio: 9
J. C. Tretter: 2
Jack Conklin: 6
Jedrick Wills Jr.: 47
Impressive stuff. Give new offensive line coach Bill Callahan credit. As a group, they’re controlling the action and allowing the offense to do whatever they want. Stefanski can call anything on his play sheet because he knows his skill guys have protection and room to maneuver.
Nick Chubb’s injury, a strained MCL, may cause him to miss 6 weeks, and while the absence of his talent hurts their depth, Kareem Hunt can replace his production. Hunt led the league in rushing in 2017. No one has ever questioned his abilities on the field. D’Ernest Johnson showed capable on Sunday too, running for 95 yards on 13 carries. Hunt has five touchdowns on the season and is averaging 5.5 yards per carry. He’ll gash defenses while Chubb recovers.
Expect more games like Sunday’s because the defense is what it is. Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo are the worst safety duo in the league. Terrance Mitchell is middling replacing Greedy Williams at corner, and the linebackers lack speed. It’s a big play defense. The Browns are leading the league in turnover margin. They’ve scored the most points off the opposition’s giveaways. The defense will continue as a sieve, the talent to stop opposing offenses just isn’t there. But Myles Garrett continues to destroy offensive lines, Sheldon Richardson is a premium run stuffer, and Denzel Ward has shown signs of returning to his 2018 form. If they continue to force turnovers, it’ll be enough to allow their offense to outscore everyone.
From the best offense in the league to its best defense, this week presents a contrasting challenge. Indianapolis gives up the fewest yards in the league, is fourth against the run and first against the pass. The Colts have no holes on defense. Former Brown T. J. Carrie and Xavier Rhodes are the best corner duo in the league. Linebacker Darius Leonard is fantastic against the run, but injured his groin in the first half against Chicago. He’s questionable to play Sunday. DeForest Buckner lives in offensive backfields despite recording just 1.5 sacks. He has 8 quarterback hits and his pass rush grade via PFF is 2nd in the league. Justin Houston has 3.5 sacks and provides pressure off the edge. The Browns offense will require more patience this week. Continue running the ball with Hunt and Johnson, but keep working Beckham into the game plan. He’s dynamic, and despite the strength in the Colts secondary, he’s better one-on-one than their corners. Use your talent.
Indianapolis’ offense struggles. They’re middle of the pack in most categories, and Philip Rivers is just okay. He’s completing 72% of his passes, however, and tight end Mo Alie-Cox has done a good Antonio Gates impression, catching 11 balls and 2 touchdowns. He’s huge at 6’5” and 267 pounds. The Browns defense will struggle to contain him in the red zone. Indy’s offensive line, also one of the league’s best, keeps pressure off of Rivers, only allowing sacks on 3.1% of drop backs, 3rd in the league. The front four and Garrett need to pressure Rivers. He’s old and slow in the pocket, but can still sling it. If he’s given time, he’ll shred the secondary.
Phil Rivers isn’t the quarterback from his days in San Diego, but he can still move the ball. T. Y. Hilton and Alie-Cox are weapons that will break the defense if the line cannot pressure the quarterback. It’s the key on Sunday. The Browns offense should score, but don’t expect 30+. The defense has to give the offense something. Garrett and Olivier Vernon have to pressure Rivers into mistakes. Turning him over and giving the offense more chances to wear on Indy’s defense with the running game will be vital. Expect a close, tough, lower-scoring affair.
The Whip Around
1.His opener as a Buc against New Orleans was a dud, and he threw another pick 6 on Sunday against the Chargers, but Tom Brady has shown signs in Tampa. His five touchdown passes against a stout Charger front four, along with 369 yards through the air, saved the Buccaneers from a horrid loss. L.A. took the lead at the end of the third quarter, but Brady led a vintage drive after his defense surrendered the lead, going 5-6 for 83 yards and a touchdown. A 29 yarder to Rob Gronkowski put them in field goal range the next drive, sealing the win. Brady’s looked shaky, and his 7.2 yards per attempt is just 21st in the league, suggesting he isn’t pushing the ball down the field despite having one of the best deep threats in the league in Mike Evans. But he’s smart, has weapons, and a stout defense. Seattle and Green Bay look fantastic, but after them the NFC is a tossup. Brady will have a say in January.
2. The problems in Dallas are infinite, and corner Trayon Diggs piles up mistakes. He ranks 93rd out of 109 corners in the league (PFF), unable to cover, defend the run, or play with intelligence. His face mask penalty on a 3rd and four in the third quarter, with Dallas still attached on the scoreboard, killed their defense, allowed the Browns to score, and kept their potent offense on the sidelines. He’s the epitome of their franchise. The Cowboys are undisciplined, poorly coached, and shabbily run. They dash pundit’s Super Bowl hopes early each year because of the incompetence of the decision makers of one of the most talented teams in the league. Until Jerry Jones sells, they’re nothing but a sideshow.
3. Za’Darius Smith tied Myles Garrett for the league lead in sacks Monday Night. One of the best pass rushers in the league also had a touching message to share with NFL fans.
4. San Francisco is floundering at 2-2, playing in a division that includes the Rams and Seahawks, and is dealing with a multitude of injuries. But they have George Kittle back. The talent at the tight end position in the league is deep, yet Kittle has more than anyone who’s played. His combination of size, speed, and tackle breaking ability is unmatched. Though not the best blocker at the position, Kittle stretches the field unlike any tight end in history. He’s impossible to bring to the ground. Corners and safeties bounce off of him like a sugar infused child on a trampoline. The jury’s out on Jimmy Garoppolo, and San Fran’s defense is good this year instead of historically dominant. They need Raheem Mostert’s game breaking abilities back on offense. Kittle, however, is a game changer. 15 catches on 15 targets for 183 yards and a touchdown by a tight end causes a double take. He makes their pedestrian quarterbacks better on his own. If the 49ers return to the playoffs, Kittle’s big plays will be the reason.
5. Another tight end, Travis Kelce, is always open. A combination of his route running, Patrick Mahomes’ ability to keep plays alive, and the talent that surrounds him gives Kelce space within space. He finds holes in zones and sits in them better than most. His size causes mismatches with linebackers and corners alike. The speed Kansas City possesses at receiver pauses teams, pushing their safeties deep, opening the middle of the field for Kelce to operate. Still, it’s staggering to see the room he’s given week after week. But what’s left to take away? Mahomes resuscitates plays like no other, and when things break down, Kelce makes for a large, reliable safety valve. Nevermind stopping them. Unless you’re Bill Belichick, you can’t hope to slow that offense.
6. He showed flashes as a rookie, but Daniel Jones is just, ugh. The turnovers are disgusting. While playing a clean game (he fumbled early against the Rams, but his team recovered) his defense kept the Giants in it versus the Rams. Down eight, Jones hit Darius Slayton for 33 yards and scrambled twice for 22 to get into the red zone with less than a minute to go. Then, a pick to end it. Jones is athletic with a powerful arm. But he cannot hold on to the ball. He’s 1-12 in his last 13 starts and has never played an NFL game without a turnover. He’s 31st in the league in yards per pass attempt, 6.0. A turnover machine who doesn’t push the ball down the field? What are we doing here?
7. Miami’s feisty. Their three losses are to New England, Buffalo, and Seattle, teams with a combined 10-2 record and three of the top seven offenses in the league. When can we see Tua? Ryan Fitzpatrick continues on, dragging teams back into games they’re out of and tossing away chances at wins with interceptions. He led the game off with a pick on the opening drive of the game against Seattle, putting the Dolphins in an immediate hole, then slung another in the fourth quarter to end all chances of a rally. Rookie quarterbacks Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert look exemplary at this early stage. Why not play Tua Tagovailoa, Brian Flores? The Fitzpatrick show needs canceled, and with Buffalo and New England in their division, the Dolphins aren’t making the postseason. Flores has done an outstanding job in Miami. Their five wins last year when the team’s expectations were zero showed as much. Time to see what Tua has and how good the Dolphins can be with him.
8. Often overlooked, Keenan Allen remains one of the best wideouts in the game. He’s keeping the Chargers interesting and helping rookie Justin Herbert’s confidence. This snag is how you go get the football.
9. Goodbye to Bill O’Brien in Houston. The Texans are 0-4, and while O’Brien the coach isn’t the worst, O’Brien the general manager is. No first or second-round pick this year, traded to Miami for Laremy Tunsil and Kenny Stills. No DeAndre Hopkins, traded for David Johnson (197 yards, 2 TDs, 3.9 yards per carry). When teams have one of the five best quarterbacks in the league on their roster, they must do everything necessary to make a Super Bowl run. O’Brien the GM was erratic, making rebuilding trades following win now moves. The GM/coach doesn’t work. Each job is too hard on its own. Here’s hoping the Texans don’t ruin Deshaun Watson’s promising career.
10. When you lead the league in touchdowns since the start of the 2019 season, one would expect that player to get the lion’s share of his team’s touches. Not so with Aaron Jones and the Packers. His 25 TD’s over the last two years screams dominant back, yet Matt LaFleur treats him as a change of pace scatback. He had 15 carries in Monday Night’s victory over the Falcons. All other Packer ball carriers had 11. He’s been on the field for only 56% of the Packer offensive snaps this season. Christian McCaffrey has missed two-and-a-half games and still has played 40% of Carolina’s snaps. Jones is a top five back in the NFL. Besides finding the end zone, he averages 5.8 yards per carry. The Pack is 4-0, so it’s hard to argue with success. But if Green Bay hopes to make the Super Bowl, they must allocate more minutes to their best skill position player.
All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com