A simple path for the Cleveland Browns to NFL dominance doesn’t exist. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens are two of the best organizations in all of sports, and the Browns must compete with each twice per season. The level they need to reach to remain competitive with either has been unattainable by this franchise for 40 years. Wins against poor outfits in Cincinnati, Washington, and Dallas, and a competent Indianapolis, show growth. In year’s past, the Browns would’ve choked 1 or 2 of those wins away with silly turnovers or inopportune penalties. But a worst to first turnaround, easier for teams in, say, the AFC South, can’t happen. Not with the mammoth shadows cast on them from Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
They’re perennial Super Bowl contenders who preach continuity, have strong staffs and systems in place, and draft well. The Steelers hired Mike Tomlin in 2007. Baltimore found John Harbaugh in 2008. They’re the 3rd and 4th longest tenured coaches in the league behind Bill Belichick and Sean Payton. Notice anything? The Patriots, Saints, Steelers, and Ravens are among the best teams in the league year after year. This isn’t a coincidence. They poured the foundations for winning long ago. These franchises don’t allow bad plays, or losses, or draft picks to sway their mindsets. The system is in place. They have established the correct way of doing things through high leverage playoff games and agonizing off-season practices. They win because everyone in the organization knows how to. There’s direction. There’s accountability.
None of this has existed in Cleveland since the rebirth, but signals of change are clear. Going from 6-10 to 8-8 or 9-7 is the simple part. Sunday’s dismantling in Pittsburgh was rough to watch and all too familiar. Unprepared and awestruck, units that have played well were over matched. Pittsburgh’s defensive line mauled the Browns’ number 1 ranked offensive line. The running game failed early, the deficit swelled, and Kevin Stefanski was forced to put the game in Baker Mayfield’s hands. Myles Garrett had 1 sack, but Pittsburgh’s so-so offensive line outperformed against Cleveland’s defensive front, allowing their offense free rein against the porous back seven. 38-7. Typical result at Heinz Field.
Why is Andrew Sendejo still starting and playing 100% of the defensive snaps? Injuries have decimated the position, but he’s costing the defense play after play. He lunges at ball carriers instead of squaring up to them and form tackling. He gets beat deep by wide receivers multiple times per game, a cardinal sin for safeties. Andrew Berry must step in to fix the situation. Whether by signing a free agent off the street or scouring the practice squads of other teams, find someone better. His Pro Football Focus ranking is 76th. He’s grades out at 51 against the run, 47 against the pass. Out of 100. He’s unathletic and slow, causing him to be out of position in perpetuity. Don’t blame the coaching staff for continuing to play him. He’s their only option. It’s Berry’s job to find someone better. Not a high bar.
While Berry has avoided scrutiny as general manager, questions remain about his eye for talent. He signed Jack Conklin. Linebacker Malcolm Smith (PFF ranking= 11th of 81 linebackers) flashes and has earned more minutes; he only played 52% of the defensive snaps Sunday. No other Berry signings or draft picks have had a positive impact on this team. First-round pick Jedrick Wills Jr. is struggling more than most would like to admit (60th ranked of 76 tackles, according to PFF). Free agent signings Sendejo, Karl Joseph, and B.J. Goodson aren’t good. John Dorsey acquired the contributors on this team. Berry is young and smart, but has yet to prove he can draft well or find under the radar free agents to contribute. He has to get better. Start with finding a safety, any safety, who can play the position.
The NFL built a safety net into the Browns schedule this season, placing their two games against Cincinnati in the weeks following trips to Baltimore and Pittsburgh. The Bengals have improved, and Joe Burrow could become a franchise quarterback, but he isn’t there yet. Cleveland’s lines hold advantages on both sides of the ball. In their week 2 Thursday nighter, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt ran for 210 yards and 3 touchdowns. The defense sacked Burrow 3 times and hit him 7 others. Against weak opponents, talented teams flex their advantages. Look for Stefanski to game plan toward his team’s strengths.
The Bengals have talent at the skill positions, but Burrow’s offensive line doesn’t allow him time to get them the football. Garrett and the defensive line can win this game on their own with pressure. Forcing Burrow into rushed decisions will lead to turnovers. Kareem Hunt and D’Ernest Johnson can control the clock on the ground, keeping injured Baker Mayfield from having to win this one with his arm.
How far have they come? Have Stefanski and Berry changed the culture in their short time together enough for the Browns to move away from Sunday’s beating, or will the embarrassment linger? These are the games competent franchises win. They aren’t Pittsburgh or Baltimore yet. It will take years for Cleveland to walk into each season as a bona fide Super Bowl contender, but it starts here. Professional, organized squads pounce on the Cincinnatis. Winnable games against Jacksonville, Houston, and both New York teams remain. If this franchise has changed, we’ll see the signs this weekend.
The Whip Around
1.Evidence of rust showed on Cam Newton Sunday as the Patriots lost a curious one at home, 18-12, to the Broncos. We don’t know enough yet about the coronavirus to determine how it affects athletes, both short and long-term. Russell Westbrook contracted it, recovered, then struggled in the NBA bubble. Nuggets center Nikola Jokic had it in June, but starred in the playoffs. The Patriots need a healthy, engaged Cam for their eleven year playoff streak to continue. One pick was a lazy throw batted by a lineman, the other placed well behind his intended receiver. The clock in his head was off when he took a blindside sack too; he should have felt the pressure and bailed before taking the hit. After an exemplary start, New England now sits at 2-3, weary from starts and stops because of the virus, and in third place in the AFC East. They need Cam’s athleticism and Bill Belichick’s genius to end their slide.
2. Monitor Las Vegas. David Carr has the second best passer rating in the league behind Russell Wilson. They’re the sixth best scoring offense in the league and the fifth best passing unit. They have a win over the Chiefs under their belt and are in a weak division. The defense is the problem. They’re giving up 30 per game and are second to last in the league in creating turnovers. Games remain against the Jets, Falcons, and Dolphins, plus 2 each with the Chargers and Broncos. The AFC is a muddled mess after Tennessee, K.C., Pittsburgh, and Baltimore. They almost have to make the postseason. Raider shootouts are must see 4:00 affairs for the rest of the season.
3. I can watch Kyler Murray throw footballs all day long.
4. Because they play in a trash heap of a division, the Cowboys will remain in the playoff hunt throughout the season. They’re 2-4 and lead the NFC East. It’s true. But Dallas is an awful team and Andy Dalton looked washed on Monday night against Arizona (2 picks, sacked 3 times, 65 rating). However, Ezekiel Elliott’s night was most concerning for Cowboy fans. Only 49 yards rushing against a middling Arizona run defense, Elliott also lost 2 fumbles, a first for him in an NFL game, exposing a lack of concentration on his part. Is he a leader? Can he carry them into the playoffs? Backs age fast, and Elliott is no exception. Only 26, he’s averaging the few yards per carry of his career, least amount of yards per game, and has fumbled almost twice as much already as he did all of last year. Zeke was dynamic coming out of Ohio State, but the shine wears off ball carriers overnight. He’s a classic example of why it’s unwise to give out large contracts to running backs when replacements exist late in the draft (see Alvin Kamara, Aaron Jones). Note to teams with backs on rookie deals, let someone else pay that big second contract.
5. No corner combines run stopping ability and coverage skills like Jason Verrett. And no one in the league deserves success more. Verrett entered the league in 2014, got selected for the Pro Bowl in 2015, and has been through injury hell since. A torn ACL in 2016 didn’t heal properly, causing him to miss 2 seasons. Then a torn Achilles, costing him a third straight year. He returned last year, only to tear a patellar tendon in Week 3, ending another season. Recovered to start training camp this year, he suffered a hamstring injury, costing him the 1st two games of this year. Finally healthy, Verrett is a force in the secondary. PFF’s third rated corner through 6 weeks, his pick in the end zone against the Rams and Jared Goff shuttered the Rams momentum on Sunday night and gave San Francisco a much needed home victory after two abominable losses against Philadelphia and Miami. Jimmy Garoppolo’s struggles are real. The 49ers need their defense to carry the water if they hope to defend their NFC title, and Verrett’s work in the secondary is key. He’s a fun guy to root for.
6. The Tennessee Titans are Super Bowl contenders, and Ryan Tannehill is one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Sure, Derrick Henry’s combined 264 yards rushing and receiving and 2 touchdowns in their overtime win against Houston was impressive, but Tannehill is the orchestrator of the offense. His passer rating (113.5) ranks third in the league after he led the category a year ago. 70% completions, 13 touchdowns, and only 2 interceptions, they’re 5-0 because Tannehill pushes the ball downfield without turning it over. Henry’s career took off only after Tennessee acquired the QB from Miami for a 4th rounder to back up Marcus Mariota last season. Can he go throw for throw with Patrick Mahomes? Tannehill’s weapons are inferior to Mahomes’, except for Henry. He’d need an otherworldly performance from his defense in a rematch of last season’s AFC title game. But Tannehill belongs, something few could foresee after his career in Miami.
7. That Pittsburgh defense. Their back seven struggles, but they apply so much pressure that is hasn’t hurt them. Their 24 sacks lead the league. Add to that 36 hurries, 83 pressures, and 182 blitzes. That’s some heat. Offenses are too good in today’s game, and the rules are bent to favor them. Defenses will give up points. Pressure forces turnovers and negative plays, however. The only way to slow modern offenses is to make the quarterback uncomfortable, and the Steelers do that better than anyone.
8. Robert Woods is the fulcrum of the Rams offensive attack. He catches everything, blocks downfield, and forces defenses to obey their assignments because of their tendency to hand him the ball when he’s in motion. For L.A. to regain their offensive consistency from 2018, Woods needs the ball in his hands more.
9. The Philly wide receiver corpse is just that, and Carson Wentz is one of the worst quarterbacks in the league. A barrage of injuries have hurt their chances in a putrid division, but led them to a gem in Travis Fulgham. Drafted in the 6th round of 2019 by the Lions, Fulgham was waived and cut before landing on Detroit’s practice squad last September. Cut by the Lions, Packers, and Eagles during training camp, Philly signed him on October 3 as a last resort. Alshon Jeffery remains unable to play, Marquise Goodwin sat out 2020, and DeSean Jackson and Jalen Reagor can’t find the field because of injury, either. Enter Fulgham. Through 3 games, his 18 catches, 284 yards, and 3 touchdowns has added some spunk to Philly’s offense. They’ve scored 25, 28, and 29 with him in the lineup, and Wentz has been average instead of a complete dumpster fire. If the Eagles can have any health related luck, they are the best team in the division, and Fulgham gives them a downfield threat that Jackson seems incapable of because of injury and age. The NFC East everybody.
10. How are the Chicago Bears 5-1 and leading the NFC North? Yes, the schedule has helped (wins over Detroit, NY Giants, Atlanta, and a Thursday home game against Tampa), but Nick Foles can’t throw the ball past the line of scrimmage (31st in the league at 5.8 yards per pass attempt). With Allen Robinson stifled by Foles’ pop gun arm and David Montgomery averaging less than 3 yards per carry the past 3 games, their weapons on offense lack punch. Three games await against the Rams, Saints, and Titans. Chicago’s time perched atop their division will be short-lived.
All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com