A Fumbled Opportunity against Baltimore. A Valuable Lesson, or a Mammoth Failure?

Kevin Stefanski and Baker Mayfield wanted no part of the “moral victory” discussion after Monday night’s harsh loss against the Ravens, and they shouldn’t. The Cleveland Browns have been an embarrassment for twenty years, but keeping games close isn’t the goal. Playoff teams don’t celebrate not getting blown out. For the organization to graduate from laughingstock to contender, ownership, the players and coaches, and the fan base must expect wins. Not getting the doors blown off is no longer an acceptable cause for celebration. Division titles, playoff wins, and Super Bowl appearances are the goal. If the Browns are to succeed, losses like Mondays must end now.

493 yards of total offense, with 355 through the air against the best trio of cornerbacks in the league, showed that Mayfield is progressing. Last week’s assault on the Titans’ defense was impressive, but their pass defense isn’t. Baltimore is a different animal and, despite a tendency to hold unto the football too long and an ugly interception that allowed the Ravens to go up two scores, Mayfield showed toughness and grit. More adversity lays ahead. Playoff games become unpredictable and require a calm from both the quarterback and head coach. Mayfield showed an ability to make excellent throws in tough spots against a stellar secondary. Stefanski’s running of the franchise during his tenure proves he can coach in a playoff setting. But are they a year away from amassing the talent and experience necessary to win in January?

Like it’s been throughout 2020, Cleveland’s defense is a wreck. Denzel Ward missed Monday’s game, and if the Browns are going to compete in January, he has to be on the field. Replacement M.J. Stewart Jr. compiled two penalties in the first half, got toasted on the Ravens’ last drive of the half by Mark Andrews, resulting in a touchdown, and bit on Marquise Brown’s 44 yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that pushed the Ravens ahead. Ward is the only talent in Cleveland’s back seven, and good NFL teams throw the ball well. If they don’t have one reliable corner, they’re toast.

If the defense made a play on Monday, it was Sheldon Richardson or Olivier Vernon doing the disrupting. Vernon had two sacks and a key knockdown of a Baltimore pass in the fourth quarter. Richardson was stellar as well, recording a sack and six tackles, the only Browns defender who presented any resistance to the Raven ground game. Myles Garrett settled into a more complementary role, attempting to set the edge on Lamar Jackson and keep him in the pocket, forcing him to throw. It didn’t work, and Cleveland’s defense got run over, allowing 231 rushing yards to Baltimore, 163 by Jackson alone. A strength for much of the season, the run defense got exposed by a power running game and the most dynamic player in the NFL. While injuries to corner Greedy Williams and rookie safety Grant Delpit caused them to miss the season, making a suspect secondary coming into the season decrepit now, hall passes don’t exist for injured players. No help is on the horizon. With this defense, the Browns will have a tough time winning in the playoffs.

A few other random Monday Night Football thoughts:

Jarvis Landry always shows up. Not a huge stat line (6 catches, 52 yards), but Landry was there for Mayfield on third downs and in the fourth quarter when his QB needed him most. Landry is the heartbeat of this team. His steeled attitude will give the Browns an edge from here through the end of the season.

Sione Takitaki and B.J. Goodson scatter in a few impact plays throughout a game, but overall their missed tackles and blown assignments are killer. Games against Lamar Jackson magnify the Browns’ weakness at linebacker. We’ve lost Mack Wilson.

Rashard Higgins almost coughed up two fumbles on the first touchdown drive of the game, but came back to make big catches and scored a TD in the fourth. Higgins and Donovan Peoples-Jones are making huge grabs and both need to continue that for the offense to score, overcoming the defense’s failures. Just hold onto the ball.

Mayfield still holds on to the ball too long on straight drop back passes. When he sits in the pocket, if the ball isn’t out of his hands when he hits his back foot, bad things are on the horizon. Quick, quick, quick, Baker.

The Browns run game wears on teams, and once the fourth quarter hits, they’re spent. The O-line was road grading Monday night, pushing Baltimore’s stingy defenders where ever they wanted. If they can keep games close against the upper tier of the league, they’ll have a chance at the end of games because of it.

The big boy pants are on. The Browns have gotten comfortable as a joke. It isn’t fun, but there aren’t expectations, either. Thursday night wins against the Jets, December victories over a hapless Charger team can’t be the bar. To compete, they have to beat the Ravens and Steelers. No moral victories, no excuses. How good are the Cleveland Browns, and what will the team and its fan base settle for?

Just beat the Giants. Despite a recent four game winning streak, they aren’t good. The only offense that scores less than theirs is the Jets’. Daniel Jones is a turnover. The defense is middling, okay against the run (7th), and below average defending the pass. No excuses, no hangovers after Baltimore. Another chance, this one on Sunday night, for the franchise to announce its arrival from the depths. Just beat the Giants.

The Whip Around

1.Undefeated until a week ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers today look like a flawed, vulnerable team. Propped throughout the season by a smothering pass rush and quick, efficient passing game, neither have showed in the last two weeks, losses to Washington and Buffalo. The Steelers cannot run. They’re 31st rushing the ball in the league, averaging 89 yards per game. And while Ben Roethlisberger has been efficient all season, he isn’t completing passes down the field, averaging only 6.3 yards per attempt, 31st in the NFL and very un-Ben like. Pittsburgh relies on their defense to put quarterbacks in the dirt, yet they only have 4 sacks in the last two games, and they lost the time of possession battle to Buffalo by over 10 minutes. Not quite Steeler football. They’ve gotten exposed by better defenses capable of taking the quick throws away from Roethlisberger. But the running game is a genuine issue. According to Pro Football Focus, no Steeler offensive linemen has a run blocking grade higher than 62. With an offense so one dimensional, Pittsburgh is too predictable. They play Indianapolis in Week 16 before heading to Cleveland in Week 17. Will they get it together?

2. Tyreek Hill is an explosion. His speed, combined with his diminutive size, creates an uncontainable weapon. That Patrick Mahomes throws him the ball is cruel and unusual for opposing defenses. This duo, along with middle-of-the-field clearer Travis Kelce, is the reason Kansas City is the prohibitive Super Bowl favorite. Hill’s tied for the TD reception lead with Davante Adams (14), is fourth in receiving yards (1158), and averages 15 per catch. Because of his size, troubled past, and lack of highlight ready, one-handed grabs, Hill gets overlooked when discussing the best WRs in the league. No player is more fun to watch, or to have on your fantasy team. K.C.’s offense depends on Mahomes, but Hill is the consistent game breaker that strains defenses to their breaking point. Ask defense coordinators around the NFL who they hate game planning for most. The answer is Hill.

3. Mahomes threw two picks in the 1st quarter against Miami Sunday while also getting caught for a 30 yard sack, one of the worst plays you’ll see. And it didn’t matter. He threw another INT later, but his 393 yards and 2 touchdowns against a vicious Dolphin defense saved the Chiefs from getting upset. He’s the cheat code. Mahomes is the most gifted passer in history, and that, combined with the weapons surrounding him, allows the Chiefs a wide birth. No deficit is too large, as proven in last year’s playoffs. To beat K.C., a team has to control time of possession, score touchdowns on almost every drive, and force Mahomes into multiple turnovers. If you don’t do all three, you lose.

4. Stick a hand up, catch a touchdown pass. With Odell Beckham hurt, A.J. Brown is the new one-handed catch king.

5. If Derrick Henry goes on another end of season run reminiscent of last year’s, Tennessee could end up facing the Chiefs in the AFC title game again. Henry razed Jacksonville’s defense Sunday (215 yards, 2 touchdowns on 26 carries). While running the ball well alone doesn’t make a contender, violent runs do. Runs of 20, 22, 36, and 47 destroy teams’ psyche, causing them to fear Tennessee’s running back in a way few other rushers do. Chunks that large on the ground move the ball down field, a la the passing game, and make the Titans’ offense more dangerous than say, Pittsburgh’s, which can’t complete down field passes (see above). Tennessee’s pass defense is horrible, however. If they can’t stop anyone, Henry’s exploits will be for naught.

6. The turnover machine named Daniel Jones returned to MetLife Stadium Sunday, fumbling 3 times and losing 1, while only completing 52% of his passes. The Giants aren’t good, but a 4 game winning streak against Washington, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Seattle fooled some into believing. A road win in Seattle was nice, but those don’t have the same cachet without fans. Jones missed the Seattle game, but played okay in the previous three wins, not turning the ball over, but only throwing one touchdown pass. Excitement for a stellar defense, a smart rookie head coach in Joe Judge, and a returning Saquon Barkley in 2021 is warranted. But about that quarterback…….

7. The Jets suck, of course, but this is a cool pick off Russell Wilson in the end zone. Still lost 40-3.

8. Everything that has happened in Philly since their win in Super Bowl 52 has led the Eagles toward irrelevancy. Injuries are a primary culprit, and Carson Wentz has dealt with his fair share. But he’s lost, and despite what the organization says, they’ve known it for a while. Why else would they have drafted Jalen Hurts? After leading Philadelphia to an upset over New Orleans Sunday in his first start, Hurts is at least an intriguing option for the future. 106 rushing yards, 167 passing and a touchdown, Hurts deserves a look before the off-season to help the Eagles decide. Surely they’ll try to trade Wentz, but where? He carries a $34 million cap number next season, and while there’s an out before 2022, a team will have to carry a $24 million cap hit if he’s cut. Plus, he looks terrible. Indecisive and unsure aren’t great QB qualities. The Eagles may have the most expensive backup QB in history on their roster next season.

9. Marquise Brown may want to ask Santa for some new hands. Or at least better gloves. His three drops Monday night killed important Baltimore drives, and while his speed is devastating, Lamar Jackson needs a more reliable threat on the edge if Baltimore is to advance deep in the playoffs. His 53% catch percentage ranks 191st in the league, and PFF rates him 81st of 123 receivers in the NFL. Jackson’s third year struggles become clearer when looking at the Ravens receiver room.

10. Kansas City vs. New Orleans A lackluster Week 15 schedule at least gives us a Super Bowl preview, and the focus for everyone will be when Patrick Mahomes has the ball. Kansas City’s offense is historic. But quietly, New Orleans may have the best defense in the league. Despite last week’s loss to Philadelphia, New Orleans has continued stacking wins despite Drew Brees’ injured ribs. It’s because of their defense. 4th in the league in points allowed, 2nd in yards, 4th against the pass, 2nd against the run. Pittsburgh’s unit has gotten hyped all season because of their relentlessness against opposing quarterbacks, but N.O. drops quarterbacks at the 5th best rate in the league (7.69%) and allows fewer yards than the ballyhooed Steeler unit. But the Chiefs are a different animal. It’s impossible to contain all their weapons, and Mahomes doesn’t have poor games. The Saints’ offense will have to score to keep up. Brees is uncertain to play, and the Saints are on record not wanting to rush him back. Taysom Hill is fine as a gimmicky change of pace, but is he ready for a game of this magnitude?

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com

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