Can the Cleveland Browns Prove Capable of a Rebound? It’s Not That Simple

Cleveland Browns, Kevin Stefanski, NFL

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

Myles Garrett is Defensive MVP. Here’s How He’s Doing It

Cleveland Browns, Myles Garrett, NFL

Four game winning streaks are uncommon for the Cleveland Browns, as are 30 point scoring streaks. They haven’t won this many in a row since the end of the 2009 season, and they were 1-11 and winning out of the number 1 pick back then. Leroy Kelly lined up in the backfield the last time the offense scored 30 in four straight. So it’s been awhile. Kevin Stefanski deserves all the praise heaped upon him. A discombobulated organization for twenty years, the Browns have now formed the habits of winning teams. Few penalties, organized offensive and defensive units, and a concrete plan each week shows a competency the franchised lacked since Bill Belichick coached the team. There’s hope in Cleveland.

Though the defense is scatter shot, Myles Garrett is not. He’s dominating offenses, forcing quarterbacks into turnovers and poor decisions. His sack on Philip Rivers Sunday forced a field goal, and his bullrush of left tackle Le’Raven Clark into the Colts’ end zone and QB caused Rivers to launch the football out of bounds for a safety. The linebackers and safeties on the Browns defense are poor, but Garrett is masking his teammates’ deficiencies, not unlike how an NBA superstar raises the play of everyone around him. Garrett’s pressure gives opposing quarterbacks the yips, forcing them out of the pocket and into quick throws. When Myles isn’t strip sacking them (3 forced fumbles on the season, 1st in the league), he’s causing bad throws, leading to six picks by the secondary (third in the NFL). If the defense is going to give up yards, they have to force turnovers. Garrett’s vandalism of offenses leaves them hurried, causing turnovers.

He has every move. Teams are sending two, sometimes three blockers at him. Teams need to allocate that attention to slow Garrett, but it allows his teammates to flourish, too. The Browns are fourth in the league with 46 quarterback pressures, a 12.8% hurry percentage. Olivier Vernon has 5 hurries in 3 games. Sheldon Richardson has 5. Larry Ogunjobi has 2. Garrett is opening lanes for his line mates to pressure the opposition into mistakes.

His go to move is to align himself wide of the offensive tackle, explode on the snap, get lower than the blocker, and use his speed to beat his man to the quarterback. Garrett overruns the pocket a lot, but uses his quickness to come back to the quarterback, bringing him down from behind. This causes many of his strip sacks.

He’s too agile for 300 lb. offensive linemen to stay in front of, and he’s too strong for them to push around. It led to the safety Rivers took when he threw the ball away. Garrett shoves his man into the backfield, overpowering him at the snap of the ball. Once linemen prepare for his outside speed rush, placing all weight on their outer foot to blunt his speed, Garrett throws the change up, catching them out of position and unable to adjust to his power.

Even when offensive linemen have him contained, they don’t. Against Dallas, Terence Steele used his hands well, maneuvering Garrett where he wanted. This time Myles hit him with a spin move, leaving Steele flat footed and unable to protect Dak Prescott from getting sacked.

He’s created 8 turnovers via his pressures and sacks on the season, giving his defense a chance to get off the field. The Browns are 21st in the league in yards allowed, but the talent surrounding Garrett isn’t good enough for that number to lessen throughout the year. They have the Defensive Player of the Year to this point, however. Cleveland will stay in games by pressuring offenses into mistakes. Turnovers are key for the Browns this season. The defense has to get the ball back to Baker Mayfield. Garrett has the largest responsibility of any defense player in the NFL. He’s met the challenge after five games, as bounded to this team’s success as any defender in football. It’s why he’s the MVP on that side of the ball.

With wins comes urgency and importance. It’s now Steeler week. Pittsburgh’s defense is destructive. T.J. Watt is Pro Football Focus’ number 1 ranked edge defender, Tyson Alualu their highest rated interior lineman. The Steelers sack the opposing quarterback 12.27% of the time, tops in the league by miles. They force almost 2 turnovers per game and are the second best run defense in the league. Few holes exist.

Mayfield has to be smart. Joe Haden and Minkah Fitzpatrick will try to bait him into turnovers. He’s still struggling inside the pocket, so Watt and Bud Dupree will focus on curtailing the bootlegs and pocket sliding the Browns do to open passing lanes for Mayfield. Stefanski should lean on the three-step drop in Pittsburgh. Try to get Odell Beckham in space on wide receiver screens and slants. Run pick plays in the middle of the field to free Jarvis Landry on shallow crossing routes. It’ll be imperative for the Browns offense for Mayfield to throw fast, getting the ball to their playmakers as quickly as possible. With Nick Chubb hurt, they’ll need Kareem Hunt’s best game as a Brown. The offensive line will face their biggest challenge this Sunday. They must win battles to open holes for Hunt and D’Ernest Johnson, or the offense could struggle.

Gone are the days of Ben Roethlisberger standing in the pocket, waiting, waiting, waiting for a receiver to break open deep, then heaving the ball downfield for large gains. Pittsburgh’s offense moves quicker now, focusing on quick slants, short crossers, and wide receiver screens. Roethlisberger is 22nd in the league in yards per attempt, but he’s more efficient. 10 touchdowns, 1 interception, 70% completions. He’s posted the highest quarterback rating of his career to this point in the season. Look for more of the same Sunday. The Steelers will want to blunt the Browns’ pass rush by getting the ball out of Big Ben’s hand fast. They’ll bet they can sustain drives against Cleveland’s poor secondary, taking small chunks at a time, and that Roethlisberger won’t make mistakes. Pittsburgh will test the Browns’ rushing defense, too. They’re 8th in the league running the ball. The Browns have to get off Heinz Field. The Steelers will be patient, opting to throw quick and wear down Cleveland’s front four with James Conner. It’s the toughest test they’ve faced since the opener in Baltimore. Games in Pittsburgh have a way of getting out of control. If the Browns and Stefanski can avoid mistakes and get to the fourth quarter in a one score game, Myles Garrett can flip it on one play.

The Whip Around

1.If Garrett isn’t the Defensive MVP, Aaron Donald is. He’s won the award twice (2017,2018) and again leads the league in sacks (7) after posting 4 against Washington on Sunday. He’s the Barry Sanders of defensive tackles. Smallish for his position at 6’1”, 280, Donald is quick and shifty, using abrupt movements and the best hands for a defensive lineman in football to bring down quarterbacks and running backs in the backfield. His body allows him to get low against his man, giving him the positional advantage before overwhelming with his speed. His first move is electric, putting the opposing O-lineman in a critical position at the snap. Then he uses his hands to maneuver, pushing offensive linemen around with his strength, giving himself lanes to attack the QB. Donald is the entire package, a disruptor at the tackle position unseen in the league’s history.

2. Quiet stat wise in his first 3 games, Steeler rookie Chase Claypool erupted against Philadelphia Sunday, catching 7 balls for 110 yards and 3 touchdowns. Pittsburgh’s organization has mastered the art of developing receivers and found another gem in the second round of this year’s draft in Claypool. He’s huge at 6’4” and 238 pounds and possesses enough speed to break defenses (his 20.1 yards per reception is 3rd in the league). Pittsburgh’s defense is Super Bowl worthy, but Roethlisberger, early in the season at least, seems content to throw short. They’ll need Claypool’s deep threat ability to open the underneath routes and running lanes for James Conner if they hope to advance in January, however.

3. Why do coaches take the ball from their quarterbacks at inopportune times? On a fourth down play in the red zone, Jacksonville motioned quarterback Gardner Minshew out wide, direct snapping the ball to running back James Robinson. Robinson was looking to throw, couldn’t find a man, and got sacked by J. J. Watt. Why get cute on 4th and 1 from the 8 yard line? That’s a play to run on first or second down. Too often, NFL coaches are trying to prove they’re the smartest guy in the room instead of making winning decisions. They trust the offense to Minshew 99% of the time. He’s the one used to making all the ball handling decisions. Don’t put the rock in your third string point guard’s hands on the last possession of the game.

4. Justin Herbert has an arm, and he’s fantastic outside the pocket. The Chargers keep choking games away, but they have something here. Throws on the move don’t get better than this.

5. Joe Burrow looks fine so far in Cincinnati, completing 65% of his passes while throwing 6 TDs to 3 picks. But he’s in serious jeopardy of going the way of Tim Couch and David Carr if the Bengals don’t get some protection in front of him. Couch and Carr were number 1 overall picks with talent that took beatings early in their careers, suffered PTSD, and never recovered. Defenses have dropped Burrow 22 times in five games, on pace for 71 sacks this season. Carr’s record of 76 sacks in 2002 is in danger if Burrow can remain healthy for 16 games. There are plenty of weapons around him, and while Burrow’s arm isn’t a rocket, he’s accurate and smart. Cincinnati has a path to compete in the AFC North in a few years, but only if their QB isn’t laid up in Bethesda North Hospital.

6. Just what Baltimore’s defense needs, another big play linebacker. Another break out rookie from the AFC North this week, Patrick Queen detonated the Bengal offense and former LSU teammate Burrow on his own. 9 tackles, 1 quarterback hit, a sack, a forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries, and a fumble returned for a touchdown. Queen possesses 4.5 speed and is a sideline to sideline disruptor. He’s tied for 3rd in the league in solo tackles (30) and is already an outstanding run stuffer. He must improve in the passing game (allowing a 110 rating and 75% completion percentage), but the Ravens will live with that for now. His big play ability on their ball hawking unit just fits.

7. Kyle Shanahan saved his quarterback from further embarrassment Sunday, pulling Jimmy Garoppolo after a horrid 1st half against the Dolphins (7-17, 2 interceptions, 15 rating). The Super Bowl losers’ hangover seems alive in San Francisco. Though they’ve dealt with a plethora of injuries, something isn’t right. Shanahan deflects on Garoppolo, claiming he still felt the effects of a high ankle sprain that caused him to miss 2 games, and that was the reasoning for the benching. Okay. Shanahan doesn’t trust Garoppolo and proved as much in last year’s playoffs when he kept the ball on the ground and out of Jimmy G’s hands. His 3-11, 36 yard, 1 pick fourth quarter in last year’s Super Bowl cost his team a title. How long can San Fran afford to line him under center? A 26 point loss at home to the Miami Dolphins doesn’t go well with their opening week no show against Arizona. The other pieces are in place for a run. When do the 49ers start quarterback shopping?

8. This is a grown man being plunged into the ground. Derrick Henry, beast.

9. As the injuries mounted in L.A., it became obvious the Rams couldn’t afford the luxury of Todd Gurley. Huge contracts for Jared Goff, Aaron Donald, and Jalen Ramsey strapped the organization, and they needed out of his 4 year, $60 million deal signed in 2018. Running backs are everywhere, especially used, injured ones. But despite the disaster in Atlanta, Gurley’s shown some resurgence in 2020. 375 yards (3rd in the league) at 4.7 yards per carry, and 5 touchdowns proves he isn’t washed yet. But the Falcons need to monitor his carries. Only 26, Gurley got used by the Rams and his rickety knees have to be a constant source of concern for the Falcon coaching staff. He’s on a one-year deal, so Gurley must stay healthy this season if he hopes for one last biggish contract. If he does, the numbers will be there. Who takes the chance?

10. On the surface, Deshaun Watson’s numbers look fine in his first season post DeAndre Hopkins. He’s averaging a yard more than last year per attempt, his yards per completion is 2 better than 2019, and his touchdown rate is identical. But he’s throwing more picks and his QBR is 10 points less than a year ago. Houston’s 24th in the league in scoring. Watson isn’t as comfortable. He and Brandin Cooks connected Sunday 8 times, however, as the Texans handled Jacksonville at home, and their fans hope it wasn’t an aberration. Watson is one of the best five quarterbacks in the game, and Bill O’Brien’s destruction of their roster and future draft picks is criminal. They should compete for titles, not fire coaches after 4 games. Here’s hoping the Texans hire an offensive mind capable of unleashing Deshaun’s talent.

Troy’s NBA Finals Top Ten

NBA, NBA Bubble, NBA Finals

1.Up 3-1 now, the Los Angeles Lakers can feel it. LeBron James isn’t about to let his team blow the very lead he vanquished during his greatest triumph. L.A. was always about LeBron and Anthony Davis. The best teammate he’s played with, a list that includes Dwyane Wade, Kyrie Irving, Chris Bosh, and Kevin Love. James and Davis mesh better than LeBron did with any of the others. AD’s All-NBA defense, interior game, outside shooting, and pick and roll efficiency have given LeBron the perfect complement. He’ll hand the team to Davis in the coming years, reducing his role in the twilight of his career. They’re the best duo in the league, better than any since Shaq and Kobe. But for this title, it’s still LeBron.

2. James will win his 4th Finals MVP to mate with his 4th Larry O’Brien trophy. Despite Davis’ masterful Game 2 and his dagger 3 in Game 4, James has guided L.A. through the bubble, the big brother for his neophyte teammates. 27.8 points, 11 rebounds, and 8.5 assists looks pedestrian next to LeBron’s name. He does it every game of every series. Since 2011 and his flame out against Dallas, he’s been the best player in every series he played, only losing when his teammates got injured or were inferior to his opponent’s. At 35 years old, he’s still the best player and one of the greatest of all time.

LeBron, the G.O.A.T.

3. But give his teammates their due. An underwhelming roster after Davis, they’ve benefited from the long runway provided by the two superstars. Without the others’ contributions, however, L.A. would be staring at a series deficit. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, shooting just 28% from 3 in the Finals, had his moment in Game 4. A huge corner 3 in the 4th quarter along with a smooth lay-in late were critical points. L.A. doesn’t win without his 15 and 5 assists. Markieff Morris is shooting 43% from 3 in the Finals. Alex Caruso has hit 41% from behind the arc. He’s a pest on defense, giving the Lakers heart off the bench. Then there’s Rajon Rondo.

4. Laker fans cursed Rondo throughout the season, perplexed Frank Vogel even allowed him on the floor. But he’s lived this before. He knows what it takes. His 6 assists per game and 3 point touch in Game 2 were invaluable. He relaxed LeBron’s ball handling duties. L.A. needed another play maker, and Rondo provided it in the most crucial moments. With LeBron winded at the end of Game 4 (his brilliant second half is the reason this series isn’t 2-2), Rondo took control of the offense. Two dagger buckets, both vintage Rondo. The Lakers leaned on the Rondo/Davis pick and roll late in the fourth and he delivered, first with a layup after beating Duncan Robinson off the dribble, then dishing to AD for his clutch 3. Despite his hate for the nickname, Playoff Rondo is real.

Rondo/Davis pick and roll last two LA possessions sealed Game 4

5. The Heat shocked many by making the Finals as a 5 seed in the East, but their grit and fight carried them to the doorstep of a title. While Miami’s organization is the embodiment of work ethic and toughness, Jimmy Butler adds another dimension. No one outworks him. He doesn’t stand for teammates who don’t value winning, and it’s caused friction at three other NBA stops. But he’s home in Miami. The beneficial relationship between team and player blossomed in the bubble.

6. His Game 3 performance was all-time great and caused NBA heads to rethink his hierarchy in the league. 42 points, 11 rebounds, and 13 assists. Butler strapped an injury riddled roster on his back and beat an outstanding Laker team with 2 of the 5 best players in the league. Not considered a top fifteen player (he made All NBA third team this year), most couldn’t envision him as the best player on a title team. No longer. His flaws are obvious (poor shooter, so-so passer, reluctant to take over games), but his defense, mid-range game, and ability to get to the free throw line outweigh those. Plus his heart. Butler cares more than anyone else on the floor and puts in the work. He leads when others don’t know they need led. Butler’s playoff run has established him as a top ten player in the league.

7. How much more will Bam Adebayo develop and are the Heat title contenders if he takes another leap? Already one of the best big man creators in the league, Adebayo finished the Celtics in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals by running the offense. His passing creativity and handles put undo pressure on all other bigs in the NBA. He’s one of the best defenders in the league, able to switch onto anyone and is an elite rim protector. Like Butler, his passion for winning is obvious. Bam has superstar potential if he hones his outside shot. A superb rim runner in the pick and roll, if he can improve his shooting percentages from beyond the paint (40% 10-16 ft., 28% 16-23 ft., 13% from 3), he becomes something different. Adebayo can be the Heat’s best player. If that happens, Miami can win the title next year.

8. For now, they have another chance. They’re size deficient against L.A. Miami tussled their way to this point, enforcing their will on opponents. They’ll do the same tonight. Watch the Laker turnovers. James’ and Rondo’s playoff experience can calm the waters for their immature teammates. They’ve been careless the last two games, helping Miami stay attached early. Can the Heat get to the free throw line? They must dominate in points at the stripe. And the 3 ball. If L.A’s bench throws bricks and Herro and Robinson get hot, Miami can win another game. But 3?

9. If/when the Lakers win, don’t forget the contributions of Frank Vogel. Until this season, LeBron shut off on the defensive end, especially during the regular season. Whether bored or saving energy, the Cleveland years were a dramatic step back for a once assertive defensive force. Vogel, one of the best defensive coaches in the game going back to his days in Indiana with Paul George and Roy Hibbert, sold James on his scheme and LeBron’s need for effort. It worked. He refocused himself, and along with AD, guided the 3rd best scoring defense in the league. Vogel got his guys to commit to his system. They struggled throughout the season on offense during stretches, but their defense never sagged. They’re about to be champions for that reason.

10. The NBA, it’s players, referees, media members, coaches, and their families deserve kudos for the bubble. No positive test results in three months of lock down is commendable. Science works, and the league studied before designing the ultimate experiment. Despite doubts, the social injustice fights outside Orlando, and the mental challenges for those involved, the NBA will crown a champion, something that felt impossible even a month before the restart. The basketball was exhilarating, with new stars such as Jamal Murray announcing themselves and a familiar one poised to raise the trophy. The NBA succeeded and kept everyone safe in the process. Props.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

Romping and Road Grading into Oblivion in Dallas

Cleveland Browns, Kevin Stefanski, NFL

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

Troy’s NBA Finals Top Ten

Bam Adebayo, NBA, NBA Finals, NBA Playoffs

1.Questions one might have had about Anthony Davis’ readiness for his first NBA Finals appearance got answered with a flourish on Wednesday night. Davis was everywhere. Though he scored 34, his defense overshadowed anything he did offensively. AD protected the rim (3 blocks) switched onto Miami’s guards and challenged their 3 point shooters. L.A.’s defense smothered the Heat, kept them off the foul line, and cooled their hot shooters, with Davis as the fulcrum. He’s too long and quick, with impeccable instincts, for teams to design around, a sobering reality the Heat must now deal with.

2. The Lakers’ size is too much for Miami. Bam Adebayo is their only weapon capable of matching up with Davis, and the Heat would prefer for him to guard Dwight Howard to keep him out of foul trouble. Now Bam’s hurt, likely to miss at least Game 2. LeBron and AD are big, athletic, and can both shoot and handle the rock. Miami’s capable defenders (Jimmy Butler, Andre Iguodala, and Jae Crowder) are all too small to deal with James, let alone Davis. They’re asking too much of them one-on-one. Miami’s only option seems to go back to the zone that gave Boston problems in the last series.

When their big can do this to maybe your best perimeter defender……..

3. Adebayo suffered a neck strain in Game 1. Goran Dragic tore, either partially or completely, the plantar fascia in his left foot. Neither seems likely to play Game 2, and Jimmy Butler sprained an ankle that caused him to limp his way through the second half of Game 1. An 18 point loss that should have been 40 was debilitating enough. Now the Heat turn to guys that have played little in the last month. Kendrick Nunn, a starter all season and the runner-up in Rookie of the Year voting, looked fine in garbage time Wednesday, scoring 18, but Erik Spoelstra’s kept him on the bench in the playoffs for a reason. Meyers Leonard started before the COVID interruption too, but also has seen few minutes in the bubble. They need his size, however. Kelly Olynyk can provide some, with shooting, but the Heat need someone to grab rebounds and get physical with Howard and Davis. Olynyk isn’t that guy. Just devastating injuries that threaten to turn this into a walk over.

4. Despite him showing signs of stardom in the Eastern Conference Finals, Tyler Herro played like a rookie on too big a stage in Game 1. LeBron hunted him in the pick and roll, torching him over and over on defense. His offense wasn’t any better. His handle loosened in Game 6 of the East Finals, and he turned it over twice against L.A. by being too careless with his dribble. 2-8 from 3, a missed layup, and not getting back on defense after watching one of his missed 3’s and giving up an easy 2; some of the lowlights in his Finals debut. Herro was a minus 30 in the first half, an impossible number to believe. With their injuries, Miami has zero room for error. Herro has to find himself in Game 2. With Dragic, their leading scorer in the playoffs, out, Herro must pick up his slack. The Heat has no other options.

5. They shot 11-35 from 3 and took only 14 foul shots. Miami was the fourth best 3 ball shooting team in the league this season and led the league in percentage of points from the free throw line. Already struggling to deal with L.A.’s size and talent, they have to do their thing on offense if they hope to remain in striking distance for the rest of the series. The Lakers are the highest fouling team in the playoffs. Butler, Herro, and Nunn must attack the rim. With Adebayo and Dragic gone, their fantastic pick and roll game leaves with them. Miami needs to force their way to the foul line, slowing the game down. If they penetrate, they’ll create open shots for their 3 point shooters.

6. Maligned for most of the season, the Laker others shined in Game 1. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 13, Alex Caruso added 10, and Rajon Rondo continued his unreal playoff run, controlling the offense when LeBron rested. The Rondo-Davis pick and roll sliced the Heat D, getting Davis easy buckets or trips to the foul line. Markieff Morris even scored 8, knocking down 2 3’s. LeBron has given his teammates rope all season and in the playoffs, sometimes to their detriment, but it paid off in Game 1. They rose to the occasion, unlike most of the green Heat. James and Davis are enough to handle already. If the Laker bench contributes, good night.

7. It’s only 1 game, but the Laker domination, combined with Miami’s injuries, means this may go quick. The Laker size advantage was obvious and is only more exacerbated with Bam’s injury. The Heat has heart, and they’ll punch back in Game 2 and in the rest of the series. But this seems like a coronation. LeBron’s final championship as lead dog before handing the keys of the franchise, and maybe the league, to Davis.

8. If the Lakers win the title, what will this bubble championship do for LeBron’s legacy? He stated earlier this week that this has been the toughest situation he’s ever faced. Quarantined away from family, dealing with the pressures of a playoff run alone without the release of having loved ones around, and the social injustices facing this country at this moment are heavy burdens. Four titles and ten Finals appearances coinciding with the most talented time in the league’s history, when basketball has changed exponentially, is beyond what anyone could have predicted in 2003 when Cleveland chose him first overall in the draft. The pressure he’s faced since entering the league has been unprecedented. Michael Jordan retired instead of facing the growing scrutiny. James deserves this. He’s immortal, a player and a human being unlike anyone we’ve witnessed. This title, with all it took to win, will be iconic.

9. NBA owners are quick to fire coaches, and Steve Ballmer may regret the move to get rid of Doc Rivers. Despite a disappointing season and disastrous second round loss to Denver, Rivers is still the most capable available coach for this group. Kawhi Leonard is one of the 2-3 best players in the league, but he’s a quiet leader. Paul George doesn’t seem to garner the respect of other players with his accomplishments in the league. They need a strong head man, someone who’s made tough decisions in high-intensity moments. Ty Lue has been rumored for the job, but if they forced Doc out, his friendship with Rivers may prevent him from taking the job. Plus, for all of Lue’s accomplishments in Cleveland, the Cavs during LeBron’s run were rarely engaged, only pushing their limits in must win situations (sound familiar?). The Clippers organization is in a tough spot. Both Kawhi and George can opt out of their contracts after next year. The team traded most of their first round picks for the next decade to put those two together. Without a championship in 2021, the dark Clipper years of the past may return.

10. Boston is close, but Jayson Tatum has to close out tight games. Over the fourth quarters and overtime of the Eastern Conference Finals, Tatum shot 12-37 (32%), while getting to the line 13 times in the six games. His aggression wanes as the games tighten. He settles for contested jumpers and turnarounds instead of attacking. He’s most dominant when pressuring defenses and getting to the line. His combination of length and quickness is impossible to contain when he’s at his best. Tatum is a supreme talent, an MVP level type player, and he’s still only 22. But assuming he’ll keep getting chances is a fool’s errand. Dynasties and title runs have a tendency to dry up quicker in the NBA than expected. The Celtics have one of the best young players in the league. If he can develop his killer instinct, they’ll have a shot to win the title next year.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

A Simplistic Triumph is Satisfying, Refreshing in Cleveland

Cleveland Browns, Myles Garrett, NFL

When was the last time the Cleveland Browns posted a ho-hum, boring victory? Sunday’s win against Washington was workmanlike and efficient. Only six penalties, no turnovers, just two sacks allowed. Washington isn’t good and Dwayne Haskins struggled, poor at reading the field and unable to look at another receiver other than his primary target. His inexperience led to three interceptions by the defense and a strip sack by Myles Garrett. The defense wasn’t great, but they took advantage of Haskins. The Browns are 2-1, an ode as much to the schedule than how they’re playing. Washington and Cincinnati are poor, but the Browns handled each at home with relative ease. They’ve scored 30 in back-to-back games for the first time since 2010. To become relevant, they first have to show competency. Kevin Stefanski, through three weeks, has stripped Berea of drama, but the schedule now gets tougher. Can he continue rebuilding the mindset of a schizophrenic franchise against stiffer competition?

Stefanski’s goals on offense are becoming clear. He wants to run the ball behind a strong offensive line with the best duo of backs in the league. The line has been a strength. Wyatt Teller earns high marks as a pulling guard, setting blocks and springing big runs from both Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. He was Pro Football Focus’ highest rated guard in the league through the first two weeks of the season and played well against Washington. In the passing game, Stefanski is working mismatches. On the touchdown pass to Kareem Hunt, he lined up wide against a linebacker. Odell Beckham was in the slot, drawing coverage from the corner and the attention of the safety. Easy touchdown.

The offense put Beckham and Jarvis Landry in the slot on multiple occasions, getting covered by linebackers. Baker Mayfield hit each on slants. Easy yards, and defenses must adjust. While Landry and Beckham have only caught a combined 23 passes through three games, defenses must account for them. Play design has this in mind and led to touchdowns from Hunt and tight end Harrison Bryant. The passing game is about to become more important, however, and the wide outs will need more touches.

The defensive line again dominated, the strength of the unit. When the front four fails to make a play, the offense does. Garrett had two sacks. Sheldon Richardson notched a sack, tackle for loss, quarterback hit, and knocked away a Haskins’ pass. They’ll continue to be the only resistance to opposing offenses. While Washington struggled, Terry McLaurin had a decent day in space. He averaged 20 yards per reception, most of those coming after the catch. B.J. Goodson rebounded a bit, picking off a Haskins’ throw and knocking away another. The young QB’s eyes latched onto his receivers at the snap, allowing the secondary and linebackers to anticipate where the ball was going. The Browns took advantage of Haskins’ sloppiness, turning Washington over five times. Next week will be tougher.

A tentative, irresolute Dallas franchise is next. They’re a team full of talent each year, but struggle to an 8-8, 9-7 record season after season. A coaching change from Jason Garrett to Mike McCarthy hasn’t rid them of old habits. They discover alternative ways to lose, and if not for an even more wobbly franchise in Atlanta gifting them a victory in Week 2, the Cowboys would be 0-3. Dallas lacks the mental strength to win consistently. It permeates the franchise from the top down. Jerry Jones insists on having his hands in everything, causing strife within the ranks. They lack discipline in winning time. Take the under before each season on Dallas’ win total.

A shootout awaits in Texas on Sunday. Dallas has the number 1 ranked offense and passing attack in the league. Dak Prescott has a stable of impressive wide receivers at his disposal. They have established big play guys in Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. The rookie CeeDee Lamb is a nightmare in space. If he’s allowed to run free, good luck. The Browns back seven will struggle. Greedy Williams and Kevin Johnson returning from their injuries this week would help, but Dallas’ talent outside will give them fits. Expect Prescott to flourish Sunday.

Ezekiel Elliott is a problem in the backfield, too. Elliott balances the offense. For the Cleveland defense to have any success, they have to slow the running game. The Browns rank 5th against the run in 2020, allowing only 94 yards per game. If the defense hopes to slow the Cowboys, they must make Dallas one dimensional. The Cowboys have a good offensive line, giving up sacks on only 3.97% of plays, seventh in the league. Cleveland’s front four becomes more important. They need to generate pressure. If they can stifle Elliott and force Prescott to throw, Garrett and company may get to him.

Offensively, the Browns have to score. A lot. Dallas’ defense has been poor on the season, ranking 23rd against the run and 28th against the pass. They’re worst in the NFL, giving up a 126.6 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks, according to PFF. Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham, and Jarvis Landry all must have big days. The Browns have to take advantage of their weak secondary. A ball control running attack won’t be enough this week. Cleveland’s defense cannot slow the Dallas offense. Mayfield has to keep up. This is the week for the receivers to breakout. Stefanski has shown an ability to hunt mis-matches and to get his play makers in space. He must move Mayfield, in and out of the pocket. KhaDarel Hodge should have a role this week. He’s quick in space. If they can work him and Kareem Hunt into match-ups against linebackers, advantage Cleveland. Dallas is desperate, sitting at 1-2. The Browns will get their best effort. The weak part of the schedule has concluded. Stefanski and company now must show they can game plan and execute against talented, if flawed, opponents. A victory this week would alter the league’s perception of the Browns. Are they a franchise turning the corner, or a fraud beating up on weaklings?

The Whip Around

1.Enter the car and lock the handle bar for the Josh Allen Experience, cause it’s a ride. The Buffalo Bills are 3-0 because Allen is an improved quarterback; he’s second in the league to Russell Wilson in passer rating (124.8). His 10 touchdown passes to 1 interception on 71% completions are numbers worthy of an MVP candidate. Toss in his fullback style running ability (74 yards and 2 touchdowns) and it’s hard to see any flaws. But sometimes….the turnovers and bad decisions are head scratching. The numbers are fantastic, but they’ve come against the Jets, Dolphins, and Rams. His three fumbles are concerning. Aaron Donald’s sack and strip of him on Sunday came 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage as he continued retreating, almost costing his team the game. He led a final drive touchdown, however, benefiting from a ticky tack pass interference call on 4th down. The Bills have talent everywhere, and Allen has matured. But will he be reliable in tight situations against good defenses? His talent is obvious, only the space between his head will decide his ceiling.

2. Detroit has a knack for drafting and developing Pro Bowl cornerbacks. Jeff Okudah is their latest superstar in the secondary. The third overall pick in this year’s draft, Okudah is having an immediate impact on their defense. He confused Kyler Murray multiple times on Sunday, forcing him into poor throws and questionable reads. His pick halfway through the third quarter ended an Arizona drive that would’ve allowed them to retake the lead, and he jumped a wide receiver screen to DeAndre Hopkins for a loss in the red zone. Murray looked confused for the first time this season, and Okudah played a big part in that. He’s good against the run and played Murray well when he scrambled. He’ll take his lumps as a rookie, and Hopkins still had a great day against him (10 catches, 137 yards overall). But Okudah is a star in waiting.

3. The coaching in the NFL still baffles the mind, and even Super Bowl winning coaches aren’t immune. If someone can explain why Doug Pederson, with 1:36 left in overtime, ran the ball 4 times in a row from Cincinnati’s 46 yard line, I’d love to hear it. In effect, settling for a chance at a long field goal, Pederson played for a tie. The Eagles lined up for a 58 yard try but jumped offsides, forcing Pederson to punt. These types of decisions show that coaches are only interested in avoiding second guessing in their post game press conferences. If the kicker missed, he had somewhere else to lay the blame. The timidity on the sidelines on Sundays is frustrating. Anyone ever see this out of Andy Reid or Bill Belichick? The rest of the league needs to take notes from the best game managers.

4. Stefon Diggs is an underrated receiver in the league, perhaps because of his unhappiness in Minnesota and Kirk Cousins the past few years. Anyone blaming him now? His work in the end zone against Jalen Ramsey highlights how he uses his size and speed to get open anywhere on the field. He’s making Josh Allen a better QB.

5. The ‘bust’ label is coming for Sam Darnold. His performance against Indy was abhorrent. 17-29 and 3 picks, two of which got returned for touchdowns. The other occurred in the end zone, costing his team a chance at points. Darnold is smart and strong armed, but the lack of weapons, combined with the buffoonery occurring each week on his own sideline, has handcuffed him. Adam Gase has no business on an NFL sideline and is destroying the confidence of a talented young quarterback. Problem is, when it’s gone, it isn’t coming back. The Jets are ruining Darnold. If something doesn’t change, his career seems headed the way of Tim Couch’s and David Carr’s.

6. Another woe begotten franchise continues to sink. The collective irresolution in Atlanta is hard to watch. Blowing a 19 point second half lead in Dallas to a high-powered offense is one thing. But to crumble, at home, against a Chicago team after they benched starter Mitch Trubisky is just sad. This time the offense deserves the blame. Matt Ryan missed on seven straight fourth quarter throws before tossing a ghastly interception after the Falcons relinquished the lead, overthrowing a wide open Calvin Ridley. There aren’t enough psychiatrists in the Atlanta area to fix what’s going on between the ears of the Falcons’ coaches and players. Time to clean house.

7. Kyler Murray wasn’t at his best against Detroit, but watching him juke his way into the end zone never gets old.

8. Lamar Jackson is a transcend talent. His speed and elusiveness combine with his improving passing skills to make one of the best quarterbacks in the league. But don’t compare him to Patrick Mahomes. It isn’t fair to either of them. Mahomes has a Super Bowl title and MVP on his resume, and he’ll add many more. His arm strength, accuracy, and mobility are unlike anything the league has seen before. For all of Jackson’s talent, he’s quite a few steps below Mahomes as a QB. Jackson’s high completion percentage comes because of defense’s fear of his running ability. He isn’t a pinpoint passer, and it shows when he’s forced into passing situations. When the Ravens trail, Jackson’s effectiveness in blunted. His 0-2 record in the playoffs results from Baltimore getting behind early, forced to throw. The best throwers in the game are at their zenith when trailing in the fourth quarter, making throws into tight windows under pressure. Lamar Jackson may develop into that guy in time, but until he does Baltimore will get exposed against the top teams in the playoffs.

9. Sean Payton’s love for Taysom Hill has reached an uncomfortable level. Why take a Hall of Fame quarterback off the field just to replace him with a fullback? When Hill’s in the backfield, the defense expects a run; he’s only thrown 14 passes in his career. His fumble in the fourth quarter of a tie game on Green Bay’s 41 yard line Sunday night was killer. New Orleans was in prominent position to grab the lead, but gave the ball to Aaron Rodgers with great field position. Yes, Drew Brees has struggled. But what does Hill bring to the offense? If he’s that valuable as a runner, why not line him up in the backfield and hand it to him? At least in that situation, Brees can audible out of a poor play.

10. Bad teams lose, as Minnesota showed against the Titans. The Vikings led for most of the game Sunday, establishing Dalvin Cook in the run game while Justin Jefferson was having a breakout performance (7 catches 175 yards). But Kirk Cousins struck again, just as Tennessee took the lead on a 55 yard field goal with 1:44 left in the game. On the ensuing possession, Cousins fumbled a snap and recovered it before throwing an interception the next play. More than talent, the quarterback position is a mind game. Cousins possesses the talent and has been in the league long enough to gain amble experience for these situations. He just doesn’t have it. The doubt and second guessing in his mind will win more often than not.

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com

Troy’s NBA Playoff Top Ten

LeBron James, NBA, NBA Bubble, NBA Playoffs

1.These teams are tough. With apologies to Toronto, the remaining four NBA playoff teams have been the most resilient, tenacious organizations in the bubble. Countless players and coaches have stressed the challenges everyone is facing in Orlando. Sequestered for three months, away from family and friends, normal stolen from you, weighs on the mind. The playoffs wear on players in normal circumstances. The mental challenges faced, and defeated, by these guys is inspiring. Gordon Hayward missed the birth of his fourth child, and first son, on Tuesday. Can you imagine? These remaining teams are here because they fight. They assume nothing. The drive within Los Angeles, Denver, Boston, and Miami is mammoth. It’s the reason this year’s winner belongs with the greats.

2. Now ahead 3-1 in the series, Miami’s first Finals’ appearance since 2014 is looming. Jimmy Butler is the heart, Bam Adebayo is the fight. Goran Dragic re-established his scoring abilities from a few years ago. But the piece that’s made them a championship contender is Tyler Herro. With Miami sputtering in Game 4 on offense, Herro saved them off the bench, scoring 37 and hitting 5-10 from deep, many with a hand in his face or off the dribble. Herro took over the Heat offense, running pick and rolls with Bam for easy mid-range jumpers, layups, and open threes. While Butler has shown the ability to take over in crunch time, his shot isn’t reliable. Herro’s is. Now that he’s shown capable of running an offense, something not seen in the regular season, Miami’s options widen. He’s fearless.

3. The rookie has been a revelation, but the MVP of the Eastern Conference Finals is Bam Adebayo. He leads the team in rebounds, steals, and blocks in the series and is second in scoring and assists. Adebayo snarls rebounds in traffic, keeping Boston’s small but athletic wings off the boards. His defense is unassailable. The block in Game 1 against Jayson Tatum is legendary, but his ability to guard 1-5 changes how opponents can attack them. Miami’s sat in a zone defense this series with Bam protecting the back line. He’s so long and quick that he’s able to run the entire baseline, contesting corner 3’s. But his strength is keeping Boston’s drivers from the bucket. Kemba Walker, Tatum, and Jaylen Brown are hesitant to attack the basket, settling for 3’s and pull up jumpers. Adebayo has shut down their offense and led his team to their 3-1 advantage.

4. So what’s left for the Celtics? They attacked the zone in Game 3 with a balanced offense. Four guys- Tatum, Brown, Walker, and Marcus Smart– scored at least 20. But their passivity returned on Wednesday. They shot 30 free throws in Game 3, 21 in Game 4. Tatum has to forget Bam and attack. Shut out in the first half Wednesday night, Tatum exploded for 28 in the second half. He can’t zone out for halves at a time, however. He’s their star. Tatum has only taken 9 free throws in the last two games. He needs at least that many in Game 5. Boston’s offense had success when they fed him the ball at the foul line, in the middle of the zone, with room for him to operate. From there, he can put pressure on Miami with his ability to shoot, drive, and dish. But he has to be a willing participant. We’ll find out if he’s ready for the next step on Friday.

5. And now that Gordon Hayward has returned from injury, Boston needs to play their version of the Death Lineup more minutes. Miami has wonderful defenders, but Tyler Herro is still a rookie, Duncan Robinson is subpar, and Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder aren’t as quick as they once were. A lineup of Walker-Smart-Hayward-Tatum-Brown is athletic, long, and quick. All can shoot from three and handle the rock. They must put more pressure on Miami’s zone. Find the weak spots and attack. Down 3-1, it’s the only bullet they have to fire.

6. Anthony Davis’ three to win Game 2, along with his duel with Nikola Jokic down the stretch of that game, showed he can perform with the greatest on the playoff stage. But where’s the consistency? LeBron James needs Davis to be engaged for entire games. The Lakers’ roster isn’t good enough everywhere else for him to float. Zero rebounds in the first three quarters of Game 3? One at halftime of Game 4? That can’t happen. He shot 17 times on Tuesday. Again, this isn’t enough. LeBron has the weight of the offense on his shoulders. His other teammates cannot get their own shots, he has to create for them, except for AD. Davis must expedite his aggression from the tip. He attacked early last night, scoring 34 and getting to the line 14 times. More, please. When he drifts, he gives Denver a shot. A disruptive Davis is L.A.’s shot at a championship.

7. If/when the Lakers win the series, give an unheralded player award to Dwight Howard. Jokic is unstoppable, yet Howard’s physicality has made the Nugget center work. He’s played the foil, yelling at Jokic from the bench (Batman is coming for the Joker!) and trash talking him throughout games. He earned a start in Game 4 and rewarded coach Frank Vogel’s confidence in him with 12 points and 11 rebounds. L.A. struggled on the boards in Game 3 (losing the rebounding edge by 19), unacceptable for a team so big in the front court. His offensive rebounding and second chance points set the tone, along with AD’s outburst, for L.A.’s big early lead in Game 4. Howard doesn’t have a place against all opponents, but his size and athleticism, along with his defensive intelligence, works in certain match-ups. If they face the Heat in the Finals, his size will be vital against Adebayo.

8. Jokic and Jamal Murray have been spectacular all postseason. Murray has catapulted himself to another level in the NBA hierarchy, and Jokic has cemented himself as a top 5-10 player in the league. But the Nuggets need the others. Things got tough in Games 1 and 2 when the Murray-Jokic pick and roll was all Denver had to lean on. But they surged in Game 3 when Jerami Grant scored a playoff high 26. A second quarter wave led by Monte Morris (12 points) and Michael Porter Jr (5 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals), with strong interior defense from Mason Plumlee pushed the Nugget lead to 10 at halftime, a cushion they needed all of during L.A.’s frenetic comeback attempt. Grant and Morris produced in Game 4 as well (17 and 12), but the Laker defense locked down the Nugget offense over the final 6 minutes while grabbing 3 crucial offensive rebounds. Denver is young. Their time is in front of them, but the missed opportunities in this series will haunt them.

9. Another comeback from a 3-1 deficit seems unlikely, so let’s marvel at a star’s formation. Jamal Murray, entering the playoffs, was a good scorer who lacked consistency. He’s a franchise cornerstone now, one of the best shot makers in the league. His playmaking has improved too, and the Nuggets will be a favorite for the title in 2021. Pick the prettiest from last night:

10. Billy Donovan accepting the Chicago Bulls’ head coaching position is perplexing. Donovan proved himself an outstanding NBA coach this year, leading an Oklahoma City team to a surprising playoff berth and pushing the Houston Rockets to seven games. But Oklahoma City is rebuilding, and Donovan had no desire to see the franchise through a ‘to the studs’ rebuild. So why Chicago? Philadelphia, Houston, Indiana, and New Orleans are all coach-less and farther along than a Chicago franchise that’s won 22 games each of the last two seasons. Lauri Markkanen is a nice stretch four, Zach LaVine is a scorer, Wendell Carter shows talent when he’s healthy, and Kris Dunn will make an All-Defense team. After that, it’s thin. LaVine can be special night to night, but he’s not a building block. So what’s the allure? His agent would have determined interest from the contenders before he decided not to return to OKC, right? That job looks better than the one he’s just taken, if nothing else than the stability in the front office. Donovan may regret the move north.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

Cleveland Browns: The Truth About Their Surging Offense

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, NFL

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 at his finest.
This play……gorgeous

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.

Defenses don’t touch him

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.

Troy’s NBA Playoff Top Ten

Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, NBA, NBA Bubble, NBA Playoffs

1.Before getting to the Conference Finals match-ups, let’s mention the buffoonery of the Los Angeles Clippers. While the Milwaukee Bucks’ exit from this year’s playoffs is embarrassing, perhaps they lost to a better team. The Clippers blew a 3-1 lead to a talented bunch, but Denver doesn’t possess the experience or skill of the Clippers. Kawhi Leonard was awful in Game 7, but the rest of his teammates stunk from Game 4 on. Paul George’s 10 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists would confuse if we hadn’t seen it before. George floats in and out of series and games. Worst of all, L.A. was the weaker squad. They looked scared in the 4th quarter of Game 7, passing up shots, turning the ball over, and careening it off the side of the backboard. The favorite to win the title, the Clippers asphyxiated themselves in the NBA bubble. So what’s next?

This ain’t it

2. Kawhi and George both have opt outs in their contracts after next year. The organization traded Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, along with 7 1st rounds picks or pick swaps for George to Oklahoma City last summer. The two combined to shoot 10-38 for 24 points in Game 7. The 2021 season is the biggest in Clipper history. What if they don’t win the title? What if they’re bounced out of the playoffs early, again? The future is a dark abyss if their two stars leave after next season. Rumors say Doc Rivers will be back for next season, but all options should remain on the table for Clippers GM Michael Winger and President Lawrence Frank. Trade Paul George? Trade Doc Rivers and elevate Ty Lue to the head job? They should find a trade for Lou Williams to bring in a play making ball handler. Kawhi’s great, but he isn’t in the LeBron James or Luka Doncic class with it comes to getting his teammates involved. Whatever they decide, next year is title or bust.

3. He started the season carrying a few extra pounds and heard about it. But Nikola Jokic just outplayed Kawhi Leonard in a playoff series. Jokic is an offensive mastermind. He’s a genius with the ball, already the greatest passing big of all-time and one of the best overall in the league today. His one-footed fall away jump shots are unguardable. He made 39.5% of his threes against L.A. He’s a wizard around the basket. Jokic never hurries. His fundamentals are exemplary; his footwork PhD level. And his defense, long the Achilles heel of his game, blossomed against the Clippers. His 3 blocks in Game 7 and general rim protection thwarted the Clippers multiple times as they tried to mount a comeback. Only 24, he and Jamal Murray (22) are the best young duo in the league, with Michael Porter Jr. threatening to make a homegrown Big Three in the Rocky Mountains. LeBron is another animal, and they’ll struggle to guard Anthony Davis, but Denver can compete.

4. The Nuggets are the deeper squad in the Western Conference Finals. But the Lakers have 2 of the 5 best players in the league. Gary Harris has been a man on defense since his return from injury and will have the responsibility, along with Jerami Grant, to slow LeBron. Harris lacks size, but they’ll take their chances that James doesn’t have the patience to post him on the block possession after possession. At least Denver has a few bodies to throw at him. AD is another problem. For all of his improvements against the Clippers, Jokic cannot handle Davis. Look for Paul Millsap, Grant, and more minutes from Mason Plumlee to slow the Lakers big man. Again, Davis must dominate. His size and athleticism wrecks opponents when he stays aggressive. He needs to avoid the playoff nerves that afflicted him earlier in the bubble. L.A. needs Rajon Rondo to continue shooting 3’s at a 44% clip as he did against Houston and providing play making off the bench. Who can knock down shots for them? Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, and Alex Caruso need to make shots. Denver will score. Can the Lakers keep up?

5. The two-man pick and roll between Jokic and Jamal Murray is Denver’s livelihood. Porter, a rookie, complained in the Clipper series that they go to it too much. But both players are so dynamic, Murray as a scorer and Jokic as a facilitator. Can you blame coach Mike Malone for wearing it out? L.A. has no one to guard Murray. If they aren’t careful with him, he could explode as he did in the Utah series. Whereas the Clips could throw great defenders with size in George, Leonard, and Pat Beverley at him, Danny Green is L.A.’s best bet, and he isn’t quick enough to keep up. LeBron could be an option at the end of games, but he’ll struggle against his speed too. How much will AD guard Jokic? One of the best defenders in the league, Davis can give the Nugget center trouble, but how many minutes does Frank Vogel want to subject him to endless screen and rolls? Denver’s hope is more minutes for JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard. Houston played the two bigs off the floor last series, and L.A. flourished. The Nuggets hope the Lakers go big again. Jokic will have his way with L.A’s centers. The Lakers should stay small and allow Markieff Morris to bang with Jokic. He’ll struggle too, but will get physical and pull him away from the basket on offense. McGee or Howard bails the Nuggets out.

6. To stay in the series, Denver needs excellent three ball shooting from Harris, Grant, Milsap, Craig, and scoring off the bench from Monte Morris and Porter. The Nuggets defense, as evidenced against the Clippers, has an on-off switch. Can they find consistency against the Lakers? Still, they’re so young. Michael Porter could be an asset on offense in this series, but his defensive lapses kill them. Denver’s best chance is to out shoot the poor shooting Lakers, not out of the question. But, yeah, LeBron. He’s proving in the bubble, as Kawhi, Giannis, and James Harden fall by the wayside, why he’s one of the greats. He’s too smart, and his athleticism remains at 35. L.A.’s roster isn’t as good, but it’s smarter and more experienced. Look for an outstanding series, but for the Lakers to find a way against the Nuggets in 6.

7. The Miami Heat are just tougher than Boston. Now with a 2-0 series lead, how does Boston adjust? They’re struggling with the Heat’s zone defense; Miami is long, rotates well, and seems to have arms in all passing lanes (19 deflections during Game 2). Boston gets tentative late, a problem that allowed Toronto back in the series prior. Jimmy Butler’s defense and hustle ended Game 2. He out-worked Boston twice for steals that led to fast break layups. On offense, Goran Dragic is carving the C’s. He worked Boston in the pick and roll late in Game 2, hunting Daniel Theis, took him to the rim for a layup, and hit a step back 3 on back-to-back possessions. Dragic gets overlooked, but he’s been the engine for Miami’s offense all playoffs (averaging 22 per). Others are getting credit, but don’t forget about Dragic. The Heat isn’t 2 games away from the Finals without him.

Butler’s hustle and D at the end of Game 2

8. While Kemba Walker finally showed for a playoff game (23 points in Game 2), Jayson Tatum has frozen at the end of both Heat games, failing to attack and taking bad jumpers. He only mustered 12 shots Thursday night. Tatum has to drive Boston’s offense and needs more aggression. Brad Stevens made a surprising move to get Enes Kanter minutes early, forcing Bam Adebayo to guard him on defense instead of roaming, where he’s most dangerous. Kanter had some nice moments, but Adebayo attacked him and Daniel Theis in the pick and roll in the third quarter, destroying Boston’s bigs and leading Miami back after a 13 point halftime deficit. It was an out of the box move that paid off early, but overall, Stevens is getting out-coached. The Celtics are still young, and though it showed against Toronto, Boston out-talented them. They need to find some aggression if they hope to get back in this series.

9. Marcus Smart man. He does everything. Championship teams all have Smarts on them. His flopping is infuriating, but that’s on the refs. The lunge to the floor in the waning seconds of Game 1 was egregious, but it earned the Celtics a free throw, and they wouldn’t have made it to overtime without it. His defense is sublime, and it’s because he outworks whoever he’s matched up against. He beats guys to their spot, gets low and swipes for steals, and reads the ball handler when he’s off ball for steals and interceptions. Now he’s hitting his 3’s. 36% from behind the arc in the playoffs, and 14.2 points per, Smart has become trustworthy on offense. Listen, does he make the right decision every time? Does he still dent backboards? Not when it matters. Smart is a money player who makes plays in crunch time. He, along with Jayson Tatum, is the reason the Celtics are still playing and can make the Finals.

10. Pat Riley finds men to play for him, and rookie Tyler Herro is another example. His two threes late in the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals aren’t shots rookies take, let alone make. 12 points, 11 rebounds, 9 assists in Game 1. 11, 9, and 5 in Game 2. His feel for the game is uncanny and Erik Spoelstra trusts him. Herro’s gained confidence in the playoffs, attacking the rim more often when he’s run off the 3 point line. His minutes are on the rise too, from the low 30s against the Pacers to nearly 40 in this series; he’s now able to at least hold his own on defense. Herro has become the Heat’s X factor, the piece many didn’t expect, but is pushing them toward the Finals. Herro wants the spotlight and isn’t afraid of anything on the court. His +50 in the playoffs proves it.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

On to Cincinnati

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, Kevin Stefanski, NFL

This early in the season, one can only hope the Cleveland Browns get better. Nothing on Sunday was surprising. Baltimore employs the reigning MVP and has Super Bowl aspirations. Cleveland is on their fourth head coach and offensive coordinator in three seasons. Baker Mayfield is regressing at an astonishing rate, and the defense has little talent in the back seven. Regardless of the hope that’s present at kickoff of a new season in Cleveland, a realistic look at this team, and the season they’re headed for, is a hard pill for the fanbase to ingest. This long, painful process is far from over.


Judging Mayfield on one game played against a superior defense, after an off-season with no preseason and a coach and coordinator switch may not be fair, but it’s year 3. He’s started 30 NFL games. No longer can some mistakes be overlooked. For instance, this third down throw to Odell Beckham:

This ball is late and behind the receiver. Mayfield gives Beckham no chance. When he’s coming out of his break on the in route, Mayfield has to have the ball in the air. He waits an extra half second and throws it behind Odell, giving Marcus Peters time to bat the ball down.

And this:

How do you miss 6’8”, 300 lb. Calais Campbell dropping into coverage? Campbell slips into the defensive backfield, reads Mayfield’s eyes, and tips the pass, causing an interception on the opening drive of the game. Three years in, Mayfield must see these things. He’s gun shy in the pocket, afraid to throw the ball, yet in a hurry to do so. He’s in his own head. Here’s hoping Kevin Stefanski can save him from himself.

The defense was atrocious, as expected. The linebacking core is young and unathletic. Hard to see the second line getting much better. It’ll take a draft and free agency period focused on the position to see much improvement, unless Mack Wilson developed over the off-season. The front office thrust their resources into the offense, with little help given to the defense, save for cheap, uninspired signings at safety and linebacker. B.J. Goodson had 9 tackles. Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo combined for 9 tackles at safety, with zero passes defended. Baltimore wide receivers ran free in the Browns secondary all afternoon. The defensive line, the one unit with talent, combined for 2 quarterback hits. This isn’t good enough. Myles Garrett accounted for 1 tackle. If the line doesn’t manhandle opposing offensive lines, the opposition won’t be able to keep themselves from scoring.

Kevin Stefanski looked lost. Not much of a surprise. The fake punt was an awful call, and one first-year head coaches make when they’re trying to outsmart the room. Both sides of the ball seemed unprepared. He doesn’t have experience running an NFL team through a week of practice and a game day. He needs reps. Of everyone associated with the Browns, Stefanski needs permission to fail all season. They should consider 2020 a red shirt year for the coaching staff, a chance to learn the machinations of head coaching. If the front office puts too much on every decision he makes, he won’t grow into the job. No more coaching changes, please.

With the Bengals in for Thursday Night Football and the home opener, improvement is imperative. Number 1 pick Joe Burrow led a decent last drive against San Diego, but had to settle for an attempted game tying field goal which kicker Randy Bullock shanked. Otherwise, Burrow was middling against an average San Diego defense, throwing for 193 yards, no touchdowns, and 1 interception. He took turns looking comfortable and jumpy. His offensive line did him no favors, allowing a pressure rate of 33.3%, fourth worst in the league. Pressure, pressure, pressure. It’s a must for the Browns on Thursday. Cleveland’s front four needs to hit the rookie QB again and again. They cannot allow him to get comfortable. Cincinnati has weapons. Tyler Boyd, A. J. Green, and Joe Mixon are dangerous with the ball. Myles Garrett and company cannot let Burrow have time to sit in the pocket. If they allow him any confidence, the Bengals have enough weapons to pull the upset.

The Browns offensive line played well Sunday. They provided Mayfield time to throw and Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt large holes to run through, gaining a combined 132 yards on 23 carries. Look for more of the same Thursday. Cincy’s defense generated little pressure (2 sacks, 4 QB hits) and the Chargers ran for 155 on the ground. A steady ground game should be enough against the Bengals. Chubb and Hunt can win this game on their own. Stefanski should also use the weak Cincinnati defense to get Baker confidence in the pocket. If the Browns struggle, or cannot win at home on Thursday, this season jumps the tracks in a hurry.

The Whip Around

1.Tampa and New Orleans are each trendy NFC Super Bowl picks, but the fossilized quarterbacks they employ should worry fans of both outfits. Tom Brady and Drew Brees are two of the greatest to take snaps, but at the ages of 43 and 41, the hands on their clocks, if not broken, are rusted and rickety. Both have trouble stretching defenses and Brady threw two interceptions in this game, the first time he’s done so since the end of the 2018 season. The Saints won because Brees didn’t turn it over and had a better running game with Alvin Kamara behind him. New Orleans’ defense applied steady pressure on Brady throughout, and Sean Payton is used to calling short, middling passes, as Brees’ arm has regressed the last two seasons. These two are Hall of Famers and think the game better than any QBs in history. But if they can’t make the throws, their chances of playing in February are slim.

2. His conditioning level was lacking, but otherwise Aldon Smith impressed for the Cowboys on Sunday Night. Smith hadn’t seen a football field in five years, circumstances of his own doing. His past is littered with multiple arrests, most stemming from alcohol abuses, and he deserved the punishments the NFL dispensed, but has worked to turn his life around on the insistence of his grandmother before her death from ALS. Smith recorded 11(!!) tackles Sunday, along with a sack and 2 other quarterback hits. Add in 3 other QB pressures, and Smith showed the talent that launched him to stardom with 42.5 sacks in his first three years in the league. Dallas needs pass rush help, and if he can put heat on opposing defenses as he did on Sunday, the Cowboys defense will be stout. Here’s hoping Aldon Smith has changed his life and can reclaim his place as a superior pass rusher in the league.

3. Jimmy Garoppolo’s record as a starting quarterback is 21-6. Anyone want him taking snaps for their Super Bowl contending team? Garoppolo has succeeded because of the schemes given to him by Kyle Shanahan. He struggles to push the ball downfield and is reliant on his backs and receivers to make plays for his offenses to sustain drives. Shanahan proved he didn’t trust him in last year’s playoffs, taking the ball away from him as much as possible. San Francisco’s loss at home to Arizona portends a drop off from the Cinderella season the team enjoyed last year. A slight regression from the defense or the running game will mean missing the playoffs in the tough NFC West. Expect the 49ers to shop for a quarterback next off-season.

4. The hands it takes to catch a fastball like this. Just astonishing Allen Robinson.

5. Pittsburgh’s defense is real. Because of the pressure they put on quarterbacks, offenses are going to struggle against them. Look at these pressure stats from Monday Night:

For all the deserved accolades tossed T.J. Watt’s direction, Bud Dupree may be the better player. Two tackles for loss, a pass defended, and a key hit on Daniel Jones that forced an interception on the goal line, Dupree disrupts offenses in a variety of ways. Last year he was top ten in the league in fumbles forced, sacks, and tackles for loss. The Steel Curtain has returned to Pittsburgh, and if Ben Roethlisberger can return to form, the Steelers are Super Bowl contenders.

6. Most expected sloppy play last week because of a jerky off-season with no pre-season games, but teams acquitted themselves well without the fake August games. Organizations don’t play starters big minutes in the pre-season, anyway. Give props to the players. They know how to ready themselves for an NFL season and the play in Week 1 proved as much. Holding calls were down 78% from a year ago, and total penalties numbered 199, the lowest total for Week 1 since 2001 (ESPN Stats and Info). Turnovers averaged 1.4 per game, while all games in 2019 featured 2.4 turnovers per. Don’t allow the NFL to tell you pre-season games are anything more than a money grab.

7. The MVP is Russell Wilson’s to lose. A distant second to Lamar Jackson a year ago, Wilson’s chances skyrocket this season because Pete Carroll may have come around. Married to a conservative, defensive minded approach for too long, Seattle’s brain trust came to their senses this off-season, realizing they possess one of the best weapons in the league, and it’s past time to treat him that way. Sunday’s numbers tell the story: 31-35, 322 yards, 4 touchdowns, 29 yards on the ground. Wilson wins games on his own; his teams are Super Bowl contenders by his presence on the roster. Now that Seattle’s head coach seemed to turn him loose, their championship window is again open. Watch the Seahawks.

8. The catches made in this league are insane. Chase Claypool is another weapon for Big Ben to exploit defenses with.

9. A good rule for any coach/GM in the NFL would be if you have one of the top 3 wide receivers on your roster, don’t trade him for table scraps. Bill O’Brien has dismantled the Houston Texans, and his deal to ship DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona for David Johnson, a 2020 second rounder, and a 2021 fourth, dumb then, is unconscionable now. Deshaun Watson, one of the best QBs in the league, at 24 years old, gives the Texans Super Bowl hope each year, and just signed a 4 year, 156 million extension. Why give away one of the best weapons in football for an oft injured running back? Nonsense. Hopkins’ 14 catches and 151 yards in Arizona’s upset of San Francisco shows how valuable he is, and speeds up Kyler Murray’s learning curve. The division is brutal, but the Cardinals are on the come. Hopkins makes them a playoff contender. Someone explain to me what O’Brien is doing in Houston. Anyone?

10. Were Cam Newton and Bill Belichick made for each other? Everyone knows Belichick wants nothing more than to stick it to Tom Brady by proving he can win his way. What’s better than taking a quarterback no one else wanted, installing a ball control, run heavy offense, and winning with defense, Belichick’s formula from years past? Newton’s 15-19 passing day, with no turnovers, along with 75 yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground, no doubt left Belichick smirking. Aloof concerning players, Belichick is the greatest to do it for that reason. Never married to a certain scheme, the coach has shown throughout his Hall of Fame career that he’ll use players in a way he sees fit to get results. Wide receivers playing corner. Linebackers as fullbacks. Defensive linemen as tight ends. Defensive teams, offensive juggernauts. He’s done it every way possible. Now to prove he can do it without the greatest quarterback in history.

All stats courtesy of pro-footballreference.com