Add a Little Defense With Pressure, Guarantee the Playoffs?

Cleveland Browns, Myles Garrett, NFL, Tom Brady

After being exposed as the weak link, the reason the team wouldn’t reach their ceiling, the Cleveland Browns defense has taken a turn. Torched early, the D gave up 31.5 points per game in the first seven contests this season. But defensive coordinator Joe Woods’ unit has clamped offenses since, allowing only 13 per. Has something changed? Can this defense remain steady, or will they again take poundings against elite offenses? The important games remaining (Tennessee, Baltimore, Pittsburgh) come against strong offenses capable of hanging 30 in a multitude of ways. If the Browns wish to run over teams on offense, the defense must remain stiff.

Don’t overlook the weather since the start of November. Three games in Cleveland, along the lake. Two featured 40 mile per hour wind gusts, they played the third with rain throughout. Not conditions conducive to throwing the ball. Pass defense is the team’s biggest weakness, yet it’s earned assists from the environment at First Energy Stadium. Bad weather, even in Cleveland, isn’t a guarantee, however. But has something changed?

This defense has allowed the offense to stay in games all season via the big play. The Browns are eighth in the league in sacks per game (2.7) and fifth in takeaways (1.7 per game). Despite hemorrhaging points for the first two months of the season, Myles Garrett was around to force a fumble or drive the offense into long distance situations with sacks. But Cleveland’s weak safeties made them vulnerable to big plays. Ronnie Harrison (acquired with a 5th round pick sent to Jacksonville just before the start of the season) has settled the back line, not allowing deep chunk plays, while also playing strong against the run. While Andrew Sendejo and Karl Joseph continue to cause nausea, Harrison is proof not every piece has to be a star. Above average can replace horrid and lead to a stronger unit.

Are the linebackers any good? Pro Football Focus seems to think so. Here are the Browns ‘backers ranks:
B.J. Goodson– 20th out of 86
Sione Takitaki– 19th
Malcolm Smith– 25th
Mack Wilson– 82nd

Wilson looks lost in his sophomore year. He’s diving at air, missing tackles in the run game, and lagged in coverage against tight end Richard Rogers on Sunday before losing him for an easy touchdown. The linebacking core is the weakest unit on defense. They can’t afford days when Wilson sleeps. He has to get better.

The others’ rankings reflect discipline more than ability. They stay committed to their assignments and prevent big plays. Goodson played the most snaps of any against Philly (64, or 94% of defensive plays run). Smith (53%), Wilson (47%), and Takitaki (31%) play situationally. Smith is their best pass defender in the middle (6.1 yards per target allowed), while Takitaki handles the run best, grading an 85 against the run according to PFF. None, however, are dynamic. Woods doesn’t like to blitz because his LBs can’t get to the quarterback. On 70 blitzes between the four, they’ve accounted for two pressures and a half sack. Two pressures. Two. They aren’t able to do more because they lack the athleticism to make plays in either the run or the passing games. But they’re efficient. Other than Wilson, they get ball carriers on the ground and don’t give up chunk plays through the air. This will have to do.

Sunday’s game featured two stars, Denzel Ward and Olivier Vernon, who, along with Myles Garrett, are key to the rest of the season in Cleveland. Ward has put together a superb rebound season after his shaky 2nd year in the league. He leads the league with 15 passes defended, allows a 60.7% completion percentage, 6.5 yards per target, and an 88.6 QB rating on balls thrown his direction. All quality numbers indicative of the impact Ward has on receivers. He’s fluid and remains connected to his assignment in man-to-man coverage. Twice Sunday, Ward forced Carson Wentz to make perfect throws to complete passes, and he failed. A back shoulder throw to Travis Fulgham on 3rd down was knocked away. Tight coverage on Alshon Jeffery on another third down crossing route required throws the Philly QB was incapable of making. In big moments, Ward brings it.

This wasn’t a called blitz, but Ward’s(21) feel for the game is elite

With Myles Garrett one of 2 or 3 defenders in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year, his dominance has been obvious. But games like the one Vernon unleashed on Sunday push the Browns defense to another level. Three sacks, a safety, and a batted ball wrecked the Eagles’ offense, forcing a wobbly Wentz into poor decisions throughout the day. Though they haven’t done in the same game, the Vernon-Garrett combo collapsing the opposition from both sides of the defense is what John Dorsey envisioned when he traded for Vernon last off season. Injuries have hampered him in Cleveland, but he’s a worthy number 2 pass rusher when healthy. If he becomes more reliable, he’ll force offenses to remove some double teams against Garrett. This becomes the ceiling for the Browns defense.

Vernon is a bull rusher, overpowering opponents on his way to the quarterback

The lack of talent in the back seven won’t allow them to stifle proficient offenses, but Garrett and Vernon will. Great quarterbacks only become average in the face of consistent pressure. It levels the field. After the Mayfields and Chubbs and Garretts, Vernon is most important to the success of the Cleveland Browns for this season. When he’s below average, talented teams can scheme around Garrett. But if Vernon plays the rest of the season as he did against Philly, quarterbacks have little left to do. A dominant Vernon equals a scary Cleveland defense.

The Whip Around

1.The Patriots sit at 10th in the AFC at 4-6, a position quite unfamiliar for Bill Belichick. And while most will blame Tom Brady’s departure for the slide, Belichick deserves blame, too. New England ranked as the number one DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) team in the league last year, but are 32nd this season. DVOA grades every play of the season and compares its success to league averages. A drop off that large isn’t just caused by a loss of a 43-year-old quarterback. Belichick’s defense is giving up 9 more points per game and the Patriots’ turnover margin has dropped from +1.2 to 0. The loss of a franchise quarterback hurts, even more when the entire team hierarchy got built to take advantage of his strengths. But Coach Belichick is the greatest ever, right? He needs to prove he can do it without Brady to keep that title.

2. Joe Burrow’s injury is infuriating, but predictable. Bad franchises remain that way for a reason, and despite having a significant amount of talent in the middle of the decade, Cincinnati still couldn’t win a playoff game. Now in rebuild mode, their star-in-the-making quarterback has a torn ACL and MCL, plus other structural damage. Burrow has the most pass attempts in the league behind an offensive line with PFF grades too embarrassing to type. Since Mike Brown took over operations after his father’s death, the Bengals have been a cheap organization set on saving money instead of investing in wins. Now a young star is paying the price.

3. Once part of the best WR duo in the league, Adam Thielen must make one-handed touchdown catches in losses to the Cowboys. Terrible loss, pretty catch.

4. With an average Lamar Jackson, are the Ravens anything more either? Baltimore is averaging 5 fewer points per game than in 2019. Jackson’s passing numbers are off some (3% less completion percentage, 0.7 fewer yards per attempt), but his rushing numbers have fallen from jaw dropping to good. He’s averaging 1.3 fewer yards per rush on more carries per game. Teams haven’t allowed the game changing play from Jackson with his legs and are forcing him to make throws from the pocket. He completes 63% of his passes, a number that’s inflated because of the space his legs afford his receivers. Jackson is such a dynamo, maybe he makes just enough precise throws to allow his legs to carry them to a Super Bowl. But when have we seen it done before?

5. Alex Singleton makes tackles. Philly’s second year linebacker cracked the starting lineup in Week 6 against Baltimore and has impressed since. 16 tackles last week against the Giants, followed by 12 on Sunday in Cleveland, Singleton is an active playmaker for Philly’s defense. He stuffed a goal line run by Kareem Hunt and recorded a sack and a QB hit that allowed the Eagles to remain within striking distance despite Carson Wentz’s erratic play. Philly has the most talent in the division, but Wentz seems lost, and the injuries continue to mount. But Singleton seems to be a keeper if they can ever figure out what’s wrong with their former MVP candidate at quarterback.

6. Running backs are so plentiful as to be essentially worthless, but Alvin Kamara’s skill set makes him irreplaceable in New Orleans. Like the fear of a Steph Curry 3, just Kamara’s presence in the Saints backfield causes defenses to over bend, cheating in his direction at all times. In any other system his effect gets dulled, but Sean Payton’s offense leans on Kamara in order to hide Drew Brees’ (and now Taysom Hill’s), lack of deep ball strength. Kamara screens are touchdowns in waiting. While Michael Thomas is absurd, Kamara is their game breaker. If New Orleans makes a run, it’ll be because of him.

7. Will Detroit just fire Matt Patricia already? Another Bill Belichick disciple without the flexibility to mold his coaching to the talent of his team, Patricia has tried to force his brutish personality on his players with little luck. A 20-0, listless beat down against a Carolina team starting their third-string quarterback is dumb. Patricia has lost this team and everyone knows it. Just being near Belichick doesn’t make a coach. His relationships, intelligence, and people skills mean far more than who he used to work for. Patricia possesses none of the above. Hire someone who can make something out of Matthew Stafford’s career and allow Patricia to fail as a defensive coordinator somewhere else.

8. Man’s league.

9. Tom Brady Monday night against the Rams on throws over 15 yards downfield: 1-9, 2 interceptions. Brady is the reason the Bucs are Super Bowl contenders, yet his declining arm strength and accuracy down the field will cost them in January. Elite weapons Mike Evans’ and Antonio Brown’s impact lowers when the deep play abilities they bring don’t exist. Add the fact that Brady struggles when pressured, and it’s hard to imagine Tampa Bay becoming the first team in history to play a Super Bowl home game.

10. It’s time for Lamar Jackson to win a big game against an elite opponent. How will he fare against the Steelers hounding, pressure heavy defense? Not the situation Jackson has succeeded under in the past. Thanksgiving night in Pittsburgh, Jackson can reconstruct Baltimore’s season with a victory against the 10-0 Steelers. Although the division is likely already out of reach, the Ravens playoffs chances would take a hit with a loss and a 6-5 record. For Pittsburgh, do they care about going undefeated? Not likely, with a veteran coach and quarterback who’s eyes are only on the Lombardi. But a home loss against the rival Ravens will never do, and Pittsburgh can force the Ravens to run the table to guarantee a playoff berth. The Steeler defense vs. Raven offense. Saddle up. How, and if, T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, and Minkah Fitzpatrick contain Jackson is an irresistible watch. Though the early Thanksgiving games are snoozers, the best rivalry in the league will provide a potent end to the holiday slate.

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com

When the Rest Fail, Call on Nick Chubb

Cleveland Browns, NFL, Nick Chubb

Over the 22 seasons and 12 head coaches since the Cleveland Browns franchise returned in 1999, they’ve searched for many elusive things. A starting quarterback? Sure. Reliable offensive linemen? Yes. Capable pass rushers? Of course. But the one ingredient that makes the thing work, that turns a franchise from a laughingstock into a contender, is an identity. What has the Browns franchise done well since the return? Phil Dawson has been the only consistent piece the organization could rely on. A kicker. An afterthought until he screwed up. A luxury to have in a blizzard, but not a cornerstone. That was until Nick Chubb.

The Cleveland running back, and Myles Garrett, are the best two players to suit up for the Browns since 1999. And while they charge Garrett with carrying an inordinate load for a weak defense, Chubb’s responsibilities on offense mirror Garrett’s. While Baker Mayfield’s play fluctuates and the wide receiver room fights injury, the burden of scoring points falls on the running game. Kareem Hunt is a splendid runner, Pro Bowler, and dynamic force who will continue to be a key weapon in Kevin Stefanski’s offense. But he isn’t Nick Chubb. For the Browns to make the playoffs, Chubb and the Cleveland offensive line must dominate. The wind and weather have taken hold in northern Ohio, and an already mediocre Mayfield is being managed by his head coach/play caller not to turn the ball over. While the lake effects help the defense hold down opponent’s passing games, they hinder any progress made by the third year quarterback. This is Nick Chubb’s team, and his play alongside the rebuilt offensive line will determine if, and how far, the Browns will play in January.

Chubb’s different because he thinks, then reacts in an instant. Yes, he’s fast. Stronger than most. A powerful runner who doesn’t get stopped with one tackler. But Chubb deciphers good holes from great ones fast. His ability to cut back, and the smarts to make those decisions without pause, separate Chubb from the rest of the league. Chubb’s touchdown run Sundaywas reminiscent of so many of his big runs in his career. Well played from the onset by Houston’s defense, Chubb sensed a weakness on the backside of the defense, made one cut, and dashed into the end zone.

Many of his big runs over his first three years follow the same pattern. Hard running toward a hole, one quick cut, then an explosion into the defensive secondary. Chubb refuses to dilly dally. He’s focused on success. It’s his personality. Nick Chubb wants only to win. His stats are meaningless. The step out of bounds on Sunday proved as much. When the front office signed Kareem Hunt, not once, but twice, Chubb hasn’t complained about losing carries to another back, or when he’ll get his pay day. Chubb is this franchise’s identity.

At 6-3 and with 7 games remaining, the weeding out of the AFC has yet to occur. Nine teams are 6-3 or better. Seven make the playoffs. Games against Philadelphia, Jacksonville, and the New York teams are must haves. Match-ups against Tennessee and Baltimore will decide their fate. The franchise has struggled down the stretch of seasons in the last two decades in which a playoff berth was on the line. This time should be different. Chubb and Kareem Hunt, along with a strong offensive line in front of them, give the Browns go to scorers. The team knows who’ll get the ball in the closing minutes, and they have confidence of success. Can they win a playoff game this way? With their erratic play at quarterback and, despite the past two games’ performances, a still shoddy defense, a long run in January is improbable. But in Cleveland, just getting in has been impossible.

The Eagles come to Cleveland Sunday, a mess of a team. Injuries have plagued the franchise since their Super Bowl win, and with a loss to the Giants last Sunday, we can’t consider them a favorite in the worst division in football. Carson Wentz is a shell of his former self. His confidence is shot. He leads the league in interceptions and times sacked. While Philly is the 10th ranked run offense in the league, their passing attack ranks 27th. The Eagles want to win the same way as the Browns. They’ll try to run it at Cleveland’s defense on Sunday, taking the game out of a mistake prone Wentz’s hands. Myles Garrett and the front four will need to take advantage when Wentz drops back in the pocket. Forcing a couple turnovers early will put Philly in uncomfortable spots on offense. Pressure, again, is key.

The Eagle defense is stout against the pass (6th in the league), but ranks 26th against the run. Guess what the game plan will be again this week? Houston did a fine job for three quarters containing the Browns running game, but Chubb and Hunt wore them down in the fourth. It’s November alongside Lake Erie, so weather will always be a factor. The recipe remains the same. The Browns will run the ball, look for Mayfield to make a few throws in key spots, and hope for big plays from the defense. Philly is fragile and should fold. Another must win against an inferior opponent at home on Sunday.

The Whip Around

1.55 drop backs for Alex Smith on Sunday makes for some queasy moments, but him just being on the field is inspiring. Smith was told he could die, might have his leg amputated, had a chance of not walking again, and would never see a football field. Though it can be nerve racking to watch Smith being chased by defenders, the decision belongs only to him and his family, and he deserves this. The work Smith has put in, and the courage to play the game he loves, is enough. Smith was brilliant on Sunday, throwing for 390 yards and nearly leading Washington to a comeback victory over Detroit. But that he was there, on his terms, matters most. The Comeback Player of the Year award in 2020 is an easy decision.

2. The New York Giants are 3-7, their quarterback has more turnovers than anyone in the league not named Carson Wentz, their best player exited the season long ago with an ACL injury, and they feel like the best team in their division. Dumpster fires and train wrecks are jealous of the NFC East. But Daniel Jones completed 75% of his passes Sunday, didn’t turn the ball over, and ran for 64 yards and a touchdown. Darius Slayton continues to make plays in the passing game and Wayne Gallman Jr. ran for two TDs, but the Giant defense has surged in recent weeks, giving New York life where none should exist. James Bradberry (12th rated corner by Pro Football Focus) is holding opposing quarterbacks to a 77.5 rating when throwing in his direction, has 3 picks, and leads the league with 14 passes defended. Linebacker Blake Martinez tops the NFL in tackles. Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence have combined for 8 sacks, 23 pressures, and 9 knockdowns. If you’re looking to pick a winner of this moribund division, you could do worse.

3. Green Bay is 7-2 and scuffling. Tied for the best record in the NFC with New Orleans, something is off. The Packers struggled to put away Jacksonville and backup quarterback Jake Lutton on Sunday in Lambeau, and while Aaron Rodgers’ numbers look fine (24-34, 325, 2 TDs, 1 INT) he misses a throw or two each game he didn’t in the past (the interception on Sunday is a prime example). Most concerning for Green Bay, however, has to be their lack of pressure on defense. Za’Darius Smith has 8 sacks, the rest of the team has 12. They’ve generated just 20 hurries and 14 knockdowns of opposing QB’s on the season. All the contenders in the NFC have exposed flaws over the past few weeks, and with Rodgers at quarterback, the Packers level of worry is low. But without more of a pass rush, it’s tough to see them duplicating their run to the NFC title game from last season.

4. One problem Green Bay doesn’t have is at wide receiver. Davante Adams is top five in the league. He seems to make a catch like this each week.

5. The other NFC leader at 7-2, New Orleans, has seemed off all season, too. But a defeat of Tampa on Sunday night two weeks ago followed by a convincing victory over injury ravaged San Francisco on Sunday has the arrows swinging in the proper direction. The Saints biggest worry early in the season was Hall of Famer Drew Brees’ noodle arm. Brees is completing 73% of his passes, thrown 18 TDs to 3 picks, and, despite the outcry over his missing deep ball, his 7.63 adjusted net yards per pass attempt is 7th in the league. Now the concern becomes his broken ribs and collapsed lung. Brees suffered significant injuries on Sunday and will miss 2-3 weeks. Now Sean Payton has to decide who will get the snaps at QB in Brees’ absence.

6. Will Payton lean on his love child, Taysom Hill, or turn to heaver Jameis Winston? A move to Hill would signal a heavy reliance on the running game, while a Winston nod opens up the deep ball and buckets of turnovers. Winston threw 30 picks last season. It’s a problem he’s unlikely to fix, but New Orleans offense will score with him behind center and Emmanuel Sanders would become a more prevalent part of the offense. But Payton’s soft spot for Hill is borderline psychotic. Shuffling him in and out for a handful of plays per game is one thing; handing him the reins to the offense of a Super Bowl hopeful team is another. The bet here is Winston starts, but with more than a little Hill sprinkled in.

7. Each season begins with another rookie Lions running back, poised to take over the position and relieve pressure off of Matthew Stafford. Like the Lions, every candidate falls on his face. Enter D’Andre Swift. Given double digit carries in back-to-back weeks for the first time this season, Swift has rushed for 145 yards the last two games, but makes a bigger difference in the passing game. After sporadic use early in the season, he’s up to 31 catches this season, averaging 9 yards per grab. He’s scored 6 times on the season, giving Detroit’s offense someone to pressure defenses with Kenny Golladay battling injuries most of the season. Look, Detroit will continue to blow leads and lose to inferior opponents. That’s how they’re wired. But maybe Swift will give them and Stafford a reliable, dynamic force in the backfield.

8. Man, is Tua Tagovailoa something. This throw to Mike Gesicki, on the move in between three defenders, is so gorgeous. This kid has the goods.

9. Kyler Murray to DeAndre Hopkins is the most electric connection in the game. Murray has grown into a fringe MVP candidate and Hopkins has become the undisputed best wideout in the NFL this season. Arizona is tied for the lead in the toughest division in football because no one can stop these two. Murray’s running ability creates a pause for every defender on the field; they have to be cognizant of the fact he can house it on any play. The extra tick of room this gives receivers is important. But when all else fails, and your QB can throw it up, and your wide receiver can make this play? Game over.

10. Two 2019 AFC playoff teams, struggling, meet in Week 11 and the loser faces some trouble. Lamar Jackson has failed to replicate last year’s MVP season, and Ryan Tannehill is coming off a pedestrian performance in a blowout loss against division rival Indianapolis. Baltimore has lost 2 of 3, Tennessee 3 of 4. With the AFC stacking up at the top, another loss adds to the snowballing effect for the loser. Which quarterback turns it around? Who establishes the power run game first? Tennessee ousted Baltimore in last year’s playoffs by grabbing an early lead and forcing Jackson to play catch up. The Titan defense is middling this season, 17th in points allowed, 17th in rushing yards per game, and 27th against the pass. Baltimore pounced on opponents last season, overwhelming teams with their speed to put games out of reach before halftime. The Ravens need to return to their power running game and dominate a lackluster defense. The Titans have games against Indy, Cleveland, and Green Bay remaining. A loss would leave them scrambling. Can they get hot down the stretch once again?

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com

Because They’re the Cleveland Browns, This One is a Must Win

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, NFL, Nick Chubb

Aside from Steeler week, the most important game of the Cleveland Browns season is upon them. After a disappointing loss two weeks ago to Las Vegas when the team underperformed, played disjointed, and seemed unmotivated, the Browns need a victory against Houston. The Texans are record poor but talent strong. Deshaun Watson remains one of the best quarterbacks in the league despite fewer weapons at his disposal. J. J. Watt still wrecks opposing offenses. If Cleveland overlooks the 2-6 Texans on Sunday, they’ll get beat, dealing their playoff hopes a significant blow.

Who plays Sunday is murky. Baker Mayfield sits on the COVID list after having contact with a Browns employee who tested positive. Mayfield’s tests have been negative, but he must remain that way until at least Wednesday to return to the practice field. Regardless of the quarterback, the game plan should remain the same. Houston sports the worst rushing defense in the league (yes, even worse than Dallas) and Nick Chubb and Wyatt Teller returned to practice on Monday, in line to play this week. Expect to see Chubb and Kareem Hunt attack the Texans’ weakness. Bradley Roby has played a strong corner (12th according to PFF) and Houston generates a decent pass rush, sacking quarterbacks at a rate higher than that of the Browns. With Mayfield’s erratic play and strong winds and rain in the forecast for Cleveland on Sunday, the running game is their path to victory.

The Texans, meanwhile, have no desire to run the football. They average just 87 yards on the ground, 31st in the league. Their offense is Deshaun Watson, and he wants to push the ball downfield. Watson is second in the league in yards per attempt (8.8) and has two deep threats in Brandin Cooks and Will Fuller at his disposal. The Browns front four must pressure him. Watson gets sacked on 8.1% of drop backs, 28th in the league, because his offensive line is poor and he likes to throw it deep. If he’s completing moon shots, the Browns can lose.

Will the weather help Cleveland’s abominable secondary? Root for windy conditions, the only assist that can help the Browns defend the pass. November on the lake becomes untenable to teams without a sturdy running game. The Texans are good, but lack confidence or the ability to bury teams. The Browns need to prove they can win a game with stakes.

Root for wind Sunday

On the surface, a 2-6 team at home in November poses a minor threat. But the Texans played a divisional round playoff game in Kansas City last season. Their schedule was brutal, facing the Chiefs, Ravens, Steelers, Titans, and Packers in the first seven weeks of the season. Will they quit if punched early? The Browns must get an early lead, then take Houston’s heart by leaning on them with the power running game. If weather is a factor, it could frustrate Houston’s air heavy offense. In the past, on the cusp of becoming either a contender or an also ran, these are the games this franchise has booted. Sunday will prove whether Kevin Stefanski has changed the atmosphere in Cleveland.


The Whip Around


1.In Seattle, Pete Carroll lets Russ cook. But his defense gets roasted each week, and will keep the Seahawks out of the Super Bowl if they can’t improve before the playoffs. 30th in points allowed per game. 32nd in yards per game and passing yards per game. 23rd in sack rate. The secondary can’t guard a soul. Jamal Adams’ injuries have sidelined him, but he also struggles in coverage when he plays. They play four corners who qualify to be ranked by Pro Football Focus. Of 116 CBs, no Seahawk slots higher than 47th. Carlos Dunlap helped their pass rush on Sunday, vital for the secondary to have any shot. Seven sacks of Josh Allen, along with 10 more hits of Buffalo’s quarterbacks, suggest they can disrupt opposing passers. But Allen ripped them anyway, throwing for 415 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Legion of Boom, Seattle’s vaunted secondary during their Super Bowl years, is gone. If they can’t get better at defending the pass, so is Russell Wilson’s shot at another Super Bowl.

2. Can watching Aaron Rodgers throw beauties like this ever get old? And oh yeah, Davante Adams could be the most underrated receiver in the league.

3. 8-0 for the first time in their history, the Pittsburgh Steelers have the look. And while Ben Roethlisberger’s return and Chase Claypool’s superb rookie season garners the headlines, T.J. Watt and the Steeler defense have lifted the franchise to their best start in Steeler history. Watt’s 7 sacks and 12 tackles for loss tie him for fourth and second in the league. Watt has the quickest first move off the ball in the NFL. He drives around his blocker on the edge by being quick, getting low, and putting his right arm into his man, using power and leverage to force his way to the quarterback. If the Steelers continue to blitz their way through the league, the Watt family may add another Defensive Player of the Year award to their mantle.

4. Before Tampa got bludgeoned by New Orleans Sunday night, their defense, ranked 2nd in sacks and tied for 1st in the league in turnovers, threatened to give Tom Brady the weapon he needed for another title run. Tampa blitzes the second most of anyone in the league, knocks down QB’s 9.5% of drop backs, and has the third highest pressure percentage in the league. Those numbers are fierce, giving them a fallback in case Brady’s age becomes a factor late in the season. Only Pittsburgh makes QB’s more uncomfortable, but Drew Brees toyed with the Bucs pressure by throwing quick and working the screen game. Few opponents have Alvin Kamara and an uber accurate thrower, but Tampa’s future is pressure dependent. Keep it off your old quarterback and put it on the opposition’s.

5. Funny how a rebuild ramps into overdrive once the quarterback is in place. A year ago, the Miami Dolphins seemed destined for an arduous dismantling of the franchise. Now they’re in playoff contention. Brian Flores proved capable of motivating his young squad last year, winning 5 games when zero seemed possible. When your rookie quarterback goes on the road, completes 71% of his passes, throws 2 touchdowns and no picks, and beats a playoff contender, heads turn. Tua Tagovailoa didn’t let Kyler Murray’s outstanding play distract him Sunday, and it allowed him to engineer a fourth quarter comeback. Miami now owns an impressive head coach, a young, dynamic signal caller, and Houston’s 1st and 2nd round picks in the 2021 draft. Few franchises are in a better position.

6. San Francisco’s fall from the top of the NFC is injury centered, but proves again that relying on a dominant running game and defense is prickly. Shady quarterback play gets supported only so long. When your rushing attack falls from elite (153 yards per game last year), to above average (119 in 2020), you’re no longer a Super Bowl contender. The 49ers are the latest example of why it’s imperative to win it when you get there. A young roster burgeoning with talent last year, San Fran now has an injury plagued group, are saddled with a below average quarterback whom they’re paying 27 million per, and play in the toughest division in football against Kyler Murray, Russell Wilson, and Jared Goff. Windows are tight in the NFL.

7. Injuries have mounted, riddling his early career, but when Dalvin Cook is on the field, he balls. He’s 13th all time in rushing yards per game played. Now healthy after missing week 6, Cook leads the league in rushing yards, touchdowns, and yards per game. His 6 yards per carry is third. With shoddy offensive play all around and a quarterback destined for the mediocre Hall of Fame, Cook’s season has carried the Vikings back into playoff contention. No running back has single-handedly made the playoffs since Adrian Peterson, also in Minnesota. But the Vikings don’t play defense, a prerequisite for running your way into a playoff berth. Their sixth worst in the league, force few turnovers, and are 30th in the league against the pass. Cook is outstanding, and could have an outside shot to win Offensive Player of the Year. But catch him before January.

8. Joe Flacco is Joe Flacco. He has a Super Bowl ring, however, and passes like this remind you of who he once was.

9. The long balls are rare, and the offense plodding, but Derek Carr’s efficiency is working. The Raiders are 5-3 and battling to make the playoffs in their first Las Vegas season. Carr lacks weapons in the passing game, but is completing 70% of his throws and has tossed only 2 picks. Are the Raiders a ground and pound, defense first outfit? Al Davis is barking from beyond for Jon Gruden to throw it deep, but they don’t have the horses. The Raiders lack talent, but they’re disciplined (fifth fewest penalties in the league) and cohesive. Wins over Kansas City and New Orleans already, a new, domesticated version of the Raiders exists. Do they have the talent to sneak into the playoffs? If so, Gruden’s experience makes them a danger to any contender.

10. Seattle plays a game of the week each Sunday, and two losses in their last three is concerning. They travel to LA on Sunday to face the Rams, 5-3 and just behind the Seahawks in the NFC West. Because of last year’s slide and Todd Gurley’s exit, most expected little from L.A. this season, yet a victory on Sunday gets them at least a share of first place in the division. Jared Goff feasts on bad secondaries, and none is worse than Seattle’s. The MVP at the midpoint, Russell Wilson’s teams are never out of games early, but Sean McVay will try a plodding screen game and run heavy attack to keep Wilson’s field time low. Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey will be the difference. If his pressure up the middle can force Wilson to throw early, erasing his devastating deep ball game to D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, and Ramsey can close off one side of the field, the Rams should win. A victory on Sunday puts them back into the Super Bowl conversation.

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com

Are the Cleveland Browns a Playoff Team? The Bottom Line on their Second Half

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, NFL, Tom Brady

A disappointing, wind hindered loss against the Oakland Raiders Sunday took the Browns to their bye week, halfway into the 2020 season. Five wins, three losses, and perched in playoff position, any rational Browns backer knows to enjoy the moments, and the victories. Seven teams now make the playoffs in each conference (with a report that the NFL may consider 8 entrants if games get canceled because of COVID). The schedule is favorable. Houston, Philadelphia, and Jacksonville await after the bye (combined records: 5-16-1), and they’ll face both New York teams in December. Is this a playoff team, and can they compete against Super Bowl contenders?

The losses are bad. Cleveland has averaged 37.4 points in wins, just 6.3 in losses. Any playoff run hinges on the offense scoring. Baker Mayfield again regressed in the wind on Sunday, a bad sign for the rest of the season. Four home games, plus two road games in New York, promise erratic weather. Mayfield has to find consistency. 12-25 for 122 yards Sunday, regardless of the conditions, won’t get the Browns into the playoffs. Receivers dropped passes. Jedrick Wills Jr. was awful. The running game produced little. Excuses, all of it. Quarterbacks lead their teams on poor weather days and during games when the rest of his teammates are struggling. He must deal with the elements for the balance of the season. He’s succeeded when conditions favor him, against poor defenses and lackluster opponents. Baker has to show up when he’s off, against playoff worthy opponents, to prove he’s capable of winning games in January. His flaky play is concerning.

Nick Chubb is close to returning, however, so Mayfield’s effect will lessen if Chubb and the offensive line re-establish the number 1 rushing attack in the league. But the defense isn’t getting better, and no one returning from injury can save this unit. The razor’s edge Cleveland plays on each week is further sharpened if the defense isn’t sacking the quarterback and forcing turnovers. No miscues by Las Vegas Sunday, and only 2 sacks, both by Olivier Vernon, isn’t good enough. A Vernon sighting was refreshing. He needs to do more over the second half of the season. Myles Garrett injured a knee, and while he’ll be ready when the team returns from the bye, he’s too often been their only resistance. Vernon has to help.

Ronnie Harrison has settled into one of the safety roles, providing stability (7th ranked safety via Pro Football Focus). But Mack Wilson has been abhorrent since returning (81 out of 82 linebackers, via PFF), and the corners, save Denzel Ward, can’t cover. Opposing offenses overcome penalties and lost yardage plays as the Raiders did on Sunday, digging out of a 3rd and 18 to get a first down, because the defense plays on their heels. The young guys are thinking too much and the veterans aren’t athletic. Josh Jacobs punished them on the ground Sunday. Joe Burrow has shredded them twice through the air. They can’t stop either attack, and offenses know it.

An alarming defensive stat? The Browns have the league’s 18th best sack rate, 6.06%. The heart of the defense, the only way they can control games, and they’re middling. Pittsburgh’s defense gives away yards, but their sack rate (11.54%) is almost double of Cleveland’s. The Browns defense is 26th in the NFL, allowing teams to convert 48% of their third downs. Long drives are becoming the norm. If Kevin Stefanski hopes to run the ball and control the clock when Nick Chubb returns, his defense must get themselves off the field. Otherwise, it’s on Baker.

Something went missing after the victory against Indianapolis. Chubb’s injury occurred the week before, sure, but the confidence has waned. A come from behind win against feisty Cincinnati didn’t provide the elixir. The bravado shown against Dallas and Indy has disappeared. They seem unsure as a team, wanting to contend, yet unsure of how to do it. But again, the schedule is their friend. Houston coming into Cleveland after the bye week is pivotal. The Texans are 1-6, yet won a playoff game last season and pushed the Chiefs, in Kansas City, for 20 minutes in the divisional round. Deshaun Watson will carve the secondary if given time. Their offensive line again is a weak link, however, allowing Watson to be sacked 8% of the time, 28th in the league. Playoff teams can’t lose to bottom feeders at home in November. We will draw a line of demarcation when Houston leaves Cleveland on November 15. Are the Browns playoff contenders, capable of competing against the top tier of the AFC? Or are they still early, searching for an identity and more talent?

The Whip Around

1.Until Lamar Jackson sticks a big throw in a tight game or on a game winning drive, we cannot consider the Ravens Super Bowl contenders. Jackson is dynamic. One of the most fascinating players in the league, he brings a skill set unlike anyone we’ve seen. But he’s reached his ceiling. The Ravens have wilted the past two years in the playoffs, and he’s struggled in marquee games against the Chiefs and Steelers. Talented teams, whether by scoring with the Ravens offense or utilizing ultra athletic defenders, have slowed Jackson, forcing turnovers and stalled Baltimore drives. The Ravens sat on teams last season with shock and awe early in games. Lamar’s skills cannot be simulated. But the league is coming around, and if Baltimore isn’t dominating opponents, Jackson’s talent is muted. Pinpoint passing to lead a team down the field late in games isn’t his forte. Can he develop that? For the Ravens to advance deep into the playoffs, he must.

2. Tampa’s ceiling may depend on their playoff draw. Defensive pressure with four rushers, and not having to blitz, has cost Tom Brady one Super Bowl, and while he’s been outstanding after three subpar performances to start the season, his movement at 43 years old is waning. The greatest to move inside the pocket, Brady can’t make the half steps and slides that were once his trademark, and the pressure on Tampa’s offensive line to keep him clean in January will be immense. The crappy Giants hung with the Bucs on Monday Night by hitting Brady and making him rush throws. Who can make him uncomfortable in the playoffs? While Seattle may be the best team in the NFC now, their pass rush stinks. The Rams and Saints (sixth and seventh in the league in sack rate), may cause Brady more problems.

3. When you punch someone in the helmet, you’re telling on yourself.

4. Among the myriad of reasons Dallas has fallen over a cliff is the poor play of linebacker Jaylon Smith. His Pro Football Focus rankings have cratered this season. He graded out at 70 overall last year, 81 against the run. In 2020 his rankings have dropped to 52 and 53, respectively. His tackles are high, but it deadens his impact when he brings down ball carriers 10 yards from the line of scrimmage. The Cowboys always underwhelm, yet this year seems different. This group should have competed for a Super Bowl already, but Dak Prescott sits injured while in line for a mega contract, their once great offensive line is struggling, Ezekiel Elliott’s contract extension looks bad, and Smith is regressing. How ‘bout them Cowboys?

5. It’s hard to tell if Carson Wentz is bad now, or if Philadelphia’s injuries and inept offensive line play is dragging him down. Two picks and two lost fumbles on Sunday night are a bad look against an awful Dallas squad, and his 12 interceptions on the season lead the league. Zach Ertz, Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, and Miles Sanders have all missed most of the season, or significant time. The division is so bad, the Eagles should make the playoffs by default. Then they become a tough out. They’ll have a home game as a division winner, and most of the injured guys should return. Doug Pederson’s a Super Bowl winning coach. So how good is Carson Wentz?

6. Justin Herbert keeps making plays, and the Chargers keep blowing leads. Herbert is a star; throws like this one are impossible. But when does the constant losing of three touchdown leads affect his psyche?

7. Atlanta’s undisciplined, personal foul ridden win against Carolina last Thursday showed why they’re bad. Two late hits out of bounds, double flags on a kickoff (they kicked off!), and a late hit by Charles Harris on Teddy Bridgewater (which led to an ejection) are dumb fouls made by unthinking players. The Falcons aren’t snake bitten by bad luck. They’re getting what they deserve.

8. Cam Newton just drops the football with New England in the red zone against Buffalo with 30 seconds left. What gives? Newton was fantastic early in the season, but over his last 3 games has no passing touchdowns, 5 picks, and the lost fumble. The Patriots are losing, a switch flipped on them after two decades of dominance. With Miami playing well, only the Jets offer easy wins for the Patriots and a chance to regain their footing. If they lose in New Jersey Monday night, they’re done, with an off-season like no other coming for New England.

9. If only Daniel Jones could stick to throwing beauties like this, instead of turning the ball over……………….

10. He doesn’t dominate opposing offenses, but Emmanuel Ogbah is the style of signing teams like the Dolphins make which speed up turnarounds. Ogbah had one tackle Sunday, a huge strip sack fumble of Jared Goff that teammate Andrew Van-Ginkel housed in the Dolphins upset of the Rams. Ogbah already has a career high with 6 sacks, tied for seventh in the league. He’ll never be a star, but consistent pass rushers are gold in the NFL. Miami’s rebuild is impressive. If Tua hits, they’re a problem, and soon.

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com

A One Week Improvement. Is Baker Mayfield Emerging as a $40 Million Man?

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, NFL

A decision faces the Cleveland Browns organization next off season, one the team hasn’t confronted in their history. They haven’t been good enough as a team, or at the quarterback position, in the salary cap era (it started in 1994) to face such a choice. Baker Mayfield has changed that. Is he good enough? Mayfield, after a brilliant rookie season, faded last year and in the early stages of this season. But then Sunday happened. The confident, swaggering QB returned, unlocking Cleveland’s offense. That Mayfield raises their ceiling. That Mayfield can win playoff games. Where has he been? Will he remain?

Except for his height, Mayfield has the tools. What separates him has always been his cocksure attitude. It returned Sunday after a year and a half hiatus. Mayfield was unsure of himself in the pocket and afraid to make mistakes. He’s been fantastic on the move this season, advancing the offense on play action and designed rollouts and bootlegs. But he’s questioned his reads when sitting in the pocket, leading to turnovers and inaccuracy. Not so against the Bengals. He threw receivers open instead of waiting for them to create their own space. Mayfield wouldn’t have made this throw to Rashard Higgins a week ago.

He hits his back foot on the drop and the ball is out. That hasn’t happened since his rookie season. The ball pops. Look at this touchdown throw to David Njoku. The confidence is there. He knows where he’s going in an instant and places the ball where only his tight end catches it. Beyond gorgeous.

Where has this been? Did the hype, and failures, of last season sap his nerve? How much pressure did he feel to resurrect a miserable franchise? And what of Odell Beckham Jr.? The Pro Bowl receiver tore his ACL Sunday and will miss the rest of the season. A talent like his is irreplaceable. But we must ask, why did the old Mayfield return once Beckham exited? Has he recognized pressure to feed the superstar since the trade brought him and Super Bowl expectations to the Browns from New York? Was Mayfield intimidated by Beckham’s presence? If Baker continues to feast on opposing defenses without one of the best wideouts in the league, we’ll have answers.

Mayfield’s four-year rookie deal expires after the 2021 season, with a fifth year team option available in 2022. Teams in Cleveland’s position like to extend, or pick up the option, with a year remaining on the contract, or next off-season. With their history at the position, are the Browns prepared to declare Mayfield their franchise quarterback? Jared Goff makes 33.5 million per year, Kirk Cousins 33. That’s where negotiations will start. He’ll ask for the 40 million per that has held up Dak Prescott’s negotiations in Dallas. If he plays the rest of the season as he did on Sunday and the Browns make the playoffs, the team will have to pay him. They can’t afford to let the best quarterback the franchise has employed since Bernie Kosar to walk because of money. Is he good enough to devote 20% of the salary cap to, however? What does that contract do to their finances? Myles Garrett’s making $25 million per season now, and Nick Chubb and Denzel Ward are due soon. The new GM’s decisions next off-season will shape the Browns for the next decade.

Cleveland GM Andrew Berry didn’t draft Mayfield. What are his thoughts concerning John Dorsey’s pick? Kevin Stefanski inherited Baker, too. Are they prepared to marry their careers to the sporadic quarterback? The 5-2 start is terrific, especially for this organization. But the Baker decision looms. It’s a career definer for all involved. Mayfield makes the choice easy by playing the way he did on Sunday. That Baker is a top ten quarterback, someone deserving of a huge, long-term contract. But is the indecisiveness gone? Will he continue to fire darts? Has Stefanski unlocked his most important player? The Browns offense is unstoppable, with or without Beckham, with an accurate, resolute Mayfield. To become a perennial playoff contender and AFC North juggernaut, the reborn Baker Mayfield from Sunday must be the new norm. Do you trust what you see? Would you bet your job, and $40 million, on him?

The Whip Around

1.What was Anthony Lynn thinking, starting the season with Tyrod Taylor as his starting quarterback? Justin Herbert is impressive. He’s completed 67% of his passes and thrown only 3 interceptions. Taylor is a pro, and getting stuck in the lung by a doctor with a needle is awful, a cruel way to lose a starting QB job. But Herbert is a star, and the Chargers organization benefits from their doctor’s malpractice. L.A.’s future looks sensational. Funny how superb quarterback play changes the dynamics of a franchise. Perhaps Chargers stock is more valuable than their co-tenant’s, the Rams, with their future salary cap problems.

2. The Cam Newton questions are coming fast, and after his past two weeks they’re logical. Zero touchdowns, 5 interceptions, 5 sacks, and 18 points scored won’t pacify a fan base used to dominating. Is this a typical, early season Patriots swoon, or is Bill Belichick just a good coach without the greatest quarterback ever? Something exists in between, and Newton deserves a bit of a pass. He’s only two weeks removed from kicking the coronavirus, and the long-term effects are unknown. Cam could deal with lingering symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, or headaches. But to think it hasn’t caused him any problems is foolish. If Belichick can drag this New England team to the playoffs, it’ll be astonishing.

3. DeAndre Hopkins has the best feet in the history of the NFL.

4. Why is Antonio Brown on an NFL roster? The league’s love affair with the malcontent is embarrassing for everyone involved. Civil lawsuits for tossing furniture off a balcony and nearly hitting a 22-month-old. Reckless driving outside Pittsburgh at over 100 MPH. Allegedly pushing the mother of one of his kids to the ground. An unpaid $38,521 tab. Another unpaid $7,194, this time a trainer. Sexual assault allegations from a personal trainer that he’s still facing a suit for. Brown has problems and shouldn’t get rewarded for his continued misconduct with a spot on a Super Bowl contender’s roster. The league will never learn its lesson. And why do the Bucs need him? A receiver room that contains Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and an emerging Scotty Miller isn’t desperate. Head scratcher.

5. And why, while we’re discussing poor league decisions, wasn’t Jon Bostic suspended for this hit on Andy Dalton, which caused a concussion? Bostic should have to sit as long as Dalton does. This is the exact helmet-to-helmet type hit the NFL supposedly wants out of the game. The referees tossed Bostic from the game, but that isn’t enough. The leagues ‘nothing to see here’ approach to these incidents is why they continue. Player safety to the NFL is only a talking point to make them seem compassionate. They aren’t.

6. The Devin Bush ACL tear didn’t hurt the Steelers defense for at least one week. Vince Williams, tallying 10 tackles (2 for losses), a sack and another quarterback hit, already has set his career high for tackles for loss and earned a spot on Pro Football Focus’ team of the week. Pittsburgh’s defense is the epitome of next man up. They give up points, but what defense doesn’t in 2020? They’re relentless on opposing quarterbacks. Those hits take a toll. Can they get Lamar Jackson on the turf this weekend? Their toughest test so far, if they can put the nimble Jackson on his back, the Steelers will take a huge two game lead in the AFC North.

7. Looked like DK Metcalf tried to make up for his early season blunder of dropping the ball before crossing the end zone by running down Budda Baker on a sure pick six on Sunday night. Metcalf caught Baker, saving the touchdown by sprinting the length of the field to keep the Arizona safety from pay dirt. Russell Wilson’s uncharacteristic three interceptions gave the Cardinals life, however, and they look capable as any of winning the brutal NFC West. Three teams have 5 wins, and the cellar dwelling 49ers only destroyed New England 33-6 this week and are the reining NFC champs. Is Kyler Murray capable of competing at Russell Wilson’s level for the next two-and-a-half months? He did it Sunday, but continuing that for the rest of the season seems a stretch. A ruthless division.

8. Is this a great catch or a drop? Or both?

9. Are the Bucs the best team in the NFC? Back to back powerful victories over Green Bay and Las Vegas suggest so. Tampa’s plus 80 point differential leads the league. They have the eighth best defense, the third rated offense. And yeah, 43-year-old Tom Brady. 369 yards and 4 touchdowns Sunday seems incomprehensible. His arm looked shot last year and earlier this season. No one’s smarter or more hungry at the position, however. Now 6th in the league in passing yards and second in touchdown passes, Brady is on the periphery of the MVP race. Think he wants to prove a certain former coach of his wrong?

10. Tampa looks great, but they aren’t the Chiefs. A ho-hum, 43-16 waxing of Denver in the snow, featuring a pick six and kickoff return touchdown, was easy. Patrick Mahomes threw for only 200 yards, yet they hung 43 on a division rival. As the season progresses, many will pick a litany of other teams to win the title, but don’t fall for it. Barring injuries, it’s the Chiefs.

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com

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.

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

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

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.