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.

On to Cincinnati

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, Kevin Stefanski, NFL

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


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

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

And this:

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

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

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

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

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

The Whip Around

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All stats courtesy of pro-footballreference.com

2020 Cleveland Browns Preview

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, Myles Garrett

Competency. Consistency. Respect. Qualities the Cleveland Browns organization has hidden from since their return. Never mind winning a division including the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, the Browns haven’t won over seven games since 2007. The 2020 version has talent. As did the 2019 one. But until they establish an identity, an idea of who the Cleveland Browns are, what they do well, and a belief that they’ll do those things when it matters, nothing will change.

This is the task Kevin Stefanski and Andrew Berry must manage if they are to succeed where all others have failed. The ownership is inadequate, and to overcome that is improbable. But Stefanski has shown strong leadership during the off-season dealing with COVID-19 and social justice issues. He’s a rookie coach wrapping up his first training camp without preseason games, however. Given their history, how long a leash will ownership provide him?

The offense is the strength, with the biggest question mark at quarterback. Reports from training camp revealed struggles on most days for Baker Mayfield: inaccurate, interception prone, and indecisive. The last part is most worrisome. Mayfield’s problems occur when he’s in the pocket too long, tapping the ball with his left hand, scanning the field in panic. His height hinders him here. Once pressure collapses the pocket, Baker just isn’t tall enough to see over the bodies. This causes him to bail early to create new throwing lanes, cutting off half the field. He becomes less accurate on the move, another issue that hindered his progress last year. So what can they do?

This play takes too long to develop, and Baker’s indecisiveness has him walking into a sack

Play action. Three-step drops. Slant patterns. Kevin Stefanski’s primary task to resurrect the third year quarterback is a quicker release from Baker. Mayfield’s pocket presence is an issue. Adjust schemes so it isn’t. Smallish QB’s have two options. Russell Wilson is a maestro on the move. Once he leaves the pocket, the wizardy begins. Mayfield doesn’t have that ability. Drew Brees needs to be his guide. Sean Payton helps Brees by calling short routes and play action passes to slow the pass rush. Last year’s offensive coordinator, Todd Monken, preferred deep, slow developing routes to push the ball downfield. For big quarterbacks, such as Jameis Winston or Ben Roethlisberger, that can see down field and take punishment, this style works. But Mayfield toils in those situations. Remember how fast the ball came out during his first appearance, on Thursday night against the Jets during his rookie year? He had one read and threw darts. The ball was out of his hands before the defense could turn their heads. Stefanski has to give Mayfield less to think about.

When Baker hits his back foot on these plays, the ball is out

They’ve stacked the rest of the offense. The Browns have perhaps the best wide receiver duo and the best running back duo in the league. Nick Chubb finished second in the league in rushing yards last season. His vision is exemplary, and he’s quick. But his strength makes him elite. Chubb was third in the league last year, averaging 3 yards per carry after contact, and led all running backs in broken tackles. He’ll threaten to lead the league in rushing again. Former rushing champion Kareem Hunt signed this week to a 2 year, 13.25 million extension. He’ll get 8-10 carries per week and catch passes out of the backfield and in the slot.

The only questions surrounding Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry will revolve around their health. Beckham fought a hamstring injury last season, and Landry needed hip surgery during the off-season. Each has been a top ten receiver since joining the league. Beckham is spectacular downfield, makes impossible catches, and is dynamic running with the ball. Landry is a workhorse, toiling over the middle and in traffic. He’s one of the most dangerous slot guys in the league. If they are and remain healthy, they can dominate opposing secondaries.

Austin Hooper signed in the off-season to strengthen the tight end position, and he and Mayfield developed a strong connection during workouts in Texas over the summer. While his contract is high (4 years, 44 mil), he gives Mayfield a reliable safety valve over the middle of the field. Last year’s most hated fan unit, the offensive line, found reinforcements. Jedrick Willis Jr., a first rounder out of Alabama, will play left tackle, and free agent Jack Conklin signed to line up on the right side. Willis played right tackle in college and may experience setbacks with the switch to a new position, and Conklin is a much better run blocker than in pass protection, but both are upgrades. Add them to Pro Bowler Joel Bitonio, Pro Bowl snub J. C. Tretter, and improving Wyatt Teller, and the line is no longer a weakness. The pieces are in place. If the offense struggles in 2020, the blame will fall on Baker Mayfield.

So, the defense. Myles Garrett is back from suspension. One of the best defenders, in theory, in the league, Garrett enters every year with the goal of winning Defensive Player of the Year. However, injuries and last year’s suspension have held him back. Penalties are blunting his effect on games, too. Unnecessary roughness, late hits, and jumping offsides plagued the former number 1 pick last year. Discipline has become paramount to his development. Helmet smashings aside, Garrett needs to curtail the yellow flags. As a leader of the defense, his maturation will portend their success. They won’t survive without smarter play from Garrett.

The starting defensive line returns from last year, a unit that ranked 8th in the league in quarterback pressure percentage until Garrett’s suspension. Garrett, Larry Ogunjobi, Sheldon Richardson, and Olivier Vernon represent the only grouping on the defense with proven success. Ogunjobi and Richardson had stellar 2019 seasons, especially after Garrett’s departure, and Vernon, while struggling early, began affecting games until injuries cut his season short. The linemen must dominate in 2020. Pressure is the key component to disrupting opposing quarterbacks. It’s the only problem a defense can present that offenses cannot overcome. If the Browns are to stay in games, these guys are key.

Behind them, it’s dicey. The linebackers are unproven. Mack Wilson flashed in his rookie year, but will miss some time with injury. B.J. Goodson, signed in the off-season from Green Bay, started 9 games and recorded 37 tackles last season. Sione Takitaki, drafted by John Dorsey in the 3rd round a year ago, barely saw the field during his rookie year. Jacob Phillips, a rookie from LSU, will start for Wilson, and showed promise in training camp, but this unit is uninspiring. Quick, athletic linebackers are a must given that they face Baltimore twice a year. Phillips is that, but must prove he deserves field time. And with Joe Schobert gone to Jacksonville as a free agent, Cleveland lost their defensive play caller and quarterback. Who steps into his role? Expect teams to run at the inexperience in the middle of the defense and pressure them with throws to tight ends. If this unit struggles, so will the defense.

Further back, the secondary arouses little confidence either. Denzel Ward, a Pro Bowler as a rookie, took leaps backward last year. Teams picked on him deep. He needs a return to All-Star form to stabilize this unit. His opposite corner, Greedy Williams, was okay as a rookie, but is hurt and questionable for Sunday. At safety, free agent signings Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo will start, while Ronnie Harrison, acquired via a 5th round 2021 draft pick from Jacksonville, is still learning the scheme. The hope was for rookie Grant Delpit to snag a starting spot, but suffered a torn Achilles during training camp and is out for the season. Holes abound in the secondary.

No one behind the defensive line has been a consistent NFL player in their career. Defensive coordinator Joe Woods brings expectations because of his work with San Francisco’s defensive backs last year and an impressive stint as Denver’s defensive coordinator in 2017 (3rd in the league in total defense). The problem remains the talent level he has to work with.

Kevin Stefanski wants to run the ball on offense, controlling clock and field position. Running teams win games 17-13. To win with a dominant rushing attack, stout defense is a must-have. This defense isn’t good enough to support a run heavy offense. For the Browns, or any NFL team in 2020, the recipe for victories is to throw to get the lead, then run to keep it. Wins are contingent on quarterback play. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are good enough to win 6-7 games. Anything higher rests on Baker Mayfield. The holes on defense are too large to count on them to stifle opposing offenses. The firepower possessed by the Browns is capable of scoring 27-30 a game, provided Mayfield returns to his rookie year form. If his completion percentage rises and the interceptions fall, Cleveland can compete. So, how much do you trust Baker Mayfield? It’s a question for the fans, but also for Kevin Stefanski. We’ll know early what he thinks of his quarterback. If his game plans are conservative, the head coach knows Mayfield isn’t the future of the franchise.

Ownership must trust Stefanski to mold the Cleveland franchise into his image. Paul DePodesta, the chief strategy officer, wanted him in 2019. DePodesta seems to be the current Jimmy Haslam ear holder. It’s imperative to give Stefanski time. He’s going to miss challenges, make wrong 4th down decisions, and his team may look unprepared. Young coaches in the NFL are green. The skills needed to run a team on the sideline during a game are daunting. Minus guys with older Hall of Fame type quarterbacks (see Matt LaFleur with Aaron Rodgers), most struggle. But DePodesta and Haslam hired Stefanski to save themselves from squandering the most talented Cleveland roster since 1994. If ownership hasn’t learned patience yet, they never will.

The other franchises in the division, minus Cincinnati, are the model. They develop talent and change schemes to maximize the roster. But it takes a commitment and belief in yourself and the people you’ve hired to see the program through. What organization, in any sport, that changes coaches and general managers on a dime, prospers? None. The rest of the league is too good at exposing weaknesses. Stefanski and Berry are smart. Smart people fail, yet learn from their failures. Allow your young brain trust to fail.

It’s the only way, the only path the organization hasn’t followed. The Browns and their fans have to be alright with mediocrity for the sake of growth. Myles Garrett reached the lowest depths of his professional career a year ago. The noise, disdain, and venom he lived through will either launch his career, or break him. Expect him to have a monster season. Failure causes reflection, leading to revision, conveying to success. Only the Browns try to skip steps. Disappointing seasons in the past lead to firings and overhauls. It can’t happen anymore in Cleveland. If anyone in the organization is interested in actual success, they’ll take whatever this season brings, ignore any drama, and allow the men they’ve hired to learn, and fail.

Changes that will make the Cleveland Browns a Contender in 2020

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, NFL

2019 was a typical season in Cleveland. The talent and hope acquired over the off-season was over-hyped and misplaced. The despair of 1 win over two seasons caused an abundance of optimism; fans expect the misery compiled over two decades to one day pay dividends. What if it never does?

The talent is still in place for a rebound in 2020. The attitudes and discipline must change, however. In a division alongside exemplary franchises in Pittsburgh and Baltimore, they cannot cut corners. Certain things need fixed if the Browns are to compete in the AFC North.

Baker Mayfield must become a leader. Quarterbacks in the NFL have no other choice. The position is too important; his teammates will follow his lead in whatever direction he goes. No more calling out teammates in the media, as he did with Duke Johnson last spring. If there’s a problem with the training staff, keep that in house. His intentions were to take heat off Odell Beckham when he attacked the team’s medical personnel; it’s still a bad look. Mayfield needs to mature. That’s fine, he’s only 24. But if he is to improve in 2020, it’ll start with his attitude.

Damarious Randall is a free agent, and he needs to go. Most thought the trade that brought him to Cleveland was a steal; a talented defensive back for a sub par backup quarterback, DeShone Kizer. Good organizations don’t let talent walk without reason, however. Green Bay knew what they had in Randall and gave him away. Freddie Kitchens suspended Randall for unknown reasons before the biggest game of the year in Pittsburgh. He was the most disinterested member of the team on Sunday against Baltimore, blowing coverages and allowing 3 of the Ravens’ touchdowns. Randall has an attitude problem, and the Browns are no longer in a situation to overlook discipline in favor of talent.

Randall is #23. This is nonsense

On that note, John Dorsey has to consider character in the draft. No more Antonio Callaway’s or Josh Gordon’s. The organization can’t afford to take fliers on guys in hopes they’ll rehabilitate themselves in the NFL. The franchise doesn’t provide an environment for struggling players to get better. Everyone deserves a second chance to prove themselves. Cleveland can no longer be that place. Take a lesson from Bill Belichick and draft intelligence over talent.

Sign Kareem Hunt. On the surface, this flies in the face of my last point. From the outside, however, it seems Hunt has made an earnest attempt to rehabilitate himself. A restricted free agent, the Browns can match any contract he’s offered or will receive draft pick compensation for him. The offense was at its best this year once Hunt returned from suspension. A Nick Chubb-Kareem Hunt backfield gave Kitchens a plethora of options and different looks to throw at defenses. Throw in Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry and the offense’s ceiling remains high. If a coaching change is inevitable, give the next guy a chance with these weapons.

Other than quarterback, the ability to pressure the opposing offense without blitzing is the most valuable attribute on the field. On November 15, the day after the 1st Pittsburgh game, the Browns were 6th in the league in pressure rate at 8.33%, according to teamrankings.com. Today they’re 14th at 7.09%. When all were healthy and not suspended, the Browns’ defensive line was one of the best in the league at pressuring the quarterback. Myles Garrett, Olivier Vernon, Larry Ogunjobi, and Sheldon Richardson are the most talented group on the team. Don’t get cute by trying to trade out of a strength. If the defense succeeds in 2020, it will be because of the defensive front.

Draft offensive linemen. Dorsey has forsaken the line for other positions in his previous drafts, for good reason. O-line is best filled with late picks and free agents. Wyatt Teller has played well at guard since being inserted in the lineup, and they acquired him with a 6th round pick a week before the season. The skill positions have talent now; the front office can address other needs. Dorsey should try to get younger and more athletic at the tackle position through the draft. Safety, linebacker, and tight end are also holes on the roster. Expect a less sexy draft this year.

A complete organizational makeover must occur. It’s time for the power mongers in Cleveland to get serious about winning. Success is a mindset, built every day. The disappoints of 2019 can act as a wake up call if the Cleveland Browns treat them as such. The entire franchise needs audited. John Dorsey must flush selfish attitudes. If they ever expect to win, a sobering look in the mirror must occur. The knee-jerk reactions, preseason chest pumping, and smug approach to team and roster building can no longer continue. The Haslams must study accomplished organizations in all walks of life and change their philosophy and approach to running an NFL franchise. Sadly, this is the hardest change to make. If it does not occur, however, the Cleveland Browns will continue to be an underachieving failure.

The Whip Around

1.Many teams failed in 2019, but the L.A. Rams are at the top of the list. Sean McVay is no longer a delicate genius; Jared Goff now just an average quarterback. The Rams move into a new stadium next year and their owners were hoping a dynasty would reside in the new digs. What are the Rams now? The team of the future a year ago, things look murky now. Jared Goff, Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, Todd Gurley and Brandin Cooks will account for 108.7 million of the salary cap next year, and the NFL projects the cap to be in the 200 million dollar range. Over half on five players. They traded their 2020 and 2021 first round picks for Jalen Ramsey. Gurley may or may not have arthritis in his knee, but something is wrong, and he’s only 25. Cooks dealt with concussions the entire year. Goff took a severe step backward. His cap hit is 36 million of that total. What a difference a year makes.

2. The Texans, week to week, are an enigma. They’ve beaten the Patriots and Titans in Nashville but lost to Denver and scraped by Tampa in the last four weeks. Their record is 10-5, yet they’ve only scored 14 more points than they’ve given up on the year. The loss of J. J. Watt was a killer to an already average defense and Deshaun Watson has cooled off. He’s only thrown 8 touchdown passes compared to 7 picks with a completion percentage of 62% over the past six weeks. Watson has to carry the Texans if they are to win in the playoffs. A first round loss to Buffalo is a possibility.

3. One of the best stories of 2019 has been Ryan Tannehill. His instincts on this touchdown pass to Tajae Sharpe are beautiful.

4. Alvin Kamara scored two rushing touchdowns in Tennessee on Sunday, his first scores since week 3. While he missed four weeks because of injury, it’s amazing he went that long without a touchdown, yet the Saints barely missed a beat. Drew Brees and Michael Thomas kept the New Orleans offense afloat, but they must lean on Kamara in the playoffs if they hope to advance. Brees will need at least the threat of him in the backfield to keep good defenses like San Francisco and Green Bay off balance. If healthy, he’s the most dangerous weapon in the league this side of Tyreek Hill. He’s key to their Super Bowl hopes.

5. What did we learn about Daniel Jones this year? The numbers are good: 62% completions, 2726 yards, 23 TDs, 11 picks. Three games buoyed his TD-Int ratio. Against Detroit, the Jets, and Washington he threw 13 TDs and no picks; otherwise he’s been average. Jones showed athletic ability, running for 253 yards and the game winner in his first start against Tampa. Not the bust many expected, the Giants need more weapons on the outside for him and Saquon Barkley to flourish. New York will be an interesting team in a poor division in 2020. If Jones and the defense improve, they have a shot in the NFC East.

6. The Steelers’ lack of talent showed itself on Sunday in a horrible loss to the Jets. With their playoff fate in their own hands, Mike Tomlin benched Devlin Hodges after throwing 2 picks. Mason Rudolph avoided the turnovers that earned him a seat next to the head coach earlier in the season, but could only generate 10 points. Pittsburgh is coaching rich but talent poor. The surprise is that they’re anywhere near the playoff race. Still, this was a bad loss against a weird Jets team. Will Ben Roethlisberger fair any better when he returns next year?

7. I’ve questioned Jimmy Garoppolo’s poise and playoff readiness all year. If he makes throws like this while pressured in January, the Niners will be in Miami come February.

8. Bad teams do dumb stuff. The Rams, Cowboys, and Browns all had horrible blown coverages in their games over the weekend that led to losses for all three. In week 16, one would be inexcusable, but three? There’s an attention to detail needed at the highest levels of everything; these teams and players are lazy in their preparation and execution. Talent is important, but having players who know where to be when 10 other guys are counting on them is essential.

9. Has any player single-handedly disrupted an offense the way Za’Darius Smith did to Minnesota’s on Monday night? 3.5 sacks. 5 tackles for loss. 5 quarterback hits. He’s making a late push for Defensive Player of the Year and giving the Pack an identity beyond Aaron Rodgers. He and line mate Preston Smith have combined for 25.5 sacks on the year and give Green Bay’s defense a chance against the high-powered offenses in New Orleans and San Francisco. They must be at their best for the Packers to compete in the playoffs.

10. San Francisco-Seattle
The only interesting game on a poor week 17 schedule, Seattle needs a good showing after 3 weeks’ worth of blah performances. Forced to sign off-the-street running backs Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin after a slew of injuries, its past time for Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to hand the reins to Russell Wilson. If the Seahawks win in the playoffs, it will be because of their quarterback. The conservative game plans must go; Seattle’s defense isn’t good enough to support 3rd down runs and punts on the opponent’s side of the field. Let Russ cook. See how far he can take you.

The 49ers need this one to lock up home field advantage throughout the playoffs. A Sunday nighter in Seattle should toughen this young team, but are they ready to win on the road in the playoffs? For San Francisco to have any shot at the Super Bowl, they need this one to keep them out of Green Bay or New Orleans in January.

 

It’s Time to Talk About Baker Mayfield

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, NFL

The Cleveland Browns have started thirty different quarterbacks since 1999. None have been good. A few were adequate. Most didn’t deserve the punishment on their bodies and careers the snaps in Cleveland inflicted. As far as on-field problems, none have contributed more to the pitiful record posted by the franchise over the last two decades than poor QB play. Baker Mayfield would change that. He set a rookie record by throwing 27 touchdown passes in 2018. He looked poised in the pocket, strong armed and accurate. Mayfield’s performance rejuvenated Breshad Perriman’s career and, overnight, improved the play of the offensive line in front of him.

That Mayfield disappeared.

What happened? Were the expectations too much to handle? Have the commercials and magazine covers inflated his ego? Did he stop doing the little things that elevated him from walk-on at Oklahoma to Heisman Trophy winner? Talent doesn’t erode overnight. Something shook Baker Mayfield last off season. Will he recover from the debacle of 2019, or will this season hijack his confidence? Will his become another name written on duct tape, crossed off with a Sharpie, added to the absurdity?

Baker has been uncomfortable in the pocket all season. His offensive line is slightly below average, the 18th ranked pass blocking unit according to pro football focus. Mayfield makes that line worse. When pressured, he gets sacked 20.2% of the time, 5th worst in the league. Last year that number was 16.2%, 9th best in the NFL. Mayfield is panicky in the pocket, not reading defenses, and taking sacks. He’s indecisiveness in the face of pressure causes him to bail on clean pockets as well. His instinct when he feels pressure, real or imagined, is to run to his right. When this occurs, he eliminates the left side of the field as an option. He also has a tendency to throw on the run, not setting his feet before releasing the ball. This causes accuracy problems.

The crux of Mayfield’s problems are the accuracy issues. Time after time, balls sail on him. The interception over Odell Beckham’s head in the end zone on Sunday is an example. Mayfield had time, set his feet, read the play, but missed his receiver.

Baker completed 68.1, 70.9, and 70.5 percent of his passes in three years at Oklahoma. As a rookie, the number was 63.8%, but over his last 8 games ballooned to 68.4%. This year his completion percentage is 60%, 29th in the league. His accuracy and arm strength were two qualities John Dorsey banked on when he drafted Mayfield number one. How did Mayfield lose his touch?

Everyone has doubted Baker Mayfield since high school. Only six feet tall, naysayers told him he couldn’t play college ball, wouldn’t win the Heisman Trophy, didn’t deserve to be the number one pick in the draft, would rot in Cleveland. The success during his rookie year changed that. Mayfield was a blossoming superstar. Companies wanted him to endorse their products. The NFL put him in a commercial celebrating its 100th year with Tom Brady; he was the successor to the throne. He influenced the organization to hire his guy, Freddie Kitchens, as head coach. How many rookie QB’s have ever wielded so much power?

The Browns then traded for Odell Beckham and Olivier Vernon. They signed Sheldon Richardson. Super Bowl predictions poured in from publications across the country, all because of Mayfield’s brilliance. He was the one, the savior. No one doubted Baker Mayfield anymore.

He no longer had to fight. He was next. Mayfield had a seat at the table reserved. It would be easier now.

Until it wasn’t.

Baker hadn’t dealt with success on that scale before. He relaxed. No one was left to prove wrong. Now he had Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry and Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. A few speed bumps were possible, but hell. His new hobby would be ring collecting.

The team’s mindset mirrored Mayfield’s. Not a soul in the organization expected it to be difficult. This is the argument for not blowing it up.

From the outside, it’s a disaster. December in Berea has its own feel. Could this season be the punch in the mouth Freddie Kitchens, Baker Mayfield, and Myles Garrett needed?

As bad as Mayfield has been, the organization has to trust it was a blimp on the radar, a necessary obstacle for his development. This franchise has gone over a decade without a winning season or a shred of talent on the roster. The only answer is to blow it up after one season? Fire the first time head coach, again. Trade one of the five best wide receivers in the league who fought injury the entire season. Get rid of the defensive coordinator whose secondary was injury prone and had his best pass rusher suspended for the final six games. This is the best way to fix the franchise?

Baker Mayfield will be the starting quarterback in 2020 regardless of who the coach is or who’s catching his passes. What happens if he struggles next year? Is he guaranteed the job in 2021? Ask the Bears if Mitchell Trubisky gets a fourth season. If Mayfield is the 30th rated passer in the league again next year, he won’t see 2021 in Cleveland. What happens then? That coach gets fired? Nick Chubb gets traded, Myles Garrett too? That’s the best way to build this franchise?

No second chances, no time to learn on the job. No chance to adjust.

That’s how it’s done in New England and Pittsburgh and Baltimore and Green Bay and Seattle, right?

Does this guy sound like he wants out? Give this team a chance to build something.

The Whip Around

1.How about the Falcons? Since the horrific loss to the Patriots in the Super Bowl, Atlanta has underachieved. A loss in the Divisional Round to the Eagles after the 2017 season has led to records of 7-9 and 5-9. Opinions differ, but most consider Matt Ryan a top 10 quarterback in the league, and Julio Jones is one of the game’s best. They’ll post a second losing season in two weeks, however. Rumors have had Dan Quinn on the way out since October. Are the Falcons better off firing the coach and trading Ryan and Jones?

2.  Kyler Murray has been inconsistent, as rookies are, yet looks to be a franchise quarterback in Arizona. He is the only QB in the league with over 3000 yards passing and 500 yards rushing. The Cardinals’ organization knows they made the right decision in choosing Murray over Josh Rosen. With Lamar Jackson’s success in Baltimore, Arizona has proof a hybrid quarterback can win in the NFL. Murray displays more arm strength and accuracy than Jackson. Now, will the organization support their young quarterback as well as they do in Baltimore?

3.  I don’t know how defenses prepare for this.

4.  29-30, 307 yards, 4 touchdowns. Drew Brees’ numbers on Monday Night were record setting on multiple fronts. Not only did Brees pass Peyton Manning on the all-time touchdowns thrown list, his 29-30 also topped Philip Rivers’ completion percentage in a single game. Brees now owns the career yardage and touchdown record and has won a Super Bowl, with an outside shot at another this season. Where does he rank all-time? It’s hard to place him above Tom Brady, but he could slot anywhere from 2 to 7 after the GOAT. The era he’s played in has inflated his stats, but how many QBs changed the fortunes of an entire franchise as Brees has in New Orleans? Brady has earned the number 1 slot, but Brees, Peyton Manning, John Elway, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, and Aaron Rodgers are almost impossible to slot behind him.

5.  Chris Myers and Daryl “Moose” Johnston struggled to call Sunday’s Falcons-49ers game. Before Julio Jones caught a touchdown pass, Myers highlighted the fact that Jones hadn’t caught a pass for a touchdown in 9 games, the longest “in-season” streak of his career. Thankfully, Myers stressed this was an in-season streak, and the weeks he wasn’t catching touchdowns in June didn’t count. Not satisfied with that nonsense, Johnston expressed his glee that replay couldn’t review holding calls while watching a replay of Julio Jones being interfered with in the end zone that was uncalled by the referees. Dan Quinn threw the challenge flag while Moose argued the play was unchallengeable as Fox went to a commercial break. Sit the next couple out, fellas.

6.  Kansas City only looks better with each passing week. Patrick Mahomes is getting healthier, rounding into 2018 form. No team in the AFC, including Baltimore, possesses the weaponry at his disposal. Travis Kelce is one of the best chain movers in the league, and Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman, Sammy Watkins, and Demarcus Robinson are all threats to house it whenever they touch the ball. The defense added Terrell Suggs this week, claiming him off waivers from the Arizona Cardinals. He’ll add to their so-so pass rush and should free Frank Clark from double-teams. Don’t put the Ravens in the Super Bowl yet.

7.  Just when it seemed Tennessee would overtake the Texans and the AFC South, Carlos Hyde flexed in the fourth quarter, running for 43 yards and a touchdown. His 10 yard burst for a TD gave Houston the lead before 5 bruising carries on the next drive ate clock and set his team up for a short field goal that put the game out of reach. Hyde’s running is a dynamic Houston has missed and will need it they hope to advance in the playoffs. Overlooked wherever he plays, Hyde has been productive in all his stops, averaging 4.1 yards per carry over his career. Not dynamic, he’s neither the fastest nor the biggest. If he can curb his fumbling problem (4 in 2019) he’ll give teams something other than Deshaun Watson to worry about in the playoffs.

8.  This is a garbage throw, but Stephon Gilmore reads Andy Dalton like a book on his 2nd pick of the day. Is Gilmore the Defensive Player of the Year?

9.  Could Philip Rivers’ career with the Chargers be over? A free agent at years’ end, the team has to decide what to do with the 38-year-old QB. At 5-9, L.A. has missed their window. The juggernaut in New England proved too much for them to overcome. Rivers, like Eli Manning, is at the end of a magnificent career. The Chargers hold the 9th spot in the 2020 draft, and at least six teams in front of them already have a young quarterback. If Rivers is amenable, sign him to a 2 year deal, draft a QB, and allow him to mentor the rookie. He’s up to nine kids, so babysitting should be old hat.

10. Green Bay-Minnesota
The Vikings continue to impress and the Packers are scraping by against poor teams. While 11-3 and leading the division, Aaron Rodgers has become a game manager. His yards gained per pass attempt (7.3) is second lowest of his career when he’s played a full season. Rodgers has only thrown 2 interceptions, however, and Aaron Jones gives him a weapon out of the backfield unlike anything he’s ever had access to. Meanwhile, Kirk Cousins is completing 70% of his passes and has only thrown 5 interceptions himself. Dalvin Cook seems unlikely to play, however. It’s hard to trust Cousins and the Vikings in a huge game on Monday Night without their best offensive weapon. The game and the NFC North title go to Green Bay.

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com

 

Give Thanks for Browns-Steelers

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, Joe Schobert, NFL

Each passing week is a test for the Cleveland Browns. Is their play on the field improving? Are they disciplined? Is the young team and its rookie coach maturing? Considering all that has occurred during the 2019 season, this organization must prove it is ready to grow up. Are they a playoff contender?

The Dolphins are a pushover, but Sunday was a start. Despite a third quarter lull, both sides of the ball reacted well to the hectic week. Take nothing for granted with this group, beating up on a tanking Miami squad wasn’t a given. Seven penalties committed was good, not great, and aside from the interception Baker Mayfield threw behind Odell Beckham Jr on a slant, the turnover problem has subsided. Mayfield seems calmer in the pocket than earlier in the season, though he still has a tendency to bail early. It’s clear at this point he’s more comfortable on the move, giving himself space and wider throwing lanes to get rid of the ball. Not ideal, but whatever it takes for the QB to get comfortable. Freddie Kitchens has also called more play action (where did he get that idea from?), allowing Mayfield to play to his strengths.

While the defense missed Myles Garrett and Larry Ogunjobi, they recorded four sacks on Ryan Fitzpatrick and increased the pressure as the game progressed. It’s no longer a secret the force Joe Schobert has become; two more interceptions and four other passes broken up have cemented his Pro Bowl season. The linebacker isn’t the only defender flexing on opposing offenses, however. Overlooked by his more famous line mates, Sheldon Richardson has taken over games from the center of the defensive line.

Richardson’s dominant play couldn’t have come at a better time. With two new pass rushers in Chad Thomas and Chris Smith starting on the ends, Richardson is drawing attention from the edges, giving the ends chances to make plays in one-on-one battles against opposing tackles. His two sacks on Sunday set the tone for a defense with questions concerning how much pressure they’ll be able to generate on opposing QBs.

Nick Chubb leads the league in carries and trails Christian McCaffrey by only six yards in the chase for the rushing title. He’s been electric the entire year, a steady force during a wobbly season. Chubb is the team MVP, and for the Browns to run the table and force their way into the AFC playoffs he will need to continue to carry the water. His blend of speed, power, vision, and patience are unmatched in the league. His heart and attitude are an ideal fit with the city of Cleveland.

But can we stop the fist pounding when a play that doesn’t involve him fails? Chubb is on pace for 323 carries, which would be the most in the league since Adrian Peterson had 327 in 2015. He’s getting enough touches. Like it or not, winning NFL games now requires establishing a passing game to get a lead, then running the ball to bleed clock. The days of backs with 400 carries are over. To win in the NFL, to be a perennial playoff team and Super Bowl contender, offenses must throw the ball. The fate of this team ultimately relies upon Baker Mayfield, Jarvis Landry, and Odell Beckham. Chubb is a force, the ultimate luxury for an offense. If he remains the best offensive player, however, the franchise will continue to fall short of their goals.

For the second time in three weeks, a date with the Steelers. As if enough wasn’t already on the line, the lingering effects of the Thursday night brawl will hang over Heinz Field on Sunday. Again, the Browns will need to prove they’ve matured over the course of the season. The crowd will be loud and angry. On defense they cannot commit dumb penalties. The Steelers offense is poor, starting third-string quarterback Devlin Hodges and likely without running back James Conner. Pittsburgh’s only score in Cleveland resulted when the defense racked up 58 yards of penalties on the drive. The Steeler offense only managed 16 points against Cincinnati, the worst defense yardage wise in the league. If the Browns don’t give them free yards, Pittsburgh won’t be able to score.

The playoffs are on the line Sunday. According to FiveThirtyEight.com, the Browns’ playoff chances are 29%, the Steelers’ 27%. A win Sunday boosts the odds to 50%, a loss drops them to 10%. The Steelers are injury riddled and have lost momentum built during a four game win streak after a loss to Baltimore. The adversity faced has made the Browns a tighter, tougher, bunch. Cleveland will need that Sunday. Their last win in Heinz Field was 2003. They haven’t swept the Steelers since 1988.

Thirty-one years. Unbelievable.

The Whip Around

1. The Cowboys lose when playing winning squads. Now 0-4 on the year when facing teams above .500, the kicking game was the culprit in New England. A missed field goal in the 1st quarter by Brett Maher wasted a tone setting drive, and a blocked punt set up the only touchdown of the day for the Patriots. On weather days like Sunday in New England, special teams are critical. Dallas showed themselves once again.

2. The reasons for dismissing San Francisco as a Super Bowl contender are drying up. While New England’s defense is better numbers wise, San Fran’s defensive line engulfs offenses. Their latest victim, Aaron Rodgers, hasn’t looked that inept since entering the league. Though Jimmy Garoppolo is still a question mark in tight games, the 49er defense seems determined to remove him from the equation. Home field advantage will be key. If they can get teams to the Bay Area, instead of having to go to Lambeau or New Orleans, the Niners have a real chance to be playing in February.

3. Week after week, Russell Wilson throws the most beautiful passes.

4. He’s unlike anything the NFL has ever seen, and I’ve given up on doubting Lamar Jackson. The new front runner for MVP, Jackson has proved he’s the most dangerous weapon in the league. Overwhelmed by his speed, defenses have no answer for his playmaking. The Ravens offense is on pace for the fewest punts ever during a 16 game season and haven’t punted on a Lamar Jackson-led drive since Week 9. Jackson finds different ways to torch defenses. He throws from unorthodox arm angles. Terrified of his running ability, rushers hesitate when pressuring him. According to nextgenstats.com, he’s faced the lowest pressure rate in the league at 21.1%. When teams blitz, he’s burned them, throwing a touchdown on 13.8% of attempts against the blitz. No other QB is higher than 11%. Lamar Jackson changes the way teams play defense then takes advantage when they’re out of their comfort zone. He’s unguardable.

5. After weeks and weeks of not overturning any pass interference calls via replay, the NFL flipped two on Sunday. Why? An overturn in the Browns game was iffy, but occurred with Cleveland already up 21-0. Another in the Panthers-Saints game could have affected the outcome. On third down and Carolina at the five yard line with 2:30 left in the game, the replay officials gave the Panthers a new set of downs. The NFL is responding to outside noise, allowing criticism to seep into the replay center’s interpretation of the rule book. If the league can’t decide how to officiate the game, they’ll continue losing fans’ interest.

6. Michael Thomas has 104 catches on the year and is on pace to break the Marvin Harrison’s record of 143 grabs in a season. We overlook Thomas when discussing the best receivers in the game. He isn’t flashy, just consistent. A precise route runner with sure hands, Drew Brees can trust Thomas will be where he’s supposed to be and that he’ll catch the football. He was Teddy Bridgewater’s safety valve during Brees’ injury, a huge reason Bridgewater didn’t turn the ball over and the Saints kept winning. The most interesting story in the league during the playoffs will be the Saints. Can they overcome the devastating losses they’ve endured the past two postseasons? If they win a Super Bowl, Thomas, not Brees, may end up being the reason.

7. Speaking of receivers, the story of DeAndre Hopkins and his mother is inspiring. A wonderful receiver and beautiful person.

8. Oakland has slithered their way into playoff contention, though they got throttled by the Jets on Sunday. The 34-3 loss damaged the Raiders chances, and a matchup this week in Kansas City will likely derail them further. The AFC wild card contenders- Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Oakland, Indianapolis, and Tennessee- are a gangly, uneven troupe. Who gets hot and earns a playoff berth?

9. The NFC picture is clearer. New Orleans is a lock; they lead their division by 3 games. Green Bay and Minnesota are both 8-3. One will win the division, the other a wild card. Same with San Francisco and Seattle out West. Either Dallas or Philadelphia has to win the sorry East. While most expect a Baltimore-New England AFC title game (don’t sleep on K.C.), this side of the bracket should scintillate. The Niners look unstoppable at the moment, but start the weakest quarterback. Brees, Rodgers, and Wilson have been through the battles. Who the hell knows about Minnesota. The Super Bowl representative from the NFC will earn the trip.

10. A San Francisco-Baltimore match-up this week is an NFL executive’s dream. The only problem? With a myriad of high profile games taking place on Thanksgiving weekend, this one is a Sunday afternoon, 1 o’clock tilt. The best defensive front in the league against Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore running game will provide an attractive battle in the trenches. Baltimore should still score. Has anyone looked capable of slowing them down? This is a huge test for Jimmy Garoppolo. He must put up 20 to give San Fran a chance.

Happy Thanksgiving to all and thank you for supporting this little project I’ve undertaken. Enjoy your friends and family this weekend and all weekends. A home filled with laughter, a hug from a loved one; the little things provide the most meaning. Celebrate the mundane and embrace the crazy. And have that second piece of pie. You’ve earned it.

 

Cleveland Browns: What Next?

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, Mack Wilson, Mitchell Trubisky

The Cleveland Browns beat the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night. The record against their rival since returning to the league is 7-34-1. For the first time, Cleveland has beaten Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the same season. The sheer insanity of that statement is mind-boggling. A talented team that stumbled through the first half of the season is kind of, maybe gaining some momentum. The Cleveland Browns don’t do normal or successful all that well, however. They do lunacy and absurdity.


Social media has beat the Myles Garrett situation into the earth’s core. My thoughts are here. In the meantime, the Browns started a winning streak against two above .500 teams. Can they keep it going?


The offense, while still struggling to manage any consistency, has cut out the penalties and turnovers. Baker Mayfield hasn’t thrown an interception in three games. In those games, he’s tossed 5 touchdowns and completed 62.5% of his passes. The numbers aren’t jaw-dropping, but they represent an improvement. And while the team racked up 8 penalties for 121 yards on Thursday, the offense only accounted for one of those, an intentional delay of game before a punt.


Mayfield and Odell Beckham still can’t connect with any regularity. A long completion on an inside post route set up the first touchdown, but they weren’t on the same page on a second half third down. Beckham was open on an out for a first down, but Mayfield overthrew him, expecting a deeper route. When will it click for these two? Beckham is getting open, but too often he either drops a pass or Mayfield misses him. It may take another off-season before the duo becomes as dynamic as expected.


The same problems aren’t occurring for Mayfield and Jarvis Landry. Nineteen catches and three touchdowns in the last three games, Landry has taken over the number one receiver post, regardless of where he lines up. When in the slot, Landry is too good for the safeties and linebackers matched up on him. On his touchdown Thursday, the entire Steeler defense bit on play action, all breaking right while Landry and tight end Demetrius Harris scampered open to the left. Nick Chubb drew the defenses’ attention, leading to the easy touchdown.

Impossible to be more open in the end zone. Defense bites on the play action


The strength of the offense, without question, are the two running backs. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are most talented duo in the league. Chubb is third in the league in rushing, already with 1011 yards. Hunt is a brilliant pass catcher out of the backfield and has become Mayfield’s safety valve. He converted two long third downs on athletic receptions Thursday and has added a dimension rarely afforded to any offense. Freddie Kitchens must take advantage of his backfield wealth. Get creative with the play calling. Run some Wildcat. Try the option, with one back taking the snap. For the Browns to continue winning, they need to throw early to Beckham and Landry, then bleed clock with Chubb and Hunt.


Though the defense has forced turnovers in recent weeks, issues lurk. Garrett will miss the rest of the season, as will starting safety Morgan Burnett after tearing his Achilles on Thursday. The NFL also suspended Larry Ogunjobi for the Miami game. Backups on the line and in the secondary, the strengths of the unit coming into the season, are stepping into a pressure cooker. The late hits, holding, and pass interference calls haven’t subsided on the defensive side, and with a lot of talent sitting at home or on the sideline, the defense has to become more disciplined. This offense hasn’t proved it can win a shootout.


The overlooked position on defense, expected to be a weakness, has shined all season. Only playing two linebackers in most situations to get more defensive backs on the field, Joe Schobert and Mack Wilson are the most consistent forces on that side of the ball. Schobert is the defensive MVP, and it isn’t close. He beat the Steelers almost single-handedly, recording 7 tackles, a sack, 2 interceptions, and 4 passes defended. Whether stuffing the run, rushing the quarterback, or dropping in coverage, Schobert is dominating. A free agent at the end of the season, Schobert is adding zeros to his bank account each week.

Outstanding coverage by both LBs. Wilson(51) takes the check down away(33). Schobert with the INT


Mack Wilson has excelled as the other linebacker in Cleveland’s base defense. An injury replacement when Christian Kirksey went on IR early in the season, Wilson has established himself after some rookie indecisiveness. He struggled against San Francisco by over pursuing himself out of position. Wilson’s become more disciplined in recent weeks, however, and is now the best run stopper on the team, along with Sheldon Richardson. He’s handled himself in pass coverage. On a big third down early in the 4th quarter, Wilson made a huge breakup of a Mason Rudolph pass to Jaylen Samuels, reading the play perfectly. Thought to be a position of weakness, the Browns’ linebackers are the most consistent unit on defense.


Not much needs analyzed concerning the Dolphins. Miami is a horrible team, tanking for draft picks. They’re in the early stages of a long rebuild and have no desire to win games. The Browns are at home and an eleven point favorite. Despite the drama of the week, the team has prepared themselves to deal with the outside noise by creating soap opera level story lines since March. They’ve had amble opportunity to learn how to deal with the circus.


Ryan Fitzpatrick could get hot and cause problems if the defense is lackadaisical. Fitzpatrick is 12th in the league in QBR (ESPN.com), and is intelligent enough to take advantage if the Browns are unprepared. He’s thrown 8 picks in 9 games, however, and has no discernible weapons around him. For a banged up and suspension-heavy defense, no opponent could be a more welcome sight. No excuses this Sunday.

The Whip Around

1. A play toward the end of the first half against the Rams encapsulates Mitchell Trubisky’s ability as a quarterback. With the Bears on the edge of field goal range, Trubisky couldn’t find an open receiver, scrambled outside the pocket with the sideline open to him, then took a sack instead of stepping out of bounds or throwing the ball away. Plays like this highlight his lack of awareness on the field and understanding of what his team needs from him. Chicago will be quarterback hunting once again this off season.

2. Frank Clark set the tone for Kansas City’s defense Monday night, recording a sack, forcing a fumble, and batting down a Philip Rivers’ pass. A mild disappointment so far in K.C., if Clark hits his stride in time for December and January football, Chiefs fans will forgive the slow start. With a defense that ranks 26th overall in yards allowed and 30th against the run, K.C. can forget about a Super Bowl run if those numbers don’t improve. Despite Patrick Mahomes’ greatness, even he won’t be able to put up 40 a game in the playoffs.

3. An offensive lineman celebrating a (overturned on review) rushing touchdown? Would have loved John Madden in the booth for this call.

4. Pass interference is so broken that the league should trash the entire rule and go back to the drawing board. It’s too subjective. In Baltimore-Houston, DeAndre Hopkins was interfered with in the end zone, an obvious call missed on the field and then upheld via replay. During Baltimore’s opening second half drive, the receiver and corner hand fought during the route, the ball was overthrown by 10 yards, and, after booing from the crowd, the referee threw a flag, resulting in a 30 yard gain for the Ravens. While Baltimore dominated and would have won regardless, these were two huge plays, both going against Houston and resulting in a 14 point swing. Too many NFL games are being decided by the whims of the refereeing crew.

5. After a hot start to his career, Kyle Allen is cooling off. He threw one of the most bone headed interceptions you’ll ever see on Sunday, handing the game to the Falcons in the first quarter. A 3-9 touchdown to interception ratio over the last 4, Carolina is 1-3 and slipping out of the playoff race. The turnaround for Allen has been drastic. 4-0 with 7 TDs and 0 picks after replacing an injured Cam Newton, the Carolina front office may want to wait before cutting ties with the greatest player in the franchise’s history.

Ugh. What was the plan here?

6. Houston’s offensive line gets raked over the coals in the media, but their quarterback does them no favors. Deshaun Watson is 22nd in the league in release time, at 2.79 seconds (nextgenstats.nfl.com). While he makes spectacular plays when scrambling around, too often he’s stuck with the ball and takes a huge hit. The Texans would do well to design some quick hitting throws to get Watson in rhythm when the offense is stagnant. No one should ever hold a team with him and DeAndre Hopkins to 7 points.

Too much dilly dallying in the pocket

7. There has to be a better way to guard elite receivers when they line up in the slot. The Panthers were in zone on 3rd and 16 Sunday while Atlanta lined 5 wide with Julio Jones in the slot. Carolina tasked Luke Kuechly with covering the deep middle of the field. While Kuechly is an All-Pro, he has no shot against Jones. Matt Ryan recognized the mismatch and burned Carolina for 48 yards down the middle of the field. It continues to baffle me why defenses spend the week devising plans to stop the game’s best receivers only to allow them to get matched up with linebackers, especially on third down. Carolina needs more corners and safeties on the field in that situation. It’s an unfair ask of Kuechly to guard that much turf.

8. 60% completion percentage, 11 touchdowns, 10 interceptions. Jared Goff has cratered this season, just in time to cash the 25 million signing bonus check the Rams gave him before the season. He’s due another 21 million on March 20 of next year. While the Rams wouldn’t admit it, is anyone involved with the franchise happy about that extension? Goff is an average quarterback, untradeable because of that contract, on a team built to win in the next 2-3 years. Sean McVay has his work cut out for him. Suddenly the Rams look very average.

9. New Orleans or Green Bay? Though San Francisco and Seattle will have a say, would there be anything better than a Brees-Rodgers matchup in January? Both are nearing the end and have never faced off in the playoffs. The Saints in snowy Green Bay for a chance to exorcise their haunting playoff exits over the past two years versus Aaron Rodgers, the king of playoff miracles? What could be better?

10. Indianapolis-Houston
Seattle-Philadelphia
Dallas-New England
Green Bay-San Francisco
Baltimore-L.A. Rams
An exceptional slate of games this week. If Indy wins in Houston, they’ll give themselves a de facto two game lead in the division with two victories over the Texans. Philly needs a signature win after a so-so performance against New England. Dak is posting huge passing yardage numbers, but New England’s number 1 defense is a different animal. If San Francisco is a contender, they must win at home against Aaron Rodgers. Can Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey slow down Lamar Jackson? If they can’t, will anyone?

 

Browns-Steelers: Renewed Rivalry?

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, Freddie Kitchens, Jarvis landry, Odell Beckham

The Cleveland Browns, an enigma wrapped in drama and dysfunction, won for the first time since September on Sunday, earning a reprieve, for a few days anyway, from the pressure and tension of a disappointing season. So goes life in the NFL. Win and you’re heroic. Lose and you’re a bum. Was the victory a mirage, or are things improving?


Depends on who’s answering the question.


The penalties and turnovers are dropping. Over the past two weeks, the team hasn’t turned the ball over and has had 9 flags thrown on them for 110 yards, a good half earlier in the year. These are signs that discipline is being instilled and the players are taking to the coaching. Whatever the problems they’ve faced over 9 games, team unity hasn’t been one. Despite the horrid start, the players stick up for each other on the field and in the media, not letting the outside noise divide them. If there’s a sign that they have it in them to win 5 or 6 in a row, this is it.


For all the Freddie Kitchens’ hate, and he’s been bad, his poor choices and head scratching decisions have mostly come from a place of aggression.


A draw play on 4th and 9.


Calling timeout at the end of the first half against Seattle, before Baker Mayfield threw a pick and gave the Seahawks a chance to score.


Multiple times choosing to go for first downs in the red zone instead of kicking field goals.


Taking the ball to start games earlier in the season.

Calling deep drops and routes on passing plays with the offense struggling to create enough time for those routes to be successful.


The penalties and turnovers.


All these issues point to a level of incompetence from the coaching staff. At least, however, the head coach isn’t sitting on his hands, letting other teams dictate the action. Luck favors the aggressor.


It was brutal watching the offense fail to score on 8 consecutive snaps from the one yard line. Pee Wee teams would have lucked into a score on 8 tries. The offense has a mental problem in the red zone more so than a physical one. Nick Chubb pulled up on one run, cutting it inside instead of outrunning the defender to the corner. Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry both lost one-on-one matchups in the end zone. Baker is fidgety, afraid of a turnover. The play calling isn’t the problem; execution of those plays was lacking.


The final touchdown, however, was brilliance from the players and staff. By lining Beckham and Landry on the left side of the offense and Rashard Higgins alone on the right, Kitchens forced the defense’s attention left, giving Higgins a one-on-one matchup, which he won, and allowing Baker to make a beautiful throw.

Defense’s attention on the left side of the play and the backfield. Higgins (top) 1 on 1 with the corner


With Kareem Hunt’s return, the Browns’ backfield is as dynamic as any in the league. Hunt was outstanding Sunday, providing a glimpse of what the offense can be if they perfect the timing and execution. A devastating lead blocker for Chubb, Hunt paved multiple running lanes for his teammate while catching 7 balls for 44 yards. Nick Chubb, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Kareem Hunt, Rashard Higgins, and Baker Mayfield. This offense is out of excuses. Get the ball into the playmakers’ hands and let them win games.


Now a Thursday nighter, at home, against the Pittsburgh Steelers. A division rival. Hated for their smugness and success. An organization that has everything this one craves. The only team pompous enough to put their logo on just one side of their helmet.


The Steelers have won four in a row after a 1-4 start. Mason Rudolph, Ben Roethlisberger’s replacement at quarterback, has been fine, completing 65% of his passes and throwing 11 touchdowns to 4 interceptions. He’s not completing passes downfield, however, averaging only 6.6 yards per attempt, 32nd in the league. The Steeler offense is in QB protection mode. They aren’t running the ball well either, though, ranking 27th in the league in rushing yards and 28th in yards per rush. The Browns defense must dominate Thursday.


Pittsburgh’s resurgence is linked to its defense. Second in the league in turnovers forced, they’ve feasted on other teams’ mistakes. Otherwise they’re slightly above average, ranking 12th in passing yards and 16th in rushing yards surrendered. Minkah Fitzpatrick, a safety picked up from Miami for a 1st round pick, has 5 interceptions on the year. Rookie linebacker Devin Bush has forced 4 fumbles. T.J. Watt has 9.5 sacks. Slowing these three will be key.

While the front seven is formidable, the secondary is a weakness. Plays designed to get the ball out of Mayfield’s hands and into his playmakers’ will be key.


The Pittsburgh front seven will try to harass Baker into turnovers. Expect blitzes from all over. Cam Heyward is a disruptive force at defensive tackle, and Bud Dupree is having a breakout year, already tying his career high with 6 sacks.


Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. If the Browns avoid them, they have an outstanding chance to win. Pittsburgh cannot keep up with Cleveland’s offensive talent. Can they execute?


This is the week. The Steelers have dominated the Browns since the return. If this franchise is anywhere close to overturning the culture of losing and becoming a perennial playoff contender, they must beat the Steelers. Browns punters have been kicked in the face, fans have been body slammed, and the organization has been embarrassed regularly by their rival. To earn any respect in the NFL, you must win division games. The failures of the season can be forgotten with 2 victories over Pittsburgh in the next 3 weeks. Thursday Night will show whether this team believes in themselves.

The disrespect is palpable

The Whip Around

1. The Colts are stumbling, lost without Jacoby Brissett and T. Y. Hilton. A loss to Miami is inexcusable, however, regardless of who’s playing. Linebacker Darius Leonard tried single-handedly to avoid the embarrassment, tallying 11 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, and an interception. One of the game’s best linebackers, Leonard and the Colts’ defense is being hung out to dry by their offense in recent weeks. Things haven’t looked the same for Indy since their upset in Kansas City. With three games on deck with division rivals in the jumbled AFC South, the Colts may play their way out of the playoff hunt, unfathomable a month ago.

2. Wide receiver screens are one of the most popular plays in offensive coordinators’ play books, yet seem to fail more often than not. One problem is when they’re called. Against zone defenses, when corners and safeties play farther off the line, receivers have room to operate and are gaining yardage on the quick throws. Too often, however, they’re called against man defense. Corners are attacking the receiver at the snap, causing lost yardage on most plays. Good quarterbacks read this and audible in or out of the play according to what the defense is showing. Bad QBs aren’t. Coordinators need to give their signal callers more freedom to get out of these lost plays when they see corners pressing up against their receivers.

3. Lamar Jackson has at least one highlight play per week. He’s creeping into Michael Vick territory.

4. Genius Sean McVay must skip his Mensa meetings. His innovative offense is being bogged down by penalties, turnovers, drops, and poor quarterback play. While the offensive line has been a disaster because of injuries and off-season losses, that’s no excuse. McVay is purported to be an offensive mastermind, capable of turning average players into Pro Bowlers. His 134 million dollar quarterback is regressing and his star running back has arthritis in his knee while playing in the toughest division in football. May be time to stop labeling football coaches geniuses.

5. If Aaron Rodgers is going to win another Super Bowl, this may be the year. Aaron Jones is having a breakout year, tied for the league lead in touchdowns and 10th in yards from scrimmage. He’s a threat as a runner and receiver, giving Rodgers another weapon to go to in crunch time other than Davante Adams. Green Bay hasn’t had as dangerous a runner since Ahman Green.

6. Ron Rivera made an outstanding coaching move Sunday, going for two after scoring a touchdown trailing by 14. Conventional wisdom says kick the extra point and get within 7. Going for two, however, gives the team better odds of winning. If you miss the 2, which they did, you’re still only down 8 and can tie with a score and 2 point conversion. If you succeed, you’re down six and can win with a TD and extra point. Overtime in the NFL is a crap shoot. Teams are better off doing whatever they must to win in regulation.

7. Kyle Allen has taken the Carolina quarterback job from Cam Newton, injuries or no. Throws like this are why. Allen can be special.

Tough throw between 3 defenders

8. On his best day, Josh Allen in an average quarterback. He doesn’t have the accuracy or field vision necessary to succeed long term in the NFL. He can run and has a strong arm, though, qualities that will tantalize QB needy GMs for years to come. If Buffalo sneaks into the playoffs, it will be due to a combination of their defense and a crappy AFC.

9. The difference between quarterbacks on Monday Night was stark. While his team possesses more talent at nearly every position and was at home, Jimmy Garoppolo isn’t good enough to compete with Russell Wilson. No matter how well the 49er defense and running game perform, Garoppolo’s shortcomings will get exposed in crucial moments. Too often, his throws are off target and he doesn’t know what to do with himself inside the pocket. Come playoff time, San Francisco stands little chance against the Saints, Seahawks, or Packers, regardless of venue.

10. The annual Tennessee Beat a Super Bowl Contender Bowl was held Sunday, with the Titans upending the Chiefs in Patrick Mahomes’ return. Mahomes was outstanding, but Derrick Henry ran for 188 yards, Tennessee’s defense recovered a fumble for a touchdown, and K.C. botched a late field goal attempt that would have sealed the victory to keep the Titans’ playoff hopes alive. The Titans play up or down to their competition, surrounding head scratching losses with unforeseen victories. You tell me what they are.

 

Typical Cleveland Browns Problems, Typical Cleveland Browns Solutions

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, Jimmy Haslam, Mitchell Trubisky

Time to step back and take a breathe. The Cleveland Browns aren’t making the playoffs in 2019. A winning record doesn’t seem attainable. Over and again, each member of the organization has proved incapable of handling the pressures of the expectations placed on them before the season. A weak schedule can no longer save them. What good are wins over Cincinnati and Miami? They’ll be empty calories, leaving fans hungry for something more significant.


The owner, the general manager, and the fans need to exercise patience. There are a myriad of problems with the roster and the coaching staff, but sweeping changes are not the answer. How often does a coach have to get fired, replaced, then fired again before they end the cycle? The Browns franchise returned in 1999 and has employed 11 head coaches in that time. Eleven coaches in 21 years. That’s obnoxious. The blame is placed at the feet of the wrong people.


Jimmy Haslam and Randy Lerner before him deserve criticism for the incompetence of this franchise for the past two decades. Would you blame the success or failure of General Motors on the line workers? They are the most important cog in the machine to be sure, but workers cannot succeed if they don’t have the correct tools, a safe work environment, and the proper training and education to flourish.


The owners of the Cleveland Browns have provided nothing but a toxic work space for their employees. Haslam hasn’t a clue what it takes to run an NFL franchise. He possesses neither the patience nor the wherewithal to put people in positions to succeed. His bravado and false sense of accomplishment allow him to brush his massive failures aside and place blame on others’ shoulders. A leader holds themselves accountable. Haslam has shown no sign he’s capable of self reflection.


The problems in Cleveland are deeper than the quarterback and coach. A systemic failure at the top of the organization oozes below, infecting the entire system. It’s a pitiful situation, and the fans are the ones who suffer. Firing a coach or replacing a general manager provides the masses with hope but does little to solve the overarching issues. The Cleveland Browns franchise will never win consistently until Jimmy Haslam sells the team, a depressing but true realization of the state of the franchise.


Baker Mayfield and Freddie Kitchens do look lost, however. The defense is regressing. The pressures of the NFL are mounting and no one involved has shown the capability to handle them.


On Sunday, the offense moved the ball and committed zero turnovers. The refs penalized the team only five times. Yet in pressure situations, they failed.


6-15 on third downs.
0-2 on fourth down.
One touchdown in five red zone appearances.


When the moment intensifies, Mayfield and the offense cower. On the season Mayfield in completing 35.9% of his passes inside the 20 yard line, throwing 4 touchdowns compared to 3 interceptions. Last year the numbers were 64.8% completions, 20 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions. What happened?

Mayfield even struggles with a clean pocket


The talent is there. Mayfield has succeeded at every level, including the NFL. Not so long ago, he was the savior. He’s a quarterback with zero confidence. Bad plays have piled up. The expectations and pressure have buried him.


It’s time to give this group a chance to exhale. The final two months of the season may give them that chance. Can they find themselves somewhere under the rubble of the 2019 season?


The record will be a disappointment. Next off-season will offer less distraction. The national media will find the next big thing somewhere else. The Browns will be an afterthought. Is it possible for them to improve under those conditions? Cleveland’s was the third youngest roster entering the season. Contrary to popular belief, young NFL teams don’t make huge leaps from year to year. San Francisco is an exception in 2019, though Jimmy Garoppolo returned after missing all but 3 games last year, and they added the Defensive Rookie of the Year (presumably) in the draft.


Turning players and front office personnel over every other year hasn’t worked for twenty years. The team has won 18 games in 5 years. It can’t get any worse, right?

Buffalo arrives Sunday in Cleveland as one of the biggest surprises of the 2019 season, sporting a 6-2 record and the third-ranked defense in the league. Josh Allen is unspectacular, however, a middling quarterback who’ll turn the ball over. He’s thrown 7 interceptions and fumbled 10 times on the year. He’s dangerous outside the pocket and will use his feet at the first sign of trouble. Cleveland’s defense must force Allen to throw, especially in the red zone. He’s run for 4 touchdowns, and the Bills offense, though they rank 23rd in the league, excel in the red zone. They score touchdowns on 71% of their red zone chances, best in the league, because of Allen’s legs and an efficient running game.

Frank Gore and Devin Singletary split carries in the Buffalo backfield, though Singletary may overtake Gore as the year progresses. He’s averaging 6.7 yards per carry and is coming off his best performance of the year, tallying 95 yards against Washington. Quicker and younger than his counterpart, watch for Singletary’s carries to rise in the coming weeks.


Defensively the Bills lack stars yet continue to dominate. Third in the league in passing yards allowed, Buffalo shuts down opponent’s passing games. Yet to allow a 300 yard passer on the season, Mayfield faces an uphill battle to find any success this week. Quarterbacks complete only 60% of their passes against safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde and corners Levi Wallace and TreDavious White. They’re in the top five in the league in opponents’ QB rating and passes defended.


It’s difficult to see a path to victory for the Browns this week. They’re facing a confident team while living in a constant state of turmoil. Buffalo possesses the resiliency needed to win the low-scoring game likely on Sunday. The Browns’ offense has shown no propensity to overcome themselves, let alone a top five NFL defense.

The Whip Around

1. Josh Gordon got cut last week by the Patriots and claimed by Seattle, followed by reports of Seahawk players and fans gushing over their newest signing. Gordon is a special talent, but it’s difficult to imagine him succeeding in the NFL, regardless of the situation. He’s led a troubled life and deserves to find the help he needs to sort through his problems. An NFL locker room isn’t that place. Here’s hoping he finds that help.

2. Each week, defensive coordinators scheme to keep from getting beat deep by Tyreek Hill. Each week, they fail.

Chasing down an NFL running back with a 10 yard head start is unthinkable. How much for a Tyreek Hill-Usain Bolt 100M dash?

3. The vaunted Colts offensive line got schooled by the Steelers defensive front on Sunday, giving up 5 sacks, the most on the season. The Colts suddenly look average and injuries are piling up. A month removed from their upset of the Chiefs in Kansas City, Indy needs victories over Miami and Jacksonville over the next two weeks to right the ship before a mammoth trip to Houston in Week 12. Are the Colts a contender fighting through injuries or a team that peaked too early?

4. Speaking of the AFC South, the Texans defense looked the part in London against Jacksonville, but did not pressure Gardner Minshew until he needed to throw late. With a tough schedule that includes Baltimore, Indianapolis, and New England upcoming, the Texans must generate a pass rush. Will J. J. Watt’s injury and the trade of Jadeveon Clowney doom their playoff chances? Or will Deshaun Watson put up so many points that it won’t matter?

5. Philadelphia seems to have righted the ship, posting victories at Buffalo and Chicago after losing 4 of 6. Carson Wentz has regained his accuracy, completing at least 66% of his passes the last two weeks after posting sub 62% percentages in 5 of the 6 weeks preceding. With the 6th best rushing attack to complement Wentz, the Eagles seem poised to begin their yearly chase down of the Cowboys for the NFC East title.

6. The pitchforks are out in Chicago, hunting for the head of Mitchell Trubisky. A year after winning the division, the Bears are 3-5 with an offense unable to score points. While it’s looking likely the Bears will move on from the 2nd pick in the 2017 draft, who could be available to right the ship? Andy Dalton is an option. How many playoff victories does he have? Cam Newton is intriguing if Carolina hands the reins to Kyle Allen, but injuries have mounted for Cam and he’ll be 31 when next season kicks off. The loser of the Gardner Minshew/Nick Foles battle could be available, but Jacksonville would benefit by keeping both since Minshew is cheap. Eli Manning? Please. The best option may be Teddy Bridgewater. He held his own while Drew Brees healed, protecting the ball and allowing the Saints’ extraordinary defense to win games. Sounds like a perfect fit.

7. Lamar Jackson is what happens when an ultra-talented but flawed player falls into the right situation. Only a few organizations are savvy enough to put Jackson in a position to be an MVP candidate. Baltimore has proved again that smart teams win the draft, not because they unearth gems, but because they advance the abilities of their players instead of hindering them. Surrounded by a strong defense and elite running game, the Ravens are making the rest of the AFC North look like fools.

8. Halfway through the season, Josh Jacobs has the Offensive Rookie of the Year award wrapped up. Seventh in the league in rushing yards and tied for fifth in touchdowns, the Raiders’ back is the most impressive rookie in the league this side of Nick Bosa. On some runs, he’s a one cut back, putting a foot in the ground, hitting the hole, and showing off his speed. On others, he flashes an array of moves, jukes, and spins, leaving defenders flummoxed. An ideal combination of speed, power, size, and shiftiness, Jacobs will light up Vegas next year like, well, Vegas.

9. Browns, Jets, Redskins, Bengals. If you were to hitch your wagon to one of these franchises for the next decade which one’s the pick? Jimmy Haslam, Woody Johnson, Dan Snyder, Mike Brown. Maybe just pull the wagon yourself.

10. San Francisco vs. Seattle on Monday Night is the game of the year to this point. An undefeated 49ers squad at home with the best defense in the league against the presumptive MVP Russell Wilson. Richard Sherman squaring off against his old team. Seattle’s defense is the weak link in the matchup; can Pete Carroll scheme a way to slow down the 49er running game? The schedule toughens for San Francisco from here. A loss at home against a division rival could snowball on them. Prediction: the winner of this game wins the NFC West.

All stats courtesy of http://pro-football-reference.com

Browns poised for a turnaround….next week

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, NFL, Tom Brady

No matter how optimistic about the season, few Browns fans looked at Week 8 and predicted a win. With the season in flux, @New England this week is dispiriting. In need of a confidence boost off the bye week, no game has seemed more like a loss going in.

The Patriots have been surgical this season; only one game they’ve played has finished within two touchdowns. The defense has given up three touchdowns all year. They’ve scored at least 30 each week, save for Week 4 against Buffalo, the third-ranked D in the league. Average for most of the regular season last year, this squad is hell bent on making a statement in 2019.


For the Browns to have any shot, they must pressure Tom Brady without blitzing. Cleveland’s front four was built for this situation. According to football outsiders, the defense ranks fifth in the league in adjusted sack rate, at 8.5%, and ninth in sacks with 19. The Pats’ starting center, David Andrews, and left tackle, Isaiah Wynn, are on injured reserve. Rob Gronkowski, known for spectacular catches and violent collisions with defensive backs, was an exceptional blocker, but retired before the season.


Though sporadic to this point in the season, the defensive line must dominate on Sunday. The few occasions during his career when Brady has struggled have all occurred when he’s faced heavy pressure. Myles Garrett, Sheldon Richardson, Larry Ogunjobi, and Olivier Vernon must apply heat. If the Browns have to blitz, Brady will slice the secondary apart. Sending extra defenders will allow him to exploit mismatches the blitz creates.


Still, Brady will be hard to bring down. Eighth in the league in shortest time to throw, at 2.58 seconds according to Next Gen stats, Brady is used to throwing quick. His receivers will run quick routes, designed to get them in space. James White will be active in the passing game. Brady uses his running backs as well as any quarterback in the game’s history. Will Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams return this week? They need their speed and coverage skills to contend with this offense.


New England’s first drive on Monday Night against the Jets was a masterpiece, lasting 16 plays and including everyone on offense. The Browns defense cannot be passive. If they cannot make Tom Brady uncomfortable, game over.


Offensively Baker Mayfield is in for a struggle. The New England defense is historic. First in points allowed, yards, and turnovers forced, it’s hard to foresee any success from the offense. To hang with the champs, the Browns cannot turn it over. As bad as the offense has been, turnovers have proved to be the biggest issue. They moved the ball at will against Seattle, only to give the ball to the Seahawks four times. Threatening to get back into the game against the Niners, Antonio Callaway dropped a sure touchdown that was picked off. The Titan game came unglued when Mayfield threw three picks in the fourth quarter. If they can hold on to the ball, the offense has shown potential.


While watching the Pats offense, Baker Mayfield should study Brady’s footwork in the pocket. Never hurried, even in the face of pressure, his movement to create extra tenths of seconds to throw is doctorate level stuff. He’s the best in the game’s history at avoiding the rush and stepping up to find receivers. Pocket presence separates the bad quarterbacks from the good. Above all else, Baker must improve in this area if the Browns are to turn this season around.

Feels pressure….steps up and delivers the ball


The only chance the Browns have Sunday is for a low-scoring affair. Chew clock with Nick Chubb, avoid turnovers, and pressure Brady all afternoon. An 80s throwback game is their path to victory.

The Whip Around

1. Pete Carroll’s risk averse way of coaching is doing his team zero favors. Settling for field goals and punting on the defense’s side of the field is playing into his opponents’ hands. The best weapon in the league and MVP to this point, Russell Wilson, is Seattle’s path to victories. Their defense is below average. It cannot withstand the pressure Carroll’s decisions are putting on them. Give it to Russ instead.

2. What’s wrong with the Eagles? An embarrassing beat down at the hands of an average Cowboys team should have alarms sounding in Philadelphia. Although they’re still missing DeSean Jackson, the offense needs to chuck it. 12th in the league in run percentage, this is way too high for a Carson Wentz led team, regardless of wide receiver injuries. Jordan Howard is average, and Miles Sanders is an inconsistent rookie. Put the game in the hands of your former MVP candidate.

3. Aaron Rodgers is heating up. Accounting for five touchdowns against the Raiders, Rodgers’ slow start to the season is history. Able to rely on a strong defense and a stout running game, the Pack looks like a contender. NFC teams would be wise to wrestle home field advantage away from the Packers. January games in Green Bay against that defense won’t end well.

4. While hoping to tread water in Drew Brees’ absence, the Saints have been one-legged skiing. Teddy Bridgewater has been what the doctor ordered, completing almost 68% of his passes while throwing only two picks. Another team historically defensively challenged, New Orleans is dominating games on both sides of the ball unlike anyone outside of New England. The culture Sean Payton has built in Louisiana, for a franchise as bad as any in the league before they hired him, is awe-inspiring. After last year’s gruesome ending, a Saints Super Bowl title would be the icing on the cake.

5. Though Jared Goff has struggled, don’t forget about the Rams. With last week’s trade for Jalen Ramsey, Los Angeles pairs the game’s best corner with Aaron Donald. With Dante Fowler Jr. submitting three sacks on Sunday, no team possesses star power on defense like L.A. Can Sean McVay devise a scheme to limit Goff’s errors? Will he survive relying on his defense to win games?

6. Andy Dalton with the toss of the year. Nice look, Red Rocket.

7. Kirk Cousins is a dark horse MVP candidate? Things are trending upward in Minnesota again, what with the QB playing nice with wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs again after some passive aggressive comments from each earlier in the season. Washington is in town for a hum drum Thursday Night game, cementing another week of harmony in the Land of the Lakes. The rubber hits the road after, with games against Kansas City, Dallas, Denver, and Seattle on the horizon. Will things look as rosy in a month?

8. Chicago has a Mitchell Trubisky problem. Strong defensively with perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate Khalil Mack and Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara at the corners, the offense remains in neutral. Though short on talent around him, Trubisky is struggling, missing receivers and looking lost in Matt Nagy’s offense. How long will the Bears remain patient with him? A team built to win now and coming off an NFC North title a year ago, Chicago wants to avoid getting on the QB merry-go-round again, but may have no choice.

9. Eric Ebron’s stunning touchdown catch was so spectacular it never crossed announcer Greg Gumbel or Trent Green’s mind that he got both feet down in bounds. A beauty.

10. If Washington plays Dwayne Haskins again this year, he should sue for malpractice. Star left tackle Trent Williams demanded a trade during mini-camp and has yet to show up to the team. 34-year-old Adrian Peterson is their best offensive player, and he’s hurt. At least Miami has admitted they’re tanking.

Live look in Washington


Ownership in Washington is clueless. Ineptitude of this magnitude funnels from the top. Twenty years of horrible coaching hires and free agent signings litter Dan Snyder’s tenure as owner. He’s sued season ticket holders and demanded a newspaper to fire a writer he didn’t like. If not for the Browns, his team would’ve been the laughingstock of the NFL during the last decade. Shame on Snyder for destroying a once proud franchise.