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.

 

The Heart of Jarvis

Cleveland Browns, Jarvis landry, NFL

The fans received their first glimpse of Jarvis Landry as a leader last year on HBO’s Hard Knocks. The newly acquired receiver, fed up early in training camp with the practice habits of his teammates, went on a F-bomb laced tirade in a position meeting, letting them know the shoddy habits built during the previous seasons were no longer acceptable. It was a tongue lashing long overdue.


Landry is the heart and soul of this club. Every team needs a leader, a respected veteran who commands attention and forces others to do things the right way. Jarvis wants to win; you can see it in his eyes and feel it in his words. He knows the opportunity that exists and refuses to let his teammates take it for granted. He is what champions are made of.


Because of his slow start to the season and being overshadowed by Odell Beckham, the importance of Landry was forgotten. No longer. Jarvis’ leadership shone on Sunday, alongside his extreme talent. The Browns had every opportunity to fold in Baltimore. Playing in a stadium they had won only four times in their history and facing the heat of the national media for unmet expectations, the young Browns needed guidance. Jarvis Landry led the way.

John Dorsey has made excellent moves since taking over as general manager of the Browns, yet, other than the drafting of Baker, none have been as important as the Landry trade. Acquired from the Dolphins for a 4th and 7th round pick, he has forced the organization to shed their loser’s habits. The stench of 1-31 doesn’t disappear by firing a coach or replacing front office members. Winning requires strong habits, work ethic, and discipline. Beyond his extraordinary talent, Jarvis Landry has instilled these qualities in his teammates.

Sunday marked the first time in the 2019 season the team looked as the fans expected. The Baker Mayfield from 2018 returned, throwing darts, controlling the offense, and playing with confidence. Nick Chubb dissected the Ravens as few running backs have. Twenty rushes for 165 yards and three touchdowns are staggering numbers to hang in Baltimore. Ricky Seals-Jones was a welcome addition to the game plan this week. A wide receiver in college, the tight end’s large frame and speed makes him a tough cover for opposing linebackers. With David Njoku out until at least Week 11, Seals-Jones provides a dangerous safety valve for Mayfield. Given Njoku’s tendency to catch a case of the drops, Seals-Jones may be an upgrade.


The defense, for the third week in a row, was outstanding. The strength of the team to this point, they’ve allowed the offense time to find a groove. They contained Lamar Jackson, sacking him four times and kept him in the pocket as well as can be expected, forcing him to use his arm. Joe Schobert recorded 17 tackles and a sack; he is pushing Myles Garrett for defensive team MVP to this point in the season. Plagued by missed tackles a year ago, Schobert has recovered and is quarterbacking this defense impressively.


Overlooked by the star power surrounding him, Larry Ogunjobi has been stellar the last two weeks, recording a sack in each game and standing up opposing running backs. A third-round pick in the 2017 draft, he is one of the few picks Sashi Brown got right.


Old Browns teams would have wilted on Sunday, unable to live up to expectations. Landry has preached patience and belief in his teammates, vowing the offense would begin making plays. He led by example Sunday, enforcing his will on the game and the Ravens. Leaders know when to disengage and allow their teammates to learn lessons, just as they know when to grab a game by the throat and take it. Jarvis Landry did that against Baltimore, and it’s the reason the Browns look like the team we expected.

Back under the lights Monday night, the Browns head to San Francisco to face an undefeated 49ers team. Landry sustained a concussion on Sunday, leaving his availability in doubt. Antonio Callaway will return from a four game drug suspension, yet it’s difficult to pinpoint what he will bring to the offense. Showing up out of shape to training camp, Callaway is a fantastic talent but needs to prove he wants and deserves to be a member of this team. If he worked his way into shape during his suspension, there will be a role for him. Rashard Higgins has missed three straight games, and it’s anyone’s guess if he’ll be able to suit up Monday. The Browns receiving core will need Callaway this week, not a comforting thought.


The 49ers have shown a balanced attack on offense. Their two backs, Raheem Mostert and Matt Breida, each average over 5 yards per rush, and Jimmy Garoppolo has been solid yet unspectacular returning from injury at quarterback. Their receivers are a below average outfit. George Kittle is their only threat in the passing game. They must account for him and gang tackle after he catches the ball. He will bulldoze defenders if allowed to gain steam in the open field.


San Francisco’s offense destroyed both Cincinnati’s and Pittsburgh’s defenses, though 5 turnovers in the Steeler game kept it close. The Browns defense must continue to pressure the quarterback, forcing Garoppolo to rush himself in the pocket. He will turn the ball over if he’s uncomfortable.


Offensively, Odell Beckham will need over 2 catches and 20 yards Monday night. Despite the numbers, Beckham was an important part of the offense on Sunday, drawing double coverage and opening space for Landry, Ricky Seals-Jones, and Nick Chubb. If Landry and Higgins miss Monday, however, Beckham will need to be more than a decoy. If Baker and the offense have turned the corner, the Browns should begin a winning streak on Monday night.

Beckham(13) draws double coverage, allowing Seals-Jones(83) to get open

The Whip Around

1. Though Tom Brady and the offense have received most of the praise during their Super Bowl ring collection, this year’s defense may carry the team. They gave up their first touchdown of the year on Sunday and have looked dominant each week. Jamie Collins, back with the team after collecting massive checks from the Browns for subpar play, has been rejuvenated, racking up 3.5 sacks and picking off 3 passes. Brady is being carried by the other side of the ball for the first time since his sophomore year in the league.

2. I’m in love with trips bunch, a set in which three wide receivers line up on the same side of the ball, in a triangle formation. The options are infinite. Already at a disadvantage, defensive backs’ chances of covering all three are nil. Week after week, offenses make huge plays out of these sets. Use it more, offensive coordinators.

Trips Bunch
Landry wide open for a 1st down

3. Another week, another referee complaint. The officials are letting turnover plays go, regardless of what they seen the field, so they can review the play. The problem, once they go to the replay booth, is they rarely overturn what is called on the field. Ezekiel Elliott’s fumble on Sunday night football is a perfect example. While a close play, his elbow was down before the ball popped out. Called a fumble on the field however, the refs decided it was too close to overturn. Forget the “not enough evidence to overturn” nonsense. You have two working eyes, presumably. Get the call right, instead of relying on replay.

4. The Eagles victory at Lambeau Field last Thursday night was impressive for Philadelphia. Torching the improved Green Bay defense, Philly pulled within a game of the division leading Cowboys. Carson Wentz rebounded from a spotty performance against Detroit, throwing three touchdowns, and the Eagles rushing game flexed its muscle, accounting for 176 yards. If Wentz can stay healthy, I believe the Eagles are a threat to play in the Super Bowl.

5. Washington, Cincinnati, Miami, and the Jets have made life easy for anyone in a Survival Pool. The garbage these teams litter NFL fields with each week is an abomination. If you combined their rosters, you still could not construct a decent club.

Daniel Snyder right now……Probably

6. The Cowboys took a chance drafting Jaylon Smith at 34 in the 2016 draft after he tore his ACL and MCL in the Fiesta Bowl, but it is paying dividends now. He’s a tackling machine, tied for fourth in the league, and is the anchor to a superb Dallas defense. If the Cowboys advance in the playoffs, it will be on the back of Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, Robert Quinn, and DeMarcus Lawrence. They will need to carry the water when Dak inevitably struggles in key moments.

7. The hit Marcus Peters took on his pick 6 of Jameis Winston was brutal. No flag thrown? The NFL bends over backward to ensure no quarterback is even looked at cross; flags fly if a receiver brushes pads with a defender. That a defender was crushed, helmet to helmet no less, in that matter is bush league. Donovan Smith should be fined exorbitantly and suspended for a game.

8. What’s left to be said? Gardner Minshew is a magician. Prepare his bust in Canton.

9. Another pet peeve: returners bringing the ball out of the end zone. They rarely get back to the 25 yard line and they’re taking a chance on a turnover or penalty. I’m baffled special teams coordinators aren’t beating it into these guys’ brains to take a knee. The days of returners housing kickoffs are over. Save yourselves the embarrassment, and me the energy I use yelling at the television.

10. Russell Wilson was glorious Thursday night, leading the Seahawks to a huge division victory against the Rams. Wilson, perennially underrated by fans and media members alike, is requiring us to consider him as an early MVP candidate. Overcoming a shoddy defense, Rusty’s Seahawks are inching toward contender status. The quarterback has joined Patrick Mahomes in the “Must See TV” category.