Add a Little Defense With Pressure, Guarantee the Playoffs?

Cleveland Browns, Myles Garrett, NFL, Tom Brady

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Whip Around

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Man’s league.

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

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

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com

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

Cleveland Browns, Myles Garrett, NFL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Whip Around

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Simplistic Triumph is Satisfying, Refreshing in Cleveland

Cleveland Browns, Myles Garrett, NFL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Whip Around

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com

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.

On Myles Garrett

Cleveland Browns, Jimmy Haslam, Myles Garrett, NFL

By all accounts, Myles Garrett is a great guy. Smart, articulate, and mindful. A fan sucker punched him a month ago, yet Garrett did not attack him, only called the police to report the crime. Yet on Thursday night, Garrett’s emotions overcame him, leading to one of the most gruesome player on player melees in the league’s history. Myles Garrett received an indefinite suspension, but is out at least the rest of this year and got what he deserved.


You cannot rip a player’s helmet off of his own head and hit him with it. There is no excuse for what Garrett did. Nothing else matters. Whatever Mason Rudolph or Maurkice Pouncey or David DeCastro did has no bearing on Garrett’s suspension. When a weapon gets used against another player in such a shocking fashion, the league must penalize harshly. The integrity of the league is at stake, and Garrett’s suspension is just. Out of character or not, a blatant attack with a weapon on another player is heinous. The ugly scene from Thursday will cause harm to the entire league. Garrett embarrassed himself, his organization, his fan base, and the NFL.


Mason Rudolph dodged a suspension, yet deserved 1-2 games. His anger and actions escalated the situation. But the “He started it!” crowd is being obtuse. This argument doesn’t hold water once you’ve turned 10. Grow up. Mistakes are part of life. Everyone makes them and must deal with the consequences. Adults try their best to apologize, learn a lesson from the error in their ways, and do better.


Garrett doesn’t need anyone to stick up for him. He’s apologized and is likely in agony. He’s in for a long road back to an NFL field, and this will stick with him. Fair or not, he’s now branded a dirty player. The actions from Thursday night could ruin his career. This situation will test his mental toughness and resolve over the next 9-12 months like nothing he’s experienced. Fans and media have and will continue to attack his character until he proves the narratives false. Garrett has to remain contrite, yet cannot let the negative opinions drag on him. His support system will be key. This will be his toughest challenge.


The organization must back Garrett, yet Jimmy Haslam and the power structure he’s set up has shown no propensity to lend support to anyone who belongs to the Cleveland Browns organization. Myles Garrett needs his owner, general manager, coach and teammates to have his back and give him the encouragement he’ll need to return to the field as the same player who left it. He’ll have doubts about who he is as a human being and where he fits on the team. It is essential that this organization do whatever is necessary for one of their cornerstones. While I hope like hell I’m wrong, I have no faith that anyone in Cleveland is up to this task.


Only three years in, Myles Garrett is one of the best football players that has suited up for the franchise since its return. He cares about the organization, the city, and his teammates. He’s the captain of the NFL Waterboys program, an organization committed to furnishing clean water to poverty-stricken East African countries. Anyone who labels him a dirty player or a bad guy isn’t telling the whole story, yet that isn’t our strong suit as a society. It’s easier to see a 15-20 second clip and draw overarching conclusions about the parties involved than to understand them as human beings, capable of good and bad. Myles Garrett deserves his six game suspension. He also deserves your compassion.