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

Cleveland Browns, Kevin Stefanski, NFL

A simple path for the Cleveland Browns to NFL dominance doesn’t exist. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens are two of the best organizations in all of sports, and the Browns must compete with each twice per season. The level they need to reach to remain competitive with either has been unattainable by this franchise for 40 years. Wins against poor outfits in Cincinnati, Washington, and Dallas, and a competent Indianapolis, show growth. In year’s past, the Browns would’ve choked 1 or 2 of those wins away with silly turnovers or inopportune penalties. But a worst to first turnaround, easier for teams in, say, the AFC South, can’t happen. Not with the mammoth shadows cast on them from Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

They’re perennial Super Bowl contenders who preach continuity, have strong staffs and systems in place, and draft well. The Steelers hired Mike Tomlin in 2007. Baltimore found John Harbaugh in 2008. They’re the 3rd and 4th longest tenured coaches in the league behind Bill Belichick and Sean Payton. Notice anything? The Patriots, Saints, Steelers, and Ravens are among the best teams in the league year after year. This isn’t a coincidence. They poured the foundations for winning long ago. These franchises don’t allow bad plays, or losses, or draft picks to sway their mindsets. The system is in place. They have established the correct way of doing things through high leverage playoff games and agonizing off-season practices. They win because everyone in the organization knows how to. There’s direction. There’s accountability.

None of this has existed in Cleveland since the rebirth, but signals of change are clear. Going from 6-10 to 8-8 or 9-7 is the simple part. Sunday’s dismantling in Pittsburgh was rough to watch and all too familiar. Unprepared and awestruck, units that have played well were over matched. Pittsburgh’s defensive line mauled the Browns’ number 1 ranked offensive line. The running game failed early, the deficit swelled, and Kevin Stefanski was forced to put the game in Baker Mayfield’s hands. Myles Garrett had 1 sack, but Pittsburgh’s so-so offensive line outperformed against Cleveland’s defensive front, allowing their offense free rein against the porous back seven. 38-7. Typical result at Heinz Field.

Why is Andrew Sendejo still starting and playing 100% of the defensive snaps? Injuries have decimated the position, but he’s costing the defense play after play. He lunges at ball carriers instead of squaring up to them and form tackling. He gets beat deep by wide receivers multiple times per game, a cardinal sin for safeties. Andrew Berry must step in to fix the situation. Whether by signing a free agent off the street or scouring the practice squads of other teams, find someone better. His Pro Football Focus ranking is 76th. He’s grades out at 51 against the run, 47 against the pass. Out of 100. He’s unathletic and slow, causing him to be out of position in perpetuity. Don’t blame the coaching staff for continuing to play him. He’s their only option. It’s Berry’s job to find someone better. Not a high bar.

While Berry has avoided scrutiny as general manager, questions remain about his eye for talent. He signed Jack Conklin. Linebacker Malcolm Smith (PFF ranking= 11th of 81 linebackers) flashes and has earned more minutes; he only played 52% of the defensive snaps Sunday. No other Berry signings or draft picks have had a positive impact on this team. First-round pick Jedrick Wills Jr. is struggling more than most would like to admit (60th ranked of 76 tackles, according to PFF). Free agent signings Sendejo, Karl Joseph, and B.J. Goodson aren’t good. John Dorsey acquired the contributors on this team. Berry is young and smart, but has yet to prove he can draft well or find under the radar free agents to contribute. He has to get better. Start with finding a safety, any safety, who can play the position.

The NFL built a safety net into the Browns schedule this season, placing their two games against Cincinnati in the weeks following trips to Baltimore and Pittsburgh. The Bengals have improved, and Joe Burrow could become a franchise quarterback, but he isn’t there yet. Cleveland’s lines hold advantages on both sides of the ball. In their week 2 Thursday nighter, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt ran for 210 yards and 3 touchdowns. The defense sacked Burrow 3 times and hit him 7 others. Against weak opponents, talented teams flex their advantages. Look for Stefanski to game plan toward his team’s strengths.

The Bengals have talent at the skill positions, but Burrow’s offensive line doesn’t allow him time to get them the football. Garrett and the defensive line can win this game on their own with pressure. Forcing Burrow into rushed decisions will lead to turnovers. Kareem Hunt and D’Ernest Johnson can control the clock on the ground, keeping injured Baker Mayfield from having to win this one with his arm.

How far have they come? Have Stefanski and Berry changed the culture in their short time together enough for the Browns to move away from Sunday’s beating, or will the embarrassment linger? These are the games competent franchises win. They aren’t Pittsburgh or Baltimore yet. It will take years for Cleveland to walk into each season as a bona fide Super Bowl contender, but it starts here. Professional, organized squads pounce on the Cincinnatis. Winnable games against Jacksonville, Houston, and both New York teams remain. If this franchise has changed, we’ll see the signs this weekend.

The Whip Around

1.Evidence of rust showed on Cam Newton Sunday as the Patriots lost a curious one at home, 18-12, to the Broncos. We don’t know enough yet about the coronavirus to determine how it affects athletes, both short and long-term. Russell Westbrook contracted it, recovered, then struggled in the NBA bubble. Nuggets center Nikola Jokic had it in June, but starred in the playoffs. The Patriots need a healthy, engaged Cam for their eleven year playoff streak to continue. One pick was a lazy throw batted by a lineman, the other placed well behind his intended receiver. The clock in his head was off when he took a blindside sack too; he should have felt the pressure and bailed before taking the hit. After an exemplary start, New England now sits at 2-3, weary from starts and stops because of the virus, and in third place in the AFC East. They need Cam’s athleticism and Bill Belichick’s genius to end their slide.

2. Monitor Las Vegas. David Carr has the second best passer rating in the league behind Russell Wilson. They’re the sixth best scoring offense in the league and the fifth best passing unit. They have a win over the Chiefs under their belt and are in a weak division. The defense is the problem. They’re giving up 30 per game and are second to last in the league in creating turnovers. Games remain against the Jets, Falcons, and Dolphins, plus 2 each with the Chargers and Broncos. The AFC is a muddled mess after Tennessee, K.C., Pittsburgh, and Baltimore. They almost have to make the postseason. Raider shootouts are must see 4:00 affairs for the rest of the season.

3. I can watch Kyler Murray throw footballs all day long.

4. Because they play in a trash heap of a division, the Cowboys will remain in the playoff hunt throughout the season. They’re 2-4 and lead the NFC East. It’s true. But Dallas is an awful team and Andy Dalton looked washed on Monday night against Arizona (2 picks, sacked 3 times, 65 rating). However, Ezekiel Elliott’s night was most concerning for Cowboy fans. Only 49 yards rushing against a middling Arizona run defense, Elliott also lost 2 fumbles, a first for him in an NFL game, exposing a lack of concentration on his part. Is he a leader? Can he carry them into the playoffs? Backs age fast, and Elliott is no exception. Only 26, he’s averaging the few yards per carry of his career, least amount of yards per game, and has fumbled almost twice as much already as he did all of last year. Zeke was dynamic coming out of Ohio State, but the shine wears off ball carriers overnight. He’s a classic example of why it’s unwise to give out large contracts to running backs when replacements exist late in the draft (see Alvin Kamara, Aaron Jones). Note to teams with backs on rookie deals, let someone else pay that big second contract.

5. No corner combines run stopping ability and coverage skills like Jason Verrett. And no one in the league deserves success more. Verrett entered the league in 2014, got selected for the Pro Bowl in 2015, and has been through injury hell since. A torn ACL in 2016 didn’t heal properly, causing him to miss 2 seasons. Then a torn Achilles, costing him a third straight year. He returned last year, only to tear a patellar tendon in Week 3, ending another season. Recovered to start training camp this year, he suffered a hamstring injury, costing him the 1st two games of this year. Finally healthy, Verrett is a force in the secondary. PFF’s third rated corner through 6 weeks, his pick in the end zone against the Rams and Jared Goff shuttered the Rams momentum on Sunday night and gave San Francisco a much needed home victory after two abominable losses against Philadelphia and Miami. Jimmy Garoppolo’s struggles are real. The 49ers need their defense to carry the water if they hope to defend their NFC title, and Verrett’s work in the secondary is key. He’s a fun guy to root for.

6. The Tennessee Titans are Super Bowl contenders, and Ryan Tannehill is one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Sure, Derrick Henry’s combined 264 yards rushing and receiving and 2 touchdowns in their overtime win against Houston was impressive, but Tannehill is the orchestrator of the offense. His passer rating (113.5) ranks third in the league after he led the category a year ago. 70% completions, 13 touchdowns, and only 2 interceptions, they’re 5-0 because Tannehill pushes the ball downfield without turning it over. Henry’s career took off only after Tennessee acquired the QB from Miami for a 4th rounder to back up Marcus Mariota last season. Can he go throw for throw with Patrick Mahomes? Tannehill’s weapons are inferior to Mahomes’, except for Henry. He’d need an otherworldly performance from his defense in a rematch of last season’s AFC title game. But Tannehill belongs, something few could foresee after his career in Miami.

7. That Pittsburgh defense. Their back seven struggles, but they apply so much pressure that is hasn’t hurt them. Their 24 sacks lead the league. Add to that 36 hurries, 83 pressures, and 182 blitzes. That’s some heat. Offenses are too good in today’s game, and the rules are bent to favor them. Defenses will give up points. Pressure forces turnovers and negative plays, however. The only way to slow modern offenses is to make the quarterback uncomfortable, and the Steelers do that better than anyone.

8. Robert Woods is the fulcrum of the Rams offensive attack. He catches everything, blocks downfield, and forces defenses to obey their assignments because of their tendency to hand him the ball when he’s in motion. For L.A. to regain their offensive consistency from 2018, Woods needs the ball in his hands more.

9. The Philly wide receiver corpse is just that, and Carson Wentz is one of the worst quarterbacks in the league. A barrage of injuries have hurt their chances in a putrid division, but led them to a gem in Travis Fulgham. Drafted in the 6th round of 2019 by the Lions, Fulgham was waived and cut before landing on Detroit’s practice squad last September. Cut by the Lions, Packers, and Eagles during training camp, Philly signed him on October 3 as a last resort. Alshon Jeffery remains unable to play, Marquise Goodwin sat out 2020, and DeSean Jackson and Jalen Reagor can’t find the field because of injury, either. Enter Fulgham. Through 3 games, his 18 catches, 284 yards, and 3 touchdowns has added some spunk to Philly’s offense. They’ve scored 25, 28, and 29 with him in the lineup, and Wentz has been average instead of a complete dumpster fire. If the Eagles can have any health related luck, they are the best team in the division, and Fulgham gives them a downfield threat that Jackson seems incapable of because of injury and age. The NFC East everybody.

10. How are the Chicago Bears 5-1 and leading the NFC North? Yes, the schedule has helped (wins over Detroit, NY Giants, Atlanta, and a Thursday home game against Tampa), but Nick Foles can’t throw the ball past the line of scrimmage (31st in the league at 5.8 yards per pass attempt). With Allen Robinson stifled by Foles’ pop gun arm and David Montgomery averaging less than 3 yards per carry the past 3 games, their weapons on offense lack punch. Three games await against the Rams, Saints, and Titans. Chicago’s time perched atop their division will be short-lived.

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com

NFL Divisional Round

Divisional Round, NFL, NFL Playoffs

Who wins this weekend, and how do they get it done? As always, the pressure falls on the quarterbacks.

Minnesota @ San Francisco

Kirk Cousins won the biggest game of his life last Sunday, throwing two beautiful passes during the game winning drive. His 43 yarder, dropped in a bucket to Adam Thielen, and the touchdown fade to Kyle Rudolph showed the talent all knew Cousins possessed. Don’t slough at those who questioned whether he could win a big game, however. Cousins’ record against winning teams before Sunday was 6-30; his record on Monday Night is 0-9. The win in New Orleans was big and Cousins played brilliantly. The questions were legit, however.

Which quarterback do you trust? The forecast calls for 15-25 MPH winds, so two teams who want to run the ball will be more inclined to do so. Both teams rank in the top five in rushing yards per game, and both defenses are middling at stopping the run. Getting the lead will be paramount. Neither coach wants the game in their QB’s hands. This is especially true of Mike Zimmer and the Vikings. San Fran’s defense is the best in the league against the pass and third in the NFL in sack percentage. If they can force him to throw, don’t look for Cousins to repeat the successes of last week. Richard Sherman and K’Waun Williams can lock up Adam Thielen and Stephon Diggs long enough to allow the 49ers’ front four of Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Arik Armstead, and DeForest Buckner to put Cousins on his back. Dalvin Cook has to break multiple long runs for Minnesota to score.

Pay attention when either team gets into the red zone. Minnesota has an advantage on both sides of the ball deep in scoring territory. The Vikings score touchdowns on 62% of their red zone drives (10th in the league) and allow touchdowns on only 44% of their opponents’ red zone opportunities (2nd). San Francisco, meanwhile, is 21st offensively (53%) and 23rd defensively (60%) inside the 20s. If Minnesota pulls the upset, it’ll stem from their offense’s ability to score touchdowns while the D holds the 49ers to field goals.

How will Jimmy Garoppolo react to the playoff stage? He prepared as a backup in New England, but the step up will test his nerve. Garoppolo was awful in the Niners first loss of the season in overtime against Seattle, but made big throws late in victories in New Orleans and against the Rams. Jimmy G’s 13 picks on the season will be on Kyle Shanahan’s mind, though. The Vikings intercepted 17 passes on the season. If San Francisco has to throw, Danielle Hunter will force Garoppolo to throw quicker than he’s comfortable with.

San Francisco’s defense has been outstanding all year; their front four is the best in football. They’ll pressure Kirk Cousins into mistakes while their running back trio of Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert, and Matt Breida wear out Minny’s defense.

San Francisco, 23-14

Tennessee @ Baltimore

Any doubt attached to this Ravens bunch disappeared long ago, but Tennessee must be John Harbaugh’s worst nightmare. The Titans revel in the physical style Baltimore wants to play. Tennessee will pound Derrick Henry and attempt to hit A.J. Brown deep after the defense has fallen asleep. Ryan Tannehill doesn’t turn it over, only throwing 6 picks on the season. These teams mimic the other’s style, but only one has Lamar Jackson.

Both teams want to run. Who can stop the other? The Ravens struggle to defend the run, giving up 4.4 yards per rush, 21st in the league, while the Titans fare better, allowing 4.1 (7th). Lamar Jackson is a different animal, however. The Ravens pounce on teams early while defenses are adjusting to his speed. A few designed runs gash opponents, causing them to inch toward the line of scrimmage. Jackson then throws it over their heads. Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards are coming for you too. Tennessee must stop them first.

Discipline from the Titans is paramount. Though it can lead to other problems, they must spy Jackson with Rashaan Evans, Jayon Brown and Kenny Vaccaro. Mix it up; give Lamar different looks; just don’t leave him unattended. Corners Logan Ryan and Adoree’ Jackson, along with safety Kevin Byard, must shut down Baltimore’s tight ends and wide receivers in one-on-one man match-ups to have any chance. All others on defense must focus on stopping the lethal run game.

Tennessee has to take advantage of Baltimore’s so-so run defense. Pound Derrick Henry. Mix in Dion Lewis’ speed for a change of pace. They’ll need at least one deep ball connection between Tannehill and A.J. Brown to put the Ravens on their heels. Baltimore has been stingy against the pass, allowing opposing QBs to complete only 58% of their passes and just 6 yards per attempt (6th lowest). Tannehill has had success taking the top off defenses, but Henry will need to cook to unlock this option for his offense.

Baltimore has been a juggernaut since losing to the Browns in Week 4. Lamar Jackson is the unquestioned league MVP. They have the highest scoring offense and 3rd stingiest defense in the NFL and are playing at home in front of one of the best crowds in football. Tennessee gained an enormous boost going to New England and knocking off the champs last week, however. The Titans aren’t afraid to take a punch and will dish out a few themselves. This one feels closer than expected.

Baltimore, 19-15

Houston @ Kansas City

This one looks ugly for Houston. Ten point dogs, the Texans struggled at home to beat a Buffalo team not ready for the playoffs. The Bills led until 4:37 left in the 4th quarter, and, though he tried, Josh Allen couldn’t get the Houston defense to take the ball from him. The Texans dropped 4-5 would be interceptions and couldn’t recover an insane lateral by Allen on Buffalo’s final drive that sent the game into overtime. Coaching blunders and clock mismanagement littered a poorly played game by each side. Now Houston must travel to Arrowhead to face a Chiefs team more prepared than ever to reach the Super Bowl.

Patrick Mahomes fought injury most of the season, missing 2 games and a half of another with a dislocated kneecap. While his yards and touchdown passes were down from a year ago, so were his interceptions, cut from 12 to 5. Mahomes’ injury and Lamar Jackson’s ascendance to an MVP level has allowed the Chiefs an unassuming entrance into the playoffs. Baltimore is bludgeoning people in the manner K.C. did a year ago. Will the relative quiet surrounding the Chiefs work to their benefit?

Even without Mahomes for 1/8 of the season, K.C.’s offense purred. Houston’s defense is ill-equipped to handle the myriad of weapons at Mahomes’ disposal. Tyreek Hill, who missed four games himself, and Travis Kelce are two of the best at their positions in the league. Add rookie Mecole Hardman and the fleet Demarcus Robinson to Mahomes’ arsenal and the Texans’ 29th rated pass defense is in trouble.

J. J. Watt played 50 of 81 snaps last week, an absurdity considering the team ruled him out for the season in October with a torn pectoral muscle. A behemoth, Watt must wreck the K.C. offense for the Texans to remain close. A possibility if healthy, the task seems insurmountable now. The Texans rank in the bottom half of the league in every imaginable defensive stat. They’re last in the league in giving up touchdowns in the red zone. They give up 6 yards per play, 30th in the league. Teams convert 3rd downs at a rate of 48% against them, and they allow 7.1 yards per pass, 24th worst in the league. Unless the Chiefs turn it over multiple times, Houston’s defense will get steamrolled.

While K.C.’s defense improved over last year, offenses can still get them in the run game. Chris Jones and Frank Clark are dynamic rushing the passer from the edges, and will force Deshaun Watson out of the pocket against the Texans’ weak offensive line. The Chiefs allow the 4th worst completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks and hold them to the 5th worst passer rating in the league. K.C. gave up 128 yards per game on the ground, however, and the Texans must attack here if they hope to stay close. They must lean on Duke Johnson and Carlos Hyde to grind yards and clock. Designed QB runs with Watson could help slow the pass rush.

Houston’s margins are thin. Watson is fantastic, however, and can sway games on his own. The Texans have to push the envelope, going for touchdowns instead of field goals and taking chances on 4th down. Baltimore tried this strategy in week 3 before they began eviscerating the league. The Ravens ran the ball 32 times, were 3-4 on fourth down conversions, and went for 2 on 3 different occasions, including the first touchdown of the game. The Texans must use the same strategy. This won’t be another low scoring playoff game; the Chiefs offense is too good and the Houston defense is poor. This will take a massive effort from Deshaun Watson and Bill O’Brien. Watson may have a huge game. O’Brien out coaching Andy Reid is less likely.

Kansas City, 30-17

Seattle @ Green Bay

The toughest game of the week to call and a battle of two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Green Bay finished 13-3, but what do they do well? Aaron Jones established himself as a weapon both running and receiving while Aaron Rodgers became more of a game manager in 2019. Seattle wants to run the ball, but their strength offensively is in the passing game. Seattle’s defense is poor in every category, but they force turnovers. Ditto for Green Bay, but the Smith’s, Preston and Za’Darius, haunt opposing quarterbacks. This one may turn into a shootout.

The Seahawk defense is bad at everything. 22nd against the run, 26th against the pass; they don’t sack the quarterback and they give up touchdowns in the red zone. They were fourth in the league in takeaways, but don’t expect Aaron Rodgers to throw picks at Lambeau. Rodgers had only 4 interceptions on the year and hasn’t thrown one at home since week 6. He hasn’t torched defenses like in years’ past, but he also hasn’t had to.

Rodgers put up good numbers by other quarterbacks’ standards, but below average according to his. 4002 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 62% completions are all well under his career averages. Davante Adams failed to reach 1000 yards, and tight end Jimmy Graham again disappointed. Aaron Jones surged, however, the only member of the Green Bay offense to exceed expectations. If the Pack win on Sunday, Jones will have shredded Seattle’s porous run defense.

Green Bay’s defense doesn’t stop the run either, but can defend the opponent’s passing attack because of the Smiths. A combined 25.5 sacks have made opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket. Russell Wilson can move, however, and the Packers have faced immobile signal callers all year. Wilson will slow the Packer pass rush on his own and pick up a few first downs with his legs. The likely second-place finisher in the MVP vote, it has taken an otherworldly season from Lamar Jackson to deny Russ the award.

Can Seattle’s offensive line give Wilson time? Injuries have ravaged the unit. Left tackle Duane Brown and guard Mike Iupati both missed Sunday’s game against the Eagles but practiced some on Thursday. They’ll help stabilize things in front of Wilson. Will the Seahawks force the issue in the running game? Marshawn Lynch has been dynamite in short yardage situations in his return to Seattle, and rookie Travis Homer and flashed on a couple of chunk runs against San Francisco the last week of the season, but only gained 12 yards on 11 carries against Philly. Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer have made it no secret they prefer to run the ball. Russell Wilson represents their path to victory, however.

The last game of the weekend is a tossup. This one may come down to the QB who has the ball last.

Seattle, 31-30