When the Rest Fail, Call on Nick Chubb

Cleveland Browns, NFL, Nick Chubb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Whip Around

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com

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

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, NFL, Tom Brady

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Whip Around

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com