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

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