Romping and Road Grading into Oblivion in Dallas

Cleveland Browns, Kevin Stefanski, NFL

Once the season ends, it’ll be easy to look back upon the Cleveland Browns’ season and decide which victory was most important. The turning point. Could Sunday’s road grading, 307 yard rushing performance be the one? The offensive line pushed Dallas’ defensive front wherever they wanted, creating holes larger than Jerry Jones’ ego. In the past, on the rare Monday after a victory over a “Super Bowl contender”, the hype and back patting coming from Berea was unbearable. But this year is different and gives hope that, maybe, someone involved in the decision making in Cleveland isn’t guessing anymore.

Kevin Stefanksi’s demeanor is calm, unfettered, resigned. Gone are the silly penalties, mind twisting turnovers, and dumb, undisciplined play. Though only a month in, the head coach’s disposition cleansed the franchise. The victories are workmanlike, even expected. Though Dallas manufactured a 4th quarter rally, cutting a 27 point deficit to 3, the outcome never seemed in doubt. Stefanski didn’t panic, even calling an Odell Beckham reverse, which he housed, when a between the tackles run would have been more prudent. It was a sketchy play call, one that the fans and media would have roasted him for had it backfired. But it didn’t. The players executed and one of the most dynamic players in the league made a play. The players trust their coach. Built over a tough summer in which Stefanski had their backs, whether dealing with the pandemic or the social injustice many players have spent their entire lives fighting, he was there. In their corner. If this is what Kevin Stefanksi is, the Browns have enough talent for special things to happen.

Once again the offensive line and running game dominated. The most yards ever given up by a Cowboys defense on the ground, the rushing attack demoralized a team already reeling from a 1-2 start. The interior of the line is dominant. Here are the line’s positional ranks through 4 weeks, according to Pro Football Focus:
Wyatt Teller: 1
Joel Bitonio: 9
J. C. Tretter: 2
Jack Conklin: 6
Jedrick Wills Jr.: 47

Impressive stuff. Give new offensive line coach Bill Callahan credit. As a group, they’re controlling the action and allowing the offense to do whatever they want. Stefanski can call anything on his play sheet because he knows his skill guys have protection and room to maneuver.

Nick Chubb’s injury, a strained MCL, may cause him to miss 6 weeks, and while the absence of his talent hurts their depth, Kareem Hunt can replace his production. Hunt led the league in rushing in 2017. No one has ever questioned his abilities on the field. D’Ernest Johnson showed capable on Sunday too, running for 95 yards on 13 carries. Hunt has five touchdowns on the season and is averaging 5.5 yards per carry. He’ll gash defenses while Chubb recovers.

Expect more games like Sunday’s because the defense is what it is. Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo are the worst safety duo in the league. Terrance Mitchell is middling replacing Greedy Williams at corner, and the linebackers lack speed. It’s a big play defense. The Browns are leading the league in turnover margin. They’ve scored the most points off the opposition’s giveaways. The defense will continue as a sieve, the talent to stop opposing offenses just isn’t there. But Myles Garrett continues to destroy offensive lines, Sheldon Richardson is a premium run stuffer, and Denzel Ward has shown signs of returning to his 2018 form. If they continue to force turnovers, it’ll be enough to allow their offense to outscore everyone.

From the best offense in the league to its best defense, this week presents a contrasting challenge. Indianapolis gives up the fewest yards in the league, is fourth against the run and first against the pass. The Colts have no holes on defense. Former Brown T. J. Carrie and Xavier Rhodes are the best corner duo in the league. Linebacker Darius Leonard is fantastic against the run, but injured his groin in the first half against Chicago. He’s questionable to play Sunday. DeForest Buckner lives in offensive backfields despite recording just 1.5 sacks. He has 8 quarterback hits and his pass rush grade via PFF is 2nd in the league. Justin Houston has 3.5 sacks and provides pressure off the edge. The Browns offense will require more patience this week. Continue running the ball with Hunt and Johnson, but keep working Beckham into the game plan. He’s dynamic, and despite the strength in the Colts secondary, he’s better one-on-one than their corners. Use your talent.

Indianapolis’ offense struggles. They’re middle of the pack in most categories, and Philip Rivers is just okay. He’s completing 72% of his passes, however, and tight end Mo Alie-Cox has done a good Antonio Gates impression, catching 11 balls and 2 touchdowns. He’s huge at 6’5” and 267 pounds. The Browns defense will struggle to contain him in the red zone. Indy’s offensive line, also one of the league’s best, keeps pressure off of Rivers, only allowing sacks on 3.1% of drop backs, 3rd in the league. The front four and Garrett need to pressure Rivers. He’s old and slow in the pocket, but can still sling it. If he’s given time, he’ll shred the secondary.

Phil Rivers isn’t the quarterback from his days in San Diego, but he can still move the ball. T. Y. Hilton and Alie-Cox are weapons that will break the defense if the line cannot pressure the quarterback. It’s the key on Sunday. The Browns offense should score, but don’t expect 30+. The defense has to give the offense something. Garrett and Olivier Vernon have to pressure Rivers into mistakes. Turning him over and giving the offense more chances to wear on Indy’s defense with the running game will be vital. Expect a close, tough, lower-scoring affair.

The Whip Around

1.His opener as a Buc against New Orleans was a dud, and he threw another pick 6 on Sunday against the Chargers, but Tom Brady has shown signs in Tampa. His five touchdown passes against a stout Charger front four, along with 369 yards through the air, saved the Buccaneers from a horrid loss. L.A. took the lead at the end of the third quarter, but Brady led a vintage drive after his defense surrendered the lead, going 5-6 for 83 yards and a touchdown. A 29 yarder to Rob Gronkowski put them in field goal range the next drive, sealing the win. Brady’s looked shaky, and his 7.2 yards per attempt is just 21st in the league, suggesting he isn’t pushing the ball down the field despite having one of the best deep threats in the league in Mike Evans. But he’s smart, has weapons, and a stout defense. Seattle and Green Bay look fantastic, but after them the NFC is a tossup. Brady will have a say in January.

2. The problems in Dallas are infinite, and corner Trayon Diggs piles up mistakes. He ranks 93rd out of 109 corners in the league (PFF), unable to cover, defend the run, or play with intelligence. His face mask penalty on a 3rd and four in the third quarter, with Dallas still attached on the scoreboard, killed their defense, allowed the Browns to score, and kept their potent offense on the sidelines. He’s the epitome of their franchise. The Cowboys are undisciplined, poorly coached, and shabbily run. They dash pundit’s Super Bowl hopes early each year because of the incompetence of the decision makers of one of the most talented teams in the league. Until Jerry Jones sells, they’re nothing but a sideshow.

3. Za’Darius Smith tied Myles Garrett for the league lead in sacks Monday Night. One of the best pass rushers in the league also had a touching message to share with NFL fans.

4. San Francisco is floundering at 2-2, playing in a division that includes the Rams and Seahawks, and is dealing with a multitude of injuries. But they have George Kittle back. The talent at the tight end position in the league is deep, yet Kittle has more than anyone who’s played. His combination of size, speed, and tackle breaking ability is unmatched. Though not the best blocker at the position, Kittle stretches the field unlike any tight end in history. He’s impossible to bring to the ground. Corners and safeties bounce off of him like a sugar infused child on a trampoline. The jury’s out on Jimmy Garoppolo, and San Fran’s defense is good this year instead of historically dominant. They need Raheem Mostert’s game breaking abilities back on offense. Kittle, however, is a game changer. 15 catches on 15 targets for 183 yards and a touchdown by a tight end causes a double take. He makes their pedestrian quarterbacks better on his own. If the 49ers return to the playoffs, Kittle’s big plays will be the reason.

5. Another tight end, Travis Kelce, is always open. A combination of his route running, Patrick Mahomes’ ability to keep plays alive, and the talent that surrounds him gives Kelce space within space. He finds holes in zones and sits in them better than most. His size causes mismatches with linebackers and corners alike. The speed Kansas City possesses at receiver pauses teams, pushing their safeties deep, opening the middle of the field for Kelce to operate. Still, it’s staggering to see the room he’s given week after week. But what’s left to take away? Mahomes resuscitates plays like no other, and when things break down, Kelce makes for a large, reliable safety valve. Nevermind stopping them. Unless you’re Bill Belichick, you can’t hope to slow that offense.

6. He showed flashes as a rookie, but Daniel Jones is just, ugh. The turnovers are disgusting. While playing a clean game (he fumbled early against the Rams, but his team recovered) his defense kept the Giants in it versus the Rams. Down eight, Jones hit Darius Slayton for 33 yards and scrambled twice for 22 to get into the red zone with less than a minute to go. Then, a pick to end it. Jones is athletic with a powerful arm. But he cannot hold on to the ball. He’s 1-12 in his last 13 starts and has never played an NFL game without a turnover. He’s 31st in the league in yards per pass attempt, 6.0. A turnover machine who doesn’t push the ball down the field? What are we doing here?

7. Miami’s feisty. Their three losses are to New England, Buffalo, and Seattle, teams with a combined 10-2 record and three of the top seven offenses in the league. When can we see Tua? Ryan Fitzpatrick continues on, dragging teams back into games they’re out of and tossing away chances at wins with interceptions. He led the game off with a pick on the opening drive of the game against Seattle, putting the Dolphins in an immediate hole, then slung another in the fourth quarter to end all chances of a rally. Rookie quarterbacks Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert look exemplary at this early stage. Why not play Tua Tagovailoa, Brian Flores? The Fitzpatrick show needs canceled, and with Buffalo and New England in their division, the Dolphins aren’t making the postseason. Flores has done an outstanding job in Miami. Their five wins last year when the team’s expectations were zero showed as much. Time to see what Tua has and how good the Dolphins can be with him.

8. Often overlooked, Keenan Allen remains one of the best wideouts in the game. He’s keeping the Chargers interesting and helping rookie Justin Herbert’s confidence. This snag is how you go get the football.

9. Goodbye to Bill O’Brien in Houston. The Texans are 0-4, and while O’Brien the coach isn’t the worst, O’Brien the general manager is. No first or second-round pick this year, traded to Miami for Laremy Tunsil and Kenny Stills. No DeAndre Hopkins, traded for David Johnson (197 yards, 2 TDs, 3.9 yards per carry). When teams have one of the five best quarterbacks in the league on their roster, they must do everything necessary to make a Super Bowl run. O’Brien the GM was erratic, making rebuilding trades following win now moves. The GM/coach doesn’t work. Each job is too hard on its own. Here’s hoping the Texans don’t ruin Deshaun Watson’s promising career.

10. When you lead the league in touchdowns since the start of the 2019 season, one would expect that player to get the lion’s share of his team’s touches. Not so with Aaron Jones and the Packers. His 25 TD’s over the last two years screams dominant back, yet Matt LaFleur treats him as a change of pace scatback. He had 15 carries in Monday Night’s victory over the Falcons. All other Packer ball carriers had 11. He’s been on the field for only 56% of the Packer offensive snaps this season. Christian McCaffrey has missed two-and-a-half games and still has played 40% of Carolina’s snaps. Jones is a top five back in the NFL. Besides finding the end zone, he averages 5.8 yards per carry. The Pack is 4-0, so it’s hard to argue with success. But if Green Bay hopes to make the Super Bowl, they must allocate more minutes to their best skill position player.

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.

Cleveland Browns: What Next?

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, Mack Wilson, Mitchell Trubisky

The Cleveland Browns beat the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night. The record against their rival since returning to the league is 7-34-1. For the first time, Cleveland has beaten Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the same season. The sheer insanity of that statement is mind-boggling. A talented team that stumbled through the first half of the season is kind of, maybe gaining some momentum. The Cleveland Browns don’t do normal or successful all that well, however. They do lunacy and absurdity.


Social media has beat the Myles Garrett situation into the earth’s core. My thoughts are here. In the meantime, the Browns started a winning streak against two above .500 teams. Can they keep it going?


The offense, while still struggling to manage any consistency, has cut out the penalties and turnovers. Baker Mayfield hasn’t thrown an interception in three games. In those games, he’s tossed 5 touchdowns and completed 62.5% of his passes. The numbers aren’t jaw-dropping, but they represent an improvement. And while the team racked up 8 penalties for 121 yards on Thursday, the offense only accounted for one of those, an intentional delay of game before a punt.


Mayfield and Odell Beckham still can’t connect with any regularity. A long completion on an inside post route set up the first touchdown, but they weren’t on the same page on a second half third down. Beckham was open on an out for a first down, but Mayfield overthrew him, expecting a deeper route. When will it click for these two? Beckham is getting open, but too often he either drops a pass or Mayfield misses him. It may take another off-season before the duo becomes as dynamic as expected.


The same problems aren’t occurring for Mayfield and Jarvis Landry. Nineteen catches and three touchdowns in the last three games, Landry has taken over the number one receiver post, regardless of where he lines up. When in the slot, Landry is too good for the safeties and linebackers matched up on him. On his touchdown Thursday, the entire Steeler defense bit on play action, all breaking right while Landry and tight end Demetrius Harris scampered open to the left. Nick Chubb drew the defenses’ attention, leading to the easy touchdown.

Impossible to be more open in the end zone. Defense bites on the play action


The strength of the offense, without question, are the two running backs. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are most talented duo in the league. Chubb is third in the league in rushing, already with 1011 yards. Hunt is a brilliant pass catcher out of the backfield and has become Mayfield’s safety valve. He converted two long third downs on athletic receptions Thursday and has added a dimension rarely afforded to any offense. Freddie Kitchens must take advantage of his backfield wealth. Get creative with the play calling. Run some Wildcat. Try the option, with one back taking the snap. For the Browns to continue winning, they need to throw early to Beckham and Landry, then bleed clock with Chubb and Hunt.


Though the defense has forced turnovers in recent weeks, issues lurk. Garrett will miss the rest of the season, as will starting safety Morgan Burnett after tearing his Achilles on Thursday. The NFL also suspended Larry Ogunjobi for the Miami game. Backups on the line and in the secondary, the strengths of the unit coming into the season, are stepping into a pressure cooker. The late hits, holding, and pass interference calls haven’t subsided on the defensive side, and with a lot of talent sitting at home or on the sideline, the defense has to become more disciplined. This offense hasn’t proved it can win a shootout.


The overlooked position on defense, expected to be a weakness, has shined all season. Only playing two linebackers in most situations to get more defensive backs on the field, Joe Schobert and Mack Wilson are the most consistent forces on that side of the ball. Schobert is the defensive MVP, and it isn’t close. He beat the Steelers almost single-handedly, recording 7 tackles, a sack, 2 interceptions, and 4 passes defended. Whether stuffing the run, rushing the quarterback, or dropping in coverage, Schobert is dominating. A free agent at the end of the season, Schobert is adding zeros to his bank account each week.

Outstanding coverage by both LBs. Wilson(51) takes the check down away(33). Schobert with the INT


Mack Wilson has excelled as the other linebacker in Cleveland’s base defense. An injury replacement when Christian Kirksey went on IR early in the season, Wilson has established himself after some rookie indecisiveness. He struggled against San Francisco by over pursuing himself out of position. Wilson’s become more disciplined in recent weeks, however, and is now the best run stopper on the team, along with Sheldon Richardson. He’s handled himself in pass coverage. On a big third down early in the 4th quarter, Wilson made a huge breakup of a Mason Rudolph pass to Jaylen Samuels, reading the play perfectly. Thought to be a position of weakness, the Browns’ linebackers are the most consistent unit on defense.


Not much needs analyzed concerning the Dolphins. Miami is a horrible team, tanking for draft picks. They’re in the early stages of a long rebuild and have no desire to win games. The Browns are at home and an eleven point favorite. Despite the drama of the week, the team has prepared themselves to deal with the outside noise by creating soap opera level story lines since March. They’ve had amble opportunity to learn how to deal with the circus.


Ryan Fitzpatrick could get hot and cause problems if the defense is lackadaisical. Fitzpatrick is 12th in the league in QBR (ESPN.com), and is intelligent enough to take advantage if the Browns are unprepared. He’s thrown 8 picks in 9 games, however, and has no discernible weapons around him. For a banged up and suspension-heavy defense, no opponent could be a more welcome sight. No excuses this Sunday.

The Whip Around

1. A play toward the end of the first half against the Rams encapsulates Mitchell Trubisky’s ability as a quarterback. With the Bears on the edge of field goal range, Trubisky couldn’t find an open receiver, scrambled outside the pocket with the sideline open to him, then took a sack instead of stepping out of bounds or throwing the ball away. Plays like this highlight his lack of awareness on the field and understanding of what his team needs from him. Chicago will be quarterback hunting once again this off season.

2. Frank Clark set the tone for Kansas City’s defense Monday night, recording a sack, forcing a fumble, and batting down a Philip Rivers’ pass. A mild disappointment so far in K.C., if Clark hits his stride in time for December and January football, Chiefs fans will forgive the slow start. With a defense that ranks 26th overall in yards allowed and 30th against the run, K.C. can forget about a Super Bowl run if those numbers don’t improve. Despite Patrick Mahomes’ greatness, even he won’t be able to put up 40 a game in the playoffs.

3. An offensive lineman celebrating a (overturned on review) rushing touchdown? Would have loved John Madden in the booth for this call.

4. Pass interference is so broken that the league should trash the entire rule and go back to the drawing board. It’s too subjective. In Baltimore-Houston, DeAndre Hopkins was interfered with in the end zone, an obvious call missed on the field and then upheld via replay. During Baltimore’s opening second half drive, the receiver and corner hand fought during the route, the ball was overthrown by 10 yards, and, after booing from the crowd, the referee threw a flag, resulting in a 30 yard gain for the Ravens. While Baltimore dominated and would have won regardless, these were two huge plays, both going against Houston and resulting in a 14 point swing. Too many NFL games are being decided by the whims of the refereeing crew.

5. After a hot start to his career, Kyle Allen is cooling off. He threw one of the most bone headed interceptions you’ll ever see on Sunday, handing the game to the Falcons in the first quarter. A 3-9 touchdown to interception ratio over the last 4, Carolina is 1-3 and slipping out of the playoff race. The turnaround for Allen has been drastic. 4-0 with 7 TDs and 0 picks after replacing an injured Cam Newton, the Carolina front office may want to wait before cutting ties with the greatest player in the franchise’s history.

Ugh. What was the plan here?

6. Houston’s offensive line gets raked over the coals in the media, but their quarterback does them no favors. Deshaun Watson is 22nd in the league in release time, at 2.79 seconds (nextgenstats.nfl.com). While he makes spectacular plays when scrambling around, too often he’s stuck with the ball and takes a huge hit. The Texans would do well to design some quick hitting throws to get Watson in rhythm when the offense is stagnant. No one should ever hold a team with him and DeAndre Hopkins to 7 points.

Too much dilly dallying in the pocket

7. There has to be a better way to guard elite receivers when they line up in the slot. The Panthers were in zone on 3rd and 16 Sunday while Atlanta lined 5 wide with Julio Jones in the slot. Carolina tasked Luke Kuechly with covering the deep middle of the field. While Kuechly is an All-Pro, he has no shot against Jones. Matt Ryan recognized the mismatch and burned Carolina for 48 yards down the middle of the field. It continues to baffle me why defenses spend the week devising plans to stop the game’s best receivers only to allow them to get matched up with linebackers, especially on third down. Carolina needs more corners and safeties on the field in that situation. It’s an unfair ask of Kuechly to guard that much turf.

8. 60% completion percentage, 11 touchdowns, 10 interceptions. Jared Goff has cratered this season, just in time to cash the 25 million signing bonus check the Rams gave him before the season. He’s due another 21 million on March 20 of next year. While the Rams wouldn’t admit it, is anyone involved with the franchise happy about that extension? Goff is an average quarterback, untradeable because of that contract, on a team built to win in the next 2-3 years. Sean McVay has his work cut out for him. Suddenly the Rams look very average.

9. New Orleans or Green Bay? Though San Francisco and Seattle will have a say, would there be anything better than a Brees-Rodgers matchup in January? Both are nearing the end and have never faced off in the playoffs. The Saints in snowy Green Bay for a chance to exorcise their haunting playoff exits over the past two years versus Aaron Rodgers, the king of playoff miracles? What could be better?

10. Indianapolis-Houston
Seattle-Philadelphia
Dallas-New England
Green Bay-San Francisco
Baltimore-L.A. Rams
An exceptional slate of games this week. If Indy wins in Houston, they’ll give themselves a de facto two game lead in the division with two victories over the Texans. Philly needs a signature win after a so-so performance against New England. Dak is posting huge passing yardage numbers, but New England’s number 1 defense is a different animal. If San Francisco is a contender, they must win at home against Aaron Rodgers. Can Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey slow down Lamar Jackson? If they can’t, will anyone?

 

Browns-Steelers: Renewed Rivalry?

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, Freddie Kitchens, Jarvis landry, Odell Beckham

The Cleveland Browns, an enigma wrapped in drama and dysfunction, won for the first time since September on Sunday, earning a reprieve, for a few days anyway, from the pressure and tension of a disappointing season. So goes life in the NFL. Win and you’re heroic. Lose and you’re a bum. Was the victory a mirage, or are things improving?


Depends on who’s answering the question.


The penalties and turnovers are dropping. Over the past two weeks, the team hasn’t turned the ball over and has had 9 flags thrown on them for 110 yards, a good half earlier in the year. These are signs that discipline is being instilled and the players are taking to the coaching. Whatever the problems they’ve faced over 9 games, team unity hasn’t been one. Despite the horrid start, the players stick up for each other on the field and in the media, not letting the outside noise divide them. If there’s a sign that they have it in them to win 5 or 6 in a row, this is it.


For all the Freddie Kitchens’ hate, and he’s been bad, his poor choices and head scratching decisions have mostly come from a place of aggression.


A draw play on 4th and 9.


Calling timeout at the end of the first half against Seattle, before Baker Mayfield threw a pick and gave the Seahawks a chance to score.


Multiple times choosing to go for first downs in the red zone instead of kicking field goals.


Taking the ball to start games earlier in the season.

Calling deep drops and routes on passing plays with the offense struggling to create enough time for those routes to be successful.


The penalties and turnovers.


All these issues point to a level of incompetence from the coaching staff. At least, however, the head coach isn’t sitting on his hands, letting other teams dictate the action. Luck favors the aggressor.


It was brutal watching the offense fail to score on 8 consecutive snaps from the one yard line. Pee Wee teams would have lucked into a score on 8 tries. The offense has a mental problem in the red zone more so than a physical one. Nick Chubb pulled up on one run, cutting it inside instead of outrunning the defender to the corner. Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry both lost one-on-one matchups in the end zone. Baker is fidgety, afraid of a turnover. The play calling isn’t the problem; execution of those plays was lacking.


The final touchdown, however, was brilliance from the players and staff. By lining Beckham and Landry on the left side of the offense and Rashard Higgins alone on the right, Kitchens forced the defense’s attention left, giving Higgins a one-on-one matchup, which he won, and allowing Baker to make a beautiful throw.

Defense’s attention on the left side of the play and the backfield. Higgins (top) 1 on 1 with the corner


With Kareem Hunt’s return, the Browns’ backfield is as dynamic as any in the league. Hunt was outstanding Sunday, providing a glimpse of what the offense can be if they perfect the timing and execution. A devastating lead blocker for Chubb, Hunt paved multiple running lanes for his teammate while catching 7 balls for 44 yards. Nick Chubb, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Kareem Hunt, Rashard Higgins, and Baker Mayfield. This offense is out of excuses. Get the ball into the playmakers’ hands and let them win games.


Now a Thursday nighter, at home, against the Pittsburgh Steelers. A division rival. Hated for their smugness and success. An organization that has everything this one craves. The only team pompous enough to put their logo on just one side of their helmet.


The Steelers have won four in a row after a 1-4 start. Mason Rudolph, Ben Roethlisberger’s replacement at quarterback, has been fine, completing 65% of his passes and throwing 11 touchdowns to 4 interceptions. He’s not completing passes downfield, however, averaging only 6.6 yards per attempt, 32nd in the league. The Steeler offense is in QB protection mode. They aren’t running the ball well either, though, ranking 27th in the league in rushing yards and 28th in yards per rush. The Browns defense must dominate Thursday.


Pittsburgh’s resurgence is linked to its defense. Second in the league in turnovers forced, they’ve feasted on other teams’ mistakes. Otherwise they’re slightly above average, ranking 12th in passing yards and 16th in rushing yards surrendered. Minkah Fitzpatrick, a safety picked up from Miami for a 1st round pick, has 5 interceptions on the year. Rookie linebacker Devin Bush has forced 4 fumbles. T.J. Watt has 9.5 sacks. Slowing these three will be key.

While the front seven is formidable, the secondary is a weakness. Plays designed to get the ball out of Mayfield’s hands and into his playmakers’ will be key.


The Pittsburgh front seven will try to harass Baker into turnovers. Expect blitzes from all over. Cam Heyward is a disruptive force at defensive tackle, and Bud Dupree is having a breakout year, already tying his career high with 6 sacks.


Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. If the Browns avoid them, they have an outstanding chance to win. Pittsburgh cannot keep up with Cleveland’s offensive talent. Can they execute?


This is the week. The Steelers have dominated the Browns since the return. If this franchise is anywhere close to overturning the culture of losing and becoming a perennial playoff contender, they must beat the Steelers. Browns punters have been kicked in the face, fans have been body slammed, and the organization has been embarrassed regularly by their rival. To earn any respect in the NFL, you must win division games. The failures of the season can be forgotten with 2 victories over Pittsburgh in the next 3 weeks. Thursday Night will show whether this team believes in themselves.

The disrespect is palpable

The Whip Around

1. The Colts are stumbling, lost without Jacoby Brissett and T. Y. Hilton. A loss to Miami is inexcusable, however, regardless of who’s playing. Linebacker Darius Leonard tried single-handedly to avoid the embarrassment, tallying 11 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, and an interception. One of the game’s best linebackers, Leonard and the Colts’ defense is being hung out to dry by their offense in recent weeks. Things haven’t looked the same for Indy since their upset in Kansas City. With three games on deck with division rivals in the jumbled AFC South, the Colts may play their way out of the playoff hunt, unfathomable a month ago.

2. Wide receiver screens are one of the most popular plays in offensive coordinators’ play books, yet seem to fail more often than not. One problem is when they’re called. Against zone defenses, when corners and safeties play farther off the line, receivers have room to operate and are gaining yardage on the quick throws. Too often, however, they’re called against man defense. Corners are attacking the receiver at the snap, causing lost yardage on most plays. Good quarterbacks read this and audible in or out of the play according to what the defense is showing. Bad QBs aren’t. Coordinators need to give their signal callers more freedom to get out of these lost plays when they see corners pressing up against their receivers.

3. Lamar Jackson has at least one highlight play per week. He’s creeping into Michael Vick territory.

4. Genius Sean McVay must skip his Mensa meetings. His innovative offense is being bogged down by penalties, turnovers, drops, and poor quarterback play. While the offensive line has been a disaster because of injuries and off-season losses, that’s no excuse. McVay is purported to be an offensive mastermind, capable of turning average players into Pro Bowlers. His 134 million dollar quarterback is regressing and his star running back has arthritis in his knee while playing in the toughest division in football. May be time to stop labeling football coaches geniuses.

5. If Aaron Rodgers is going to win another Super Bowl, this may be the year. Aaron Jones is having a breakout year, tied for the league lead in touchdowns and 10th in yards from scrimmage. He’s a threat as a runner and receiver, giving Rodgers another weapon to go to in crunch time other than Davante Adams. Green Bay hasn’t had as dangerous a runner since Ahman Green.

6. Ron Rivera made an outstanding coaching move Sunday, going for two after scoring a touchdown trailing by 14. Conventional wisdom says kick the extra point and get within 7. Going for two, however, gives the team better odds of winning. If you miss the 2, which they did, you’re still only down 8 and can tie with a score and 2 point conversion. If you succeed, you’re down six and can win with a TD and extra point. Overtime in the NFL is a crap shoot. Teams are better off doing whatever they must to win in regulation.

7. Kyle Allen has taken the Carolina quarterback job from Cam Newton, injuries or no. Throws like this are why. Allen can be special.

Tough throw between 3 defenders

8. On his best day, Josh Allen in an average quarterback. He doesn’t have the accuracy or field vision necessary to succeed long term in the NFL. He can run and has a strong arm, though, qualities that will tantalize QB needy GMs for years to come. If Buffalo sneaks into the playoffs, it will be due to a combination of their defense and a crappy AFC.

9. The difference between quarterbacks on Monday Night was stark. While his team possesses more talent at nearly every position and was at home, Jimmy Garoppolo isn’t good enough to compete with Russell Wilson. No matter how well the 49er defense and running game perform, Garoppolo’s shortcomings will get exposed in crucial moments. Too often, his throws are off target and he doesn’t know what to do with himself inside the pocket. Come playoff time, San Francisco stands little chance against the Saints, Seahawks, or Packers, regardless of venue.

10. The annual Tennessee Beat a Super Bowl Contender Bowl was held Sunday, with the Titans upending the Chiefs in Patrick Mahomes’ return. Mahomes was outstanding, but Derrick Henry ran for 188 yards, Tennessee’s defense recovered a fumble for a touchdown, and K.C. botched a late field goal attempt that would have sealed the victory to keep the Titans’ playoff hopes alive. The Titans play up or down to their competition, surrounding head scratching losses with unforeseen victories. You tell me what they are.