Winning in March

Cleveland Browns, NFL, NFL Free Agency

Whether they’re declared the winners of free agency after the first week, the Cleveland Browns and new general manager Andrew Berry staked their claim to yet another off-season champions trophy. Berry attacked three positions of weakness, signing two of the top 15 players available in tight end Austin Hooper (4 years, 42 million) and right tackle Jack Conklin (3 years 42 million). Case Keenum (3 years, 18 million) signed to back up Baker Mayfield, then they acquired fullback Andy Janovich for a 2021 seventh round pick, sent to Denver. The big, early moves were upgrades to the offense, a nod to new head coach/offensive genius Kevin Stefanski and franchise QB Mayfield. Headlines in March are nice, but did the Browns get better?

Let’s start with Hooper. As with most first day free agent signings, this was an overpay. Hooper is now the highest paid tight end in the league. He isn’t George Kittle or Travis Kelce, but he has made two straight Pro Bowls and is a force down the seams in the middle of the field. He’ll drag linebackers with him, allowing Jarvis Landry space on crossing patterns and Odell Beckham one-on-one coverage on the outside. Stefanski was offensive coordinator in Minnesota for just one year and leaned on two tight end sets. 56% of Minnesota’s plays occurred out of multiple tight end formations, 2nd in the league. Given the dearth of quality tight ends in free agency and the draft, along with the inconsistency of David Njoku, signing Hooper was a necessity. Stefanski’s offense depends on the position; they’ll still need growth from Njoku. Hooper gives the offense reliability, but the large contract points to desperation by Berry and Stefanski.

Though Freddie Kitchens garnered most of the blame for last year’s failures, his offensive line shared the fans’ wrath. Pro Football Focus ranked the unit 23rd in the league. They gave up 2.6 sacks per game (15th) and anchored the 12th best rushing attack (118.8 per game). Not outstanding numbers, yet not the abomination some made them out to be. Enter Jack Conklin. Another upgrade, Conklin is a good, not great, right tackle who will, at worst, improve the gap size for Nick Chubb to run through. PFF ranks him as the 12th best run blocking tackle in the league over the past four seasons. His passing grades, however, aren’t stellar. The 37th ranked pass blocking tackle in the league last season, Conklin is average in pass protection. He’ll need help in some one-on-one match-ups, particularly against division rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh, another reason for the need to upgrade the tight end position.

Throw in the trade for Janovich, along with the 2nd round tender given to Kareem Hunt, guaranteeing he’ll be with the team next year, and it’s obvious the new Browns regime wants to run the ball. Stefanski has served under run-first dictator Mike Zimmer in Minnesota and had running game guru Gary Kubiak looking over his shoulder in 2019. For those worrying about analytics taking over in Cleveland, this isn’t it. The numbers say the only down and distance where it’s more beneficial to run than pass is 3rd and 1. Playing a fullback and using two tight ends condenses the field, allowing teams to better control Landry and Beckham. Teams that run the ball don’t trust their quarterback (see the 49ers and Jimmy Garoppolo). What do Berry and Stefanski think of Baker Mayfield?

Which brings us to the Case Keenum signing. The Browns needed a backup quarterback. Keenum’s one successful NFL season occurred in Minnesota in 2017 with Stefanski as his quarterback coach, making this signing inevitable. Keenum knows the offense, and can step in and lead if Mayfield gets injured. What if Baker struggles, however? Imagine a 1-3 start, and Mayfield swimming against the current as he was last year. This coaching staff and front office didn’t draft Baker Mayfield. He has two years left on his rookie deal; teams normally try to do extensions one year before contracts expire. If Baker doesn’t pop this season, think Andrew Berry wants to hand out a 35-40 million dollar contract to an average quarterback next off-season?

On defense, the Browns filled holes with linebacker B.J. Goodson, safety Karl Joseph, and defensive tackle Andrew Billings. Joseph is a former 1st round pick who has battled injuries. The weakness at the position in Cleveland’s secondary all but guarantees him a starting spot; he, Sheldrick Redwine, and J.T. Hassell are the only safeties on the roster. Billings adds depth behind Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi, while Goodson will compete for time with last year’s rookies Mack Wilson and Sione Takitaki.

The defensive signings are underwhelming. Expecting anything other than replacement-level production is foolhardy. The loss of Joe Schobert, last year’s QB on defense, hurts, but the contract he signed in Jacksonville (5 years, 53.75 million) was exorbitant. The front four remains strong; behind them, however, there are questions. Denzel Ward struggled overall and with injuries after a Pro Bowl rookie year. Greedy Williams was just okay. The holes at safety are glaring. Mack Wilson showed promise, but no other linebackers on the roster affected games in 2019. The front office must go heavy on defense during next month’s draft. Cleveland’s brass may want to pound the running game, but that strategy works only with a top 5-10 defense. Unless the defensive line is as dominate as San Francisco’s last year, this approach won’t work.

The Whip Around

1.The Tom Brady signing in Tampa is a shock. the offensive weapons are plentiful at receiver and tight end, and Tampa’s offensive line ranked 7th a year ago, according to PFF. Shaq Barrett led the league with 19.5 sacks. There’s talent on Florida’s west coast, but is a 43-year-old Brady the answer? Jameis Winston stockpiled yards, touchdowns, and interceptions last season; its doubtful Brady will throw for anywhere near the 5109 yards, or the 30 picks, Winston tossed. Bruce Arians’ belief must be that fewer turnovers will equal more wins. Only two teams gave up more points than the Bucs last year, however. Tampa will make for an interesting watch, and we’ll get a heavy dose of them in prime time. I’ll bet the Patriots and Belichick win more games, though.

2. With Brady’s departure from New England, Buffalo sees an opportunity. Josh Allen progressed last year, minus the mess he made in their playoff loss to Houston. Devin Singletary averaged 5.1 yards a carry as a rookie, John Brown and Cole Beasley combined for 139 catches and over 1800 yards, and the defense ranked only behind New England’s in points allowed. Enter Stefon Diggs. Trading away a 1st, 5th, 6th, and 2021 4th for Diggs was the ultimate win-now move for a franchise sharing a division with the Brady-less Patriots, the going nowhere Jets, and the rebuilding Dolphins. Diggs is a home run hitter and Allen’s arm, though inaccurate, is strong enough to sling it to him deep. The Chiefs and Ravens make a Super Bowl run unlikely, but a home playoff game in snowy Buffalo isn’t out of the question.

3. What is Bill O’Brien doing in Houston? If DeAndre Hopkins isn’t the best wideout in the league, he’s in the top three. A second rounder and David Johnson for Hopkins? Look what Buffalo gave for Diggs, above. This is unconscionable. No one should be coaching and general managing an NFL franchise; O’Brien is proving that point in real time. With J. J. Watt suffering injuries yearly, Deshaun Watson must watch while Houston’s talent gets pillaged by the rest of the league. Watson is a top five quarterback in the league on a rookie deal. Teams with an asset that large are in Super Bowl or bust mode. O’Brien has wasted Houston’s opportunity to strike before their QB bill comes due. Stripped for parts now, what will the franchise look like after paying $40 million per to Watson?

4. The Rams released Todd Gurley, and Melvin Gordon can’t find a job. It sucks to be an NFL running back these days. Facts are facts, however, and teams don’t have to pay, in the form of top draft picks or high dollar contracts, to get production from the position. In 2017, Gurley and Gordon ranked 2nd and 7th in the league in rushing yards. Two years later, both are unwanted (Gurley signed a 1 year deal with his hometown Falcons on Friday). Passing is king in the NFL. Few teams win by running the ball. Those that do don’t have a workhorse running back (see San Francisco and Baltimore). Nick Chubb, beware. He has two years left on his rookie deal, then will try to negotiate a new contract with an analytics heavy front office that didn’t draft him. It would shock me (SHOCK!) if Andrew Berry gave a running back 12-15 million per year, regardless of Chubb’s production over the next two years.

5. Why are the Bears giving Jimmy Graham 16 million over 2 years? He’ll be 34 next year and has averaged 46 catches and 2.5 touchdowns with Aaron Rodgers throwing him the ball over the last two seasons while missing 10 games. Nick Foles too? Bears fans, get ready for a prime slot in the 2021 draft.

6. Chargers fans will join them. After the departure of Philip Rivers to Indianapolis, L.A. has announced they’ll ride with Tyrod Taylor instead of pursuing Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, or any other quarterback on the market. If nothing else, Newton puts asses in the seats of the new SoFi Stadium the Chargers are sharing with the Rams. Stars sell in L.A., right? Nothing like a rebuild for a team in a market already struggling to attract fans. Expect a Keenan Allen trade demand any time.

7. Good for Byron Jones, one of the most consistent corners in the league, for getting his money in Miami. 5 years 82 million, with 40 mil guaranteed over the first two years. No one will complain about living in Miami with that much cash, but don’t expect much action in January.

8. The Ravens signed Michael Brockers to a 3 year, 30 million dollar deal after trading a fifth round pick for Pro Bowler Calais Campbell. The hell? This time a year ago, Baltimore looked vulnerable. They had contemplated firing John Harbaugh and a second year running quarterback was being handed the reins. Now, they’re coming off a 14-2 season, have the league MVP, and just rebuilt their defensive line into one of the best in the league. The rest of the AFC North teams are playing for one of the three wild card spots.

 

Give Thanks for Browns-Steelers

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, Joe Schobert, NFL

Each passing week is a test for the Cleveland Browns. Is their play on the field improving? Are they disciplined? Is the young team and its rookie coach maturing? Considering all that has occurred during the 2019 season, this organization must prove it is ready to grow up. Are they a playoff contender?

The Dolphins are a pushover, but Sunday was a start. Despite a third quarter lull, both sides of the ball reacted well to the hectic week. Take nothing for granted with this group, beating up on a tanking Miami squad wasn’t a given. Seven penalties committed was good, not great, and aside from the interception Baker Mayfield threw behind Odell Beckham Jr on a slant, the turnover problem has subsided. Mayfield seems calmer in the pocket than earlier in the season, though he still has a tendency to bail early. It’s clear at this point he’s more comfortable on the move, giving himself space and wider throwing lanes to get rid of the ball. Not ideal, but whatever it takes for the QB to get comfortable. Freddie Kitchens has also called more play action (where did he get that idea from?), allowing Mayfield to play to his strengths.

While the defense missed Myles Garrett and Larry Ogunjobi, they recorded four sacks on Ryan Fitzpatrick and increased the pressure as the game progressed. It’s no longer a secret the force Joe Schobert has become; two more interceptions and four other passes broken up have cemented his Pro Bowl season. The linebacker isn’t the only defender flexing on opposing offenses, however. Overlooked by his more famous line mates, Sheldon Richardson has taken over games from the center of the defensive line.

Richardson’s dominant play couldn’t have come at a better time. With two new pass rushers in Chad Thomas and Chris Smith starting on the ends, Richardson is drawing attention from the edges, giving the ends chances to make plays in one-on-one battles against opposing tackles. His two sacks on Sunday set the tone for a defense with questions concerning how much pressure they’ll be able to generate on opposing QBs.

Nick Chubb leads the league in carries and trails Christian McCaffrey by only six yards in the chase for the rushing title. He’s been electric the entire year, a steady force during a wobbly season. Chubb is the team MVP, and for the Browns to run the table and force their way into the AFC playoffs he will need to continue to carry the water. His blend of speed, power, vision, and patience are unmatched in the league. His heart and attitude are an ideal fit with the city of Cleveland.

But can we stop the fist pounding when a play that doesn’t involve him fails? Chubb is on pace for 323 carries, which would be the most in the league since Adrian Peterson had 327 in 2015. He’s getting enough touches. Like it or not, winning NFL games now requires establishing a passing game to get a lead, then running the ball to bleed clock. The days of backs with 400 carries are over. To win in the NFL, to be a perennial playoff team and Super Bowl contender, offenses must throw the ball. The fate of this team ultimately relies upon Baker Mayfield, Jarvis Landry, and Odell Beckham. Chubb is a force, the ultimate luxury for an offense. If he remains the best offensive player, however, the franchise will continue to fall short of their goals.

For the second time in three weeks, a date with the Steelers. As if enough wasn’t already on the line, the lingering effects of the Thursday night brawl will hang over Heinz Field on Sunday. Again, the Browns will need to prove they’ve matured over the course of the season. The crowd will be loud and angry. On defense they cannot commit dumb penalties. The Steelers offense is poor, starting third-string quarterback Devlin Hodges and likely without running back James Conner. Pittsburgh’s only score in Cleveland resulted when the defense racked up 58 yards of penalties on the drive. The Steeler offense only managed 16 points against Cincinnati, the worst defense yardage wise in the league. If the Browns don’t give them free yards, Pittsburgh won’t be able to score.

The playoffs are on the line Sunday. According to FiveThirtyEight.com, the Browns’ playoff chances are 29%, the Steelers’ 27%. A win Sunday boosts the odds to 50%, a loss drops them to 10%. The Steelers are injury riddled and have lost momentum built during a four game win streak after a loss to Baltimore. The adversity faced has made the Browns a tighter, tougher, bunch. Cleveland will need that Sunday. Their last win in Heinz Field was 2003. They haven’t swept the Steelers since 1988.

Thirty-one years. Unbelievable.

The Whip Around

1. The Cowboys lose when playing winning squads. Now 0-4 on the year when facing teams above .500, the kicking game was the culprit in New England. A missed field goal in the 1st quarter by Brett Maher wasted a tone setting drive, and a blocked punt set up the only touchdown of the day for the Patriots. On weather days like Sunday in New England, special teams are critical. Dallas showed themselves once again.

2. The reasons for dismissing San Francisco as a Super Bowl contender are drying up. While New England’s defense is better numbers wise, San Fran’s defensive line engulfs offenses. Their latest victim, Aaron Rodgers, hasn’t looked that inept since entering the league. Though Jimmy Garoppolo is still a question mark in tight games, the 49er defense seems determined to remove him from the equation. Home field advantage will be key. If they can get teams to the Bay Area, instead of having to go to Lambeau or New Orleans, the Niners have a real chance to be playing in February.

3. Week after week, Russell Wilson throws the most beautiful passes.

4. He’s unlike anything the NFL has ever seen, and I’ve given up on doubting Lamar Jackson. The new front runner for MVP, Jackson has proved he’s the most dangerous weapon in the league. Overwhelmed by his speed, defenses have no answer for his playmaking. The Ravens offense is on pace for the fewest punts ever during a 16 game season and haven’t punted on a Lamar Jackson-led drive since Week 9. Jackson finds different ways to torch defenses. He throws from unorthodox arm angles. Terrified of his running ability, rushers hesitate when pressuring him. According to nextgenstats.com, he’s faced the lowest pressure rate in the league at 21.1%. When teams blitz, he’s burned them, throwing a touchdown on 13.8% of attempts against the blitz. No other QB is higher than 11%. Lamar Jackson changes the way teams play defense then takes advantage when they’re out of their comfort zone. He’s unguardable.

5. After weeks and weeks of not overturning any pass interference calls via replay, the NFL flipped two on Sunday. Why? An overturn in the Browns game was iffy, but occurred with Cleveland already up 21-0. Another in the Panthers-Saints game could have affected the outcome. On third down and Carolina at the five yard line with 2:30 left in the game, the replay officials gave the Panthers a new set of downs. The NFL is responding to outside noise, allowing criticism to seep into the replay center’s interpretation of the rule book. If the league can’t decide how to officiate the game, they’ll continue losing fans’ interest.

6. Michael Thomas has 104 catches on the year and is on pace to break the Marvin Harrison’s record of 143 grabs in a season. We overlook Thomas when discussing the best receivers in the game. He isn’t flashy, just consistent. A precise route runner with sure hands, Drew Brees can trust Thomas will be where he’s supposed to be and that he’ll catch the football. He was Teddy Bridgewater’s safety valve during Brees’ injury, a huge reason Bridgewater didn’t turn the ball over and the Saints kept winning. The most interesting story in the league during the playoffs will be the Saints. Can they overcome the devastating losses they’ve endured the past two postseasons? If they win a Super Bowl, Thomas, not Brees, may end up being the reason.

7. Speaking of receivers, the story of DeAndre Hopkins and his mother is inspiring. A wonderful receiver and beautiful person.

8. Oakland has slithered their way into playoff contention, though they got throttled by the Jets on Sunday. The 34-3 loss damaged the Raiders chances, and a matchup this week in Kansas City will likely derail them further. The AFC wild card contenders- Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Oakland, Indianapolis, and Tennessee- are a gangly, uneven troupe. Who gets hot and earns a playoff berth?

9. The NFC picture is clearer. New Orleans is a lock; they lead their division by 3 games. Green Bay and Minnesota are both 8-3. One will win the division, the other a wild card. Same with San Francisco and Seattle out West. Either Dallas or Philadelphia has to win the sorry East. While most expect a Baltimore-New England AFC title game (don’t sleep on K.C.), this side of the bracket should scintillate. The Niners look unstoppable at the moment, but start the weakest quarterback. Brees, Rodgers, and Wilson have been through the battles. Who the hell knows about Minnesota. The Super Bowl representative from the NFC will earn the trip.

10. A San Francisco-Baltimore match-up this week is an NFL executive’s dream. The only problem? With a myriad of high profile games taking place on Thanksgiving weekend, this one is a Sunday afternoon, 1 o’clock tilt. The best defensive front in the league against Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore running game will provide an attractive battle in the trenches. Baltimore should still score. Has anyone looked capable of slowing them down? This is a huge test for Jimmy Garoppolo. He must put up 20 to give San Fran a chance.

Happy Thanksgiving to all and thank you for supporting this little project I’ve undertaken. Enjoy your friends and family this weekend and all weekends. A home filled with laughter, a hug from a loved one; the little things provide the most meaning. Celebrate the mundane and embrace the crazy. And have that second piece of pie. You’ve earned it.

 

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.