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

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, NFL, Tom Brady

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Whip Around

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com

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.

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.