Add a Little Defense With Pressure, Guarantee the Playoffs?

Cleveland Browns, Myles Garrett, NFL, Tom Brady

After being exposed as the weak link, the reason the team wouldn’t reach their ceiling, the Cleveland Browns defense has taken a turn. Torched early, the D gave up 31.5 points per game in the first seven contests this season. But defensive coordinator Joe Woods’ unit has clamped offenses since, allowing only 13 per. Has something changed? Can this defense remain steady, or will they again take poundings against elite offenses? The important games remaining (Tennessee, Baltimore, Pittsburgh) come against strong offenses capable of hanging 30 in a multitude of ways. If the Browns wish to run over teams on offense, the defense must remain stiff.

Don’t overlook the weather since the start of November. Three games in Cleveland, along the lake. Two featured 40 mile per hour wind gusts, they played the third with rain throughout. Not conditions conducive to throwing the ball. Pass defense is the team’s biggest weakness, yet it’s earned assists from the environment at First Energy Stadium. Bad weather, even in Cleveland, isn’t a guarantee, however. But has something changed?

This defense has allowed the offense to stay in games all season via the big play. The Browns are eighth in the league in sacks per game (2.7) and fifth in takeaways (1.7 per game). Despite hemorrhaging points for the first two months of the season, Myles Garrett was around to force a fumble or drive the offense into long distance situations with sacks. But Cleveland’s weak safeties made them vulnerable to big plays. Ronnie Harrison (acquired with a 5th round pick sent to Jacksonville just before the start of the season) has settled the back line, not allowing deep chunk plays, while also playing strong against the run. While Andrew Sendejo and Karl Joseph continue to cause nausea, Harrison is proof not every piece has to be a star. Above average can replace horrid and lead to a stronger unit.

Are the linebackers any good? Pro Football Focus seems to think so. Here are the Browns ‘backers ranks:
B.J. Goodson– 20th out of 86
Sione Takitaki– 19th
Malcolm Smith– 25th
Mack Wilson– 82nd

Wilson looks lost in his sophomore year. He’s diving at air, missing tackles in the run game, and lagged in coverage against tight end Richard Rogers on Sunday before losing him for an easy touchdown. The linebacking core is the weakest unit on defense. They can’t afford days when Wilson sleeps. He has to get better.

The others’ rankings reflect discipline more than ability. They stay committed to their assignments and prevent big plays. Goodson played the most snaps of any against Philly (64, or 94% of defensive plays run). Smith (53%), Wilson (47%), and Takitaki (31%) play situationally. Smith is their best pass defender in the middle (6.1 yards per target allowed), while Takitaki handles the run best, grading an 85 against the run according to PFF. None, however, are dynamic. Woods doesn’t like to blitz because his LBs can’t get to the quarterback. On 70 blitzes between the four, they’ve accounted for two pressures and a half sack. Two pressures. Two. They aren’t able to do more because they lack the athleticism to make plays in either the run or the passing games. But they’re efficient. Other than Wilson, they get ball carriers on the ground and don’t give up chunk plays through the air. This will have to do.

Sunday’s game featured two stars, Denzel Ward and Olivier Vernon, who, along with Myles Garrett, are key to the rest of the season in Cleveland. Ward has put together a superb rebound season after his shaky 2nd year in the league. He leads the league with 15 passes defended, allows a 60.7% completion percentage, 6.5 yards per target, and an 88.6 QB rating on balls thrown his direction. All quality numbers indicative of the impact Ward has on receivers. He’s fluid and remains connected to his assignment in man-to-man coverage. Twice Sunday, Ward forced Carson Wentz to make perfect throws to complete passes, and he failed. A back shoulder throw to Travis Fulgham on 3rd down was knocked away. Tight coverage on Alshon Jeffery on another third down crossing route required throws the Philly QB was incapable of making. In big moments, Ward brings it.

This wasn’t a called blitz, but Ward’s(21) feel for the game is elite

With Myles Garrett one of 2 or 3 defenders in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year, his dominance has been obvious. But games like the one Vernon unleashed on Sunday push the Browns defense to another level. Three sacks, a safety, and a batted ball wrecked the Eagles’ offense, forcing a wobbly Wentz into poor decisions throughout the day. Though they haven’t done in the same game, the Vernon-Garrett combo collapsing the opposition from both sides of the defense is what John Dorsey envisioned when he traded for Vernon last off season. Injuries have hampered him in Cleveland, but he’s a worthy number 2 pass rusher when healthy. If he becomes more reliable, he’ll force offenses to remove some double teams against Garrett. This becomes the ceiling for the Browns defense.

Vernon is a bull rusher, overpowering opponents on his way to the quarterback

The lack of talent in the back seven won’t allow them to stifle proficient offenses, but Garrett and Vernon will. Great quarterbacks only become average in the face of consistent pressure. It levels the field. After the Mayfields and Chubbs and Garretts, Vernon is most important to the success of the Cleveland Browns for this season. When he’s below average, talented teams can scheme around Garrett. But if Vernon plays the rest of the season as he did against Philly, quarterbacks have little left to do. A dominant Vernon equals a scary Cleveland defense.

The Whip Around

1.The Patriots sit at 10th in the AFC at 4-6, a position quite unfamiliar for Bill Belichick. And while most will blame Tom Brady’s departure for the slide, Belichick deserves blame, too. New England ranked as the number one DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) team in the league last year, but are 32nd this season. DVOA grades every play of the season and compares its success to league averages. A drop off that large isn’t just caused by a loss of a 43-year-old quarterback. Belichick’s defense is giving up 9 more points per game and the Patriots’ turnover margin has dropped from +1.2 to 0. The loss of a franchise quarterback hurts, even more when the entire team hierarchy got built to take advantage of his strengths. But Coach Belichick is the greatest ever, right? He needs to prove he can do it without Brady to keep that title.

2. Joe Burrow’s injury is infuriating, but predictable. Bad franchises remain that way for a reason, and despite having a significant amount of talent in the middle of the decade, Cincinnati still couldn’t win a playoff game. Now in rebuild mode, their star-in-the-making quarterback has a torn ACL and MCL, plus other structural damage. Burrow has the most pass attempts in the league behind an offensive line with PFF grades too embarrassing to type. Since Mike Brown took over operations after his father’s death, the Bengals have been a cheap organization set on saving money instead of investing in wins. Now a young star is paying the price.

3. Once part of the best WR duo in the league, Adam Thielen must make one-handed touchdown catches in losses to the Cowboys. Terrible loss, pretty catch.

4. With an average Lamar Jackson, are the Ravens anything more either? Baltimore is averaging 5 fewer points per game than in 2019. Jackson’s passing numbers are off some (3% less completion percentage, 0.7 fewer yards per attempt), but his rushing numbers have fallen from jaw dropping to good. He’s averaging 1.3 fewer yards per rush on more carries per game. Teams haven’t allowed the game changing play from Jackson with his legs and are forcing him to make throws from the pocket. He completes 63% of his passes, a number that’s inflated because of the space his legs afford his receivers. Jackson is such a dynamo, maybe he makes just enough precise throws to allow his legs to carry them to a Super Bowl. But when have we seen it done before?

5. Alex Singleton makes tackles. Philly’s second year linebacker cracked the starting lineup in Week 6 against Baltimore and has impressed since. 16 tackles last week against the Giants, followed by 12 on Sunday in Cleveland, Singleton is an active playmaker for Philly’s defense. He stuffed a goal line run by Kareem Hunt and recorded a sack and a QB hit that allowed the Eagles to remain within striking distance despite Carson Wentz’s erratic play. Philly has the most talent in the division, but Wentz seems lost, and the injuries continue to mount. But Singleton seems to be a keeper if they can ever figure out what’s wrong with their former MVP candidate at quarterback.

6. Running backs are so plentiful as to be essentially worthless, but Alvin Kamara’s skill set makes him irreplaceable in New Orleans. Like the fear of a Steph Curry 3, just Kamara’s presence in the Saints backfield causes defenses to over bend, cheating in his direction at all times. In any other system his effect gets dulled, but Sean Payton’s offense leans on Kamara in order to hide Drew Brees’ (and now Taysom Hill’s), lack of deep ball strength. Kamara screens are touchdowns in waiting. While Michael Thomas is absurd, Kamara is their game breaker. If New Orleans makes a run, it’ll be because of him.

7. Will Detroit just fire Matt Patricia already? Another Bill Belichick disciple without the flexibility to mold his coaching to the talent of his team, Patricia has tried to force his brutish personality on his players with little luck. A 20-0, listless beat down against a Carolina team starting their third-string quarterback is dumb. Patricia has lost this team and everyone knows it. Just being near Belichick doesn’t make a coach. His relationships, intelligence, and people skills mean far more than who he used to work for. Patricia possesses none of the above. Hire someone who can make something out of Matthew Stafford’s career and allow Patricia to fail as a defensive coordinator somewhere else.

8. Man’s league.

9. Tom Brady Monday night against the Rams on throws over 15 yards downfield: 1-9, 2 interceptions. Brady is the reason the Bucs are Super Bowl contenders, yet his declining arm strength and accuracy down the field will cost them in January. Elite weapons Mike Evans’ and Antonio Brown’s impact lowers when the deep play abilities they bring don’t exist. Add the fact that Brady struggles when pressured, and it’s hard to imagine Tampa Bay becoming the first team in history to play a Super Bowl home game.

10. It’s time for Lamar Jackson to win a big game against an elite opponent. How will he fare against the Steelers hounding, pressure heavy defense? Not the situation Jackson has succeeded under in the past. Thanksgiving night in Pittsburgh, Jackson can reconstruct Baltimore’s season with a victory against the 10-0 Steelers. Although the division is likely already out of reach, the Ravens playoffs chances would take a hit with a loss and a 6-5 record. For Pittsburgh, do they care about going undefeated? Not likely, with a veteran coach and quarterback who’s eyes are only on the Lombardi. But a home loss against the rival Ravens will never do, and Pittsburgh can force the Ravens to run the table to guarantee a playoff berth. The Steeler defense vs. Raven offense. Saddle up. How, and if, T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, and Minkah Fitzpatrick contain Jackson is an irresistible watch. Though the early Thanksgiving games are snoozers, the best rivalry in the league will provide a potent end to the holiday slate.

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com

Can the Cleveland Browns Prove Capable of a Rebound? It’s Not That Simple

Cleveland Browns, Kevin Stefanski, NFL

A simple path for the Cleveland Browns to NFL dominance doesn’t exist. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens are two of the best organizations in all of sports, and the Browns must compete with each twice per season. The level they need to reach to remain competitive with either has been unattainable by this franchise for 40 years. Wins against poor outfits in Cincinnati, Washington, and Dallas, and a competent Indianapolis, show growth. In year’s past, the Browns would’ve choked 1 or 2 of those wins away with silly turnovers or inopportune penalties. But a worst to first turnaround, easier for teams in, say, the AFC South, can’t happen. Not with the mammoth shadows cast on them from Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

They’re perennial Super Bowl contenders who preach continuity, have strong staffs and systems in place, and draft well. The Steelers hired Mike Tomlin in 2007. Baltimore found John Harbaugh in 2008. They’re the 3rd and 4th longest tenured coaches in the league behind Bill Belichick and Sean Payton. Notice anything? The Patriots, Saints, Steelers, and Ravens are among the best teams in the league year after year. This isn’t a coincidence. They poured the foundations for winning long ago. These franchises don’t allow bad plays, or losses, or draft picks to sway their mindsets. The system is in place. They have established the correct way of doing things through high leverage playoff games and agonizing off-season practices. They win because everyone in the organization knows how to. There’s direction. There’s accountability.

None of this has existed in Cleveland since the rebirth, but signals of change are clear. Going from 6-10 to 8-8 or 9-7 is the simple part. Sunday’s dismantling in Pittsburgh was rough to watch and all too familiar. Unprepared and awestruck, units that have played well were over matched. Pittsburgh’s defensive line mauled the Browns’ number 1 ranked offensive line. The running game failed early, the deficit swelled, and Kevin Stefanski was forced to put the game in Baker Mayfield’s hands. Myles Garrett had 1 sack, but Pittsburgh’s so-so offensive line outperformed against Cleveland’s defensive front, allowing their offense free rein against the porous back seven. 38-7. Typical result at Heinz Field.

Why is Andrew Sendejo still starting and playing 100% of the defensive snaps? Injuries have decimated the position, but he’s costing the defense play after play. He lunges at ball carriers instead of squaring up to them and form tackling. He gets beat deep by wide receivers multiple times per game, a cardinal sin for safeties. Andrew Berry must step in to fix the situation. Whether by signing a free agent off the street or scouring the practice squads of other teams, find someone better. His Pro Football Focus ranking is 76th. He’s grades out at 51 against the run, 47 against the pass. Out of 100. He’s unathletic and slow, causing him to be out of position in perpetuity. Don’t blame the coaching staff for continuing to play him. He’s their only option. It’s Berry’s job to find someone better. Not a high bar.

While Berry has avoided scrutiny as general manager, questions remain about his eye for talent. He signed Jack Conklin. Linebacker Malcolm Smith (PFF ranking= 11th of 81 linebackers) flashes and has earned more minutes; he only played 52% of the defensive snaps Sunday. No other Berry signings or draft picks have had a positive impact on this team. First-round pick Jedrick Wills Jr. is struggling more than most would like to admit (60th ranked of 76 tackles, according to PFF). Free agent signings Sendejo, Karl Joseph, and B.J. Goodson aren’t good. John Dorsey acquired the contributors on this team. Berry is young and smart, but has yet to prove he can draft well or find under the radar free agents to contribute. He has to get better. Start with finding a safety, any safety, who can play the position.

The NFL built a safety net into the Browns schedule this season, placing their two games against Cincinnati in the weeks following trips to Baltimore and Pittsburgh. The Bengals have improved, and Joe Burrow could become a franchise quarterback, but he isn’t there yet. Cleveland’s lines hold advantages on both sides of the ball. In their week 2 Thursday nighter, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt ran for 210 yards and 3 touchdowns. The defense sacked Burrow 3 times and hit him 7 others. Against weak opponents, talented teams flex their advantages. Look for Stefanski to game plan toward his team’s strengths.

The Bengals have talent at the skill positions, but Burrow’s offensive line doesn’t allow him time to get them the football. Garrett and the defensive line can win this game on their own with pressure. Forcing Burrow into rushed decisions will lead to turnovers. Kareem Hunt and D’Ernest Johnson can control the clock on the ground, keeping injured Baker Mayfield from having to win this one with his arm.

How far have they come? Have Stefanski and Berry changed the culture in their short time together enough for the Browns to move away from Sunday’s beating, or will the embarrassment linger? These are the games competent franchises win. They aren’t Pittsburgh or Baltimore yet. It will take years for Cleveland to walk into each season as a bona fide Super Bowl contender, but it starts here. Professional, organized squads pounce on the Cincinnatis. Winnable games against Jacksonville, Houston, and both New York teams remain. If this franchise has changed, we’ll see the signs this weekend.

The Whip Around

1.Evidence of rust showed on Cam Newton Sunday as the Patriots lost a curious one at home, 18-12, to the Broncos. We don’t know enough yet about the coronavirus to determine how it affects athletes, both short and long-term. Russell Westbrook contracted it, recovered, then struggled in the NBA bubble. Nuggets center Nikola Jokic had it in June, but starred in the playoffs. The Patriots need a healthy, engaged Cam for their eleven year playoff streak to continue. One pick was a lazy throw batted by a lineman, the other placed well behind his intended receiver. The clock in his head was off when he took a blindside sack too; he should have felt the pressure and bailed before taking the hit. After an exemplary start, New England now sits at 2-3, weary from starts and stops because of the virus, and in third place in the AFC East. They need Cam’s athleticism and Bill Belichick’s genius to end their slide.

2. Monitor Las Vegas. David Carr has the second best passer rating in the league behind Russell Wilson. They’re the sixth best scoring offense in the league and the fifth best passing unit. They have a win over the Chiefs under their belt and are in a weak division. The defense is the problem. They’re giving up 30 per game and are second to last in the league in creating turnovers. Games remain against the Jets, Falcons, and Dolphins, plus 2 each with the Chargers and Broncos. The AFC is a muddled mess after Tennessee, K.C., Pittsburgh, and Baltimore. They almost have to make the postseason. Raider shootouts are must see 4:00 affairs for the rest of the season.

3. I can watch Kyler Murray throw footballs all day long.

4. Because they play in a trash heap of a division, the Cowboys will remain in the playoff hunt throughout the season. They’re 2-4 and lead the NFC East. It’s true. But Dallas is an awful team and Andy Dalton looked washed on Monday night against Arizona (2 picks, sacked 3 times, 65 rating). However, Ezekiel Elliott’s night was most concerning for Cowboy fans. Only 49 yards rushing against a middling Arizona run defense, Elliott also lost 2 fumbles, a first for him in an NFL game, exposing a lack of concentration on his part. Is he a leader? Can he carry them into the playoffs? Backs age fast, and Elliott is no exception. Only 26, he’s averaging the few yards per carry of his career, least amount of yards per game, and has fumbled almost twice as much already as he did all of last year. Zeke was dynamic coming out of Ohio State, but the shine wears off ball carriers overnight. He’s a classic example of why it’s unwise to give out large contracts to running backs when replacements exist late in the draft (see Alvin Kamara, Aaron Jones). Note to teams with backs on rookie deals, let someone else pay that big second contract.

5. No corner combines run stopping ability and coverage skills like Jason Verrett. And no one in the league deserves success more. Verrett entered the league in 2014, got selected for the Pro Bowl in 2015, and has been through injury hell since. A torn ACL in 2016 didn’t heal properly, causing him to miss 2 seasons. Then a torn Achilles, costing him a third straight year. He returned last year, only to tear a patellar tendon in Week 3, ending another season. Recovered to start training camp this year, he suffered a hamstring injury, costing him the 1st two games of this year. Finally healthy, Verrett is a force in the secondary. PFF’s third rated corner through 6 weeks, his pick in the end zone against the Rams and Jared Goff shuttered the Rams momentum on Sunday night and gave San Francisco a much needed home victory after two abominable losses against Philadelphia and Miami. Jimmy Garoppolo’s struggles are real. The 49ers need their defense to carry the water if they hope to defend their NFC title, and Verrett’s work in the secondary is key. He’s a fun guy to root for.

6. The Tennessee Titans are Super Bowl contenders, and Ryan Tannehill is one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Sure, Derrick Henry’s combined 264 yards rushing and receiving and 2 touchdowns in their overtime win against Houston was impressive, but Tannehill is the orchestrator of the offense. His passer rating (113.5) ranks third in the league after he led the category a year ago. 70% completions, 13 touchdowns, and only 2 interceptions, they’re 5-0 because Tannehill pushes the ball downfield without turning it over. Henry’s career took off only after Tennessee acquired the QB from Miami for a 4th rounder to back up Marcus Mariota last season. Can he go throw for throw with Patrick Mahomes? Tannehill’s weapons are inferior to Mahomes’, except for Henry. He’d need an otherworldly performance from his defense in a rematch of last season’s AFC title game. But Tannehill belongs, something few could foresee after his career in Miami.

7. That Pittsburgh defense. Their back seven struggles, but they apply so much pressure that is hasn’t hurt them. Their 24 sacks lead the league. Add to that 36 hurries, 83 pressures, and 182 blitzes. That’s some heat. Offenses are too good in today’s game, and the rules are bent to favor them. Defenses will give up points. Pressure forces turnovers and negative plays, however. The only way to slow modern offenses is to make the quarterback uncomfortable, and the Steelers do that better than anyone.

8. Robert Woods is the fulcrum of the Rams offensive attack. He catches everything, blocks downfield, and forces defenses to obey their assignments because of their tendency to hand him the ball when he’s in motion. For L.A. to regain their offensive consistency from 2018, Woods needs the ball in his hands more.

9. The Philly wide receiver corpse is just that, and Carson Wentz is one of the worst quarterbacks in the league. A barrage of injuries have hurt their chances in a putrid division, but led them to a gem in Travis Fulgham. Drafted in the 6th round of 2019 by the Lions, Fulgham was waived and cut before landing on Detroit’s practice squad last September. Cut by the Lions, Packers, and Eagles during training camp, Philly signed him on October 3 as a last resort. Alshon Jeffery remains unable to play, Marquise Goodwin sat out 2020, and DeSean Jackson and Jalen Reagor can’t find the field because of injury, either. Enter Fulgham. Through 3 games, his 18 catches, 284 yards, and 3 touchdowns has added some spunk to Philly’s offense. They’ve scored 25, 28, and 29 with him in the lineup, and Wentz has been average instead of a complete dumpster fire. If the Eagles can have any health related luck, they are the best team in the division, and Fulgham gives them a downfield threat that Jackson seems incapable of because of injury and age. The NFC East everybody.

10. How are the Chicago Bears 5-1 and leading the NFC North? Yes, the schedule has helped (wins over Detroit, NY Giants, Atlanta, and a Thursday home game against Tampa), but Nick Foles can’t throw the ball past the line of scrimmage (31st in the league at 5.8 yards per pass attempt). With Allen Robinson stifled by Foles’ pop gun arm and David Montgomery averaging less than 3 yards per carry the past 3 games, their weapons on offense lack punch. Three games await against the Rams, Saints, and Titans. Chicago’s time perched atop their division will be short-lived.

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com

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.