On to Cincinnati

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, Kevin Stefanski, NFL

This early in the season, one can only hope the Cleveland Browns get better. Nothing on Sunday was surprising. Baltimore employs the reigning MVP and has Super Bowl aspirations. Cleveland is on their fourth head coach and offensive coordinator in three seasons. Baker Mayfield is regressing at an astonishing rate, and the defense has little talent in the back seven. Regardless of the hope that’s present at kickoff of a new season in Cleveland, a realistic look at this team, and the season they’re headed for, is a hard pill for the fanbase to ingest. This long, painful process is far from over.

Judging Mayfield on one game played against a superior defense, after an off-season with no preseason and a coach and coordinator switch may not be fair, but it’s year 3. He’s started 30 NFL games. No longer can some mistakes be overlooked. For instance, this third down throw to Odell Beckham:

This ball is late and behind the receiver. Mayfield gives Beckham no chance. When he’s coming out of his break on the in route, Mayfield has to have the ball in the air. He waits an extra half second and throws it behind Odell, giving Marcus Peters time to bat the ball down.

And this:

How do you miss 6’8”, 300 lb. Calais Campbell dropping into coverage? Campbell slips into the defensive backfield, reads Mayfield’s eyes, and tips the pass, causing an interception on the opening drive of the game. Three years in, Mayfield must see these things. He’s gun shy in the pocket, afraid to throw the ball, yet in a hurry to do so. He’s in his own head. Here’s hoping Kevin Stefanski can save him from himself.

The defense was atrocious, as expected. The linebacking core is young and unathletic. Hard to see the second line getting much better. It’ll take a draft and free agency period focused on the position to see much improvement, unless Mack Wilson developed over the off-season. The front office thrust their resources into the offense, with little help given to the defense, save for cheap, uninspired signings at safety and linebacker. B.J. Goodson had 9 tackles. Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo combined for 9 tackles at safety, with zero passes defended. Baltimore wide receivers ran free in the Browns secondary all afternoon. The defensive line, the one unit with talent, combined for 2 quarterback hits. This isn’t good enough. Myles Garrett accounted for 1 tackle. If the line doesn’t manhandle opposing offensive lines, the opposition won’t be able to keep themselves from scoring.

Kevin Stefanski looked lost. Not much of a surprise. The fake punt was an awful call, and one first-year head coaches make when they’re trying to outsmart the room. Both sides of the ball seemed unprepared. He doesn’t have experience running an NFL team through a week of practice and a game day. He needs reps. Of everyone associated with the Browns, Stefanski needs permission to fail all season. They should consider 2020 a red shirt year for the coaching staff, a chance to learn the machinations of head coaching. If the front office puts too much on every decision he makes, he won’t grow into the job. No more coaching changes, please.

With the Bengals in for Thursday Night Football and the home opener, improvement is imperative. Number 1 pick Joe Burrow led a decent last drive against San Diego, but had to settle for an attempted game tying field goal which kicker Randy Bullock shanked. Otherwise, Burrow was middling against an average San Diego defense, throwing for 193 yards, no touchdowns, and 1 interception. He took turns looking comfortable and jumpy. His offensive line did him no favors, allowing a pressure rate of 33.3%, fourth worst in the league. Pressure, pressure, pressure. It’s a must for the Browns on Thursday. Cleveland’s front four needs to hit the rookie QB again and again. They cannot allow him to get comfortable. Cincinnati has weapons. Tyler Boyd, A. J. Green, and Joe Mixon are dangerous with the ball. Myles Garrett and company cannot let Burrow have time to sit in the pocket. If they allow him any confidence, the Bengals have enough weapons to pull the upset.

The Browns offensive line played well Sunday. They provided Mayfield time to throw and Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt large holes to run through, gaining a combined 132 yards on 23 carries. Look for more of the same Thursday. Cincy’s defense generated little pressure (2 sacks, 4 QB hits) and the Chargers ran for 155 on the ground. A steady ground game should be enough against the Bengals. Chubb and Hunt can win this game on their own. Stefanski should also use the weak Cincinnati defense to get Baker confidence in the pocket. If the Browns struggle, or cannot win at home on Thursday, this season jumps the tracks in a hurry.

The Whip Around

1.Tampa and New Orleans are each trendy NFC Super Bowl picks, but the fossilized quarterbacks they employ should worry fans of both outfits. Tom Brady and Drew Brees are two of the greatest to take snaps, but at the ages of 43 and 41, the hands on their clocks, if not broken, are rusted and rickety. Both have trouble stretching defenses and Brady threw two interceptions in this game, the first time he’s done so since the end of the 2018 season. The Saints won because Brees didn’t turn it over and had a better running game with Alvin Kamara behind him. New Orleans’ defense applied steady pressure on Brady throughout, and Sean Payton is used to calling short, middling passes, as Brees’ arm has regressed the last two seasons. These two are Hall of Famers and think the game better than any QBs in history. But if they can’t make the throws, their chances of playing in February are slim.

2. His conditioning level was lacking, but otherwise Aldon Smith impressed for the Cowboys on Sunday Night. Smith hadn’t seen a football field in five years, circumstances of his own doing. His past is littered with multiple arrests, most stemming from alcohol abuses, and he deserved the punishments the NFL dispensed, but has worked to turn his life around on the insistence of his grandmother before her death from ALS. Smith recorded 11(!!) tackles Sunday, along with a sack and 2 other quarterback hits. Add in 3 other QB pressures, and Smith showed the talent that launched him to stardom with 42.5 sacks in his first three years in the league. Dallas needs pass rush help, and if he can put heat on opposing defenses as he did on Sunday, the Cowboys defense will be stout. Here’s hoping Aldon Smith has changed his life and can reclaim his place as a superior pass rusher in the league.

3. Jimmy Garoppolo’s record as a starting quarterback is 21-6. Anyone want him taking snaps for their Super Bowl contending team? Garoppolo has succeeded because of the schemes given to him by Kyle Shanahan. He struggles to push the ball downfield and is reliant on his backs and receivers to make plays for his offenses to sustain drives. Shanahan proved he didn’t trust him in last year’s playoffs, taking the ball away from him as much as possible. San Francisco’s loss at home to Arizona portends a drop off from the Cinderella season the team enjoyed last year. A slight regression from the defense or the running game will mean missing the playoffs in the tough NFC West. Expect the 49ers to shop for a quarterback next off-season.

4. The hands it takes to catch a fastball like this. Just astonishing Allen Robinson.

5. Pittsburgh’s defense is real. Because of the pressure they put on quarterbacks, offenses are going to struggle against them. Look at these pressure stats from Monday Night:

For all the deserved accolades tossed T.J. Watt’s direction, Bud Dupree may be the better player. Two tackles for loss, a pass defended, and a key hit on Daniel Jones that forced an interception on the goal line, Dupree disrupts offenses in a variety of ways. Last year he was top ten in the league in fumbles forced, sacks, and tackles for loss. The Steel Curtain has returned to Pittsburgh, and if Ben Roethlisberger can return to form, the Steelers are Super Bowl contenders.

6. Most expected sloppy play last week because of a jerky off-season with no pre-season games, but teams acquitted themselves well without the fake August games. Organizations don’t play starters big minutes in the pre-season, anyway. Give props to the players. They know how to ready themselves for an NFL season and the play in Week 1 proved as much. Holding calls were down 78% from a year ago, and total penalties numbered 199, the lowest total for Week 1 since 2001 (ESPN Stats and Info). Turnovers averaged 1.4 per game, while all games in 2019 featured 2.4 turnovers per. Don’t allow the NFL to tell you pre-season games are anything more than a money grab.

7. The MVP is Russell Wilson’s to lose. A distant second to Lamar Jackson a year ago, Wilson’s chances skyrocket this season because Pete Carroll may have come around. Married to a conservative, defensive minded approach for too long, Seattle’s brain trust came to their senses this off-season, realizing they possess one of the best weapons in the league, and it’s past time to treat him that way. Sunday’s numbers tell the story: 31-35, 322 yards, 4 touchdowns, 29 yards on the ground. Wilson wins games on his own; his teams are Super Bowl contenders by his presence on the roster. Now that Seattle’s head coach seemed to turn him loose, their championship window is again open. Watch the Seahawks.

8. The catches made in this league are insane. Chase Claypool is another weapon for Big Ben to exploit defenses with.

9. A good rule for any coach/GM in the NFL would be if you have one of the top 3 wide receivers on your roster, don’t trade him for table scraps. Bill O’Brien has dismantled the Houston Texans, and his deal to ship DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona for David Johnson, a 2020 second rounder, and a 2021 fourth, dumb then, is unconscionable now. Deshaun Watson, one of the best QBs in the league, at 24 years old, gives the Texans Super Bowl hope each year, and just signed a 4 year, 156 million extension. Why give away one of the best weapons in football for an oft injured running back? Nonsense. Hopkins’ 14 catches and 151 yards in Arizona’s upset of San Francisco shows how valuable he is, and speeds up Kyler Murray’s learning curve. The division is brutal, but the Cardinals are on the come. Hopkins makes them a playoff contender. Someone explain to me what O’Brien is doing in Houston. Anyone?

10. Were Cam Newton and Bill Belichick made for each other? Everyone knows Belichick wants nothing more than to stick it to Tom Brady by proving he can win his way. What’s better than taking a quarterback no one else wanted, installing a ball control, run heavy offense, and winning with defense, Belichick’s formula from years past? Newton’s 15-19 passing day, with no turnovers, along with 75 yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground, no doubt left Belichick smirking. Aloof concerning players, Belichick is the greatest to do it for that reason. Never married to a certain scheme, the coach has shown throughout his Hall of Fame career that he’ll use players in a way he sees fit to get results. Wide receivers playing corner. Linebackers as fullbacks. Defensive linemen as tight ends. Defensive teams, offensive juggernauts. He’s done it every way possible. Now to prove he can do it without the greatest quarterback in history.

All stats courtesy of pro-footballreference.com

I Got Issues

Cleveland Browns, NFL

Immature: not mature, ripe, developed, perfected, etc.

One word describes the Cleveland Browns to this point in the season; the only word able to make sense of them. The definition comes from Dictionary.com, but it could have come from the team’s Wikipedia page. There is no predicting their performance week to week, especially against good teams, and in hindsight it’s obvious. The youth of the coaches and players will not change without experience; 2019 will be a season of lessons.

Residing in a poor division, this does not prevent the Browns from winning it. The schedule eases in a few weeks and wins will be easier to come by. Above all, this year they must develop habits of consistent winners.

Much went wrong Monday. Mack Wilson has played well subbing for Christian Kirksey, but got lost on the first two touchdowns of the night. On Matt Breida’s 83 yard touchdown run he freelanced, gave up his gap assignment, and Breida housed it. On Breida’s touchdown reception, Wilson bit on an outside fake, the running back turned inside. Easy touchdown catch.

Mack Wilson(51) overpursues, leaving a huge gap for Breida

Time after time in the first half, the offensive scheme called for a tight end to block Nick Bosa. This cannot happen. The offensive design has to match up offensive linemen against the other team’s best rusher. It is malpractice to leave tight ends on players of Nick Bosa’s caliber. The results speak for themselves.

Tight end Demetrius Harris(88) tasked with blocking Nick Bosa(97). Not optimal

Antonio Callaway was light years away from being prepared to play a football game Monday night. Each time the team broke the huddle, he was asking either Jarvis Landry or Baker Mayfield where to line up. On the best drive of the game he false started and dropped a sure touchdown, which turned into an interception that ended the Browns’ chances of a victory. The coaches and Callaway deserve blame. They put too much on his plate, but Callaway was ill prepared. The team has made it clear they will stick by him, yet he has shown no desire since they drafted him to mature. He should be cut, though his draft status, and Dorsey’s desire to hit on his picks will prevent that from happening.

Nick Bosa razed Joel Bitonio in the third quarter on a play that epitomized the night for both teams. The 49ers beat up the Browns on offense and defense. The Niners’ lines dominated. It was a setback for the organization. This should now be the expectation for the rest of the season. Poor performances will follow good ones. The hope is by December, some consistency will develop and the softer schedule will put the team in a position to win the division.

The Seahawks present as stiff a test as the 49ers, if not a more capable one. Russell Wilson is an upper echelon quarterback in the NFL; if the MVP vote occurred this week, he would finish second to Patrick Mahomes. He is lethal in the pocket but more dangerous if he escapes from it. The defense did a serviceable job keeping Lamar Jackson’s running in check. They should apply those same principles again this week.

While Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams missing the last three games has yet to affect the defense, this would be a nice week for them to return. Both practiced on Wednesday, but it sounds iffy either will suit up. Tyler Lockett, D.K. Metcalf, and Will Dissly present a formidable challenge as a pass catching group, the best the Browns have faced this year. If they are open, Wilson will find them. With the defensive line unlikely to rack up sacks on Rusty, the coverage on the back end must be airtight. The Browns could use their full complement of defensive backs.

At their heart, however, the Seahawks want to run the ball. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer commits to the run, so much so he is criticized for it. Seattle is fifth in the league in run play percentage at 47.7%, according to teamrankings.com. With the Browns getting gashed by the 49ers on the ground, look for a steady dose of Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny on Sunday. Both backs are big and physical. The tackling issues from Monday night need cleaned up.

Defensively, the Seahawks rank in the middle of the league in most categories, yet struggle to generate a pass rush. Their sack percentage is only 4.9% according to teamrankings.com, and they give up 270 yards per game through the air. This seems as good as spot as any for Baker Mayfield and Odell Beckham to take advantage of a team’s weakness. For the Browns to begin showing some consistency, these two need to get on the same page. This week presents an opportunity for that.

With things looking dire after Monday night and the 4-1 Seahawks coming to town, a tough week is in store. Will the Browns fix the many areas exposed by the Niners? Seattle will present many of the same problems. While they may lose Sunday, I expect a better effort in Cleveland. It can’t get much worse.

The Whip Around

1. Although the score tightened in the fourth quarter, the Packers man handled the Cowboys in Dallas before softening coverages on defense and allowing Dak Prescott garbage time yards and points. The Cowboys are pretenders, again. A team built on running the ball and shaky quarterback play cannot win consistently against good teams in today’s NFL. Green Bay’s defense was impressive through three quarters, and Jaire Alexander was a big part of their success. The second year corner had a pick and three passes defended, reading Prescott routinely and stifling the Cowboys’ passing game. With the Packers running the ball well and defending at a level unseen in Aaron Rodgers’ time at quarterback, Green Bay is staking its claim as best in the NFC.

2. I’m no fan of Jon Gruden and will never understand the reasoning behind signing him to a 10 year, 100 million dollar contract. To give him a say in personnel is just as baffling, but I digress. The Raiders have looked competent to this point, with Josh Jacobs providing stability to a shaky offense. Derek Carr isn’t turning it over and completes 73% of his passes. Jacobs is fourth in the league in rushing and looks to be the building block Oakland/Las Vegas needs to claw its way out of the AFC West cellar. The schedule stiffens in the coming weeks, however, and will test Gruden and his rigid, old school beliefs.

3. Each week I expect a come to earth moment from Christian McCaffrey, and each week he somehow tops the thrills of the game before. The do-it-all Panther running back is keeping Carolina alive in the NFC South with Cam Newton hurt, allowing Kyle Allen to remain efficient without turning the ball over. Sunday’s masterpiece was Carolina’s third in a row and murmurs of MVP have begun around McCaffrey. The league’s leading rusher also is 14th in catches, displaying his versatility. A running back isn’t winning MVP though. Right?

4. The Vikings are a roller coaster ride, much like other teams in the league with inconsistent quarterback play. One player who should be compared to a merry-go-round, however, is defensive end Danielle Hunter. Tied for sixth in the league in sacks, Hunter is building upon last year’s Pro Bowl season. He lived in the Giant backfield Sunday, sacking Daniel Jones twice and applied consistent pressure throughout the day. One of the best pass rushers in the league, the Vikings are better served allowing the steady Hunter and Dalvin Cook to carry the water while praying Kirk Cousins can stay afloat.

5. Referee Complaint of the Week
I’ve made this a weekly feature because the zebras are forcing themselves into these games. It upset Jason Garrett that he had to challenge an obvious Amari Cooper catch on Sunday, and he hurled the challenge flag into the ground while directing words in the official’s direction, who he tangled with earlier in the game. The ref got all up in his feelings, hitting Garrett with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. I can’t imagine Garrett said anything the ref hasn’t heard before. Embarrassed by the missed call and butt hurt over Garrett’s actions, the offending referee had to force himself into the action. Toughen up officials.

6. The Ravens did not trust Lamar Jackson in the closing minutes and overtime of their victory against the Steelers. The play calling remained conservative with a chance to win it with a touchdown in the final seconds, but the offense settled for a game tying field goal. Same in overtime, when a JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble handed Jackson prime field position. Having Justin Tucker as your kicker affords John Harbaugh with such luxuries. The Ravens defense is bad and will get worse. They’ve lost safety Tony Jefferson for the year with a torn ACL. Jackson must find the magic he performed against two of the worst teams in the league in the Dolphins and Cardinals, or he’ll be back to being a glorified running back.

7. Josh Allen is a turnover machine in Buffalo, but the Bills defense is dominant enough that it may not matter. Second in yards per game and third in points allowed, they will keep Buffalo in playoff contention throughout the year. No one jumps off the page at you; they are just solid at every level. At 4-1 and three more games on the schedule with the Jets and Dolphins, the Bills aren’t going anywhere.

8. The hangover Atlanta is on from Super Bowl LI is epic. After blowing a 28-3 lead against the dynastic Patriots, Atlanta went on a bender it still hasn’t recovered from. 7-9 last year and now 1-4 in 2019, the Falcons have too much talent to be this bad. Dan Quinn isn’t long for that job.

9. Ron Rivera, when you’re up 4 with the ball at the opponents 5 yard line in the fourth quarter, just kick the field goal. I’m all for aggressiveness, but I think the “Riverboat Ron” moniker has gone to your head. Coaching is a tough job, yet these guys make it more difficult.

10. The victory of the year to this point goes to the Colts. Entering Arrowhead on Sunday night and beating the invincible-looking Chiefs was no small feat. With T. Y. Hilton, Marlon Mack, an improved defense and stout offensive line, Jacoby Brissett is set up to succeed. If he can avoid turnovers, Indy is built for a long playoff run.