Just in time for game day we’ve got this week’s questions with the enemy!
With plenty of time to kill before games kickoff this morning, let’s dive on in to see what new insight we can find on the Browns before things get underway.
1.) The Browns are 3-1 and were THIS close to beating the Chiefs in week one. What’s the overall temperature of the fan base regarding this year’s team and what would you consider to be the “expectations” for the rest of this year?
The overall temperature of the team has been great, although we’ve seen a variety of perspective changes through these first four games. In our only loss (the opener against the Chiefs), the offense was lights out but the defense was non-existent. The defense didn’t show up too well in Week 2 either against the Houston Texans, which made fans wonder, “How long is it going to be until all these new players ‘come together’ to be a solid defensive unit?” Things changed in Week 3, when the defense completely shut down Justin Fields and the Chicago Bears. It was an awe-inspiring performance, but also one that I somewhat cast aside as it being a rookie quarterback with a bad head coach. But then, the defense turned in an even more impressive performance against the Vikings, given the caliber of their offense. I read a fun stat that over the past two years, only two NFL games have had the winning team score 14 points or less — both involved the Browns.
The offense is where things have gotten a tad shakier over the past two weeks. For as dominant as the defense was these past two weeks, both contests were basically one-score games heading to the final quarter of play. Two weeks ago against the Bears, Cleveland’s offense uncharacteristically did not convert on a couple of early fourth down situations, and then Baker Mayfield sailed a couple of open passes that could’ve also put the game away much sooner. Last week against the Vikings was one of Mayfield’s worst games, as he continuously sailed the ball well over his receivers’ heads. Given how accurate Mayfield was in the first two weeks, the accuracy issues are leading us to believe that his injured left shoulder (sustained against the Bears) is having more of an impact than we were led to believe. So overall, the expectations are always very high for the running game, starting to be high for the defense, and high-but-unsure about Mayfield’s status due to health right now. The expectations for the rest of the year, though, is that Cleveland wins the AFC North and makes the postseason.
2.) The Browns have the best one-two running back tandem in the NFL. With a backfield like that, you sometimes don’t even need that strong of a passing game. Do you believe this run-heavy approach is able to carry the team through the season or do you believe the passing game must improve in order to take this team to where it wants to go?
If the Browns really wanted to, they have the talent and personnel to say, “We’re just going to be a pass-heavy team,” and there’s no doubt in my mind they’d be very successful at it, especially when Jarvis Landry returns in a couple of weeks. I think there’s somewhat of a perception around the league that Cleveland’s passing game struggles in comparison to the running game, but it’s more of the strategy that head coach Kevin Stefanski takes: the running game burns more clock, wears a defense down throughout a game to the point where it really becomes an extra advantage in the fourth quarter, and the ability to rotate two All-Pro backs in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt is a luxury that no other team has. That rushing attack can carry the Browns through the season, but that rushing attack also helps set up some wide-open opportunities in the passing game that Stefanski schemes for off of play-action passes. Now, I do need to throw a bit of an asterisk next to this answer because of Mayfield’s current injury and how that might impact things, but hopefully he gets more used to playing through it.
3.) If you were Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, how would you go about scheming against the Browns defense? Are there any weak position groups or players that could be targeted?
I would have had a bag full of weaknesses to mention over the first two weeks, but how can I talk about weaknesses after what I’ve seen the past two weeks? The number one thing I would say is that Cleveland’s run defense has been the real deal as well — their defensive tackles anchor the run defense well, and then the linebackers and rotating safety have a lot of speed that has disrupted holes and prevented running backs from getting going. For as much of a good game as the secondary had last week, including cornerback Greedy Williams, who missed all of last season with a shoulder injury, I would try attacking them with the passing game all game long. It didn’t work last week for Minnesota because Cleveland’s front four alone was creating tremendous pressure on Kirk Cousins, making it easier for those guys in the secondary to thrive. But if Los Angeles’ protection can hold up better and Justin Herbert fires the strikes he usually does, I think that’s the best success against Cleveland’s defense until they prove otherwise.
4.) Same question as above but now you are Chargers defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill. How would you go about scheming to defend this Browns rushing attack? Is that even possible? What defensive looks have caused the Browns problems thus far in the season?
Starting left tackle Jedrick Wills suffered an ankle injury back in Week 1, and each week since then, he has been starting but coming in-and-out of the game as he tries to play through it. On Saturday, though, he was officially ruled out for this week’s game. His backup, Chris Hubbard, also got hurt in Week 1 and now appears to be out for the season with a triceps injury. That means that Blake Hance or rookie James Hudson will start at left tackle instead. Considering Cleveland has four other offensive linemen who are Pro Bowl caliber players, it’s not going to be a huge issue on offense — but it’s definitely something the Browns have to be careful about. If I was the Chargers’ defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill, I would try to have Joey Bosa go up against the left tackle and win as many battles as he can. On the flip side, though, I’m sure Stefanski will be aware of that — so you don’t want Bosa rushing around the edge for the quarterback, only for Mayfield to do a Shotgun draw play — something he did last week to Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb for 30+ and 20+ yards, respectively.
5.) Go ahead and give us a final score prediction and a few sentences on how you think this game will shake out.
I will go with the Browns prevailing 24-21. As impressed as I am with Justin Herbert and the Chargers, I’m combining the fact that Cleveland’s defense has come alive in a major way these past two weeks, with how good the offensive rushing attack is. I also imagine that after seeing Mayfield’s issues last week, the coaching staff will strategize a way this week to put him in positions to make throws that are less affected by his injury.