NFL Week 12 is nearly upon us, and the Cleveland Browns (7-3) travel to Jacksonville to take on the Jaguars (1-9). This does not look like a promising matchup on paper, but very few have for Jacksonville this season.
Here is what we should know:
1. After years of suffering, the Browns are finally starting to put all of that talent on the roster together and now stand at 7-3. What has been the difference this season for Cleveland, and do you think this team is a real contender, why or why not?
Chris: The Browns’ running game tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, and the commitment to the running game, has been a big help. Without dipping too much into your next question, the team is playing much smarter football to align with the strengths of the team, and those little things add up. Cleveland isn’t throwing the ball a million times a game. For all of the struggles that Baker Mayfield has, this coaching staff has covered them up by rarely having him throw directly over the middle (where his vision is obstructed) and instead have him rolling to the left after a defense is so worried about stopping the run.
The defensive coaching staff knows that a lot of positions on that side of the ball are talent-depleted, but (obviously not this week) Myles Garrett plays at such a high caliber that he has enough game-changing plays to make up for it. Cleveland has also taken advantage of a softer schedule, but hey — I can’t tell you how many times in the past 20 years that I’ve said, “Oh, look at the easy schedule the Browns have,” but the Browns would still lose the majority of those games. I think the Browns are a decent contender because of their running game, but my concern is that when they faced teams that said, “we’re going to play smash-mouth football against you in the trenches,” Cleveland lost miserably — to Baltimore (back in Week One, before their slide), Pittsburgh, and Las Vegas. The Browns definitely need to build a little more of an edge, and if their players simply aren’t built for that, then Kevin Stefanski has to come up with some type of creative way to account for it.
2. What have first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski and his staff brought to Cleveland, and, generally speaking, how does the fanbase feel about the new regime thus far?
Chris: I touched on some of it above, but fans love what they’re seeing on the offensive side of the ball, which makes sense since that is where the better talent is. Kevin Stefanski is typically sticking with the best formula for this offense: running the ball with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, maintaining a great balance to give both backs enough touches, and preventing Baker Mayfield from having to be a gunslinger unless the team falls behind. Stefanski uses the playaction pass early and often to give Mayfield more time to throw, or move him outside the pocket where he doesn’t have those defenders in his line of sight.
Having Bill Callahan as the offensive line coach is such a huge blessing too. He’s done a great job helping rookie left tackle Jedrick Wills transition to the NFL, and stumbled into a surprise success with starting right guard Wyatt Teller, who has been the stunning key to Cleveland’s success on the ground this season. When training camp started, fans assumed that right guard would be an open competition and the team’s weakest spot. Teller stunned coaches and fans when he showed up way bigger and stronger in camp, putting a big commitment to improving his strength this year. According to Pro Football Focus, Teller is the most dominant guard in the NFL this season by a pretty big margin. Cleveland’s running game struggled for several weeks while he had a calf injury, but Teller returned to action last week and paved the way for both Chubb and Hunt to have 100-plus yard rushing days.
Defensively, I think defensive coordinator Joe Woods has kept things very vanilla this season because he doesn’t trust the team’s linebackers very much. The best “coaching” adjustment I saw on the defensive side of the ball came two weeks ago (following the Browns’ bye) against the Texans. All of the players on defense were so disciplined in making sure they didn’t let Deshaun Watson escape the pocket for a run — their consistency in containing him from getting away was impressive in a season full of defensive lapses. And then last week was pretty surprising too — even though Carson Wentz played terrible, the defense played pretty well.
3. Do you think Baker Mayfield is the right quarterback for this team now and in the future? What have you seen that you like from him, and what does he need to improve upon?
Chris: Yes, I think he is the right quarterback now and for the future. Browns fans know Mayfield’s limitations by now, but believe in his leadership and he is still showing improvements entering the third year of his career. There are things he has to work on, and there are also some things that may never be his strong suit. Building on what I said earlier, part of the reason Stefanski and has staff have graded well from a coaching perspective is that they recognize Mayfield’s skill set and are getting the most out of him, especially when he rolls out to the left to find an open receiver, or throws crisp passes to the boundary. Mayfield has also gotten so much better this year with his ball fakes to the running back off of the rollout.
The more Mayfield’s passes stay away from the middle of the field (with respect to short to medium-range passes), the better — because that is where his passes get tipped, or he doesn’t see a robbing defender undercutting a route. I’d say that he also needs to work on his touch passes a little bit better. There were two plays last week in the first quarter in which he underthrew a tight end on one pass (leading to a defensive pass interference in the end zone), and overthrew another tight end two plays later. Cleveland should have had an easy touchdown on that drive, but came away with no points. It’s a good/bad thing — because on the overthrow, I think he did it because a defender jumped as he threw the ball, causing him to get too excited and elevate the throw out of the end zone. It’s good that he is aware that defenders are tipping his passes since he’s a shorter quarterback, but now he needs to perfect how to deliver the ball accurately in those types of scenarios. That’ll come with many, many more reps.
4. With defensive end Myles Garrett out again due to COVID-19, and cornerback Denzel Ward out with a calf strain, who should Jaguars fans be on the lookout for to step up and make plays on the Browns’ defense?
Chris: Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward being out are the two big names, but Cleveland will also be absent defensive end Porter Gustin (who was filling in for Garrett) and linebacker Sione Takitaki (who typically plays about 40 percent of the snaps). Gustin and Takitaki aren’t monumental losses or anything, but when you compound the number of players out, scraping further and further down the depth chart is not a good thing.
This will be an interesting week for the defense. Defensively, it is crazy to look and see that the Browns’ defense ranks 14th in yards allowed. For much of the season, it was thought that the defense was generally terrible, and only surviving thanks to big plays from Myles Garrett. The biggest weakness early in the season was teams running shallow crossing routes and beating the linebackers and safeties with yards after the catch. Jaguars fans may hate to hear this, but inserting Ronnie Harrison into the starting lineup has been such a big help at that position, and he has been playing at an above average level for the club.
Over the past three games — all played in Cleveland — the weather has been terrible on gameday. The first two games in that stretch had 40 mile-per-hour winds, and last week, it poured rain the entire game. Since no one could throw the ball in those three games, it made it easy on the defense and helped improve some of the statistics you see. But, as I said earlier, I’ve also started to see better discipline from players in general. I’m looking forward to playing in good weather in Jacksonville, so I can see how the Browns’ defense performs in non-treacherous conditions. Defensive end Olivier Vernon is the player to watch. It is so freaking weird with him — his two seasons with Cleveland have basically been a bust. You’d think that he’d thrive playing opposite Myles Garrett, but no — he has zero sacks with Garrett on the field, but five sacks this season in the limited time Garrett has been injured or out (including three sacks last week against the Eagles).
5. If Jacksonville wants to somehow get an upset victory, how should the offense attack Cleveland’s defense, and on the other side of the ball, what is the key to stopping the Browns’ offense?
Chris: Philadelphia was dumb last week (and every week this season). The scouting report was that Philadelphia runs the ball well, but they never stick with it. Sure enough, to begin last week’s game, the Eagles ran it all over Cleveland, gaining five-six yards at a time with ease. Then, they decided to have Carson Wentz throw the ball repeatedly and abandoned the run pretty much, despite it being a close game. The Jaguars seem like they have a solid back in James Robinson, so they need to do what Las Vegas did: punch us in the mouth on the ground, stick with it, drain that clock, frustrate us, and win that way. Will the coaching staff be smart enough to do it? Jon Gruden was, but Doug Pederson was not.
As for stopping Cleveland’s offense, I’d say the best chance is to load the box against the Browns’ rushing attack — put eight defenders up there. Yes, the passing game will get some great opportunities off of playaction passes, but that’s where you have to hope Baker Mayfield misfires on some throws or that the defensive backs make a heck of a play.
6. Score prediction?
Chris: Cleveland’s depth being depleted defensively make it hard to envision a dominant game on that side of the ball, but I think the offense is so eager to explode. Think about it — Baker Mayfield has not been able to throw the ball much the past three games (zero touchdowns, zero interceptions) due to an incredible streak of bad weather. The Browns probably have a lot of well-schemed pass plays they’ve game-planned for the past three weeks and haven’t been able to use, so they can break them out this week now. If that takes people out of the box too, Cleveland will be more than happy to run the ball en route to victory — I’ll go with the Browns winning 27-17.
A huge thank you to Chris for providing great analysis and insights into the Browns. You can catch him on Twitter, and to keep up with what is going on with the Browns, surely follow Dawgs By Nature.
For my crossover piece o n Dawgs By Nature, read here.