Not all wins look the same, but they are worth just as much in the standings. That is the sentiment for Cleveland Browns (3-1) fans to hold on to after their 14-7 victory over the Minnesota Vikings (1-3) on the road last weekend.
The regular season will be over a quarter finished after this weekend, and the Browns have just one loss. With uncertainty around Baker Mayfield’s injury, head coach Kevin Stefanski should look to rely on his running game and defense to continue to make statements. Sticking it to his old team in Minnesota last weekend is a strong confidence boost, but last week came with some good and some bad.
1) Baker’s Accuracy Issues
Much has been said this week about Mayfield’s accuracy, and to what extent the issues stem from his torn labrum. He’s still near the top of the league in completion percentage thanks to his performances the first two weeks of the season, but against the Vikings on Sunday hit just 44-percent of his passes.
The frustrating part was when he missed rather wide-open targets, or when he missed an opportunity to hit Demetric Felton and convert the down. He has not been the same since the week after his shoulder injury, which coincidentally lined up with the return of Odell Beckham Jr. That’s more than enough to keep the theories coming.
2) Jedrick Wills’ Injury
There’s something commendable in a player battling through an injury in order to be available for one’s team. It is important to note, however, that being there can do more harm than good at times, especially when that player can’t meet the physical demands of their role. That, of course, is the case with the Browns’ second-year left tackle Wills, who, in the season-opener against the Kansas City Chiefs, aggravated his ankle injury from last season.
It hasn’t been an easy last couple of weeks for Wills on the line, going against talented pass-rushes of the Chicago Bears and Vikings. While he has not accounted for any of Mayfield’s 12 sacks this season, he isn’t grading well on Pro Football Focus either.
3) Struggles to Score Touchdowns Carry Over
When the Browns came out of the offseason to score three consecutive touchdowns in the first half of the game against the Chiefs, the potent Cleveland offense appeared to have survived the summer. The second half of that game was not as hot, and after a four-touchdown game against the Houston Texans, it has cooled substantially.
In 22 drives over the last two games, the Browns have scored just four total touchdowns and just one against Minnesota. The field goals are scores, but they have often felt like settling, Stefanski seems to recognize this as well, opting to go for it on fourth down twice from within field goal range in Week 4. Another by-product of Mayfield issues?
4) Myles is Building Momentum
As the offense has slowed down, the defense has picked up. They’ve generated pressure against the Bears and Vikings, which has lifted the unit to rank second in the league. Leading the charge is Myles Garrett. He has an NFL-best six sacks, heavily aided by his historic performance against the Bears. With an additional half-sack of Kirk Cousins, Garrett had four quarterback hits and he’s finding his edge (literally).
5) Greedy Stepped Up
Starting in place of the injured Greg Newsome II, Greedy Williams had a big day in his first start. The third-year corner intercepted Cousins, the first for the quarterback this year. He further limited his assigned receivers to just 26 yards, getting his hands on another target for a pass deflection. Williams was active, registering six tackles, good for third-most on the team for the afternoon. After missing all of last season with a nerve issue, it was great to see him perform well.
6) Penalties Racking Up
It was noted during the game at one point that Cleveland is just one defensive pass-interference penalty away from tying their mark of four from all of last season. One of the calls was controversial during the game against the Bears on what would have been an interception for John Johnson III. The Browns are 16th in the league with 25 penalties, but rank sixth with 278 penalized yards. Good teams do the little things right, and that includes playing a clean game. This is an area of the team that will need to be watched should the winning come to a halt.
7) Opponents’ Opening-Drive Scores
For all that the defense is doing in recent weeks to limit opponents, they are still starting slow out of the gate. Against Houston, the Browns allowed the Texans to score on their first offensive drive. The case was the same when the Bears scored a quick three points on their first drive two weeks ago. In Minnesota, the Vikings met little resistance on their way into the end zone on their first drive.
As the season progresses and the competition heats up, playing from behind right away can become detrimental to Cleveland’s goals. Seeing the defense start the game with the same discipline they finish games with would be a fine step in the team’s development.
Looking Ahead to Week 5
Cleveland knows that they have a lot of things to clean up, but getting closer to full strength will help. Offseason acquisition Anthony Walker returned this week from Injured Reserve, bouncing back from his Week 1 injury. Jarvis Landry should be making his return to the field sooner than later, as well. That will give Mayfield one of his favorite (and most reliable) targets, as his shoulder continues to heal.
The Los Angeles Chargers come into this weekend following impressive victories within their division over the Las Vegas Raiders and the Chiefs. Were it not for a late field goal in their game against the Dallas Cowboys, L.A. could have a perfect record right now. The buzz surrounding Justin Herbert grows stronger every day. The Browns’ second-ranked defense looks to quiet that talk, and they will need some help from the offensive game plan to do so.
1) Chargers’ Defensive Front
Joey Bosa leads a Chargers defense that is poor against the run. They’ve already allowed 584 yards on the ground, which plays into Cleveland’s hand. The lack of presence with no push up front has also limited the Chargers to just nine sacks through four weeks. Los Angeles benefits from the Browns’ durability and depth issues at left tackle. Expect Bosa to line up there all afternoon.
2) Taking the Ball Out of Baker’s Hands
The Chargers’ front on defense should translate into a good afternoon for the Cleveland running backs. The advantage is on the ground for the Browns, who already have a top rushing attack. It just makes more sense that the ball shouldn’t be in Mayfield’s hands on Sunday any longer than it takes to hand it off.
Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, D’Ernest Johnson, and Demetric Felton can shoulder the majority of the load with their abilities. Low passing numbers shouldn’t say anything more about Mayfield’s value to the team. It would instead show the team’s ability to aid their leader, which he can be by handing the ball off this week.
3) OBJ Still Needs to Be a Factor
Eliminating Mayfield’s need to pass the ball, however, doesn’t mean that OBJ shouldn’t play a big role on Sunday. The former Pro Bowler can do things with the football that many can’t; everything from end-arounds, quick screens, or outright rushing attempts. Stefanski and Van Pelt can have a lot of fun moving Beckham around against Los Angeles.
4) Need Even More from the Defense this Week
With the Browns likely to run the ball a lot, the clock is going to move fast. This puts more pressure on the defense each time they step on the field. Any score they allow will take precious minutes to account for. Look no further than the Minnesota game last weekend: Cleveland had not even finished their first drive of the game before the end of the first quarter. The defense has done extremely well stopping their opponents, but a greater effort could be required on Sunday, and forcing turnovers would be huge.
5) Get the Chargers Off the Field on Third down
In order to remain effective, the Browns’ defense will need to rest. Unfortunately for them, they are facing a Chargers offense that is converting nearly 50 percent of their third downs, and 80 percent of fourth downs. Herbert has more than enough weapons to connect with to move up and down the field. Given the Browns’ lack of conversions on third and fourth down, Cleveland’s defense likely will not be given a lot of time to rest, as it is. Mayfield doesn’t appear ready to lean on his arm to lead a drive coming from behind. The Browns need to get at Los Angeles early and often.
6) Herbert On a Roll
Speaking of Herbert, he is on quite the run. Los Angeles won their last four games last season and already have three wins this year. During that stretch, they’ve gotten the better of the Chiefs’ defense twice. That’s something that the Browns haven’t entirely figured out in as many attempts.
The Chargers could easily be undefeated right now, as could Cleveland. Los Angeles’ quarterback, however, is trending in a different direction. The 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year is completing nearly 70-percent of his passes for almost 1,200 yards. He has nine scores against just three interceptions this season. He will definitely put Joe Woods’ secondary to the test.
7) Keep the Motor Running
If the Browns’ game plan should be predicated on running the ball. If they can execute, it should be a quick afternoon. The most important thing, of course, is leaving Los Angeles with a victory. Beyond just another digit in the win column, Cleveland needs all of the momentum it can muster. They have the Arizona Cardinals next weekend and the Denver Broncos the week after. Each at home.
Since 2009, the Browns have had just three winning streaks of four games. They’ve never reached five consecutive during that stretch, though two of the four-gamers were last season. If they can get number four in Los Angeles, how long can they keep it going?
Follow Jonas Clark on Twitter @jarkclonas
Main Image Credit:
Embed from Getty Images