Cleveland Browns 7-on-7: Week 8

Cleveland Browns 7-on-7: Week 8

by October 30, 2021 2 comments

When the Cleveland Browns needed a win most this season, they got it. Fresh off of a second consecutive loss for the first time in the Kevin Stefanski era, things were looking bleak. Injuries started adding up along the offensive line and specialty players. Then, another shoe dropped: Nick Chubb suffered an apparent ankle injury that would cause him to miss time. All of this entering a short week before a Thursday Night Football tilt against the Denver Broncos.

Fans may have wondered, “Is this the end?” With Case Keenum under center and D’Ernest Johnson in the backfield, the Browns called up John Kelly and Johnny Stanton from the practice squad for running back depth and to fill the fullback role, respectively. The result? A 17-10 victory, a FedEx Ground Player of the Week Award for Johnson, and the 4-3 Browns staying alive in the AFC North.

1) Browns Have the Best Backup for the Job

From the beginning, Keenum made sense to be the backup for Baker Mayfield in Stefanski’s offense. Keenum and Stefanski had worked together previously when the latter coached the former in Minnesota as the quarterbacks coach. In a system predicated on the running game complemented by short, accurate passes to soften up the secondary, that fits Keenum’s skill set, as well as Mayfield’s.

Keenum held the role of a backup quarterback perfectly. He was prepared to start in the instance where the starter couldn’t he executed the game plan and he helped the team win.

2) Further Affirmation that Cleveland Must Prioritize the Run More

The Browns are almost like a ticking bomb where every minute they let the opposing offense touch the ball, the closer the Browns are to exploding in a bad way. When the Browns can slowly smother their opponents with the run game as they did on Thursday, they force them into desperation and turnovers. There’s no reason to believe the Browns can’t get a 10-point lead with Chubb and Kareem Hunt and then run the time out of the clock as Johnson did to Denver. It may not be a sexy win, but wins are still sexier than losses.

3) The Importance of Jedrick Wills

Wins above replacement (WAR) is a tracked stat in baseball to evaluate the impact of different players at a single position throughout the season. This assesses the talent drop-off from the starter to the average backup. If one were to start calculating the impact of second-year left tackle Wills in comparison to his replacements from play to play, drive to drive, and game to game, he surely has more wins. Wills’ presence helped address the depth issue on the line, and strictly from an eye test in-game and on the offensive stats sheet, Wills’s importance is hard to deny.

4) Landry is the Team MVP

Speaking of important players, how about the most valuable? While the availability and play of Wills is definitely important, the value of Jarvis Landry‘s mere presence on the field is invaluable. Back for the first time since getting injured in Week 2, the rest of the team played with a sense of accountability that hadn’t been there in his absence from play. Another eye test here, but it was easy to see guys stepping up. 

5) Keep It Simple, Stefanski

When forced to rely on plays and not players, talent, and expectations, the Browns looked good. Considering the absence of Mayfield, Chubb, and Hunt last Thursday, let’s assume that Cleveland took the field with a weaker roster than they have most of the season.

With the talent drain, the offense looked more simple, it looked shorter, and it looked run-heavy. To this point, it looked different from the offense that has been run with Mayfield this year. Why does the offense with Mayfield look longer, slower, and less successful? It is almost as if they’re trying to do too much, either by design or execution. Especially with Mayfield’s injury concern, getting back to the basics against Pittsburgh is key.

6) The Browns Needed McKinney and Clowney

For all of the blown coverages and any communication issues in the secondary, Cleveland’s defensive front has gotten it done. Myles Garrett is leading the NFL in sacks with 9.5 and it’s hard to imagine that isn’t somewhat thanks to the presence of free-agent acquisitions Takkarist McKinley and Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney’s 3.5 sacks, six tackles, and 11 quarterback hits are second only to Garrett. McKinney’s totals in those categories all rank third, often tying with another player. This three-headed attack continues to be a shining spot on the otherwise underwhelming unit.

7) What Happens to Austin Hooper in the Second Half?

Last week’s game against the Broncos featured an occurrence that has been present all season. In the first quarter, Hooper made a fantastic catch-and-run for 34 yards on the second play from scrimmage. From that point, the former Pro Bowl tight end all but disappeared for the rest of the game, drawing just two additional targets (and only one in the second half). It follows a trend that has continued week after week, especially in the second half. Through seven games, Hooper has just five targets in the second half. Why does he just vanish from the game plan?

At just 27 years old, Hooper likely figured to play a bigger role as a target in Stefanski’s offense as Kyle Rudolph did in Minnesota and Hooper did with Atlanta.

With back-to-back division games in Week 8 and Week 9 for Cleveland, the must-win vibe will not disappear. First up: the Pittsburgh Steelers. Many laughs were had at the expense of the Steelers by Browns fans in the early weeks of September when Pittsburgh was struggling. Having found some rhythm now, the black and gold are right there with Cleveland in the standings and Ben Roethlisberger is still the quarterback. 

1) Home Field Advantage

The impact of Roethlisberger cannot be understated in this matchup; his mere participation in Sunday’s game is still part of a wound not fully healed. It is a fact worth mentioning, because just last season, Mayfield surpassed Roethlisberger to become the winningest quarterback at the Browns’ FirstEnergy Stadium since 1999. Another win in Cleveland over the Steelers would be a strong move toward taking home-field advantage back from Pittsburgh on Lake Erie.

2) Don’t Get Cute

Effort is necessary to win football games and is implemented within the game plan. There’s that, and then there’s trying to go beyond, trying to do too much. The former shows belief in the plan, while the latter is the belief that a player or players need to make the difference. When the Browns focus on efficiency, which they’ve done against lesser competition, it tends to favor them. When they’ve pushed for the extra yards, tried to force an interception defensively, or tried to force a pass offensively, it hasn’t worked out. Sunday is an important game for the Browns for many reasons, and they can win it by sticking to the game plan like they did last season and last week.

3) Time for the Defense to Show

The Dallas Cowboys, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Los Angeles Rams, and the Buffalo Bills all have 10 interceptions on the season entering Week 8. The Arizona Cardinals have forced 13 fumbles and recovered eight of them. Sticking with the fumbles, the Chargers have forced nine and recovered three. Meanwhile, the Browns are near the bottom of the league in both categories, forcing three fumbles with two recoveries, and generating just three interceptions. Has the point been made yet?

Despite tallying 20 sacks on the year, tied for the second-most, Cleveland has not been able to create turnovers on defense. The best teams in the league are doing it, especially those that would be considered contenders. With a revamped secondary this season, it is time to start capitalizing on defense.

4) Stop The Run

Cleveland has been great against the run, ranking fifth overall in fewest rushing yards allowed. It should come as no surprise that they’ve allowed just one run of 20 yards or more and are also sixth overall with 35 rushing first downs converted. While Pittsburgh doesn’t currently rank well in the offensive ground game, rookie running back Najee Harris is starting to get it going. After posting his first career 100-yard game against Denver in Week 5, he followed that up with 81 yards against the Seattle Seahawks. Cleveland has been run all over by the Steelers for years (literally and figuratively), so they’ll have to keep Harris in check.

5) Protect Mayfield

Browns quarterbacks are the eighth-most-sacked signal-callers in the NFL this year, going down 19 times. While that partially comes with the territory for an offense that rolls out of the pocket a lot (near where the Ravens, Cardinals, and Packers are), there still needs to be an emphasis on protecting Mayfield more. This is on Stefanski to call quick plays, on the receivers to get in and out of routes, and on the line to block. A confident quarterback, the team needs to rally to protect Mayfield from himself by simplifying things this weekend. 

6) Embrace the Rivalry

Things got personal between the Browns and the Steelers on the night of the helmet incident in 2019. Not only did Garrett’s actions physically harm quarterback Mason Rudolph of the Steelers, but Cleveland won that game. Last season, the Browns beat Pittsburgh twice in back-to-back weeks, first in Week 17 and then in the AFC Wild Card round. Now a competitive matchup between the two teams, it would be nice to see the players own the rivalry a bit more. Don’t take it too far, but the players should be a little chippy and ready to play for something meaningful. With so many new faces, it is time to buy in.

7) Play a Clean Game

Things don’t have to get dirty when playing a rival. This weekend, they shouldn’t. Penalties have been an issue for Cleveland this season with defensive pass interference being one of the most painful calls, coming at inopportune times. With division standings on the line, Cleveland has to show that they aren’t the Browns that JuJu Smith-Schuster tried to limit them to last year.

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