Last season, Odell Bekcham Jr. told Baker Mayfield to “go be great” after the receiver tore his ACL early in the Browns’ game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Mayfield internalized the charge, going on to defeat the Bengals. He elevated his play the rest of the season that ended in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Beckham’s words, or rather lack thereof this time, motivated the Browns to a victory over their in-state rival in The Battle of Ohio once again. Cleveland defeated Cincinnati last week 41-16, having had their way on offense and defense. It was the Browns’ most complete game of the season, and they look to be trending in the right direction. Ahead of this weekend’s game against the New England Patriots, here are seven things that stood out in last week’s victory.
1) Welcome Back DPJ
The hero of that pivotal game against Cincinnati last season, second-year receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones showed up and showed out against the Bengals once again. Ahead of the Week 7 contest against the Denver Broncos, Peoples-Jones injured his groin, causing him to miss that game. He also missed the team’s first contest this season against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
With a window of opportunity once again opened by Beckham, it was DPJ who stepped up. He caught two of his three targets for 86 yards and a touchdown. The 60-yard score made quite the statement for Mayfield and the offense that was under the microscope due to the belief that OBJ didn’t fit the offense that couldn’t air it out. Peoples-Jones has now put together strong performances in consecutive appearances. Against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 6, the 2020 sixth-round selection out of Michigan caught four of his five targets, totaling 101 yards and two touchdowns. On the season, he’s caught 15-of-18 targets for 314 yards and three touchdowns.
2) The Warden of the North Returns
Another player who was a welcomed addition back to the team after missing the last two games due to injury was cornerback Denzel Ward. Joe Burrow and the Bengals were driving down the field well in their first possession of the game and had 3rd-and-goal at Cleveland’s three-yard line. Burrow targeted Ja’Marr Chase at the one-yard line, but Ward got the jump on the pass and ran it back 99 yards the other way for a Cleveland touchdown.
It was Ward’s first interception since Week 10 last season against the Philadelphia Eagles. This was his first interception returned for a touchdown since his 61-yarder in a 27-19 victory over the Bengals in December 2019.
3) The Good and Bad of Troy Hill
In 16 regular-season games with the Rams last season, Hill was utilized as a blitzer 19 times, recording two hurries, but no sacks. So far this season, he has blitzed 14 times, including three times against the Bengals, twice taking down Burrow. “My eyes light up when I get the opportunity to blitz,” he said on Monday.
“My eyes light up when I get the opportunity to blitz.”
— Camryn Justice (@camijustice) November 8, 2021
Defensive coordinator Joe Woods may have found Hill’s fit as the slot corner of the defense. A Northeast Ohio native, Hill’s first season with the Browns has been a mixed bag of mostly frustration. Opposing quarterbacks have a 115.5 rating when targeting him, he got picked on by the Los Angeles Chargers (113.7 rating) and Arizona Cardinals (149.3 rating) who averaged more than 13 yards per target when throwing his direction. Hill has also been flagged for penalties five times this season, four of which have been accepted, including a pair of defensive pass interference calls. He was called for one of those DPI’s in Sunday’s game against the Bengals, but more than made up for it when pulled out of coverage.
4) Cleveland’s Strong “No Chase” Policy
In last week’s 7-on-7, it was noted that the Browns’ secondary needed to have a big day. The team needed to take advantage of the turnover opportunities that would be presented during the game. Limiting the Bengals’ rookie receiver Chase earned its own bullet-point. In defending the rookie out of LSU, Cleveland’s defense hit on all three points by hitting on the last two.
Ward intercepted Burrow while he was targeting Chase, and John Johnson III got the second interception of the day off a deflection by Ward while the corner was covering Chase. A candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year, Chase was limited to just six catches on 13 targets for 49 yards. He fumbled the ball, which was forced by Johnson and recovered by Cleveland’s A.J. Green.
5) Struggles Sustaining Drives Continue
The Browns were playing on a different level Sunday against the Bengals. Benefitting from 21 points on big plays, factoring in the converted PATs. First, there was the interception return by Ward that didn’t require the offense to touch the ball. On Cleveland’s second possession, Mayfield found Peoples-Jones for his 60-yard touchdown with the first play of the drive. In the third quarter, Nick Chubb broke free for a 70-yard touchdown run on the second play of the Browns’ second drive.
Scoring has been an issue for Cleveland the last couple of weeks when sustaining drives, and Sunday was no exception. The best drive for the Browns in the game was the first of the game, a nine-play masterful blend of the run and the pass, with a healthy dose of Chubb in both ways. It was only fitting that Chubb punched the ball into the endzone from the one-yard line on second-and-goal. Cleveland was forced to punt three times in the second half on drives that started on their side of the field. Outside of Chubb’s 70-yard run, the only times they scored in the second half were on the two drives that started deep Cincinnati territory.
6) Penalties Continue to Plague Cleveland
Before Ward intercepted Burrow while the Bengals were marching on their first drive, Cleveland looked ill-prepared for the game, and rather undisciplined. On that drive, the Browns were twice called for offsides, once on Jadeveon Clowney and once against Malik McDowell. Clowney was called for the same penalty during the next drive for the Bengals as well. Per Cleveland.com, the Browns were penalized 10 times for 84 yards, with eight total calls against the defense, though not all eight were accepted.
“We’re not a disciplined football team right now when it comes to penalties, and we’ve got to get it fixed,” head coach Kevin Stefanski said after the game, per the article. “We’re very close to being worst in the league, and that’s an undisciplined team.” In fact, Cleveland is the second-most penalized team in the league, which as the coach goes on to say, may come back to bite the team later on.
7) Has Baker Tamed the Bengals?
When Mayfield planted the flag at the 50-yard line in Ohio Stadium while playing with Oklahoma, the would-be first-overall selection seemingly claimed his dominance over football in the state. Since Mayfield took over as quarterback for the Browns in 2018, he is now 6-1 against the in-state rival. He holds an overall professional record of 17-10 at FirstEnergy Stadium and 20-10 in the state of Ohio.
Cincinnati believes that Burrow can break the trend, but is 0-2 against the Browns for the rebuilding Bengals. The two teams will meet next in Cleveland in the first-ever Week 18 of the regular season to close out the year. Whether or not the Browns are positioned to make the playoffs, one can expect Mayfield to play if available.
Looking Ahead to Week 10
Coming off of an emotional win against the Bengals in Cincinnati, the Browns will play consecutive road games for the first time this season. Traveling to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, Cleveland will play a 5-4 Patriots team. New England is on the heels of the Buffalo Bills (5-3) in the AFC East.
New England has won three consecutive games, including a big road victory over the Chargers in Week 8. As head coach Bill Belichick continues to guide his team and rookie quarterback Mac Jones through the post-Tom Brady Era, his coaching past with Cleveland will be a pregame storyline. With the Browns’ game-day personnel losses, Cleveland is the underdog at the sportsbooks. Each player will once again be asked to give their all as the Browns look to string together some success on the backstretch of their schedule.
1) Cleansing the Past
The Browns are looking for the kind of back-to-back success that hasn’t been seen since the 1980s. Last season, the Browns had their best record since 1994 when they went 11-5. They were eliminated in the divisional round of the playoffs that year. That’s eerily similar to what Stefanski did last season. The Browns may be “a little ‘suspicious” in this, the first meeting of the two coaches. Sunday could be the final cleansing that the franchise needs. Opponents every few years, the Browns and Patriots haven’t played each other since 2019. Cleveland hasn’t won the matchup since 2010. Belichick is 7-2 against the Browns since taking the helm of the Patriots in 2000.
2) Cleveland’s COVID
In the early hours of Tuesday after a “Victory Monday” this past week, news broke that Cleveland’s running back room had multiple failed COVID-19 tests. Chubb, last week’s AFC FedEx Ground Player of the Week, and rookie multitool Demetric Felton were the latest “positive” tests after a pair of practice squad players tested positive for the virus on Monday. One of Monday’s players was running back John Kelly, who would’ve been called upon with the Chubb and Felton news. Kareem Hunt has yet to be designated for return from the IR.
This leaves just Week 7 hero D’Ernest Johnson available at the running back position. He and recently activated fullback Andy Janovich will serve as the Browns’ backfield options. Chubb and Felton, who are vaccinated, were declared “out” for this weekend on Friday afternoon. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 impact doesn’t stop there. Backup center Nick Harris was also placed on the COVID-19 / IR list on Wednesday. The team increased their COVID-19 protocols this week in response to the positive tests.
3) The Patriots’ (Potentially) Depleted Backfield
The backfield woes this weekend aren’t exclusive to Cleveland; Neither of New England’s top two running backs practiced this week. Both Rhamondre Stevenson and Damien Harris are dealing with concussions that kept them sidelined in practice. With James White on IR, running back Brandon Bolden and fullback Jakob Johnson may be alone in the backfield.
Harris leads the team with 547 rushing yards, 133 attempts, and seven touchdowns, starting all nine games this season. Bolden has also played in all nine games behind Harris, registering just 22 touches and 108 rushing yards. He has, however, played a larger role for New England receiving than the other two backs. Stevenson has 136 yards in just five games of action, while Johnson has yet to record a carry. Cleveland’s front should enter Sunday ready to sprint to Jones quickly every snap, especially if Stevenson and Harris are unavailable.
4) Big Test for Cleveland’s Passing Game
With the running back position undermanned, the Browns’ offense will likely take more passes, and Mayfield needs to beware. New England’s secondary leads the NFL with 13 interceptions on the season, with six different players recording at least one. J.C. Jackson, a fourth-year undrafted cornerback out of Maryland, is tied for second in the NFL with five interceptions. He is two ahead of Adrian Phillips for the team lead. Both players have returned one of their picks for a touchdown. In total, New England’s defense has forced multiple turnovers in five games so far in 2021.
The Patriots’ defense ranks in the middle of the NFL in both pass and rush defense; Opportunities through the air will present themselves. While D’Ernest Johnson showed he can carry a team in the Denver game, he shouldn’t have to. When Cleveland does pass, the receivers need to run complete, crisp routes, and Mayfield needs to find them.
5) Turnover Opportunities for Cleveland
Just as the Patriots’ defense forces turnovers, their offense has been known to give them out. New England has turned the ball over multiple times in six games this season. In fact, they turned it over twice last week against the Carolina Panthers. They are 2-4 when giving up multiple turnovers, and 2-4 when Jones throws an interception at all.
Generating turnovers was key for Cleveland in their win over the Bengals last week. An encore performance from the defense would serve them well in this contest against a potential playoff contender. The Browns are 4-1 when their defense can generate at least one turnover; they’ll need to take advantage of any opportunity.
6) Scoring Limitations for New England
Nick Folk was listed as questionable on the team’s injury report Friday afternoon. At that time, no other kicker was listed as available on the roster. Should Folk not take the field on Sunday, it would surely be of benefit to the Browns. Strategically, they’d know that any Patriot drive that would reach Cleveland territory would likely be four-down territory. Unfortunately, Cleveland is surrendering fourth-down conversions on more than half of the attempts against them. Cleveland got a taste of the experience in the game against the Steelers. Then, Chris Boswell went down in the first half for Pittsburgh. The Browns lost that game 15-10.
7) Cleveland’s Offensive Line Investments
The Browns made a couple of key investments over the last week. They signed guards Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller to well-deserved contract extensions. So far this season, Teller and Bitonio rank second and third behind the Dallas Cowboys’ Zack Martin for guard performance per Pro Football Focus. With the new money, however, there also comes the expectation to perform.
To measure their performance, the success of Johnson will be a key indicator. The Browns like to run up the middle. Fortunately for them, Johnson has already shown his ability to get the tough yards past the line too.
Follow Jonas Clark on Twitter @jarkclonas
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