The Browns don’t appear mentally ready to be real contenders in the AFC North. Last weekend’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens was the latest example of the talented team failing down the stretch to win against a quality opponent. Due to the injuries Cleveland has dealt with this season, the bye week may have come too late. Still, all is not lost. Before the Browns enter another week of preparing for the Ravens, it is time for one last look at what worked and what didn’t in their first matchup.
You can find last week’s 7-on-7 here.
1) JOK is a Perfect Fit
As mentioned in last week’s 7-on-7, the Ravens game was finally here so the team could accurately evaluate their selection of Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. It isn’t often that a team can afford to target a player in the draft that is primarily a response to a single player for another team. Playing in the AFC North against Lamar Jackson, however, Cleveland knew they needed to have a way to limit the former MVP of the league. JOK’s unique blend of speed and athleticism caused the team to take a chance on him. Last Sunday night in primetime, he returned on that investment.
The rookie out of Notre Dame has battled injuries this season but looked spry against Baltimore. He recorded 13 tackles, one for loss, and proved effective in the blitz. Owusu-Koramoah had another great game in the passing game as well, surrendering just eight total yards on three targets, two that were caught. Having him back on the field was extremely impactful, and his presence near the line of scrimmage has to be considered in Cleveland’s ability to force four interceptions of Jackson. The front office continues to execute at a high level with their draft selections.
2) Wide Receiver is Becoming an issue
Baker Mayfield is attracting a lot of scrutiny for his play this season, despite playing with his injuries. His health status, however, is hard to consider in his evaluation as both he and the team say that he has no limitations. Aside from the injuries, the primary knock on him has been his lack of targeting wide receivers. After all, that was what prompted Odell Beckham Sr. to produce the video that ultimately severed the relationship with his son and the team.
Anthony Schwartz was sidelined due to a concussion. One of Mayfield’s favorite targets, Rashad Higgins, was a healthy scratch for personnel scheming. Last week, the Browns fielded Ja’Marcus Bradley and Donovan Peoples-Jones behind Jarvis Landry at the position. Together, the wide receivers combined for 17 targets, but 10 receptions, and no touchdowns. Landry himself was targeted 10 times. Against Baltimore, it often looked like the receivers just couldn’t create separation. Entering the season, the receiver corps looked elite. With the absence of OBJ and the attention that he demands on the field, the position looks rather pedestrian. It is hard to put that all on Mayfield.
3) Landry Fumbles?
Speaking of Landry, the five-time pro bowler is having a rough season, to say the least. Often considered the heart of the offense, the Baltimore game was his first 100-yard performance of the season. He missed the better part of five weeks early on, which didn’t help keep the scrutiny directed at his best friend, Beckham. The real issue with Landry, however, hasn’t been his availability, or his lack of production with yards, or the fact that he hasn’t caught a touchdown this season. No, the problem is that when the ball gets in his hands this year, it doesn’t always stay there.
In eight games, Landry has fumbled the ball three times, two of which were lost. A target when the team needs him most, the fumbles also tend to come at the worst of times. Against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 8, Landry lost the ball late as the Browns were driving to take the lead. It arguably cost Cleveland the game. Against Baltimore, Landry was in the wildcat when he attempted to extend the play but got sacked from behind. It took place at the Baltimore 34-yard line, with three minutes left in the first half, and the Browns trailing 6-0. It killed the team’s momentum, and considering the team lost by six, it stands out.
4) Where Was the Commitment to the Run?
One of the focal points of this piece over the season has been the Browns’ reluctance to become the running team they claim to be. Cleveland is no longer the top rushing offense, losing the position in a week when they had both Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt on the field. In fact, the two running backs combined for 36 yards on 15 carries. Easily two of the more electric players on the offense, it isn’t like they were meant to have much of a role in the game. Chubb and Hunt also had a combined five targets in the passing game.
Knowing that they were playing the Ravens and possessions would be limited, Cleveland went against their strength. In the end, it hurt their chances to win. Baltimore got the opportunities that they needed to score. Had the defense not forced the turnovers that they did, Baltimore would’ve controlled the clock, and Cleveland’s lack of commitment to the run wouldn’t help them stem the bleeding. Sunday should’ve been an ugly loss.
5) Fourth-quarter Woes
Not running Chubb and Hunt is confusing enough, but having Demetric Felton on the field for the offense’s last chance in the game was something else. With one minute on the clock and 75 yards to go, Cleveland attempted four straight passes. Only the last was completed, and in total, the drive lasted just 16 seconds. This of course was the drive after the Browns went three-and-out after getting the ball with 7:25 left in the game. After a five-yard rush by Chubb, they dialed up two straight passes before electing to punt. At the time, they only trailed 13-10.
The play calling is on Kevin Stefanski, and this was just the latest instance in the fourth quarter when fans and analysts alike are left scratching their heads. With seven minutes left on the clock, there should at least be an attempt to control the clock and run the ball. With Chubb and Hunt receiving more touches, it isn’t hard to imagine that they get it going in the final frame as they have been known to do. The tactic also prevents the Ravens and Jackson from getting the ball back. The Browns’ inability to close out games, or even compete in the fourth quarter has been glaring. Opponents have outscored Cleveland 86-43 in the fourth-quarters this season. The team has just seven points in the last 15 minutes of any game since Week 5.
6) Stay With the Play on D
Cleveland’s pass-rush was great against the Ravens, though it didn’t get home as often as they would’ve liked. The pressure forced Jackson to improvise, and as with Ben Roethlisberger over the better part of 18 seasons, Jackson found a way time and time again. In one of the more frustrating plays for the Browns in the game, Cleveland had Jackson back pedaling as they bared down on him. On a prayer, Jackson threw toward the end zone where he hit tight end Mark Andrews for a touchdown that proved to cover the difference on the final score.
That Cleveland’s players didn’t complete the play is frustrating, and comes back to accountability and coaching. The game against the Ravens was for the top spot in the division. Hovering just above .500 entering the game, it was essentially a playoff game, as the Browns can’t afford many more losses. There’s a running narrative online that this year’s team isn’t as focused as they were last year. Instances like that touchdown lend credibility to those voices.
7) A Secondary Moment
The Andrews touchdown was frustrating for sure, but for the better part of four quarters, the Cleveland secondary played great. Jackson was limited to 165 yards and that single passing touchdown while throwing four interceptions. Ronnie Harrison, Denzel Ward, John Johnson III, and Grant Delpit all recorded picks. Rookie cornerback Greg Newsome II held his own, giving up just 12 yards on five targets. Delpit was docked for the touchdown, and Harrison gave up the most yards at 70.
As with the game against the Cincinnati Bengals, the secondary was dominant, and it is because defensive coordinator Joe Woods put his players in a man scheme. The personnel on the team better lends itself to that style, and when he goes to it, it works great. If he continues to go with his players rather than against them, this unit could be scary.
Looking Ahead to Week 13
Week 13 finally brings the Browns to their bye week, and while late, the timing couldn’t be better. The schedule has Cleveland playing the Ravens twice in three weeks, and between those matchups, Baltimore has to play Pittsburgh. In a sense, the Browns will have three weeks of preparation for their Week 14 game at home against the Ravens. With no matchups to preview for this weekend, let’s instead look at seven things that the team needs to start addressing over the course of this week off the field.
1) The Self-Scout
Coach Stefanski pointed to the self-scout of the bye week last season as a key part of their strong finish. With five games left and the division as tight as it is, this season isn’t lost. Hopefully, in the self-scout, Stefanski is able to notice his team’s tendencies and start leveraging them against them. Playing each of the teams in the division again, the Browns have an opportunity to put something else in play to catch them all off guard and make a run for the postseason.
One of the things that hopefully comes out in the self-scout is that the offense doesn’t make a lot of sense right now. The wrinkles and evolutions of formations throughout a game are less noticeable this year if they’re even happening at all. Wide receivers appear to be struggling to get open, or something else is happening that is preventing Mayfield from finding them. Then there’s the point that they don’t appear as committed to the run.
Head coaches often earn their jobs by being good coordinators. Unfortunately, as those individuals take on the extra responsibilities of their new role, they stray away from what got them there in the first place. Just look at Dan Quinn over his time in Atlanta with the Falcons or Gus Bradley with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Both fell off as head coaches, but as defensive coordinators, their skills are once again being noticed. Is Stefanski going to run the offense, or is he going to be the head coach? With Alex Van Pelt on staff, it may make sense to delegate to him more.
3) The Quarterback Question
Atop the offensive decisions to be made, of course, is what the team wants to do at quarterback. General manager Andrew Berry vocalized his belief in Mayfield over this week. No plan seems to be in place where one could expect to see backup Case Keenum take the field the rest of the season at all. If this is the decision that the team wants to make, there is some sense in it. However, the offense has to adapt to Mayfield’s benefit, given the limitations that everyone but the staff can see.
Another difference from last season is the apparent lack of leadership. Family members are feeling more and more comfortable pointing fingers at Mayfield. In the case of him and his wife, they’re calling out the fans. The Browns appeared to be past these circus acts last season under Stefanski, but something has definitely changed. Losing can bring out the worst in people, and that appears to be happening now. The locker room looks divided, and there isn’t a leader stepping up to get it under control. Part of the self-scout needs to be finding the player or players that can unite the team.
5) AFC North
The Browns can’t do much about the division, but they can double-down their attention to them. As previously mentioned, their rivals in the AFC North make up the majority of their remaining schedule. After seeing each of them once already, Cleveland could really be 3-0 against the division but sits instead at 1-2. Making the playoffs last season is great and all, but the team can’t settle there. Establishing themselves against the Steelers, Ravens, and Bengals as a legitimate threat could do wonders for their mentality and perception in the rest of the league. Unfortunately, coming up short in two of those games, combined with a surging Bengals team, doesn’t look good.
The postseason is still on the table, but that window is closing. Cleveland’s staff and players need to decide if they are attempting to make a push or not. To qualify for the playoffs would be huge, but the way they’re playing right now won’t get them there. Not to mention, the weather will likely start to have a greater impact on games as it gets colder. A postseason push doesn’t help the team’s draft status. It does, however, do a lot for the players and the fanbase. They both want to be respected. If the front office wants to win, they need to expect more accountability over the final weeks of the regular season.
7) NFL Draft
Across the country, this weekend, draft prospects from some of the best programs are easy to find on TV in conference championship games. Cleveland began this season with what was believed to be one of the deepest rosters. At 6-6 through 12 weeks, they are mathematically an average team. Wide receiver was mentioned above as a position they could stand to improve at. On defense, the linebacker corps and the defensive line could both have some holes this offseason. It can’t be easy to tell a locker room that the organization is more focused on next season. However, it isn’t hard to see the front office having more concern about acquiring a better spot in the draft. The injuries across the depth chart have made it tough this season.
Follow Jonas Clark on Twitter @jarkclonas
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