Since returning from the Week 13 bye week, the Browns knew that each week was itself going to be the most important week of the season. At the time, Cleveland was sitting at the bottom of the AFC North. Their record was 6-6 following their loss to the Baltimore Ravens. As noted in this column in Week 14, they had received all the help that they needed to keep their playoff hopes alive. Last weekend against the Las Vegas Raiders, the Browns needed to help themselves by getting a win. They didn’t get it. With the Cincinnati Bengals on their bye week, the Pittsburgh Steelers picked up a win; Last week, the Ravens lost to the Green Bay Packers. With that, the plot thickened.
Week 17 and Week 18 matchups with the Steelers and the Bengals may still be on the table to earn the Browns their first division title since 1989. Instead of moving into first place in the AFC North by way of the tie-breakers last week, Cleveland fell a game behind. In a tight race, they currently sit in last place. Up next is an all-important game on Christmas Day against the Packers. First, let’s look at how they got here with their loss to the Raiders in Week 15.
1) Alex Van Pelt vs Kevin Stefanski’s Offense
This is not a call to remove the reigning Coach of the Year from his position. Stefanski has been a model of calm, cool, and professionalism. The organization had had everything but that at the role for 20 years. Still, he may not be the offensive guru he was thought to be. The unit was expected to grow in 2021 after showing what it was capable of last year. Instead, there’s seemingly been a reluctance to run the ball, and wide receivers don’t feel targeted in the scheme. Before Monday’s game, the Browns had scored just seven points in the second half of games since Week 5. Stefanski likely scripted the first half against the Raiders. That is common practice across the league for offensive coordinators to do. When that script ran out, however, the Browns finally started moving.
Van Pelt seemed to have control of the offense, and he didn’t overthink it. He started the half with two runs from Nick Chubb against the 28th-ranked run defense. That drive went nowhere, but the statement was made. Chubb ran the ball 18 times in the second half for 77 yards and scored a touchdown. By leaning on the run, Van Pelt opened up the passing game for his receivers and quarterback, and Cleveland outscored the Raiders 14-6 in the last two frames. That’s something Stefanski hasn’t done. This isn’t to get the coach fired, as he appears to be good with the players. Sometimes head coaches try to do too much and based on that game, it looks like Stefanski is.
2) Why The Emphasis on Chubb?
Building on Van Pelt’s decisions, one thing that didn’t make sense was the decision to lean so heavily on Chubb alone. His 18 carries in the second half is a lot for anyone. The touchdown drive in the fourth quarter saw him carry it eight times, oftentimes consecutively. Cleveland may be without the talents of the injured Kareem Hunt, but D’Ernest Johnson has more than shown that he can get the job done. In Week 7, Johnson carried the ball 22 times for 146 yards and a touchdown with Chubb and Hunt out. Spelling Chubb with Johnson would’ve saved the Pro Bowl running back and likely kept him fresher down the stretch, like when the Browns needed to pick up first downs on their final drive to run the clock.
3) Nick Mullens to Wide Receivers
Addressing another knock on the Stefanski offense, Van Pelt’s plays in the second half seemed to involve the receiver position more. Only missing Austin Hooper at tight end, the receivers were more heavily involved than they tend to be. Tight ends received seven targets in the game, which was out-paced by Donovan Peoples-Jones himself with eight targets. Rashard Higgins tied for second on the team with five targets, and multi-tool Demetric Felton picked up another four.
This may be more on the decision-making of Mullens against that of Baker Mayfield, electing to target the receiver position. What showed up on the screen, is that the receivers in this offense can get it done, even with a third-string quarterback slinging it. If they are open enough in Van Pelt’s offense, what is happening in the games where Mayfield and Stefanski have been available?
4) Rough Day Redeemed for DPJ
If not for the drops of Peoples-Jones in the first half of the game, Monday’s game may have gone in Cleveland’s favor. The argument could be made as well that the Browns don’t have a chance in the game without him either. A second-year receiver out of Michigan, Peoples-Jones caught just four of his eight targets, totaling 48 yards. The early drops may have been more about calibrating with his quarterback more than anything. Down 13-7 in the fourth quarter, he hauled in both of his targets for a combined 36 yards on the touchdown drive. Without him, Cleveland may not take the 14-13 lead.
5) Props on The Halftime Adjustment
In Week 14, Cleveland nearly surrendered a halftime lead to the Ravens. Last week, the Browns were the second-half team for seemingly the first time this season. Adjustments on offense and defense gave the team a chance to win the game. The halftime deficit was too much in the end. Whatever it was that took place, however, they hopefully took notes. How the staff processed the information they received in the first half was on point. The team will need more efforts like that in the final three weeks of the regular season.
6) Impact of Losing Takk
Of all of the signings that the Browns made in the offseason, adding Takkarist McKinley was one of low-risk and high-reward potential. The former first-round selection of the Atlanta Falcons had fallen out of favor with his original team. Last season, he couldn’t find a fit with the Raiders. Playing alongside Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney in Cleveland McKinley had less expected of him, but his presence has been felt.
On Monday, McKinley left the game on a cart with a torn Achilles. He will miss the rest of the season. Losing a talent like him on the outside definitely hurts Cleveland. Additionally, Garrett had a groin injury that caused him to briefly leave the field against the Raiders. The pass-rush could be thinning out, and this is a really inopportune time for that to happen.
7) Zone Defense and Kicking Cost the Game
The Browns had the lead with two minutes left in the game. Momentum seemed to have shifted their way, and the home crowd had a glimmer of hope. Of all of the adjustments made in the second half of the game, the decision of Joe Woods to play soft zone coverage in a one-point game was the worst. In aiming to prevent the touchdown, Woods instead allowed Derek Carr to complete six short passes to flip the field and set up the game-winning field goal.
Fortune favored the Raiders in the kicking department on Monday, as Daniel Carlson connected on his 48-yard field goal as time expired to win the game. The Browns could have avoided that situation had their kicker, Chase McLaughlin, connected on his lone field goal attempt, a 47-yarder as time expired to end the first half. After starting the season a perfect 9-9 on field goal attempts through Week 5, the journeyman is just 2-6 in the last four weeks. Life after Phil Dawson continues to be difficult for the Browns.
Looking Ahead at Week 16
With their postseason future on the line in Week 16, Cleveland has the daunting task of playing at Lambeau Field against the Packers on Christmas Day. Aaron Rodgers is a strong candidate to repeat as league MVP this year, with 30 touchdown passes against four interceptions, and 3,487 yards passing this season. The Packers have won three consecutive games, and they’ve already secured their place in the playoffs. Two of the more storied franchises in the history of the NFL, Saturday will be the 21st all-time meeting between the Browns and the Packers. Cleveland has lost the last three, all since Rodgers took over for Brett Favre. The Browns’ last win against Green Bay was at Lambeau in 2005, a 26-24 victory. There’s a lot to watch in this one.
1) Who is Available
As previously mentioned, Cleveland’s top defensive threat, Garrett, is dealing with a groin injury and was listed as questionable on the team’s injury report. Safety John Johnson III has already been ruled out with a hamstring injury, while defensive tackle Malik Jackson is questionable with a knee issue. Being 2021, the injury report is one thing, but the reserve/COVID-19 list is another matter entirely. The list for Cleveland is still lengthy, though the team recently was able to activate safety Grant Delpit and offensive tackle James Hudson off of the list, as well as the team’s head coach.
Mayfield is trending toward a return on Saturday, as is Jarvis Landry and Jedrick Wills. Stefanski has already stated the team will have a separate plane ready to fly players to the game on Saturday who may clear protocol that morning. For Green Bay, only offensive linemen David Bakhtiari and Billy Turner are expected to miss the game due to injury. The Packers don’t have anyone in COVID protocol as of Friday morning.
2) What Offense Does Cleveland Call
Last week’s game against the Raiders may have been an eye-opener for the Browns’ staff. The commitment to the running game in the second half put the team in a position to get the win. Had that approach started earlier in the game, the scoreboard may have been different in the end. At the least, it is more likely that Cleveland may have had more control over the clock and the pace of the game.
An assessment of Stefanski this season could lead to the belief that the second-year head coach has a control problem. One needs to look no further than his postgame answer of “I need to coach better and we need to play better”. Accountability is a great thing until it isn’t acted upon. A reliance on analytics and statistics could lead to that. With the data, one may feel that they have the answer sheet to the test. Playing an offense against the Packers, most analysts would say that Cleveland needs to control the clock and limit Green Bay’s opportunities. This is done by running the ball like they did last week. Just don’t overthink it.
3) The Holiday Distraction
One concern the last two weeks has been “off-the-field distractions”. Two weeks ago it was the team’s single-season sack record that Garrett was chasing. Going into the Raiders game, voting for the Pro Bowl was wrapping up, and the team had an opportunity to take the division lead. This week, there can be no distractions. The message is clear: win to survive. The Tennessee Titans realized that on Thursday Night Football with their own backs against the wall. Saturday can’t be built up into playing on Christmas Day for the players, as the distraction of Halloween may have been. Playing in Lambeau Field can be another potential distraction. The Browns need to show they can rise above and execute to be true contenders.
4) Aaron Jones
Cleveland’s secondary has been coming along in recent weeks, and the matchup between Denzel Ward and Davante Adams will be one to watch. Green Bay is rather limited on big-name playmakers at the receiver position. Jones in the backfield, however, has the ability to give the Browns fits. The fifth-year running back out of UTEP is due for a big game, topping 100 yards in a game just once this season so far. Injuries for Cleveland along the defensive front would help him, especially considering the losses of the lineman for Green Bay.
Without a mobile quarterback, Jones is an ideal assignment for Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah on Saturday. JOK is one of the few players that Cleveland possesses that may have the speed and size to deal with Jones on the outside on both running and passing plays. Focusing on the threat of Aaron Rodgers, the Browns can’t let his playmakers help him.
5) Last Chance McLaughlin
Saturday’s game is supposed to be a clear, cold day in Wisconsin, and the Browns are well acclimated to that type of climate. Still, given the Browns’ defensive strengths and offensive struggles, scoring opportunities may be few and far between. Where Cleveland is fighting for a playoff spot, McLaughlin is likely battling to retain his kicking role. He can ill-afford to miss again. On the opposite sideline, Mason Crosby has had his struggles this season too. The Browns may have the opportunity to win this game in a close fashion. In that case, they’ll need to know early whether they can rely on their kicker or not.
6) The Game Within the Game
Cleveland is 7-3 when they tie or win the turnover battle against their opponents. Last weekend was the second time in their last three games where the defense generated more turnovers than the opposition, but the team still lost. All three of the Packers’ losses have come in games where they lost or tied their opponent in turnovers. Green Bay has forced multiple turnovers in nine games this season. There aren’t going to be a lot of opportunities to force an interception on Saturday for Cleveland. Odds are they will be there though, so the players need to make the most of any chance when they do. Offensively, Mayfield may want to come out slinging it after missing last week. He needs to be really cautious.
7) Needing A Christmas Miracle
A win on Saturday would feel like a Christmas Miracle for the Browns. Honestly, it would be hard to call it anything less. The Packers have the best record in the league at 11-3. Given all the Browns have been through this year, upsetting them would surely be a shock. If Cleveland can disrupt the pocket defensively, Rodgers’ toe situation is something to watch. Should they irritate it, the Browns could have the opportunity to play Jordan Love in this game if Rodgers can’t finish. Their chances to win likely grow, and fortune may once again be behind the Browns.
Follow Jonas Clark on Twitter @jarkclonas
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