Cleveland Browns 7-on-7: Week 18

Cleveland Browns 7-on-7: Week 18

by January 8, 2022 1 comment

Well Cleveland, there’s always next year. Those aren’t the words that anyone with an interest in the Browns wants to hear. Back when the season started, they were among the favorites to not hear them in 2021. For an organization that took two big steps forward last season, the team doesn’t feel any closer to being a real contender than it did in 2019. For the 20th time since the Browns’ return to the NFL in 1999, they’ll finish with a losing record.

As much of a loss as the season was, there is a glimmer of hope for the team that still had a chance to win the AFC North as late as Sunday, Jan 2. It took a thriller between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Kansas City Chiefs, which the Bengals won, to eliminate the Browns’ hopes for the division title. Had things in that game played out differently, Cleveland might have approached their Monday night game against the Pittsburgh Steelers another way. At least the Bengals eliminated the Browns so they didn’t do it to themselves in primetime against the Steelers in what was arguably the worst coached game of Kevin Stefanski’s career.

1) Mishandling of Nick Chubb

In Week 16 and Week 17, the Browns were playing in the only NFL game while on the field. The national audience saw in consecutive weeks Stefanski’s refusal to run the ball in the first half of the games. Ranked third in the league in rushing yards, Chubb had just four carries in the first half against Pittsburgh despite his second carry of the game going for 32 yards.

Peyton and Eli Manning looked outright confused when Chubb wasn’t on the field during offensive possessions. “Please tell me Nick Chubb is injured and that’s why he’s not in the game,” the older Manning said at one point. It didn’t come in-game, but afterward, Stefanski shared that Chubb was dealing with a rib injury, and therefore lightened his usage. Never mind the fact that the starting quarterback has dealt with a host of injuries throughout the season. The offense under Baker Mayfield was inept, but going one-dimensional did not do him or the team any favors. It is hard to believe Chubb was that injured, if at all.

2) Lack of Adjustment on Offense

One thing about last Monday night is for sure: Stefanski was committed to the pass, for better or worse. With less than a minute left and down two scores, Cleveland opted to pass four straight times, only one of which was completed to a Browns player. Mayfield’s last attempt went off the hands of Austin Hooper and into the waiting hands of Pittsburgh’s Tre Norwood. On the one hand, the approach nearly sparked a comeback opportunity. In the end, it was also their undoing and gave Pittsburgh the opportunity to close the game in victory formation.

The interception was a bad look itself. When Cleveland could’ve run the clock out themselves, Stefanski all but invited Ben Roethlisberger back to the field, allowing the Browns’ nemesis one last moment of glory over them.

3) James Hudson III and Line Struggles

Of all the frustrating parts from the game on Monday, one that got a lot of attention was the performance of the rookie offensive lineman Hudson at right tackle. He was blown up most of the night by T.J. Watt who, along with the Steeler defense, sacked Mayfield nine times.

Mayfield hasn’t trusted his eyes lately and thus appears to hold onto the ball too long. While the sacks get counted against the offensive line the quarterback is to blame for a number of the hits that he took. There’s only so long a line can block the defenders, and with a rookie on his right, Mayfield paid the price with his already beat-up body.

4) Punted Opportunity to Win

Entering the final frame, Cleveland had the Steelers on the ropes, trailing Pittsburgh just 13-7 and holding possession of the ball. A five and out followed by a botched 21-yard punt from newly acquired veteran punter Dustin Colquitt, however, set the Steelers up just outside of field goal range. The Browns’ defense was able to limit Pittsburgh to the three-point attempt that Chris Boswell nailed from 50-yards to take the two-score lead.

Given the defensive stop, that single moment could be attributed as the beginning of the end for Cleveland’s shot at the victory. The timing was poor, as just a few weeks prior, the Browns determined Colquitt provided them an upgrade over Jamie Gillan, the team’s punter since 2019. Najee Harris’ scoring run later in the quarter and the Mayfield interception in the final minute may have sealed Cleveland’s fate. The team’s inability to find reliable help on special teams, however, doomed them for seemingly the eighth time this season.

5) The Browns Beat Themselves

At the end of the day, Cleveland beat themselves on Monday against the Steelers. The team was undisciplined, racking up 10 penalties for 77 yards, all of which had horrible timing. One glaring example of this was on the Steelers’ first scoring drive in the second quarter. Tied at zero, the Browns stopped Pittsburgh on fourth down when Jadeveon Clowney took the receiver’s shoe off after the play and tossed it. He was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, giving the Steelers a free 15 yards and a first down at Cleveland’s 18-yard line. Three plays later, Roethlisberger found Diontae Johnson in the end zone.

6) End of an Era, Finally

As mentioned above, Roethlisberger got the last laugh against the Browns. For 17 seasons, the quarterback from Findlay, Ohio who became a top prospect at Miami University in Ohio made the team from northern Ohio who passed on him in the 2004 draft regret that decision twice a year.

Roethlisberger finishes 26-3-1 against Cleveland in the regular season per StatMuse. Additionally, he has two Super Bowl titles on his resume. After ending his season in the playoffs last year, the Browns gave him one last gift, a win in his last game at Heinz Field. It was a fitting end to the legacy between the two parties.

7) Another Big Game for Clowney

While Roethlisberger rode off into the sunset in Pittsburgh, he didn’t do so with a clean jersey. For all of the poor play from Cleveland’s offense, the defense showed up to play. One player who popped off the page was Clowney, a frequent occurrence in recent weeks.

In two games over the last month, the former first-overall pick has made his presence felt with 3.5 sacks and six tackles. Against Pittsburgh on Monday, he put together some quality film for other potential suitors this offseason, picking up a pair of sacks and four tackles. Almost more importantly. Clowney showed he can stay healthy throughout a season, starting in all 13 of his games played. He did miss some action in December while on the COVID-19 list. Sure, not every team has a Myles Garrett to line him up with. Still, the starting price for his services regardless just went up.


Looking Ahead to Week 18

Cleveland has a lot of pieces to run back with next season as they push for some level of consistency. Stefanski should return as head coach, and Mayfield should return as the quarterback, likely playing on his fifth-year option without an extension. They’ll both be on the hot seat. Garrett and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah will headline a defense that should have Ward coming back with a new extension after his Pro Bowl season. Offensively, the running game is under contract from the offensive lineman to the Batman and Robin pairing of Chubb and Kareem Hunt.

How many of these players see the field in the first-ever Week 18 in the NFL is anyone’s guess. Hunt and Garrett have dealt with injuries down the stretch and could prevent further injury risk by sitting out. Ward, who will represent the Browns along with Chubb, Garrett, Joel Bitonio, and Wyatt Teller at the Pro Bowl has been injury-prone throughout his professional career. Still, players don’t go out there with the intention of losing. A win over the AFC North champions, the Bengals, would be a positive way to end the season. It could possibly be the salve to help the team heal.

1) Adjusted Offensive Scheme

Mayfield is out, so Case Keenum is in. With Keenum at quarterback, he has a shot at his chance to possibly return with the team next season. Could Stefanski even be evaluating him for the starting job? The pulse of the fans, and some in the media, is that Mayfield was given a chance to prove himself as the future at quarterback. If so, that came at the cost of the team’s success this season. The only other game that Stefanski has coached without Mayfield was Week 7. That ended in a win over the Denver Broncos with Keenum at quarterback.

With no Chubb or Hunt available, Stefanski leaned on the run early and often in that game. D’Ernest Johnson rushed 22 times for 146 yards and a touchdown while running backs Demetric Felton and John Kelly, along with fullback Johnny Stanton, added 31 more yards on six combined carries. Since Keenum doesn’t have the gunslinger skillset of Mayfield, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Stefanski rely on the run. That, however, would be in stark contrast to how the team handled Mayfield all season. Something has to give.

2) Players Making Last Appearances with Browns

Entering the season, Cleveland had one of the deepest rosters on paper. Most of that depth chart is still intact for the final week, and possibly the final time. Outside of the quarterback situation, wide receivers Jarvis Landry and Rashard Higgins could both be on the move this offseason. Landry has had the worst season of his career and saw his best friend get released from the team. He is two years removed from his last 1,000-yard season. Landry has one year left on his contract for $15 million in 2022. Higgins signed a one-year $2.38 million deal this offseason to return to Cleveland. Both players are favorite targets of Mayfield.

Defensively, Clowney is a free agent and could cash in on his strong season. Linebacker Mack Wilson has had his struggles following his rookie season. Back in training camp, he was a likely candidate to get cut before this season. Cornerback Greedy Williams has played well, but the second-round selection has had trouble staying healthy. Any one of these players could be on a new team next year. Then there’s the matter of special teams, which appears to need an overhaul. Coming off of a losing season, lots of changes could be ahead for the once-stacked Browns.

3) Favorable Matchup for the Browns

The Browns are 6-1 against the Bengals over the last four seasons and 3-0 under Stefanski against the in-state rival. That said, the teams are trending in opposite directions entering the final week of the regular season. Cincinnati likely hasn’t forgotten the 41-16 beatdown that Cleveland laid on them at Paul Brown Stadium in November either. This is all to say that even though some stars are missing from the game on both sides, neither side will likely take it easy.

There’s something to be said about the weeks the Bengals and the Browns have played each other the last two years. In 2020, they first met for the season in Prime Time on Thursday Night Football. The second matchup that year was the game where Odell Beckham Jr. tore his ACL. That game was also when Donovan Peoples-Jones made the highlight-reel catch in the end zone. This season, the Bengals caught the Browns the week of Beckham’s release from the team. Frustrated, Cleveland rallied together on both sides of the ball in the aforementioned “beatdown”. Now, with the Mayfield out for the finale, the moment is once again set for the Browns to defy the odds and make a statement with a win.

4) No Burrow, No Mixon, and “Potentially” Chase

Cincinnati is poised to make a run in the playoffs. Thus, they’ve conservatively made the decision to rest second-year quarterback Joe Burrow. The decision would normally set up running back Joe Mixon for a heavy workload. Unfortunately for the Bengals, he tested positive for COVID-19 this week and won’t be available. Mixon currently ranks second in rushing yards this season with 1,205 yards. In their wake, backup quarterback Brandon Allen and second-string running back Samaje Perine will step up and start.

Of the offensive stars, only wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase still has a chance to play. A questionable call, it is somewhat understandable. He needs just 45 yards receiving to break the 60-year-old record for receiving yards in a rookie season. Chase has 1,429 receiving yards after his 266-yard performance against the Kansas City Chiefs last weekend.

5) Where’s Mayfield on Sunday

Following the game on Monday night, Mayfield told the media that his status for Week 18 was undetermined. By Tuesday morning it was announced that the fourth-year quarterback was done for the season. Mayfield has surgery scheduled this month to repair the torn labrum in his left shoulder.

More undefined is Mayfield’s standing with the organization. While his fifth-year option has already been picked up by the Browns, he has yet to be extended beyond that. Considering how the season ended, there appears to be friction between the quarterback and the team. Stefanski insisted on Thursday that he and Mayfield still have a “good relationship”. While unexpected, it could do a lot for public perceptions if Mayfield is with the team at all on Sunday. At the least, it may make the “clickbait” seem more far-fetched. Mayfield is currently fourth all-time in passing yards for the Browns, and fifth in touchdown passes. At 29-30, his winning percentage is eighth all-time for Cleveland quarterbacks.

6) Browns Career Sack Record Within Garrett’s Grasp

Evolution is inherently destructive, and destruction isn’t inherently bad. For something to evolve, it simply no longer exists as it once did. As the NFL has evolved with technology and science, the record books have been nearly rewritten. With the expansion of the regular season from 16 to 17 games starting this season, it can be expected that all previous single-season records will likely fall sooner rather than later. The same could also be said for career records with the extra game each season.

Fortunately for the Browns fans that are purists, Garrett broke the team’s single-season sack record two weeks ago against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 14. Still, in just his fifth season, the former first-overall selection could set the Browns’ record for the most sacks in a career. Garrett is still four sacks shy of the mark set by Clay Matthews Jr. The former Texas A&M standout hasn’t recorded a sack in the last three weeks. In the first matchup against Cincinnati, Garrett had 1.5 sacks. He did register 4.5 sacks in Week 3 against the Chicago Bears, so breaking the record on Sunday is a reasonable feat.

7) Cleveland’s First Consecutive Winning Seasons at Home Since the Return

No matter the result on Sunday against the Bengals, the Browns will finish with a winning home record for the second consecutive season. What’s more, this season is the third time in the last four years they’ve accomplished the feat. With Mayfield at quarterback, Cleveland has not had a losing record at FirstEnergy Stadium. In the previous six seasons, the Browns had not posted a winning record at home. Cleveland’s only other winning record at home was in 2007 when the team finished 10-6. It isn’t much, but there’s something for them to hang their hats on.

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