Week 3 of the 2021 NFL season is here. Don’t look now Cleveland Browns fans, but the team is tied for first place in the AFC North. The fact that they’ve only played two games should not diminish the fact that the team is where everyone thought they’d realistically be.
Sure, last weekend was a rather close win over the Houston Texans (1-2). Still, it wasn’t long ago that Cleveland (1-1) found a way to lose that one. In today’s Browns 7-on-7, we’ll look at seven other observations from the Texans game. We’ll also preview seven storylines for Sunday’s showdown against the Chicago Bears.
1) Games Mean More Than Just Winning Now
After last season’s Week 3 victory over the Washington Football Team, Browns legend Joe Thomas joined Cleveland Browns Daily that Monday morning.
“The point of the game is to win. Kevin Stefanski did what he needed to do to win… [On offense] Let’s just hand the ball off, take easy completions, and win the game by a couple of scores, and then we’ll make steady progress along the way,” he said in the aftermath of the team’s Week 3 victory last season.
In the full segment, you could easily swap out “Washington Football Team” for “Houston Texans”, and the analysis would fit the same. Cleveland was 1-1 heading into that game last season, a year that ended in the AFC Playoffs Divisional Round. They are once again 1-1 going into Week 3, and are approaching the schedule the same way.
2) A Flat Start On Offense?
In the first half of Sunday’s game, Cleveland’s offense looked flat. It was especially the case when compared to the start last week against the Kansas City Chiefs. Outside of two special touchdown plays from Demetric Felton and Nick Chubb, the second half didn’t pop off of the page either.
Last year, the Browns had a four-game winning streak early, during which they averaged 37.5 points per contest before slowing down. In the second half of the season, Stefanski added some wrinkles and “tendency breakers” on offense which helped their playoff push.
While 27 points against the Texans seems light, the approach seems more controlled. It also helped that the offense didn’t need to try and score more points. The preparation for January has already begun.
3) Chubb: Less is More
Fans weren’t pleased last weekend when fullback Andy Janovich was used instead of Chubb at the goal-line for the first score of the game. Chubb finished the game with 11 carries for 95 yards, aided by his 26-yard touchdown run. Availability became an issue in the middle of last season when he missed four weeks due to an injury. When Chubb rushed for 100 or more yards in 2020, the Browns were 6-0.
They were 3-3 when he played and didn’t reach the century mark. Stefanski likes to turn on the Bat signal late, as he did for Chubb’s game-icing score last Sunday. Less carries for him now should translate to a fresher, explosive, and available Chubb week after week all season.
4) Defense is a Concern
With a laundry list of key acquisitions on defense, hopes were high for the unit that seemed to hinder Cleveland last season. Through two games, the blockbuster defense has been subpar, forcing just one fumble, one interception, and four sacks. Big plays aside, the secondary is still an issue despite the additions of John Johnson III and Greg Newsome II.
With just five quarterback hurries registered, Patrick Mahomes, Tyrod Taylor, and Davis Mills have combined to average 12.5 yards per completion. The opposing quarterbacks have already scored five combined passing touchdowns. The run defense looks good at the moment, but there’s been little need for opponents to rush when the passing game is available.
5) Time is Ticking on Joe Woods
With a loaded roster, the pressure is now fully on Woods, the team’s defensive coordinator, to get his unit turned around. Some fans are already asking for his firing, but that’s a knee-jerk reaction associated with past Browns regimes. Rosters take time to gel, especially on defense, and after the offseason overhaul, this will take some time.
Fortunately for Cleveland, the schedule is rather favorable at the moment. There are five weeks left before the Browns play their first division game, which will be against Pittsburgh on Halloween. By then, the coverages should look better, hopefully buying the defensive front time to get to the quarterback. If improvements aren’t noticeable, his seat deserves to heat up. But if progress can be seen, there’s no need for the pitchforks.
6) Mack Wilson Had a Good Day
One of the big stories of the offseason was the future of Wilson, who appeared to regress last season after a strong rookie year in 2019. Once looked upon as a potential diamond in the rough, Wilson has been passed-up on the depth chart, as the team brought in Anthony Walker and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, and re-signed Malcolm Smith.
With Walker unavailable due to injury, Wilson’s number was called upon more against the Texans, and he performed. Playing 41 percent of the defensive snaps and 44 percent of the special teams’ snaps, Wilson recorded six combined tackles. While that may not seem exemplary, his impact graded well according to Pro Football Focus, which had him as the second-best defender and special teams player in Week 2.
7) Baker, Please Don’t Do That Again!
Time stopped for Browns fans on Sunday when Mayfield was slow to get up off of the field following his interception. He let his left arm hang as he ran to the medical tent briefly, before going to the locker room. Mayfield was back on the field and didn’t miss an offensive snap. His toughness was applauded for that moment. The message from his teammates in the following days has been the same across the board: “Let me take that hit for you.” Mayfield knows he has to prove himself this year. He has not received the team’s confidence moving forward in the form of a contract. Getting injured on a tackle, however, is not the way to do that.
Looking Ahead Week 3
Up next for the Browns are the Bears, who will be led by Justin Fields under center for his first career start. A star at Ohio State University, Fields may receive a warm reception during pregame at FirstEnergy Stadium, but don’t expect that to last long. All-time, the Browns have the edge over the Bears with a 9-7 record. The last time the two teams played was on Christmas Eve in 2017, with Mitchell Trubisky going up against DeShone Kizer.
Cleveland lost the game 20-3 and lost the next week against the Steelers to complete their 0-16 season. These aren’t the same Browns and Bears teams from 2017. Cleveland is looking to establish itself as a true contender. Chicago coach Matt Nagy is on the hot-seat in The Windy City. He now has to hang his hat on a talented, albeit rookie, dual-threat quarterback. How the Browns handle Fields is the first thing to watch for this weekend.
1) Fields is Preparation for Lamar
One of the more athletic quarterbacks in the NFL, Fields’ legs are definitely going to be a part of the game plan for Chicago. Nagy went as far as to controversially evaluate Fields as a “chess piece” when discussing his role as the team’s backup quarterback. In Week 1, Fields scored his first NFL touchdown, a three-yard rush into the endzone against the Los Angeles Rams. The mobility of Fields will provide Woods and the defense a quality test for dealing with Lamar Jackson later this season. One major part of the plan to evaluate is the role of linebacker Owusu-Koramoah. He was selected in the second round for his athleticism and sideline-to-sideline speed.
2) The Bears Defense Has Momentum
Cleveland’s defensive struggles have been laid out here, most notably their lack of big plays. This weekend, the Browns’ offense will be tested by a unit that has made an abundance of big plays. Through two weeks, the Bears have recorded a fumble, five sacks, and 13 quarterback hits. They also have three interceptions, one that was returned for a touchdown.
With a lot of momentum, Chicago’s defense will look to keep rolling. The Bears have a lot of talented defenders, and will look for any chance to increase Mayfield’s interception total. Running the ball could be a liability itself, as the Browns have already put the ball on the ground this season too. The offense will earn their pay checks for sure this weekend.
3) Browns Must Dial-Up the Pressure
The Browns’ defense itself could be in for a big day. Chicago’s offensive line has given up six sacks, and Fields himself has been sacked twice for a loss of 25 yards. Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney have just one sack between the two of them. Talented enough to take advantage of blown coverages, Fields can be a real problem for the Browns on Sunday.
4) Bears Player to Watch – Allen Robinson, WR
It should come as no surprise that aside from Fields, the players to watch for the Bears this weekend are the receiving threats. While second-year receiver Darnell Mooney is having a good start to his season, Allen Robinson’s veteran experience should make him a more accessible target for Fields against Cleveland. The 28-year-old has eight catches on 15 targets for 59 yards. He also has the team’s only receiving touchdown.
5) Receiver Concerns for Cleveland
The Browns got some bad news this week when they learned that Jarvis Landry suffered an MCL sprain. He’s now been sent to the IR. Behind Landry, young receivers Anthony Schwartz and Donovan Peoples-Jones have been inconsistent. The chemistry hasn’t quite picked up between Mayfield and Rashard Higgins. With Landry out, there’s positive news on Odell Beckham Jr., as he works back from his torn ACL that he sustained last season. By all reports, Beckham Jr. is likely to take the field, providing Mayfield with a familiar, veteran target. Expectations on Beckham’s impact should be tempered, as there’s a good chance he plays with a snap count.
6) Cleveland’s Tight Ends vs Chicago’s Linebackers
While the wide receiver group tends to draw the most attention from the outside, Cleveland’s tight ends are actually the most targeted playmakers on offense. David Njoku leads the team in receiving with 94 yards on five catches. His eight targets match Austin Hooper, also a team-leading number. Harrison Bryant’s six targets tie for the second-most on the team. Responsible for defending the tight ends is a talented linebacker corps that includes Khalil Mack, Roquan Smith, and Alec Ogletree. Smith intercepted a pass against the Bengals last week and took it to the endzone for a pick-six.
7) Can Cleveland Sustain a Lead?
The Browns have led in both their games this season, but holding onto the lead has proven to be difficult. Cleveland led Kansas City 22-10 at the end of the first half and escaped with a 10-point win against Houston. They should have another lead against the Bears on Sunday.
Once Stefanski’s team has a lead, look for him to try and run as much clock as possible. The plan backfired against the Chiefs when Chubb fumbled, turning the game into more of a contest. Last week against Houston, the tactic was hit and miss in the second half. Cleveland scored twice on two length drives but had a pair of three-and-outs that could have been costly.
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