It was a game that paid homage to the founding team of the Cleveland Browns in 1946. The Browns (2-1) did just that, putting on a defensive show that hadn’t been seen since, well, 1946.
With a microscope on that side of the ball, Joe Woods’ unit delivered what Cleveland fans dreamed of when the front office brought in Jadeveon Clowney to play opposite Myles Garrett. The pair, along with the rest of the defense, welcomed Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields to the NFL in the rookie’s first NFL start.
It is easy to get lost in the boxscore numbers – nine sacks, one net passing yards, 47 yards of total offense, and just six first downs for the Bears (1-2) – and those numbers are worth getting into. Still, the Browns could’ve played a much stronger game. “It was a tight ballgame into the fourth quarter,” Cleveland’s head coach Kevin Stefanski said to the media on Monday, “and our defense kept us in it.”
After reaching the divisional round of the playoffs last season and a productive offseason, the Browns have high expectations. Much too high, in fact, to be in close games late with the Bears and the Texans entering the fourth quarter. Cleveland did a lot of things well at home against Chicago, but there’s a lot to be cleaned up too.
1) A Hero’s Welcome for Garrett
Going into the game last Sunday, it was no secret that the Browns’ pass-rush had been rather absent through the first two weeks. In favorable circumstances, that all changed early with a sparking sack from offseason acquisition Clowney. He opened the door for the defensive front, and Garrett followed him through it time and time again. Garrett got to Fields for four-and-a-half sacks.
In a stadium full of fans that have booed the performance on the field for years it was a different kind of energy last Sunday part-way through the fourth quarter. The crowd of 67,431 erupted with a chant of “My-les Ga-rrett” that resounded well after the defensive end collected what would be his final sack of the afternoon. On the play, he took down Fields at the 13-yard line, claiming the team’s single-game sack record.
2) The Impact of OBJ
Much was made about what impact Odell Beckham Jr. would have on the Browns when he returned this season from his ACL injury last year. The question on everyone’s minds about his return to the field was how his presence would impact Mayfield’s decision-making. Outside of one throw that was nearly picked off, Beckham’s targets made sense, four times picking up first downs.
OBJ drew Baker Mayfield’s attention for a team-high nine targets in the game, catching five of them for 77 yards, another top on the team. The most that any single player had been targeted in a single game for Cleveland this season had been five. With Beckham “exhausted” after the game, it will be interesting if the volume his way continues.
3) JOK Playing as Advertised
The Browns went into the spring’s NFL Draft needing to find some key defensive pieces. As it stands now, it looks as though they definitely found one in the second round. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah slipped to Cleveland at No.52 overall and had a solid performance in his second career start on Sunday.
A “do it all” Swiss army knife, the linebacker also brought the pressure for Woods on Fields, blitzing twice and getting partial credit for one of the sacks against Chicago’s signal-caller. The former Notre Dame standout allowed just one catch on five targets, preventing his receiver from gaining any yards. His fast hands and good position on receivers have really stood out, and his play on Sunday showed that the rookie isn’t going to let opposing offenses pick on him.
4) Cleveland’s Struggling Corners
Speaking of rookies, Greg Newsome II looks to be coming along a little slower than his second-round classmate. Newsome defended one of his three targets cleanly but allowed just 18 yards. He didn’t get to finish the game due to a calf injury. Quarterbacks are completing 55 percent of their passes when targeting Newsome, this season, and Fields got him twice for 18 total yards.
It’s hard to blame Newsome’s performance on just the player when his teammate Denzel Ward is giving up 70-percent of targets his way. The Ohio State product surrendered two receptions for 29 total yards on Sunday. The pass-rush on Sunday did a lot to cover up this flaw in the victory for the time being.
5) Stefanski’s Hot and Cold Offense
Cleveland dominated the ball for nearly 40 minutes of the one-hour game on Sunday, running 82 plays against Chicago’s 44. The Browns could have added six more points on the scoreboard early, but Stefanski liked the opportunity to go for it on fourth down more – not a bad decision. Cleveland didn’t convert, however, the latest examples of the team not being able to get yards when they need them. Again, they were playing the Bears.
Chicago’s defense has a lot of talent, but for being the contender that Cleveland is, the performance could’ve been better. Carrying over from the Texans game, Stefanski and the team is doing enough to win against lesser competition. Still, the lack of ability to bully the Bears for touchdowns instead of field goals was disheartening.
6) With Batman Shutdown, Robin Delivered
Kareem Hunt had a stellar game against Chicago. No, he didn’t top 100 yards, but he provided much of the offense on Sunday with his hard-running, complete abandon play-style.
The team’s Dark Knight, Nick Chubb, struggled to get going in the run game all day, surprisingly including the fourth quarter. Hunt, always the “Boy Wonder” was excellent in the screen passing game, catching six of his seven targets for 74 yards. He also out-paced Chubb for the day, recording three fewer yards, though getting half as many attempts.
Fans don’t need to worry yet about how to keep the “Dynamic Duo” together, as both are still under contract for next season as well. Supporters should nonetheless appreciate what they’re witnessing while they’re here.
7) Cleveland’s Offensive Line Woes Exploited
Last year, Cleveland had the best offensive line per Pro Football Focus. It is early in the season, but that line is banged up already, and it is costing the Browns already. Mayfield was sacked and harassed against Chicago, and even Chubb was limited. Chicago’s front is nasty with Khalil Mack, Roquan Smith, Robert Quinn, and the like, but that doesn’t let the offensive line off the hook.
Jedrick Wills‘ ankle injury set him and left guard Joel Bitonio up for a long day as their side of the line was exploited. Resting Wills now may need to be done in order to preserve him, and Mayfield, for later in the season. Danielle Hunter, Von Miller, and Joey Bosa are just a few of the upcoming defenders on the schedule.
Looking Ahead to Week 4
“We have the joke,” Cleveland’s right guard Wyatt Teller told the media this week, “that if we play a team that one of our coaches played at, we call it ‘the revenge game.’”
The coach playing his old team this week is the Browns’ head coach, Stefanski. While he went on to win the 2020 Coach of the Year award in his first season with Cleveland, Minnesota hasn’t dropped off in his absence.
The Vikings’ offense ranks third in yards, seventh in passing, and sixth in rushing. Their defense, however, has been an issue, ranking 27th against the pass, allowing more than 350 yards in the air. Their rush defense hasn’t been much better, allowing over 100 yards per game on the ground.
Minnesota is coming off of a win against the Seahawks, after dropping their first two games. Two of their first three games have been decided by three points or less. Now with the Vikings, former Browns kicker Greg Joseph missed a game-winning field goal attempt in Week 2 that was nowhere near close. There’s surely some forgiveness for him as it has been his only miss of the season.
1) Familiarity w/ Stefanski & Cousins
Knowledge is power. In this week’s contest between the Vikings and Stefanski’s Browns, both sides have a lot of knowledge about their opponent. Cleveland’s head coach spent 14 seasons in Minnesota’s ranks, including six seasons as part of Mike Zimmer’s staff. Stefanski isn’t the only one with inside information, as surely Zimmer recalls some of Stefanski’s tendencies.
Stefanski knows first-hand the limitations and strengths of the Vikings’ Kirk Cousins better than most. The offensive coordinator for the Vikings in 2019, Stefanski helped Cousins to his best season with Minnesota that year. It was the second Pro Bowl in his career, his first with the Vikings. Stefanski has surely passed that information to his defense.
2) Big Test for the Browns Secondary
As mentioned above, the Browns’ starting corners have had a rough first few games. The secondary as a whole has allowed four passing touchdowns and 462 yards total in the first three weeks. Cleveland’s safeties John Johnson III and Ronnie Harrison are accountable for two of those scores.
Tasked with keeping track of Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson, the secondary is already starting from behind. Newsome has already been ruled out for Sunday with his calf injury, meaning Greedy Williams is getting the start opposite Ward. The 2019 second-round pick missed his sophomore season last year with nerve issues in his shoulder. Since his return to the field this year, Williams has allowed just one completion on four targets. The pass went for 19 yards.
3) Can the Browns Limit Tyler Conklin?
One of the major issues with Woods’ defense through two seasons is the occasional fits that tight ends can cause. In the season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs, Travis Kelce caught six of his seven targets for 76 yards and two touchdowns. Sure he’s elite, but Cleveland struggled with others in the position group. Mark Andrews of the Baltimore Ravens as well as tight ends from the Philadelphia Eagles, Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Dallas Cowboys all had strong games last year.
Minnesota’s Conklin has been building momentum early in the season. He caught seven passes on eight targets last week for 70 yards and a touchdown against the Seattle Seahawks. Currently flying under the radar, he’s someone to watch out for.
4) On the Road Again
The Browns posted a 5-3 record on the road last season with limited or no fans allowed in stadiums. They opened this season at Kansas City in front of a full crowd at Arrowhead Stadium, their only game as visitors so far. Facing a hostile environment for just the second time, Cleveland’s staff made sure to prepare the team for a lot of noise week.
Cleveland.com writer Hayden Grove reported this week that Stefanski was playing “quite a lot of crowd noise” during practice this week to prepare the team for the Vikings fans inside US Bank Stadium. The head coach is determined to walk away from his return to Minnesota a victor.
5) Defending Dalvin Cook
Cook is a special talent in the backfield, and he’s made the Pro Bowl each of the last two seasons. Two weeks ago he ran wild against the Arizona Cardinals for 131 yards on 22 carries, though he was kept out of the endzone. He missed last week’s game, a victory over the Seahawks, with an ankle injury.
Cleveland’s defense ranks fifth against the rush this season with just 201 yards allowed. No single rusher has yet to gain more than 50 yards against the stacked, revamped front. Fortunately for Minnesota, Cook has a great ability to catch passes and get his yardage on screen passes. His versatility will limit the Browns’ ability to bring blitzes. He could have a big day.
6) Minnesota’s Hunter
A carryover from the Chicago game, the play of the offensive line is something to watch again this weekend. Mayfield has already been sacked nine times through three games. He’s on pace to suffer through more than 40 sacks by the end of the year. Still banged up from dealing with the Bears, Cleveland’s offensive line walks into another trench war with the Vikings.
Minnesota’s defense is led by Hunter, who has picked up where he left off after missing last season for neck surgery. In both 2018 and 2019, he registered 14.5 sacks and earned Pro Bowl appearances. Flanked by Everson Griffen and Michael Pierce to make up a fearsome front, Hunter has four sacks already this season.
7) Can McLaughlin Do It Again?
With the offense stalling out time and time again against the Bears, McLaughlin came through. The journeyman nailed all four of his attempts, including a 57-yarder on his first of the day. Minnesota has played teams close, and they’ve kept former Browns kicker Joseph busy. Sunday could come down to a kickers battle, and Cleveland fans would like to see their new guy come out on top against their ex.
Follow Jonas Clark on Twitter @jarkclonas
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