After a cross-country trip to Oakland left a sour taste in the mouths of Cleveland fans, the NFL’s schedule makers blessed the Browns with their second consecutive home game with their opponent having to make the five-plus hour trip.
The Los Angeles Chargers come to the shores of Lake Erie with the third-most efficient offense in the league led by Phillip Rivers and a variety of play-making teammates, providing the Browns defense with their toughest challenge yet.
As we do most weeks, some of the folks here at WFNY discuss how they’re feeling and what to look for heading into this week’s action.
The Browns defense gave up 45 to the Raiders, but held the Saints to 21 and Ravens to nine. Which is the real version of this defense? Why?
Gilbert: I think it’s in the middle of those two with it trending toward the Saints performance. The Browns defense is a talented unit with a lot of young players who are improving every game. There are two things that I am worried about, though. The first is defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Williams’ play calling and scheme can put players on islands or in positions they are not suited for, for example dropping back interior defensive linemen into coverage. So, Williams can hurt the overall performance of the defense. The second thing I am worried about is the depth of the defense. The unit cannot suffer a lot of injuries, especially in the secondary now. Nevertheless, the Browns defense should be a positive unit that can help the team win.
Gerbs: If I’m being held to answer as one of those, I would lean more toward the good end. Drops and inefficiencies on the offense in the Oakland game made it tough for the defense and they were gassed by the end. Longer drives and more production (which sounds weird when the Browns scored 42 in that game, but many points came off turnovers and a short field) will allow for the defense to rest and catch their wind. Using the Ravens game as an example, they sat Myles Garrett early on to conserve some of his snaps/energy for late in the game, something that will only help as the long season trolls along.
Scott: I’m going to echo The Joes here. That Oakland game, complete with cross-country travel, appears to be the exception here. While I don’t think they’ll hold most 2018 NFL teams to single-digit points, that was one heck of a good offense before it stepped foot in Cleveland. The pass rush has been legit, but the improvement in the secondary (including adding a real, legit free safety) has made for a drastic change. Heading into Week 6, they’re ranked No. 2 in defensive DVOA according to Football Oustiders. You can’t fluke your way into that.
Pat: I think it’s closer to the version we saw against the Steelers, Saints, Jets, and Ravens. The Oakland Coliseum is hot garbage. The Browns players clearly weren’t comfortable playing on the baseball diamond and lost their footing on a number of occasions, leading to big plays for the Raiders. Combine that fact with the trip out the west coast plus a young roster and you have disaster.
Frank: I’m torn. I lean towards the defense being legit with some otherworldly playmakers. However I do see some plays that burn the Browns repeatedly (i.e. slants across the middle)and feel like if you scheme correctly you can gash them at times. My grade is still incomplete.
Bode: Considering I outlined how the offense was at fault for a majority of the points given up in the Raider game (Pick-6, two touchdowns when Raiders were given the ball in the red zone, and a three yard drive that wound up as a field goal), I firmly believe the defense is quite good. The Chargers are a tough challenge for the Browns defense though as Rivers won’t be phased be exotic blitzes and can use them to burn the Browns through hot reads.
Dave: If the offense doesn’t put the opposing team on the 10 yard like a few times, there are at least 14 points off of that total. I tend to think the defense is legit and that game was the aberration.
Does Phillip Rivers scare you? Can he take advantage of the Browns weaknesses?
Gilbert: Phillip Rivers does scare me because he is a proven quarterback who knows how to deal with blitzes. I think he can take advantage of Williams’ blitz-happy scheme. The Browns will need to not only pressure Rivers, but also finish the play by sacking him. I am nervous that Rivers will be ready for what Williams will send at him.
Gerbs: Rivers ability to play well under pressure does worry me as Williams blitzes more than any other team in the league. I expect the underneath stuff that has killed the defense in the past to work yet again, as guys like Keenan Allen, Antonio Gates, and Austin Ekeler are extremely good at giving Rivers an outlet when he’s rushed.
Scott: In short: Yes. Perpetually overlooked as one of the better quarterbacks in football, all Rivers does is casually drop 4,000 yards every season. This time around, he has a sure-handed Keenan Allen in the middle of the field, a pair of explosive running backs in Austin Ekeler and Melvin Gordon, and huge red zone targets in Antonio Gates and Mike Williams. This will clearly be a matchup of team strength versus team strength.
Pat: I’m not sure why, but no he doesn’t scare me. He certainly doesn’t scare me more than Drew Brees or Ben Roethlisberger. The Browns have had success against him in the past with worse defenses than what he will see on Sunday. I think our pass rushers will give him a headache this week.
Frank: I strongly echo Joe Gilbert’s concerns here.
Bode: The Chargers are uniquely geared towards being an issue for a Gregg Williams’ defense with Rivers being a main reason for it as outlined above.
Dave: He scares my in the fact that he is really old and kind of ugly.
Is it too soon to say that Baker Mayfield is a franchise quarterback? What should we expect from him moving forward?
Gilbert: I think we see the signals that Mayfield is a franchise quarterback. You cannot say to yourself that this hasn’t felt different than any other quarterback situation we have had. It is a little early to make a definitive announcement, but the belief can be there. Going forward, I want to see Mayfield run the offense at a more consistent rate. I would also like to see Mayfield use his arm talent to threaten downfield more than he has already shown.
Gerbs: I am in the market for a Mayfield Color Rush shirsey so I guess it’s not too soon. His ability far outweighs others that have been brought in with the same moniker, and that was apparent from the first snap against the Jets. I truly believe we are seeing a player bud in front of us and it’s a payoff of those years in turmoil that few Browns fans ever expected to see.
Scott: I don’t think it’s too soon. It’s too soon to put him with the Brady, Brees, and Rogers of the world, but you can also be a “franchise quarterback” without being Canton-bound. He needs to continue to do what he’s been doing, making alterations as teams get more and more film on him. Lead drives, limit mistakes, utilize all areas of the field. The kid’s a winner, and it’s been a welcomed change as it pertains to the vibe surrounding this team.
Pat: At this point, I think the only things that will deter Baker Mayfield from being a top-10 QB in the league are internal to his body. If he gets injured or starts fueling himself with thoughts of his own greatness, I could see him being deterred. From a football perspective, he’s got everything a franchise QB needs. He’s got the arm, the accuracy, the processing speed, the mobility, and the weapons to be a great NFL quarterback, and that’s evident right now in his rookie season.
Frank: I am all in on the Baker train. His breathtaking throws get me out of my chair at least twice a game. I do believe that at last we have found our man!
Bode: Mayfield will have bad dips such as the turnover issues shown in Oakland, but it would be more of a surprise if he wasn’t the Browns starting quarterback in two years than if he was. For the constant turnover that has happened with this franchise, that is a huge step forward.
Dave: I would love to anoint him, but I’ve been bitten one too many times. We can talk about it after his hall of fame induction ceremony.
What shouldthe Browns do to inject some life into the passing game with the wide receiver corps continually being depleted?
Gilbert: Duke Johnson. The answer to helping fix the wide receiver corps is already on the team in the form of Duke Johnson. Johnson should be used as a receiver more often. He has better receiving skills than a lot of the actual receivers on the team. With Johnson at receiver, it gives the offense the ability to get the ball in the hands of one of their most talented playmakers.
Gerbs: As the conductor to the #FreeTheDuke train, I would like to personally welcome everyone on board. Johnson needs, nay craves, more touches and with Rashard Higgins’ injury, it’s only a matter of time before we see Johnson in the slot. Feed the man, Todd Haley, and you will see. And I’m not just extolling a favorite player of mine: Johnson had a better catch rate and more yards receiving last year than Le’Veon Bell. He needs the rock.
Scott: I would love to see Duke Johnson be involved more as well. Carlos Hyde has been great, but there’s a Leroy Hoard element to him where he’s a safe 3-to-5 yards, but has a ceiling. If we’re speaking specific to the passing game, I’m much more comfortable utilizing a guy who has been on the best pass-catching backs in the NFL since he arrived. I would also love to see them find ways to get David Njoku the ball when it’s not a seam route.
Pat: I’ll try to switch things up because I agree with everyone else saying that Duke Johnson should see more time in the slot. I’d like to see Seth DeValve get more time flexed out as a wide receiver. He can be a mismatch with smaller defensive backs and I would like to see what he can do with a competent QB at the helm.
Frank: The best way to improve this WR core is to add more stickum to their gloves. Drops have killed too many promising drives.
Bode: Putting the Duke as a slot receiver is a nice thought though I think it takes away from some of what he does well in the passing game by leaking out of the backfield. I would more prefer to see David Njoku split out wide much more often to put some pressure on corners to either bracket him (leaving Landry on an island) or cover him knowing Mayfield will not be shy towards putting the ball on his hands (whether or not he catches it).
Dave: Reverses. More Reverses.
How will special teams screw up this week? Will it cost the Browns the game?
Gilbert: The Browns special teams coverage units are the big areas of concern I have. Cleveland is facing a talented returner in Desmond King, so the coverage teams will be tested. Can the Browns limit the returns by the Chargers?
Gerbs: While any help is good help, Dontrell Hilliard is not who I want returning kicks for my team. He last returned kicks in college in 2014, and was average at best at it then, so he is not the answer to the Jabrill Peppers conundrum. As far as how will they screw up? I don’t expect to have good field position at any point in this game except for the initial kick off and any turnovers the defense is able to make.
Scott: I don’t think a missed field goal or extra point is out of the realm of possibility. Maybe a muffed punt? Oh! How about a block in the back that negates a would-be touchdown return? I have zero faith in this unit until they prove otherwise. If there’s any silver lining, its that the Chargers’ special teams are not that much better.
Pat: It’s a real possibility, but I’m hoping it will be the Chargers with special teams issues this week. They just signed a new kicker, Mike Badgley, as Caleb Sturgis nurses a strained quad. Replacement kickers have not done well this season, and I’m hoping that will continue with Badgley.
Frank: I have no idea what they will come up with this week but following the Browns has taught me they will find a way to surprise me with a screw up I didn’t know existed. Perhaps a blocked kick returned for a TD late in the game?
Bode: Well, at least Browns fans get to have nervousness and anticipation even on extra points? An illegal alignment on a two-point conversion that puts the Browns up six instead of eight late in the game because we didn’t trust our kicker is my guess this week.
Dave: Britton Colquitt has been the only bright spot of that unit, so I assume he punches a cop, or kills a kitten or something during the run up to the game.