Years ago, a meteorite made of dawg-poundium, the strongest substance in the universe, struck the North shores of Ohio, affecting the plant life around it. When the time of football returned, fans lived in constant quarterback debate with each other until a Sooner received a vision, which led him to the Bone-Shaped Herb, a plant that granted him superhuman strength, speed, and instincts. The Sooner became king and the first post-1999 franchise quarterback; the protector of Browns football.
The Cleveland Browns fans will no longer watch from the shadows. We can not. We must not. We will work to be an example of how we, as brothers and sisters of the NFL, should treat each other. Now, more than ever, the illusions of the AFC North division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: the Pittsburgh Steelers suck. But, we must find a way to beat the Carolina Panthers and make a late push to claim the divisional crown.
Here we go.
The Panthers are in a free fall having lost their last four games and firing multiple assistant coaches this week including defensive line coach Brady Hoke and cornerbacks coach Jeff Imamura, which cannot help with game preparations. What is your assessment of what is going wrong with the Panthers?
Bode: Let’s not get too cute here. The Panthers just fired two defensive coaches and the team had allowed more than 30 points per game during their first three losses with Cam Newton simultaneously throwing for seven touchdowns and three interceptions– no more than one in any game. The defense has been the main issue. Newton attempted to force things last week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and wound up with four interceptions, so he is not wholly without fault. The bulk of the problems though haven’t been with his side.
Pat: I just don’t think they were that great to begin with. They’ve been known for having great defenses in the recent past, but this current group lacks dominant players up front and in the secondary. Yes, Luke Kuechly is a Pro Bowl middle linebacker and there’s talent at that level, but nobody fears their collection of pass rushers or cover men. Offensively, they lack a true number one wide receiver and their starting quarterback, while being a talented player, isn’t someone who can consistently throw the ball to win games. I don’t think firing coaches will make any difference. This team is what its record says it is.
Poloha: Cam Newton and company aren’t the problem. The problem is the defense, as Bode already alluded to, hence the assistant coaches getting fired on that side of the ball. Their downfall has been quite surprising, but then again, when their defense has struggled as much as it has lately, there’s a reason why they continue to lose no matter how well their offense plays.
Gilbert: I think it starts with Cam Newton and his health. He is supposedly playing with an injury and the injury has definitely affected his play over the past several weeks. He is just not playing like his usual self. Also, the Panthers defense is dealing with a lot of defensive coaching upheaval, which never helps a unit’s performance. There are just a lot of off-field issues affecting their play right now.
Colosimo: They have been among the worst defensive teams in the league over the last 5 weeks, as a team they are struggling to generate pass rush or turnovers. Cam Newton is banged up, and his throwing shoulder is giving him problems which is limiting their ability to attack downfield. While they are technically in the playoff hunt, they are in a spiral they are unlikely to correct this season. Firing coaches in December is never a good thing, and they may be headed for more changes this offseason.
How should Freddie Kitchens and the Browns offensive staff look to exploit the defensive weaknesses of the Panthers?
Bode: It’s Baker Time! Really, Mayfield is quite fortunate to get yet another poor pass defense despite a chance for the Panthers to be a bit different given Ron Rivera taking over play-calling on that side of the ball. Expect another big week from No. 6, regardless.
Pat: This is going to be a tough ask for Freddie Kitchens because as innovative as he has been so far this season, he will keep trying to establish the run long after it begins to look futile: pass the dang ball! The Panthers have an excellent run defense due to some beefy guys up front, but they can’t stop anyone from passing on them. If Baker Mayfield is slicing and dicing up these guys, Kitchens needs to keep giving them the business. Show no mercy!
Poloha: Let Baker do what he does best and don’t hold anything back. Allow your quarterback to open up the field, which will then open holes for Nick Chubb as well and vise versa. Don’t hold anything back, especially with the Browns back in Cleveland for this game.
Gilbert: The Browns will need to attack the Panthers through their passing game. Carolina is pretty good against the run, but their pass defense is not up to that same level. The Browns should look to go through the passing game to facilitate their gameplan.
Colosimo: Just continue to develop this offense in the way they have been. As Kitchens and Baker have progressed and expanded, we are beginning to see DeValve worked into the offense regularly and last week we saw the return of the long ball with Callaway. While I expect Chubb to get a large workload with Dukes status uncertain, the key to this game will be through the air. We need Baker to bounce back and start fast this week, and I believe we will see that.
Cam Newton and Christian McCaffrey are um… not the issue. They are having incredible seasons thus far. What do the Browns need to do in order to limit their effectiveness?
Bode: It would be great if the Browns could hope to replicate the turnover-prone contest Newton just completed. Unfortunately, Newton had only thrown seven interceptions in his first 11 games this year and is not especially interception prone in his career. Worse, he has the lowest sack rate of his career. The key here for the Browns defense is going to be making life difficult to get the ball to McCaffrey. Remove the easy outlet and ability to make second and third downs short distances especially given Newton is reportedly experiencing discomfort in his throwing shoulder.
Pat: The Panthers are probably excited to play against a Gregg Williams defense. Gregg’s penchant for blitzing leaves the middle of the field free of linebackers, and it’s typically linebackers who match up against running backs coming out of the backfield. Linebackers also typically spy QBs who are a threat to run, as Cam Newton is. If Norv Turner plays it smart, he’ll limit throws to wide receivers as opposed to RBs and TEs, and he’ll put Newton in situations where he can scramble. To the Browns’ advantage, they should be able to get pressure on Newton when he drops back to pass and they won’t be scared of any of the receivers.
Poloha: I feel like both of those players will be able to do what they want. Whether it’s Cam’s feet or arm or McCaffrey’s legs or hands, they’re both virtually impossible to completely take out of the game simply because they can each do so much. With that said, the Browns need to contain the edges and keep everything in the middle, along with applying pressure on the Panthers’ backfield as well.
Gilbert: The Browns main focus needs to be on McCaffrey. He has been on fire over the last several weeks. I would have a man spy on him throughout the entire game to try and slow him down. Newton, as I said earlier, is dealing with an injury and definitely not playing to his usual level of performance. If the Browns can get pressure on Newton, it will force Newton to have to be accurate under pressure, causing stress on his injured shoulder.
Colosimo: I would suggest a bit of a backwards strategy compared to most weeks, let’s take a page out of last seasons attack at opposing run games. Run blitzing early and often while taking some calculated risk in coverage on early downs to get them into 3rd and long. Make the Panthers show that they can beat the Browns through the air. I would like to see the Browns as a team play closer to the line of scrimmage than we’ve seen in any game this season.
What under-the-radar players on the Browns do you expect to shine this week?
Bode: If Trai Turner misses (questionable), then the Panthers will be missing three of their projected 2018 starting offensive lineman. This is the week Larry Ogunjobi makes his presence felt.
Pat: I’m going with T.J. Carrie! Raise your hand if you saw that one coming. I’m expecting he’ll spend a lot of time covering Devin Funchess, who is exactly the type of receiver Carrie dominates. Big, slow-of-foot receivers tend to get blanketed by Carrie. As long as he doesn’t spend much time covering Curtis Samuel, this should be a big Sunday for the big cornerback.
Poloha: Antonio Callaway. He’ll make up for that bad fumble he had last week.
Gilbert: Terrance Mitchell is back and I think his arrival will be a huge boost for the Browns defense. Mitchell was the Browns second best corner before he got injured. He was playing at a high level, forming a really nice combo with Denzel Ward. The presence of Mitchell can set the cornerback position back into a more comfortable depth chart for everyone.
Colosimo: I could see Ogbah having a good day on defense, and on offense we are seeing DeValve get more and more involved in the offense (yay!) so I think it’s just a matter of time before he comes up with a big day.
Can the Browns win this week? What type of gameplan can lead to it?
Bode: Ask the same question a month ago about this game, and it would have been laughable to suggest even a single-digit loss. The past four weeks have been as unkind to the Panthers as they have been kind to the Browns– even with the blowout loss to the Houston Texans. The game is now one that the Browns can expect to be in though likely to be their first down-to-the-wire contest of the Gregg Williams era.
Pat: The Browns can win just about every week regardless of the opponent, which is a very strange thing to type. They can absolutely beat a reeling Panthers team in First Energy Stadium. Force Cam Newton to be a pocket passer and treat McCaffrey as the top offensive threat. On the other end of the ball, allow Baker to light up that secondary.
Poloha: For the first time in quite a while, the Browns have a chance to win any game. With that said, this is certainly a week that really could come away with a victory not only because it’s in Cleveland, but simply due to Carolina struggling so much lately. Offensively, Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb must help each other out and open holes for one another, along with a solid offensive line. Defensively, they just have to contain Cam Newton and Christian McCaffrey the best they can.
Gilbert: The Browns can definitely win. I actually predict that the Browns will beat the Panthers this week. Cleveland needs to be aggressive from the start. The Browns need to attack the Panthers through the passing game and create big play opportunities on offense. The Panthers are reeling, attack them early, so they can continue to lose confidence.
Colosimo: Absolutely. This is a game the Browns should be in from start to finish, and we should expect a bounce back from a Baker-led team in front of the home crowd this Sunday. As far as a gameplan, heavy focus on stopping the run and screen game on defense, and I think offensively more of the same things we’ve seen in recent weeks from Kitchens should have the Browns in good position to take home a win this Sunday.