The Cleveland Browns host the defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams on Sunday Night Football in what promises to be a raucous and playoff-like atmosphere at First Energy Stadium. The Browns are coming off of a 23-3 win over the New York Jets, which was largest margin of victory for the team since November 6, 2014, versus the Cincinnati Bengals. The Rams are 2-0 on the season and currently Pro Football Focus’ third-ranked team in their weekly power rankings. With talent abound, the Rams will be the toughest competition to date.
With the Browns looking to build upon their momentum and have a “signature” early-season win, we take a look at the three keys to victory for the Week 3 contest:
1. Ball Out Quicker, Play in Quicker
To quote HBO’s The Newsroom, “The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one.” The Browns currently have a problem on the offensive side of the ball- quarterback Baker Mayfield is holding on to the ball too long. Per Next Gen Stats, Mayfield has the third-longest amount of time elapsed from snap to throw at 3.07 seconds. Further, per Pro Football Focus (“PFF”) here are Mayfield’s time-to-throw splits through Week 2:
However, note that Mayfield is not solely at fault. On numerous occasions through the first two weeks of the season, the Browns offense has snapped the ball with little to no time left on the play clock. Part of the cause is the delay in getting the play call in, ergo limiting the time Mayfield has to identify defensive coverages and make adjustments/call audibles. The time-to-throw should decrease if certain changes can be made pre-play.
Lastly, a lot of fans and analysts alike are blaming the lackluster performance of the offense on the offensive line. Yes, there are still relative concerns with the position group, but the line has improved steadily and is giving the quarterback enough time to work through his progression and target the open receiver. Per ESPN Stats & Info, the Browns offensive line ranks number one overall in pass-block win rate (74%). On an individual basis at the position group level, left guard Joel Bitonio ranks first (100%), left tackle Greg Robinson ranks third (97%), and center J.C. Tretter ranks seventh (96%).
As offensive coordinator Todd Monken said on Thursday, “That is always something we look at, trying to get the ball in rhythm, quick-game rhythm throws. Some of that comes with screen games, some of it comes in the RPO world, some of it comes in the scheme and some of it in protection. It is all the above. Something we have to better at.”
2. Contain Aaron Donald
Breaking News: Aaron Donald is really, really good at the game of football. The dominant and uber-talented 3-technique has been named PFF’s number one player in the league three of the past four seasons. Further, he leads the league in most pressures over the past three seasons with 296 (46 more than second place). The Browns interior offensive line will be faced with the daunting task of containing the superstar via both double-teams and winning one-on-one match-ups.
In the words of Browns center J.C. Tretter: “He is a great player. It will be a good test for us. We will have a game plan and a plan for him, but everyone is going to have to have their one-on-one match-ups that they are going to have to win. You can’t find a way to double team a guy all of the time so we have to be good with our fundamentals and good with our technique…’ He continued (in describing Donald’s skillset), ‘Explosive, powerful but super quick with his hands. He is a great player. You have the five-tool baseball player or whatever it is. He is that for defensive linemen. He has everything you look for.”
As mentioned in key one above, the Browns offensive line has performed admirably thus far in 2019. In particular, the interior offensive line group of Bitionio, Tretter, and right guard Eric Kush have allowed a total of eight pressures, with zero sacks, and zero quarterback hits.
Containing Donald will be paramount in the success of this offense in Week 3. The aforementioned interior trio will have their hands full but have the talent, technique, and poise to limit his effectiveness and disruption.
3. Step Up, Denzel Ward
The second-year cornerback’s struggles have been well documented thus far in 2019. He has allowed seven receptions on twelve targets for 123 yards (17.6 yards per reception) and a 93.4 passer rating. He has the 89th overall defensive grade and 96th overall tackling grade among 98 qualifying cornerbacks (minimum 50 snaps). He continues to appear disinterested and lost in coverage versus opposing wide receivers.
Ward will be primarily tasked with covering Rams wide receiver Robert Woods, who had a breakout 2018 season, totaling 86 receptions for 1,219 yards, six touchdowns, and was PFFs number eight graded wide receiver. Depending on personnel usage and defensive scheme, he could also spend time in coverage versus wide receivers Brandin Cooks and Cooper Kupp, who complete one of the best young trios in the league.
It is time for Ward to step up and revert to the lockdown cornerback we saw in his sensational rookie season. If the Browns want to pull off the upset versus the Rams, Ward must stop allowing separation in coverage, finish tackles, and remain focused in a pivotal match-up.
The Week 3, prime time match-up should be one of the most exciting games of the week, with two (potentially) explosive offenses and big-time playmakers across the board. It’s time for the Browns to realize their potential, form an identity, and prove to the league that they’ve arrived. I can think no better place than under the national spotlight of Sunday Night Football.