Are you ready for some football? Wait, wrong nationally televised NFL game theme song. Well, the 3-6 Cleveland Browns play the 5-4 Pittsburgh Steelers in what was supposed to be a passing of the torch season between the two franchises; maybe it still can be.
So, where do the Browns sit now coming off their first win since destroying the Baltimore Ravens? The WFNY staff is here to give you there thoughts as the Browns look to stay undefeated in the AFC North division.
Here we go.
Gilbert: I feel good about this team for a couple of reasons. One is that I see improvement in a number of areas. The penalty and turnovers have dwindled over the past couple of weeks. Baker Mayfield has played well over the last few weeks and the run defense was strong on Sunday. Improvement is being shown. The second reason is the infusion of Kareem Hunt. Hunt makes the offense so much more dynamic. What we saw versus the Bills is just the beginning of what Hunt can do for the offense.
Suek: I am cautiously optimistic. I say cautiously because of the continued coaching blunders that could have reversed the fate of the game. However, Baker Mayfield has returned-to-form in certain ways since the bye week and also Gilbert’s comments above about Hunt. I am hoping the victory vs. the Bills restores this team’s confidence and is the start of a winning streak that gets them back into the playoff mix.
Bode: The Browns probably should have beat the Broncos and Rams; yet lost. The Browns well could have lost to the Bills, but won. There are still some major deficiencies that need to be overcome before the team is one that can be relied upon to consistently add numbers to the win column.
Gerbs: I feel better with a win, but I’m not sure we are going to be making plans for Week 18 beyond looking at mock drafts. It’s a daunting task to win out with eight games remaining, regardless of how good or bad the competition is. Let’s see how tonight goes.
Poloha: A win is a win, and I’ll take a W whenever I can get it, but Sunday’s game did feel strange. The Bills are good but I don’t think they’re as good as their 6-2 record. This game against Pittsburgh will be a big test. Not only are the Steelers playing well and seemingly have a dominant defense, but it’s a rival that has dominated the Browns for much of the last two decades. I feel good about the win, but it all just comes down to tonight and then we’ll go from there.
Gilbert: I expect the Browns to rely heavily on these two versus the Steelers. As I said earlier in the season, Nick Chubb can run against any defense and be successful against any defense. I expect him to run well and I also expect Hunt to have an even more increased role on Thursday. I expect more handoffs for Hunt than he had versus the Bills. These two will be the keys to victory against the Steelers.
Suek: I would continue with the “20” and “21” personnel groupings that Freddie deployed vs. the Bills. Hunt proved more than competent as fullback/lead-blocker and also picked up where he left off in 2018 from rushing and receiving perspective. The two should be the cornerstone of this offense.
Bode: On Friday morning, there is a good chance that Hunt will be fourth on the Browns in total receptions for 2019 despite the Steeler game being only his second appearance. While that might say more about the passing game than Hunt overall, the expectation should be for the Browns to try to beat Pittsburgh with Chubb-Hunt combination both on the ground and in the air.
Gerbs: Ride the “Pony” as long as it works. There is no reason to move off of Hunt/Chubb being a running back tandem until you’re given one. As I stated in today’s While We’re Waiting: with Hunt as his lead blocked, Chubb ran for 87 yards on seven carries. Those numbers are amazing and exactly what Cleveland needs to help out Baker through his protection issues.
Poloha: Even with Baker, OBJ, and Jarvis, the offense runs through Nick Chubb (and now Kareem Hunt). Get the running game going, especially against an average run defense, and then allow that to open up the passing game, including play-action. If Chubb and Hunt can get going again, that’s huge for this offense and takes some of the pressure off of Baker.
Gilbert: The red zone struggles can be blamed on numerous things. One thing is the play calling. We saw way too many condensed formations in run plays, which makes the running lanes a lot tighter. We also saw similar plays run in succession, which helps the defense out. And, the Browns are running way too many horizontal runs and pitches near the goal line. Another reason is just a lack of execution in the red zone. And the last main reason is simple. The Browns have had the opportunities, but they are simply missing out on these opportunities. I would love for the Browns to utilize both Chubb and Hunt together more in the red zone. I also think spreading it out more can help the rung game have more success in the red zone.
Suek: Every trip to the red zone is cringe-worthy at this point. The offense continuously moves the ball at-will and then runs into a Pink Floyd brick in the wall once they reach the opponents’ 20-yard line. If I remember correctly, the Browns did not utilize “20” or “21” personnel in the red zone last week even with the immense success in other field zones. Part of this could have been a lack of preparation on the coaching staff or merely not enough implementation time upon Hunt’s arrival. Running the ball north and south and targeting Odell Beckham, Jr. should remain the focal point.
Bode: The issue? Well, how long do you have? There’s the offensive line getting zero push forward– and often getting pushed backward. There’s Mayfield not reading what the defense will do and zeroing in on the wrong target. There’s a lack of creativity overall. And, there’s this insistence on everyone but the biggest playmakers getting targets and touches once inside the 20. We’re about ready to have Jarvis Landry take a sweep and throw a pass to Odell Beckham Jr territory here and there.
Poloha: Playcalling, Baker being an average quarterback this season, and the bad offensive line. It’s a combination of a number of things, but those three seem to stick out. Feed Chubb, please.
Gerbs: Let’s see more of the running backs together in the backfield for those plays. Sweeps can work, but not if the offensive line is getting blown up or the defense knows what is coming. Having both Hunt and Chubb in the backfield is just adding multiple wrinkles to the offense, since both are gifted pass catchers.
Gilbert: I think Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham Jr. and Kareem Hunt will see the most target down the stretch. I would love for Rashard Higgins to get more targets, but I just have not seen the evidence that this can be the case. Callaway should see the fewest targets going forward amongst this group of players.
Suek: I’ll echo what Gilbert said above in that the target distribution will most likely be divided up among Landry, Beckham, Jr. and Hunt for the remainder of the season. The Higgins situation remains a puzzle for which we do not have the corner pieces. If you watched the game replay, you could see head coach Freddie Kitchens mouth the words “Good call” to Baker after the Higgins touchdown reception. So, maybe Kitchens will allot more targets for Higgins based on the QB-WR rapport and relationship.
Bode: If Callaway was cut/waived, then it could be a better long-term stability for the organization showing that they will not tolerate his off-field antics and on-field inconsistency. There apparently is something going on with Higgins as well, but no one wants to say what– some reports noted he refused to go into the Seattle game. So, I have no clue what target ratios will look like other than Landry and Beckham should get the vast majority.
Poloha: I hope so. In terms of targets, it should be OBJ and Landry atop the list (depending on who’s getting double covered and whatnot), and then Higgins. Following those three, I don’t really care, honestly. Higgins needs the ball more. Give it to your playmakers and let them make plays.
Gerbs: If Callaway went away, I would be hard pressed to shed a tear. As much as I would love to see more Higgins, the offense did alright with Hunt being the de facto WR3, behind OBJ and Landry in targets. If those four, OBJ/Landry/Higgins/Hunt are the ones getting 80-90% of targets going forward, I’d be a happy guy.
Gilbert: I hope it was a sign of things to come for the Browns run defense. We saw early in the season that they can be successful, but that level of performance disappeared for a long stretch. I think the Browns run defense can sustain that level because they showed it versus a good running team in Buffalo. Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi will be the keys to the success of this run defense.
Suek: I am torn a little bit here because I am not a believer in the Bills offense in general. I believe the Browns rush defense will fall somewhere in the middle of the Ravens/49ers dreadfulness and the performance vs. the Bills. This week will be a good test vs. the Steelers and James Conner. Shut down the running game and the Steelers offense should have trouble moving the ball.
Bode: James Conner appears to be back to health, so it will be apparent soon enough if the Browns run defense is improved. I’m skeptical as the Browns have been a bottom third run defense all year with their defensive line being considered a Bottom 5 group by Football Outsiders against the run.
Poloha: A combination of both. Being optimistic here, I hope it’s a sign of things to come but we’ll have to wait and see.
Gerbs: Since the bye week, the defense has held opposing rushers under 100 yards two out of three games. Connor returning for Pittsburgh doesn’t do them any favors, but I’m starting to believe in this defense.
Gilbert: The Browns must pressure Mason Rudolph into mistakes. I would try to disguise my coverages and blitzes so it can confuse the young quarterback. The Browns must stop the run, so the pressure of the Steelers offense falls on the shoulders of Rudolph.
Suek: Attack, attack, attack. Mason Rudolph has the 2nd-lowest averaged completed air yards figure thus far in 2019. Play Cover-1 and force the quarterback into quick decisions and errant throws. This will place a lot of pressure on cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams, but they have proven more-than-capable of shutting down opposing wide receivers.
Bode: The defensive line is Top 10 against the pass– i.e. getting to the quarterback– so, Wilks should rely on them to do so. Tell the defensive line to go eat and playback with everyone else. Accept that they haven’t been good against the run anyway and game plan in the linebackers and safeties cleaning up their mess– they’ll have to anyway. As Cody noted, Rudolph doesn’t like to go deep, so the Browns defense can really mess things up by constricting his available passing lanes, while the defensive line applies pressure.
Poloha: Make Rudolph throw the ball deep. Ever since Big Ben went down, the Steelers have loved to either run the ball or have the quarterback throw it short. Load the box and forced Rudolph to beat you downfield, all while pressuring him and forcing him out of his comfort zone.
Gerbs: Pittsburgh has been super careful on offense with Randolph as the QB, not trying to push the ball downfield much. Getting him moving and applying pressure to see what he can do when he HAS to throw downfield should be the game plan for this defense. Feast Myles…feast!
Gilbert: I believe the Browns will make the playoffs. I am not leaving my preseason prediction that they will makes the playoffs. I think the infusion of Hunt into the offense is a game-changer for this offense. With the schedule easing up and the AFC not being filled with a lot of great teams, the opportunity is there for the Browns to get into a Wild Card spot. Winning on Thursday puts the Browns in great position to make the necessary run to the playoffs. The talent is still here to do it.
Suek: No. I believe the margin for error is just too slim at this point, with the team most likely having to win six of their last seven games to make it. With that said, the mindset has to be the cliche “one game at a time.” The talent is there, but will the talent ever meet actuality this season?
Bode: Eh… I don’t care as much as I want the Browns to prove that this team and this coaching staff is capable of being the answer moving forward. Win games, yes, but also give us consistency on offense and effort. For the playoffs, the odds say no but there are so many mediocre AFC teams this year that maybe someone sneaks in at 9-7. Regardless, winning games during this easy stretch and shutting up anyone calling for Kitchens to be fired are the priorities.
Poloha: I would love to say yes but it’s just going to be too tough I think. At 3-6, they have to win out; going 9-7 (one more loss) might not make the postseason. Prove me wrong and do it, Browns.
Gerbs: I want it to happen, but winning out is so hard. I do agree with Joe in that Hunt coming in and being a breath of fresh air and adding some creativity is huge, but I’m just not sure we can trust this coaching staff to keep the team together like this past Sunday for a whole eight game win streak.