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10 things to watch in the Browns’ Week 3 match-up and the NFL

We look at the feel-good story of Jordan Leslie, the crucial stretch of games coming up for Cleveland, the waiver wire situation, and more.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens Patrick McDermott-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Week 3 of the NFL! This weekly column includes a lot of loose ends leading up to Sunday’s game.

Pokorny’s 10 Things to Watch in Week 3 - Browns and the NFL

1. The Feel-Good Story of Jordan Leslie: In Week 2 against the Ravens, WR Rashard Higgins was a last-second promotion from the practice squad, and then he stunned with a 7-catch, 95-yard performance, both career highs, to lead the team in receiving. Could we be seeing the same thing with WR Jordan Leslie this week?

The door opened for Leslie thanks to injuries to WR Corey Coleman (broken hand) and WR Sammie Coates (hamstring). The team waived WR Reggie Davis on Friday, promoting Leslie from the practice squad. Like Higgins the week before, it’s a sign that the team intends on having Leslie active on gameday. It’s the feel-good story that tugs at my heart, though. He was devastated when he didn’t make the Browns’ 53-man roster after a good camp and preseason, and then even more surprised when no one came calling for even a practice squad spot. He posted the following message to Twitter Friday afternoon:

“25 years of dreaming. Over 2 years of bouncing around. plenty of times being told I wasn't good enough. 5 cuts. Countless hours, staying late, extra work, and all the sweat, blood, tears were for this moment.

A week ago, I was sleeping on my brother's couch thinking 'this could be it for my NFL career,' and now I'm getting this opportunity. All you can ever do is control your work ethic and attitude. Life is far from fair and will never be easy, but we have to make the most of it. Whether it's for a week or for many years to come, all I can do is keep giving it my all. Thank you to everyone that has shown me love and support. I hope my journey can help inspire at least one person to never give up. #11 is active!”

Remember that Leslie also worked on the third unit this preseason with QB DeShone Kizer, so the pair should have some chemistry together. I expect Leslie to be used in some quick slant routes if the team gets near the goal line, as well as a few plays in the slot if Higgins needs a break.

2. Critical Four-Game Stretch: Earlier this week, I had to answer the question about “what they get wrong,” meaning the media or other team blogs/fans with respect to the Browns. I chose the fact that people assume that the jobs of Hue Jackson and the front office could be in jeopardy if Cleveland keeps losing. Funny enough, right on cue, that was the first question our Colts affiliate asked about this week.

But now, it’s time for me to be a little hypocritical: this upcoming four-game stretch is crucial for the Browns’ morale, especially Sunday’s game against the Indianapolis Colts. Overall, the four-game stretch includes Indianapolis, Cincinnati, New York (Jets), and Houston. Only Houston has a win, and it came against the Bengals.

Collectively, those four teams -- and then factor in the Browns -- are viewed as being among the five worst teams in the NFL (the Jaguars would be in the mix too). In essence, I am viewing this stretch of the schedule as kind of a “D-League NFL Tournament.” Which team is going to show they are not quite as bad as the others? That they’ve made real progress? When it comes to development and roster building, the Browns should be further along than the Jets and Bengals, and the Colts without Andrew Luck. The Texans are a mess just because of their awful offensive line play.

A loss isn’t the end of the world for the Browns, but just like the 4-0 preseason built confidence and set a tone, this game against Indy needs to be the start of that for the regular season. When this stretch of the schedule is done, it’d be fantastic if the team finished 2-2 or 3-1, at which point they could have a lot more stuff to build off of.

3. Joe Thomas’ Wise Words on Rushing Stats: Listening to Joe Thomas talk is a treat, and he was in top form this week when discussing the barometer for a good running game. Rather than looking at whether a team is above 4.0 yards per carry, Thomas stresses rushing efficiency, which means did you get a first down, touchdown, or a 4-yard run or more on at least 60% of your attempts?

Thomas’ criteria aligns perfectly with Isaiah Crowell from this past week, since he had 10 carries that we broke down. Only 30% of his runs would’ve fallen under the rushing efficiency category. But it’s a barometer we can continue to use moving forward, and something that will especially be useful against a Colts run defense that has been tough through two games.

4. Waiver Wire Reset: Did you enjoy the Browns having the top waiver wire spot in the NFL for a good stretch of time? Enjoy it no more, as Joel Corry of CBS Sports confirmed a few weeks ago that starting this coming week, waiver priority will be determined by inverse order of record for the 2017 season.

Technically, if the Browns are winless, they would be among the teams who could still hold the top waiver priority. But assuming they win or other teams have the same record, they’ll have to wait their turn in the waiver list, just like everyone else. Not that teams are waiving good players left and right now that we’re in-season, but I think it’s still good to keep in mind.

5. Gregg Williams on the Deep Safety Role: Every week, we’re going to highlight at least one of the topics that defensive coordinator Gregg Williams talked about on Friday. This week, he discussed utilizing Jabrill Peppers in the deep free safety role, how he’s been doing it for years, and the effectiveness its had through two weeks.

On if he has always played a safety as deep as DB Jabrill Peppers has been playing:

“When you ask that, you haven’t looked at the other places I have coached? It is the same. I first started out with (former Redskins DB) Sean Taylor, who is the best football player I have ever coached. The day he broke the record on (Pro Football Hall of Fame QB Brett) Favre throwing the most interceptions in NFL history, he had the opportunity to get five that day. He dropped two other ones.

One of the other things, and I laughed because somebody asked me in the organization how come I play Peppers so deep. They said, ‘Why is Peppers playing so deep?’ Because I told him to. If he no longer does what I tell him to do, he is going to be your intern or someone else’s intern in the building.

He is going to play where I tell him to play, and when you take a look at how well he has played, there have only been four passes thrown farther than 20 yards against us this year – two have been interceptions, one has been an incompletion and one was caught by (Steelers WR) Antonio Brown that still pisses me the F off. That was a punt. That wasn’t a throw. That ball should have been knocked down, carted off or turned over. No way should that pass have been complete.

Jabrill is doing very well. He is doing very well. Not only him but some of the other things we do, you haven’t seen them all because of the philosophy of things against us, but we have 18 pictures of where he plays. There are 18 different spots he is supposed to play when he is back there or wherever he is at. It will just go into whatever game plan is effective. You will see him in different places this week in certain spots because of what we want the quarterback to believe. To believe, not to know, but to believe.”

On temptation to move Peppers closer to the line due to his tackling ability:

“Let me ask you this, who else do you want me to put back there? Nobody else. No, no, no, nope, nope. You haven’t been watching practice. You have been over yik-yakking over there when we are practicing. No. Nope.

I have given every single defensive back a chance to prove that you can be the angel of this defense. The angel is the person who covers everybody else up. He is the angel. That is the big picture we have in our defensive team meeting room in the back of the room. Why is it in the back of the room and not in the front of the room? Because you are in the back of the defense and you have to be the angel.

The tackling in space, he will tell you right now it is 10 times easier doing it from that position. I used to be a DBs coach a long time ago, too. I shake my head in this high school and college stuff that I see and NFL stuff that I see where you place a safety 12 to 14-yards deep. Then you tell him to sprint back 25 yards and then break on the ball. You have to understand how much distance he can travel after he transitions out of a backpedal instead of just standing there flat-footed and letting Jabrill cut it loose. I’m not as smart as you guys, I guess.”

I respect the decision to play our defense that way, and it’ll work out better when we get Myles Garrett back to deliver some pressure. At the same time, it’s too bad we won’t be able to see Peppers more actively involved on plays near the line of scrimmage unless its in the red zone. For example, take a look at the job he did here stopping a running back on third down last week:

6. A Few Notes About Last Week’s Loss: Here are a couple of loose ends I wanted to address about last week’s loss to the Ravens:

  • We know the biggest swing in the game came at the end of the first half, but the Browns’ coverage players made a mistake by not committing a hold on all of the receivers, specifically Jeremy Maclin. With five seconds on the clock, I think the Ravens wanted to take one quick shot so that one second would be left if they missed, and then would’ve taken the field goal. Therefore, the Browns should’ve committed holding so that it’s an incomplete pass, and then forcing the Ravens in a do-or-die mode.
  • Larry Ogunjobi continued to impress with his power against the Ravens. Even though this didn’t lead to a loss, here he is blowing up RG Marshal Yanda before he suffered a season-ending injury:
  • The No. 1 element that has to improve this week on defense is the communication between the linebackers in passing down situations. These are just two examples; the first one shows OLB Christian Kirksey dropping back too far and allowing a first down right at the sticks, while the second one shows a wide open Benjamin Watson on a play that Joe Flacco didn’t see.

7. First Time Favored in Forever: The last time the Browns were favored to win a regular season came was in Week 14 of the 2015 season against the San Francisco 49ers. Cleveland was a two-point home favorite despite having lost seven games in a row, but they covered the spread with a 24-10 victory. In that game, Johnny Manziel was under center and the team combined for 230 rushing yards in a decisive victory.

Betting sites vary, but at last check, Bovada has Cleveland as one-point road favorites against the Colts. In addition, the Browns are being picked by many members of the media, including the majority of people at Pro Football Focus.

8. Cedar Point Ticket Promotion: In one of the most fascinating promotions I’ve ever heard of, every fan who redeems a ticket and enters FirstEnergy Stadium for Week 4’s Browns vs. Bengals game will receive a boarding pass code for Cedar Point. If you redeem that code within the appropriate timeline, you’ll receive a free ticket in 2018 to Cedar Point.

Crain’s Cleveland obtained more clarity on the promotion, and it’s true that even if you buy a cheap ticket on the market (i.e. StubHub), you’ll still be eligible for the Cedar Point voucher. So if you planned on attending Cedar Point in 2018, you could actually save a good chunk of change by attending the game. As of this post, the cheapest tickets for the game are around $35.

9. NFL Week 3 Picks: I opened the season at 12-4, improving my record to 22-10 on the year (1-1 in Browns games). Here are my Week 3 picks, along with a few notes.

  • I’ll admit that I under-estimated the Ravens quite a bit. I don’t see them as a group that will completely shut down teams, but they have a very opportunistic group, evidenced by logging 8 interceptions through 2 games. Losing Marshal Yanda and Brandon Williams, their best trench players on each side of the ball, hurts big time. But it won’t hurt them enough against a team like Jacksonville.
  • Through two weeks, Jordan Poyer (now with the Bills) is the top-ranked safety in football. Go figure. The Broncos are back to playing like a complete football team, much to my surprise, so I’m taking them.
  • The Panthers’ offense can’t quite get going, but defense is what will make them a contender. They’ve allowed just 3 points in each of their first 2 games. Although the Saints can score, they’ve struggled to find a rhythm and their defense remains poor.
  • The Steelers over the Bears is the lock of the week, even if Pittsburgh is on the road.
  • The game of the week should be the Falcons vs. Lions. Both teams are off to 2-0 starts, with Matthew Stafford looking as comfortable as ever. I like the Lions here in a bit of a mini-upset.
  • I’ve made it clear that I’m not a Sam Bradford fan, but the Vikings have no hope of winning without him. The Patriots over the Texans isn’t much of a reach, but Miami can still remain atop of the division for now as nobody should be losing to the Jets.
  • The Giants had Odell Beckham back last week and still laid an egg. This won’t be a banner season for Eli Manning, although New York can still get back into things quickly as the other teams in their division are all 1-1. Instead, I just see Philly winning and sending them further behind.
  • The Seahawks’ offense has been wildly disappointing, and Tennessee got back into a rhythm last week against the Jaguars. Marcus Mariota can pull off another mini-upset here, even though they’re the home team.
  • The 49ers got their first touchdown this week (and then some). I think the Bengals will finally reach paydirt this week against the Packers. Actually, I’m praying that they do, because I don’t want the Browns to be the first to give up a touchdown to them. But Aaron Rodgers should still be able to beat this team in his sleep.
  • The Chargers just always seem to be on the cusp, don’t they? Two weeks in a row now, they’ve lost due to unfortunate kicking situations at the end of the game.
  • Sunday Night Football features the Raiders vs. Redskins. This should be a good one — Derek Carr always delivers, and we get to see Terrelle Pryor in prime time.
  • It was pretty stunning to see how ineffective the Cowboys’ running game was a week ago. The Cardinals are a very tough team to judge — I don’t see them as a bad team, but rather one that has lost its way a little bit.

10. Predicting the Browns’ Week 3 Inactives: I predict the following players will be inactive for Sunday’s game against the Indianapolis Colts:

Projected Inactives: QB Cody Kessler, WR Sammie Coates, OL Zach Banner, OL Marcus Martin, DE Myles Garrett, DL Caleb Brantley, and CB Reggie Porter.

This week, we know for sure that Coates is out. Garrett is doubtful, so he’s like a second guaranteed out in my mind. I went with the same two offensive linemen that have been out the first two games, so that’s four players. Kessler as the third quarterback means he’ll be inactive, so that’s five players.

The two remaining spots went to Brantley and Porter. Brantley is a flip from having T.Y. McGill on the list. McGill is questionable this week, and I still believe he’ll play when healthy because otherwise, the team would’ve just cut him. Porter is a newcomer from Baltimore’s practice squad, but Cleveland has to keep him on the roster for three weeks. I don’t see him stepping into a gameday role right away, unless the team feels they need him as a gunner with Coates being out.