Now that the Browns know for certain what to expect with Deshaun Watson and when he will return from his 11-game suspension, the work now falls directly on the players who remain that actually have to play the games.
The remainder of the schedule is not very friendly for one. They defeated a pesky Carolina team 26-24 but gave away the New York Jets game due to an inability to do math. After taking care of Pittsburgh, another loss to an Atlanta club they should have beaten. After that stretch of the “easy” games, reality has since set in.
And it may not be pretty.
Some view Watson as the savior of the season for this offense. But not everyone does. Regardless, he should provide a huge spark once he returns.
There are several players on this roster who the franchise will depend upon to carry the torch until their starting quarterback returns. Currently, QB Jacoby Brissett is the starter and has been a roller coaster in his first four games.
Like Watson, Brissett is a mobile quarterback. So far he has not racked up huge numbers running the ball, but he will take off and attempt to gain yardage. Which is a plus. He had four rushes for 10 yards in the opener, 43 yards on six carries against the Jets, three rushes for 11 yards in the Pittsburgh win, and five carries for 16 yards in the Atlanta loss with his only rushing touchdown. Brissett is a QB sneak master.
Going into this season, Brissett had 653 rushing yards on 178 attempts during his six-year career with 13 rushing touchdowns. He had also converted runs for 58 first downs. His best season was in 2017 when he garnered 260 rushing yards while with Indianapolis.
The offense so far this year has been running back run-heavy, but it will also incorporate the talents of a running signalcaller and have plays designed for this type of attack. In the Carolina game Cleveland ran the ball 39 times which made the passing game almost non-existent.
And while Brissett is willing to gain yardage with his legs, his passing is where he is lacking the most at times. His accuracy needs the most improvement along with going through his progressions quicker in an effort to find an open receiver. Often, he will overthrow the receiver.
However, his completion percentage are outstanding with 52.94, 81.48, 67.74 and 60.0 during these first four games.
His numbers against New York and especially Pittsburgh were outstanding.
With this in mind, Brissett has needed the offensive line to protect him when he drops back to pass. This will give him time to read where each receiver is and see which one may be able to lose his man and become unprotected.
The good news for Brissett is that there are two Pro Bowl players along this line in guards Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller. Both tackles are very good in Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills, but injury-prone. Conklin has been named First Team All-Pro in 2016 as well as 2020.
James Hudson played two games in his spot this year and did a decent job. The center position is what is the great unknown at this point and against Atlanta Ethan Pocic had his issues with bigger defensive tackles.
Pocic is the starter but will see if this continues as the season rolls along. Last year he ranked 10th among qualified centers in the league and garnered his highest run blocking grade of his career with a 76.0 rating.
If the O-Line can provide a secure pocket, Brissett’s success will increase along with how the offense performs on a weekly basis without having to force things.
The issue with this group is keeping the starters healthy. Last year Conklin played in only seven games before yet another injury shut him down for the remainder of the season and did not play the first two games this year. Wills missed several games which forced Cleveland to insert guys at both tackle positions who were forced to deal with some of the league’s most elite pass rushers.
Allowing the quarterback to be able to read the defense will force the defense to respect the threat of running for positive yardage and stop the practice of stacking the box.
Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt
Needless to say, if this offense is to succeed, both the star running backs will have to have premier games when called upon.
The Browns possess not only this duo of fine running backs, but have capable backups in D’Ernest Johnson and the rookie Jerome Ford (who just went on IR). But it will come down to the two starters to push for yardage and move the chains.
So far these hasn’t been any animosity regarding Chubb and Hunt sharing offensive snaps. Perhaps they both see this as a blessing instead of the acknowledgment that neither is actually the starting running back although Chubb does get the larger share of playing time.
Both players are good blockers and excellent receivers, especially Hunt.
What would be ideal, though, is to see these two in the same backfield at the same time. Imagine as a defense not knowing which will get the ball or which one to cover coming into the flats. So far this year that has happened only a few snaps.
This was particularly effective with past Cleveland running back tandems such as Jim Browns with Bobby Mitchell or Earnest Byner coupled alongside Kevin Mack. Two years ago, Chubb and Hunt flirted with each gaining 1,000-yards in the same backfield and could become that reality even now.
Most Rushes of 20+ Yards Since 2018:— CBS Sports HQ (@CBSSportsHQ) August 19, 2022
Nick Chubb 46
Lamar Jackson 34
Derrick Henry 32
Saquon Barkley 27
How many yards will Nick Chubb rack up this year? pic.twitter.com/3NnQ7vl9mF
And this does not have to happen all game with both in the game at the same time; but with several formations during each contest when the situation is best. Every player along the offensive line was scouted, drafted or signed because they were exceptional run blockers.
Against Carolina, Chubb muscled up 144 yards rushing on 22 carries and one reception for two yards. Hunt scored the game’s only touchdowns both running and receiving. He had 11 carries for 46 yards plus was the second leading receiver with four catches for a total of 24 yards.
Through four games Chubb has amassed the third most attempts with 81, second most rushing yards at 459 and second most rushing touchdowns (5). For Weeks 2-3 he led the league.
After four games Cleveland dropped from first to second in total rushing yards with 749. They are eighth in yards-per-carry (5.0), second in attempts (149), second in rushing touchdowns (7), and lead the league in rushes for first downs (46) and runs of 20+ yards (8).
So far Hunt has 200 yards on 46 carries. The snap counts are Hunt with 144 (36%) while Chubb has 163 (40.75% average).
They are both top players and are two key contributors, so why not use them together? This can only make an opponent think more and react less.
The best way to help the offense is to have a bend but don’t break defense. DC Joe Woods has a great group this year but so far is breaking more than just bending.
The highlight going into this year should have been the cornerback position with five very good players including Pro Bowler Denzel Ward, Greedy Williams, Greg Newsome, rookie Martin Emerson and backup A.J. Green. Williams suffered a hamstring issue which has sidelined him for at least a month. In his stead has been thrust into action the rookie Emerson.
This unit will go far if the pass rush can be an every game factor. As usual, All-World Myles Garrett has manned one end while the club again signed Jadeveon Clowney who really had a great second half last year. When Clowney went down after Week 2, the run defense really suffered. When Garrett was not available in Week 4 recuperating from his automobile accident, the pass rush fell out significantly and Atlanta was able to run on the Browns at will.
In the mix where expected the newer players such as DT Tavon Bryan and DE Chase Winovich. Bryan has been decent while Winovich was placed on IR with a hamstring issue in late September.
Several key rookies were then expected to become part of the rotation like defensive ends Alex Wright, Isaiah Thomas and Isaac Rochell along with DT Perrion Winfrey. All have played, and all have played like youngsters.
This enters the third year of Woods’ system.
This group took a year to jell after starting nine new players last year and have numerous playmakers who were expected to contribute such as JOK and Anthony Walker. Now Walker is out of the year.
There is a lot of optimism going into this season with guys who have had a full year to familiarize themselves with each other with responsibilities and consistency such as LB Jacob Phillips and S John Johnson. It is time for these guys to finally play as a unit.
Especially the linebacker room which has been molded together with one thing in mind: speed, speed and more speed.
Now these veterans have a grasp of the defense and how each other is going to react in different situations. It has taken time to get to this point, but this defense has the possibility to be one of the league’s best.
The expectations this year will be increased turnover production (ranked 21st), fewer missed tackles (10th most in 2021), hurry pressures up (ranked 22nd), and end the year as a Top-10 defense.
Or at least quit the practice of leaving receivers wide open.
Use the kicker
The Browns spent a fourth round pick on kicker Cade York out of LSU, now let’s use him and his strong leg instead of going for those fourth down situations near midfield.
This same scenario occurred against Carolina. On the Browns opening drive, it stalled at the Panthers’ 36-yard line. The distance for a field goal would have been 55-yards. Coach Kevin Stefanski went for the fourth-and-seven play instead to which Brissett overthrew receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones. Why didn’t they just kick it and take the three points?
This came into play at the end of the game. Carolina drove the field with Cleveland up 23-21 with just under two minutes left. Knowing they only needed a field goal to jump ahead, Carolina never attempted to score a touchdown. A five point edge would have forced them to re-think their strategy and find the end zone instead of playing for field position and taking three points.
After the Panthers made a successful field goal, now Cleveland was behind by one. That non-field goal on the opening drive came back to haunt the coaching staff.
York can nail the long ball as evidenced by him kicking the game winning 58-yarder. He is also very consistent with his success on all four field goal attempts. He was the talk of training camp by how accurate and uniform he is regarding conversions.
Utilizing York will add to the Browns scoreboard so that they won’t have to play catch-up. Who doesn’t want the Browns padding the lead?
And it is apparent the coaching staff is all-in with York. Once they drafted him, both kickers on the roster, Chase McLaughlin and Chris Blewitt, were released within three days. York received “Training Camp Rookie of the Year” honors.
Despite the hype, what can he do in pressure situations? Well, his entire college career was based on making field goals with the game on the line. The 57-yarder to beat Florida with :27 left was not only on the road in a very loud stadium, but the field was engulfed with fog. His career longest to that point was 53-yards yet the kick landed square in the center of the uprights.
The camera used was the SkyCam which was stationed about 15-yards behind York as he lined up his kick before the snap. From that view, which was also the kicker’s view, you could not even see the goalposts because of the thick air that provided a frosted look downfield. This one kick should alleviate any concerns about whether York can kick in pressure situations.
The past two seasons the Browns have struggled to convert fourth downs, 40.74% in 2020 (ranked 27th) and 41.28% last year (30th).
Look at the Atlanta loss by three points. There were two instances that York could have been used to attempt field goals: one a chip shot whereas the other if made would tie an NFL record. York was not used in either, and the Browns lost by three.
York can be used to kick long field goals instead which will allow the offense to get some kind of points despite drive breakdowns near midfield. This was displayed perfectly in the second preseason game against Philadelphia when York was summoned in the second quarter. He nailed a 50-yard attempt. The 55-yarder he attempted in the third quarter, with the location of where it hit the upright as the kick was no good, if the ball was true it would have been good for another 10-yards.
Against Chicago, he made good on kicks of 46 and 57 and barely missed a 58-yarder.
Seen the vid of him nailing a 70-yarder in pre-game warmups?