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Browns: Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down after four weeks

Cleveland finished the “easy” part of their schedule at 2-2. So what went right and what went wrong for the Browns?

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Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

The Cleveland Browns have experienced a bit of a “fill in the blank” through the first four weeks of the season.

Depending on how one views the preceding month of games, the Browns sitting at 2-2 is:

  • Frustrating because they are just a couple of defensive breakdowns away from being 4-0
  • Relieved because they could be 0-4 if not for rookie Cade York converting a 58-yard field goal and the luxury of playing against Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mitch Trubisky
  • Disappointing because they did not take better advantage of the “easy” portion of their schedule and build up a cushion over the rest of the AFC North Division
  • Acceptable given that the Browns are in the opening stages of an 11-game stretch with Jacoby Brissett as the starting quarterback

No matter the varying moods of the fan base, the reality is that Cleveland finds itself in a tie for first place and already 1-0 in the division thanks to the win against the Steelers.

With that in mind, let’s do an always popular “thumbs up, thumbs down” look at the Browns while awaiting Sunday’s home game against the Los Angeles Chargers.

Thumbs up - running back Nick Chubb: Despite fears that opposing defenses would oversell to stop the running game since they would not fear Brissett at quarterback, Chubb has continued to cement his place as one of the league’s best. After his 118-yard performance last week against the Atlanta Falcons, Chubb has surpassed 100 rushing yards in three of the season’s four games and currently sits second in rushing yards (459), second in rushing touchdowns (five), first in runs of more than 20 yards (five), and is averaging a career-high 5.7 yards per carry.

While there is constant agita from certain corners of Browns fans who go on about the team needing a wide receiver to “take the top off the defense” Chubb continues to be at his best even with the defense knows what is coming, as ESPN’s Bill Barnwell points out:

What makes Chubb truly unique is his ability to dominate in situations when the opposing team is loading up to stop him. During the offseason, I wrote about how Chubb dominates against loaded boxes. This season is no different. When all of the league’s running backs average 4.2 yards per carry against loaded boxes, Chubb averages 6.1 yards per rush and generates 1.6 RYOE per attempt. If he were playing in the 1970s, he would be a multi-time MVP. Here, he deserves to be considered one of the best offensive players in the league, full stop.

Chubb does not always get the love he deserves outside of Cleveland, but he continues to be the best at what he does.

Thumbs down - wide receivers not named Amari Cooper: The Browns knew what to expect when they acquired wide receiver Amari Cooper in the offseason and so far Cooper has not disappointed as he leads the team in receptions (20), receiving yards (228) and touchdown receptions (two). It was the rest of the position group that was a concern, and no one else has really stepped up to relieve those fears.

The other three wide receivers to catch a pass for the Browns this season are Donovan Peoples-Jones, David Bell and Anthony Schwartz, and their combined stats still trail Cooper’s production as that trio has just 17 receptions for 207 yards and one touchdown.

Cleveland has other options in the passing game, most notably tight end David Njoku and running back Kareem Hunt, but if another wide receiver does not start producing more consistently, then Cooper is going to see a lot more attention from opposing defenses, which could result in more games like the ones against the Falcons (one reception for nine yards) and Carolina Panthers (three receptions for 17 yards).

NFL: New York Jets at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Thumbs up - quarterback Jacoby Brissett: There was no bigger question mark at the start of the season than what to expect from quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Even though Brissett had started 41 games in six seasons prior to coming to Cleveland, only five of those starts had come in the past two years.

But Brissett has turned out to be everything the Browns could have hoped for, even though there have been a few bumps along the way. Brissett is currently completing a career-best 64.6 percent of his passes, has avoided turning the ball over (just two interceptions, one of which came in desperation time against the Jets), and has a quarterback rating of 87.1 (better than notable quarterbacks Kyler Murray, Matt Ryan, Kirk Cousins and Derek Carr).

Those good moments have fortunately outweighed the bad and quieted the preseason noise that the Browns should be starting Josh Dobbs, but there have still been times when Brissett reminds everyone that his best role is probably as a backup quarterback who only gets called on in an emergency.

If Brissett can continue to have the good be good enough that it makes the bad irrelevant, then the Browns should be able to come out of this 11-game stretch in pretty decent shape.

Thumbs down - the defensive secondary: With questions swirling around the quarterback position, the Browns headed into the regular season with the expectation that the defense would be able to build off a strong close to the 2021 season. After all, defensive coordinator Joe Woods was back for his third season, and a year after opening with eight new starters, the Browns were bringing back nine starters on defense.

New York Jets v Cleveland Browns Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Perhaps nowhere was confidence as high as within the defensive secondary, which included five returning starters in cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Greg Newsome II and safeties John Johnson III, Grant Delpit and Ronnie Harrison Jr. General manager Andrew Berry even went as far as to add another cornerback to the mix in rookie Martin Emerson Jr.

Things have actually gone pretty well on the defensive side of the ball as the Browns are fourth in the NFL in yards allowed per game, fifth in passing yards allowed, ninth in points allowed and 11th in rushing yards allowed.

But something happens once the game hits the fourth quarter, as these two Tweets from ESPN’s Jake Trotter highlight:

Communication breakdowns in the secondary almost cost the Browns their Week 1 win against Carolina, did cost them a win against the Jets in Week 2, and helped contribute to the Week 4 loss to Atlanta.

While it was not all about the secondary against the Falcons - when a defense gives up 172 rushing yards in the second half of a game there is plenty of blame to go around - but the secondary still chipped in with another breakdown that allowed a 42-yard reception on Atlanta’s final drive of the game that resulted in the game-winning field goal.

Every week Woods and the players talk about how they need to fix the communication issues, but so far that has not been the case. The Browns do not have a lot of room for errors as it is, so if they want to stay in the playoff hunt this is one area that needs a permanent solution.

NFL: New York Jets at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Thumbs up - Kevin Stefanski’s play calling: We’ve gone over some of the areas that have gone well and not so well with Cleveland’s offense, which brings us to head coach Kevin Stefanski, who continues to draw the ire of fans and bewilder media members who are still stuck in the 1980s.

Despite the limitations presented by playing with a backup quarterback and a wide receiver group that is still finding its way, the Browns are tied for sixth in scoring and are currently ranked as the seventh-best offense by Pro Football Focus:

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Browns have the No. 1 rushing attack in the league through four games. Nick Chubb is PFF’s highest-graded running back (88.5), and Kareem Hunt has played well this season en route to seven 10-plus-yard runs.

On top of just their raw PFF grades, the Browns lead the NFL in several rushing categories, including yards after contact (543), rushing first downs (46) and missed tackles forced (46). And in most categories, there is a pretty big gap between them at No. 1 and the next team at No. 2.

The passing attack has been a bit hit or miss this season, but it’s still better than expected with Jacoby Brissett under center. Once Deshaun Watson returns to the lineup, Cleveland has a chance to field one of the NFL’s most efficient offenses.

Some of the loudest criticism has centered on Stefanski’s play calls on fourth down despite the Browns converting at a 67 percent rate. The best example coming against the Falcons featured an incomplete pass on the game’s opening drives that left people screaming about “always going for the points” with a field goal.

Of course, that overlooks the two fourth-down calls in the second quarter that resulted in 10 points and completely ignores that if Brissett had hit a wide-open Kareem Hunt on a screen and a wide-open Nick Chubb instead of firing the ball out of the end zone then “passing on three points” on the opening drive would have had even less impact on the final score than it ultimately did.

And that does not even get into the fourth-down decisions that helped drive the Browns to a win over the Steelers when the players successfully executed as opposed to coming up short.

The frustration over the Browns not being 4-0 is understandable, but the idea that Stefanski is on the “hot seat” or needs to give up calling the plays on offense simply ignores what is happening on the field and the limitations of the current starting quarterback.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports

Thumbs down - injuries on defense: It is a bit unfair to point out the issues on the defensive side of the ball without also highlighting the injuries that have hit the squad.

Starting linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. suffered a season-ending injury in Week 3 that forced linebacker Jacob Phillips to play more in Week 4 and get exploited by the Falcons in the run game.

Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney has missed the past two games with an ankle injury and he was joined on the sidelines for the Atlanta game by defensive end Myles Garrett while Garrett dealt with injuries from his single-car accident. Defensive tackle Taven Bryan also missed the game with a hamstring injury and backup defensive end Chase Winovich is currently on injured reserve.

In the secondary, cornerback Greedy Williams opened the season on injured reserve and safety Ronnie Harrison Jr. missed the Pittsburgh game with an injury.

Some of those absences are obviously more important than others, but they still have an accumulative impact on the defense’s performance as the drop-off in talent gives opposing offenses an obvious area to exploit.

It’s a bit of a downer to end one of these on a negative note, but we’ve probably said enough on the matter. Now it is your turn - what did you like about the Browns during the season’s first four weeks and what left you stressed out about what is still to come?