Against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Cleveland Browns much-maligned defense gave up just 36 yards rushing and held Joe Burrow to under 250 yards passing. Holding the Bengals, even if they were without Ja’Marr Chase to 229 total yards is always impressive but even more so given the team’s struggles.
One of the biggest changes came due to season-ending injuries to Anthony Walker Jr. and Jacob Phillips in the first half of the season. Fellow linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah also missed the game which led to Sione Takitaki and Deion Jones shouldering the load for the defense’s second level.
Takitaki was particularly impactful with an impressive stat line: 6 tackles, 7 assists (13 combined). 1 sack, 1 TFL, 1 FF. Usually the team’s starting SAM linebacker, which doesn’t play a ton of snaps, Takitaki slid in as the MIKE (middle) linebacker against Cincinnati. Tasked with handling the middle of the defense, the former third-round pick was excited to switch roles:
I talked with #Browns LB Sione Takitaki last night in the locker room after their win over the Bengals. He said he's been waiting for his opportunity to play MIKE, usually getting limited snaps at SAM, but he's excited for what things look like going forward. pic.twitter.com/pzO5g4T9DS— Camryn Justice (@camijustice) November 1, 2022
Not only was Takitaki excited and put up quality stats but Pro Football Focus gave him the team’s second-highest grade on that side of the ball (87.3) behind Myles Garrett.
The BYU product hasn’t made a huge impact in his time in Cleveland. Before this season, his 43% of the team’s defensive snaps in 2020 was his most. Last year that dropped to 28% with just 10% as a rookie. Currently, Takitaki is at 56% of the team’s snaps with 276 while also playing his usual portion of special teams (66%).
With the major injuries and Jones still working his way back into top form, Takitaki has a chance to take over as the team’s starting MIKE linebacker going forward. He showed the ability to fit run gaps well while also playing in space:
With John Johnson III taking over play-calling duties again, Takitaki doesn’t have that duty to worry about in the middle. He can play downhill in the run game and he has also shown a knack for creating pressure including this strip sack of Burrow this week:
SIONE TAKITAKI MAKING PLAYS! pic.twitter.com/5deBKFkjPa— PFF CLE Browns (@PFF_Browns) November 1, 2022
This isn’t the first week that the former Cougar has looked good. Cory Kinnan did a film breakdown of Takitaki almost a month ago showing how well he is playing which included this statement:
There are few players in the league who know their role is predominantly to do the dirty work and keep their teammates clean. Takitaki is one of those players who knows his role and is more than happy to do it.
Perhaps it is just one week. Perhaps it was a fluke because Cincinnati has a poor offensive line, barely ran the ball and didn’t have Chase. Or, perhaps, Takitaki is a part of the answer to Cleveland’s defensive struggles at the MIKE spot.
Are you surprised by how well Takitaki has been playing and his ability in the middle?