Week 11 has come and gone, Thanksgiving is in the rearview which means Week 12 has started.
Another must-win game is on the horizon for the Cleveland Browns this Sunday as they will embark on a two-game west coast trip starting with the Denver Broncos. The last time the Browns traveled to Denver was back in 2019 (when quarterback Baker Mayfield was still on the team). No need to revisit that.
For the Denver Broncos, after a disastrous start to the season head coach Sean Payton has turned the team around. Many believed that Denver would be sellers at the trade deadline, but they stood pat and now they are on a four-game winning streak.
Offensively, the unit has been average. This isn’t a knock but after watching this team throughout the season, I have a clear grasp of what they are. Conservative, playing efficient football without turning the ball over.
Quarterback Russell Wilson hasn’t been fixed (I will explain why) but he looks better than what he was last year. Running backs Javonte Williams, Samaje Perine and undrafted rookie Jaleel Mclaughlin are a solid running back committee. In the receiver room, Cortland Sutton is building a rapport with Wilson and Jerry Jeudy is finding ways to be involved.
Defensively, after giving up 70 points to the Miami Dolphins, the unit has been much more improved. In terms of defensive efficiency they still rank dead last, but since Week 6 they rank 6th.
The unit is opportunistic, there are some flaws to exploit but they have played better as of late. Letting veteran players go such as Randy Gregory & Frank Clark, and allowing their younger talent to play seems to be the right decision. Safety Justin Simmons is one of the top 5 safeties in the league and cornerback Patrick Surtain is a top 3 cornerback.
Ohio State Buckeyes alums Jonathon Cooper and Baron Browning have also emerged as solid pass rushers.
Here are my three players to watch for in this week’s Browns vs Broncos:
QB Russell Wilson
Mr. Unlimited. Mr. “Broncos Country, let’s ride.”
The Browns weren’t the only team that made a blockbuster move to acquire a quarterback in the 20222 offseason. Denver traded for Russell Wilson from the Seattle Seahawks because they believed they were a QB away from contending for a Super Bowl.
Last year it was a disaster and many believed that Wilson was “washed” (For the older audience, essentially it’s when someone who was good at one point in their career isn’t anymore. Editor’s note: Appreciate that Curtiss is starting to think of us older folk.)
The tape and the stats backed it up, Russell was awful last season. Denver decided to fire head coach, and current offensive coordinator of the New York Jets, Nathanial Hackett and hire Sean Payton (even though they had to give up a 1st round pick to get him). Wilson looks better than last season, but Sean Payton has turned him into a game-manager:
Russell Wilson in his last four games:— PFF (@PFF) November 20, 2023
86.4% adjusted completion % (1st)
4-0 record pic.twitter.com/70sHovZ0Bi
As someone who is also a fan of the Seahawks, Russ started to show some signs of decline going back to late 2020 and 2021. His athleticism started to dip (that happens when you age) and his play-making began to deteriorate but the arm strength was still there.
Payton knows the limitations of his quarterback and Wilson is playing efficient football this season. He hasn’t been great but he’s been competent to the point that Payton doesn’t have thoughts about benching him.
For Cleveland, Wilson is not a pushover; he has one of those highlight plays every now and again. However, it will be interesting to see how the Browns defense looks against Denver.
WR Courtland Sutton
In terms of underrated receivers in the NFL, wide receiver Courtland Sutton is definitely in that room. Sutton has been talked about frequently (mainly because of trade rumors) but on the field he has been the main guy in Denver’s receiving room. Big body, has the ability to make 50/50 catches and has a good catch radius.
Sutton is building a rapport with his quarterback, similar to what was being built when Wilson was doing with Tyler Lockett. The similarities are glaring when it comes to the improbable catches that Sutton and Lockett did when Russell Wilson was throwing the ball to them.
Just an incredible catch by Tyler Lockett pic.twitter.com/zWrk0Zcgo4— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) September 18, 2018
Cleveland will look to slow down Sutton and look for the right matchup against him. With cornerback Martin Emerson at 6 ‘2, while Sutton is 6’ 4, the Browns could look to match him up with the bigger receiver. Look for Sutton this upcoming Sunday as a big part of the passing game.
RB Jaleel Mclaughlin
Staying on the offensive side of the ball, let’s highlight someone many aren’t but should be familiar with.
As someone who has ties to Notre Dame College (a division 2 school located in South Euclid, I was recruited to play there and know people who played for the team), Mclaughlin has been a revelation. After playing two seasons at NDC he later transferred to Youngstown State (a Division 1 FCS school) and put up numbers at both schools. Despite going undrafted, Mclaughlin earned a tryout with the Broncos and he earned his spot on the 53-man roster during an impressive preseason.
Despite being undersized, he has quickness and burst and is a threat in the passing game. His carries have been down with Perine back but he has found ways to get involved in Denver’s offense. Cleveland had to deal with Baltimore Ravens undrafted rookie Keaton Mitchell a few weeks ago and Mclaughlin is someone who can be a game changer.
Who do you think is the biggest threat to the Browns defense on Sunday?