A six-pack of thoughts on the Cleveland Browns ahead of their Sunday matchup against the Tennessee Titans.
1. Obviously, the Browns are facing a big moment Sunday. The pass offense has been putrid. Nick Chubb’s season is over. Six days after losing one they should have won, in large part because they gave up two defensive touchdowns, the Browns get a game they have to win against a Titans team that’s probably fine getting into the kind of 16-13 (or 11-10) brawl this one shapes up to be.
The sky is not falling. Not yet, anyway. It does not fall in September. The swarming Browns defense has been really, really good — more details on that below — and Cleveland now gets two home games before a bye week. There’s a long way to go, and being 1-1 after two was always the most likely outcome. If the Browns can clean up some things offensively and continue to play defense like they have over the season’s first eight quarters, they can win Sunday and be playing for first place next week against the Baltimore Ravens.
Deshaun Watson’s play has been alarmingly bad. The offensive line and receiving groups are supposed to be better than they’ve been, too. The defense looks nasty enough to at least keep the Browns afloat and potentially help them steal a couple over the course of a long season. And it’s still a long season. You need at least four games for a fair and close to thorough evaluation. Teams are just now developing and assessing their strengths and weaknesses.
Obviously, the Browns should be ahead of where they’ve been offensively. There’s no replacing Chubb in any aspect, but there is a case to be made for the offense needing almost a total erasure of the first two weeks. Maybe a rethinking of things that play to the strengths of new starting running back Jerome Ford and some scripted quick throws to Amari Cooper can help the Browns find a rhythm.
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2. Win this one and the Browns can be right back on track. The growth process continues. The vibe of everything can change. A win this week would set up a huge game next week, and maybe the Browns find something against the Titans they can carry forward. Tennessee has been dealing with injuries in its secondary — and Baltimore, too.
The flip side? If Watson is missing throws (or the Titans are catching his passes), it’s going to get ugly in Cleveland Browns Stadium. Impatient fans know the Browns’ commitment to Watson and the importance of this season. The defense was so dominant in Week 1 that the Browns created — and thrived upon — a raucous home atmosphere that made things even tougher on the Cincinnati Bengals than they already were. If Watson isn’t much improved, the boos will be amplified by the booze.
3. The 1-1 Titans are allowing a league-worst 11.1 air yards per opponent pass attempt, and the fourth-highest opponent yards per reception at 12.2. Tennessee has a rugged and experienced front seven that’s been good against the run (2.7 yards per carry, No. 2 in the NFL), but it’s been susceptible to big plays in the pass game versus the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Chargers.
What does an offensive turnaround for the Browns look like this week? A big Cooper game. Designed touches for David Njoku. The ball coming out of Watson’s hand quickly. Most defenses are going to live with Watson and Cooper occasionally hooking up on 15-yard sideline patterns.
The Browns have to be efficient enough to be in attack mode and not leave Watson in position to take so many sacks (or worse). Yes, the protection has to be better, too. There’s just been no consistent sign of good timing from quarterback to play caller, quarterback to pass catcher and quarterback to protection.
Other than that, everything’s been fine. The time to fix things is right now.
Here’s what Watson said this week when asked why it’s been a struggle to get all involved on the same page: “Well, you’ve got to think we had some injuries, so we had a rookie tackle that came in, so we (had) to change up a little bit protection-wise. Nick went out early on, some young running backs that got to come in protection-wise, and then some of the receivers — Coop, he was a guy that came on, came along during camp. He didn’t get too much, too many reps.
“Elijah (Moore) is new to the system with live bullets, so we didn’t get too many live bullets in real games. You can’t sit here and say practice is going to be exactly (like) the games. It’s two different speeds and two different things that’s adjustable. Practice is usually, ‘This is what we’re working on, this is what we’re trying to get better (at).’ But in the game, you’ve got to be able to adjust on the fly. So all those things match up together, but we’re coming along, and sooner or later it’s going to click.”
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4. Browns defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is trending toward becoming the most popular guy in town. But he is also one of the most honest guys in town, and he knows that sooner or later — probably sooner — one of the Browns’ opponents is going to run a play inside Cleveland’s 20-yard line. That it hasn’t happened yet is pretty remarkable.
The furthest the Bengals got in Week 1 was the 24-yard line. Though the Pittsburgh Steelers scored the lone touchdown Cleveland’s defense has given up, a 71-yard pass from Kenny Pickett to George Pickens, they did not run a play inside the Browns’ 30-yard line.
“Obviously, that’s not going to continue,” Schwartz said. “But I like where (our red zone percentage) is right now, either zero percent or 100 percent. I don’t know the way you’d put it, but the less opportunities (the better). Red zone is tough, and that’s where scores happen. And we’ve given up a couple of field goals, but they’ve generally been longer field goals, which we’ve seen guys miss, like the Cincinnati game.
“We just go and play on the field position that we’ve got and hopefully we can stop drives. We’ve made it hard to sustain drives so far. So when it’s hard to sustain drives and you don’t give up a lot of big plays, albeit a 71-yarder, it makes it hard to get down into the red zone.”
Schwartz’s first defensive coordinator job was with the Titans from 2001 to 2008. He spent the last two years in a consultant’s role as a senior defensive assistant in Tennessee after health issues forced him to step away from his job as the Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive coordinator. Schwartz went out of his way this week to emphasize the respect he has for the Titans’ ownership group and head coach Mike Vrabel, who let Schwartz essentially make his own hours as he recovered.
“I think I have some lifelong friends on that staff, and I’m greatly indebted to (Vrabel) for what he did and for helping me out,” Schwartz said. “I just hope that I gave as much as I received in those two years, so it’ll be good to see those guys — a son of Northeast Ohio coming back home to play a game — and I figure the best way I can honor them is to play really good defense on Sunday.”
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5. Here on digital paper, the early numbers posted by Schwartz’s defense are jaw-droppingly good. The Browns have only allowed opposing offenses to get 15 first downs over the first two games; the next-best number across the league is 26. Per TruMedia, Cleveland is forcing three-and-outs on 62 percent of opposing drives and opponents are averaging a league-low 13.4 yards per drive. The Browns have allowed one touchdown in 29 drives.
With explosive plays defined as runs of 10 yards or more and passes of 20 or more, the Browns are tied for sixth-best leaguewide with just eight explosive plays allowed, four running and four passing. Schwartz has stressed that consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks leads to mistakes and big defensive plays, even when those rushes don’t end in sacks or turnovers, and the Browns so far have been relentless. TruMedia has the average time a quarterback has had to throw in the first two weeks at 3.48 seconds. Quarterbacks playing the Browns have had 3.09 seconds, the third-fastest to this point.
“We expect those guys up front to be the engine of our defense,” Schwartz said.
6. How does this one against the Titans go? Barring more defensive touchdowns, it’s first to 16 wins. Maybe first to 10.
I’d expect the Browns to try to get Watson some quick and easy throws early. I’d look for wrinkles in the run game that might include some college-type option plays to get Watson on the edge. Defensively, the Browns will continue to attack and try to force Ryan Tannehill into must-pass situations. I’d expect both offensive game plans to lean toward the safe side and take an all-costs approach to avoiding the aforementioned defensive score. The Browns will be without cornerback Greg Newsome II (elbow), but they should be playing more base defense versus Tennessee than in most weeks.
The Titans won’t let Tannehill drop back and wait for bad things to happen. They will use both Derrick Henry and rookie Tyjae Spears on straight-ahead runs and screens designed to neutralize the Browns’ upfield philosophy. Schwartz has stressed that the Browns need to keep Henry from getting downfield.
Both teams traded for veteran kickers the week before the season started. I’d expect this one to be a field goal fest.
(Top photo of Amari Cooper and Deshaun Watson: Jason Miller / Getty Images)