Through four games, the Cleveland Browns are still forcing opponents to go three-and-out more than they’re not (a league-best 51 percent ahead of Week 5), and they’re camping out in opposing backfields. Per Pro Football Focus, opposing runners are gaining just 0.73 yards before contact, and Myles Garrett entered Week 5 tied for second in the NFL in sacks (5.5).
How are the Browns just 2-2? Ten turnovers are a good place to start, specifically the two Steelers defensive touchdowns that bookended the Week 2 game in Pittsburgh. An injury to Deshaun Watson led to a white-flag performance in Week 4 against the Baltimore Ravens. The company line is that Watson just has a shoulder contusion and will be able to play following the team’s bye week. But the Browns head to Week 6 with no momentum and much to fix with an offense that’s been uneven and sloppy.
Outside of Amari Cooper, where are the playmakers? Can Watson continue to create with his feet while avoiding another injury? Is the defense going to continue to swarm, or did the Ravens provide future opponents with an attack blueprint? We don’t know the answers, but those are among the big questions. Let’s dive further into what we do know from the Browns’ up-and-down performance coming out of their bye.
Looking at the offense
Timing and turnovers have been the primary issues. The Browns lost right tackle Jack Conklin in Week 1 and Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb in Week 2, then they had to play rookie quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson versus the Ravens. The rookie wasn’t ready, the game plan was horrendous and it got away from the Browns quickly.
The Browns have only created 25 explosive plays, 18 runs of 10-plus yards and seven passes of 20 or more. Eight of the 18 runs were by Chubb before his season-ending injury. Watson getting back and Cleveland using its break to tinker with the playbook have to lead to more big plays. The second halves against the Cincinnati Bengals and Tennessee Titans offered hope that the offense could still finish long drives and attack in multiple ways. No one expected this offense to be at its best in September, and outside of any lingering injury concerns, the biggest disappointment of the Ravens’ debacle is probably that Watson didn’t get to build on his strong game against the Titans.
Going forward, Watson playing well is the biggest key. Still, the Browns need to find the best ways to get something from a Jerome Ford-led run game, and they probably need to throw their Elijah Moore as Deebo Samuel package in the nearest waste receptacle. Moore losing 20 yards on a single run versus Baltimore summed up Cleveland’s embarrassing day.
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By offensive DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), the Browns fell from No. 18 to 24 after the Ravens loss. Through four weeks, they were No. 27 in pass DVOA and No. 23 in run DVOA. But it’s too early to really take too much from the numbers because of what’s happened. The Titans have an especially good run defense and an especially bad pass defense, and the Browns threw all over them. The following week, the Browns got down 21-3 with a rookie quarterback, put their offensive line in a bad spot and only scored after a trick play led to a pass interference call.
The Browns ranked 10th in their pass blocking grade by PFF after four weeks, but just 29th in run blocking. Again, a small sample size and the circumstances of Week 4 greatly affect what’s just one view of it, but improvement by the line will be key to Cleveland eventually turning things around.
Looking at the defense
For the first three games, the defense was dominant. The Browns started the fourth game by forcing the Ravens to go three-and-out twice before an interception led to a short-field gimme. Lamar Jackson got hot from there, and Cleveland had few answers.
The Browns’ defense leads the league in points per drive allowed, and before last week, it hadn’t allowed a single goal-to-go opportunity. The Browns fell from No. 1 in total defensive DVOA to No. 3 through four weeks. They entered Week 5 No. 3 in run defense DVOA and No. 5 against the pass.
Perhaps the most impressive of the advanced stats — and one of the most important to defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz — is that, per TruMedia, the Browns created 205 “splash” plays in just four games. Splash plays are sacks, turnovers, deflections, tackles for loss, pressures that lead to throwaways and stops on third and fourth down. It’s a long list, and 205 in four games is a lot. The next-closest defense had 181 after four games.
Schwartz has preached that pressure wins games, even when it doesn’t directly lead to sacks or turnovers. He wants to speed up opposing quarterbacks and play callers, and he believes the Browns will succeed if they rush throws and consistently force third downs and must-pass situations.
It jumps off the page that a defense that’s been so good has only forced three turnovers in four games, but Schwartz delivered a warning on that. He said his defensive backs got caught cheating on what became the 71-yard George Pickens touchdown reception in Pittsburgh, and he hopes that’s a lesson his players take going forward. The Browns are still new to this scheme, and with Garrett as the headliner, there are signs that the defense can sustain its hot start with more reps and growth opportunities.
The Browns’ best players through four games have been, in no particular order, Garrett, Chubb, Cooper and Denzel Ward. That Chubb is done for the season is obviously a problem.
Certainly deserving of a mention for their outstanding play in the season’s first month are safety Grant Delpit, who’s in the final year of his rookie contract, and defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, a big-money free-agent pickup who’s been stout in the middle. Schwartz’s defense works best when the tackles command attention and occasionally make splash plays of their own.
In Ward, Martin Emerson Jr. and Greg Newsome II, the Browns probably have the league’s best cornerback trio. They’re going to need all of them — and even probably some of the cornerbacks behind them on the depth chart — over the course of the season, but the combination of tight coverage and aggressive pass rush means Cleveland is due to get some better bounces and start forcing more turnovers soon. Garrett has the numbers, but Za’Darius Smith and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo have had their moments helping the pass rush. With the Browns now playing in 13 consecutive weeks, health and keeping Garrett fresh will be key.
Players who need to improve
This list starts with left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr., who has been shaky since the midpoint of the 2021 season. Coach Kevin Stefanski and general manager Andrew Berry insisted that last season was Wills’ best, but that was a little hard to believe then — and it certainly hasn’t been a good start for Wills in 2023. Berry recently said Wills is capable of being better. Because the Browns owe him a fully guaranteed $14 million next year, too, a turnaround has to start soon. For Watson to improve, he has to trust that his blindside is being protected.
Browns GM Andrew Berry on Deshaun Watson, the backup QB and the running back room
Moore was the offense’s marquee addition in the offseason. He’s played a lot as the slot receiver and occasional running back, but his impact has been minimal. In the spring, the Browns added Moore, Marquise Goodwin and rookie Cedric Tillman to rev up the receiving corps. Thus far, they’ve gotten some catches from Moore and almost nothing from Goodwin and Tillman.
Tight end David Njoku had a big summer. He made few high-impact plays in three games with Watson, and though he was productive in Week 4, the Browns need him to be a more regular part of their Watson-led offense. Njoku suffered significant burns on his face and arms two days before the Ravens game but still played. Assuming he can continue to play, the Browns need to find a way to take advantage of mismatches Njoku can create in the middle of the field.
The defense’s two dominant home performances to start the season. Both were situations in which a strong defensive performance should have been expected, but the Browns were especially dominant. Lopsided time of possession in those games led to extra chances for the offense, too, and that’s probably the biggest key going forward. The offense needs to find an extra gear, and Watson has to both be consistently accurate and develop trust in a pass catcher other than Cooper.
The easy answer is Week 4 versus the Ravens, right? That’s too easy. Losing in Pittsburgh despite dominating statistically and defensively was a real gut punch. The Steelers’ offense was completely overwhelmed for most of the night and actually had a net of minus-7 yards in the fourth quarter, but the home team still won. The Browns could have scored a division road win and would have been 3-0 headed into last week. Instead, they sit at 2-2 and face a difficult home game next week against the 5-0 San Francisco 49ers, one of the NFL’s best teams.
The next four
49ers at home, Indianapolis Colts on the road, Seattle Seahawks on the road, then home versus the Arizona Cardinals on Nov. 5.
If the defense plays like it’s capable of playing, Cleveland is good enough to stack some wins. The ceiling of this team is tied to Watson’s accuracy, efficiency and comfort level in what remains an evolving offense. If the Browns are going to be a real division or AFC contender, Watson has to be really good almost all of the time.
(Top photo: Nick Cammett / Diamond Images via Getty Images)