With the Jets getting set to take on the Browns this week, I was able to ask Chris Pokorny of Dawgs By Nature a few questions on the state of the Browns.
1. The Browns currently rank 4th in lowest rate of opponent drives ending in scores and 2nd in highest rate of opponent drives ending in turnovers - and they did that in games against Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees. Is this Browns defense legitimately elite, and who have the key difference-makers been in elevating them to this level so far?
I would not call the defense elite. For example, you are not going to watch the Browns’ defense and think to yourself, “oh my god, they are flying around everywhere and killing us every snap, I don’t know how we will even get a first down!” So far, they have been playing what I would call “solid” and “smart.” Players are punching at the football when they have a chance, forcing fumbles. The number of blown assignments have been far and few between, limiting the amount of big plays. Even on the team’s touchdowns allowed, it has involved the receiver showing great concentration to make a catch amidst contested coverage. The third down defense has been good too, with some timely plays. The key changes this year are DE Myles Garrett being fully healthy, DT Larry Ogunjobi being promoted to the starting lineup (with a full workload), CB Terrance Mitchell coming out of no where to grab a starting job, and FS Damarious Randall being a playmaker after coming over from the Packers to make the switch from cornerback to free safety.
2. Have to ask it - when are we going to see Baker Mayfield? How good of a job has Tyrod Taylor done in holding him off?
Fans are so fickle about this, including me. People who asked me this question two weeks ago would have gotten an answer such as, “if I had to put money on it, I would say that Tyrod Taylor starts the entire season, assuming he doesn’t get hurt.” Now, after two games, I’m much more on the fence. Don’t get me wrong -- I like Taylor. But for two straight weeks now, I’ve had that taste of winning in my mouth, so I start thinking about what the team could have done better. Then, all of a sudden, all of those little frustrations with Taylor start to add up, like when he bails from the pocket too quickly, does not have the best ball placement on routes where receivers are crossing the field, and shows signs of inaccuracy throwing to the sidelines. Baker Mayfield had a respectable preseason, and the thought of, “Mayfield could do just as well, so why not just play him?” goes through your head. If Cleveland gets a few wins in the next couple of weeks, the talks will die down a little bit. However, I kind of feel like we will see Mayfield a little bit past the half-way point of the season.
3. Jarvis Landry has been the clear-cut number one receiving option to this point. How well has he fit into the offense?
Landry had an MVP type of training camp and endeared himself to fans with his passion and being vocal about wanting to turn this franchise around. To this point, he’s lived up to the billing over the past two weeks. The Dolphins used him as more of a short-range, pass-catching receiver, but the Browns are expanding his utilization so he is targeted more down the field. He is getting a lot more work as an outside receiver too. With the departures of guys like Josh Gordon and Corey Coleman, it is as least somewhat settling to know the team has a No. 1 receiver locked up for years to come in Landry.
4. How is Hue Jackson still the head coach of the Browns? Is there anything visible to the eyes of the fanbase that he does legitimately well that they can point to when trying to rationalize his keeping of the position?
An attempt at continuity is the reason he is still the head coach. The one thing that sort of made me and many other fans say, “ugh, we will give him a few more games to prove himself,” was the fact that he would be giving the playcalling duties up to offensive coordinator Todd Haley. That would free Hue Jackson up to actually trying to coach or make big picture game decisions, as opposed to always having his head buried in a play sheet. In other words, it was at least something different. So far, the results have been OK through two games, but we want wins, dammit.
5. Having seen this team nearly beat two elite rosters in a row, where do you stand on their outlook for the rest of the season in terms of their W/L potential?
When you lose as much as Cleveland has, you learn not to really think about win-loss potential. The Browns forced a tie in their division, and lost to an NFC team. They haven’t lost a division game yet, or a conference game yet, if I am thinking about wildcard spots down the road. That’s how I see this week’s game: two up-and-coming teams in the AFC, with Cleveland having the homefield advantage and trying to make amends for not “winning” the past two games with a new kicker and hopefully some improved chemistry on offense.
6. How do you think the Browns match up against the Jets in particular? Have they shown enough for a home matchup against the Jets to be a game they should be expected to win?
I made the mistake heading into last season of thinking the Jets were going to be a really bad team. This year, I see them right in the middle of the AFC teams -- not overpowering yet, but they are no where near a pushover. I will give the disclaimer that from an outsider’s perspective looking in, it will be silly to ever hear a Browns fan say they “expect to win,” given the fact that it has only happened once in 34 games of the Hue Jackson era. But if I put the past two years’ record behind us and try to make the case for Cleveland to win, I think there are some legitimate reasons why they should be expected to win. They have fared far better than expected against one of the top AFC and NFC teams. With a better kicker (Cleveland’s fault), they should have at least one win already. If they forced turnovers or held two veteran quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees relatively in check, then they should be able to cause confusion for a guy making his third career start, even though Sam Darnold has gotten off to a nice start.
As far as match-ups go, there isn’t a distinct advantage I see for Cleveland over New York except their experience at quarterback. Hopefully, that can actually win them a game for once.