The New York Jets play their final home game of the 2020 season when the Cleveland Browns pay a visit on Sunday. Previewing this matchup, Chris Pokorny of Dawgs By Nature was kind enough to answer a few questions regarding the 2020 Rams. Many thanks to Chris for his responses.
1. The Browns offense this year seems to have a split personality. In seven games the offense has been prolific, scoring 32 or more points. In four games the offense has disappeared, scoring 10 or less points. Why do you think the Browns have such wild swings in the offense’s performance?
Right off the bat, I can tell you that two of those games (against the Texans and Raiders) had 30-40 MPH wind, which made both teams one-dimensional since they couldn’t throw very much. When other teams load the box all game against Cleveland’s running game, I don’t care how good it is: it’s going to be tough to get going. Of the other two games, one of them came in Week 1 against the Ravens, when Cleveland’s offense was still brand new under new head coach Kevin Stefanski in a pandemic-shortened offseason. To evidence how far Cleveland has come since then, the next time the two teams squared off two weeks ago, Baker Mayfield and company put 42 points on the board. The other bad game came against Pittsburgh, where the Steelers’ constant blitzing wasn’t handled well by the Browns, and Stefanski admitted afterward that he learned from the bad gameplan he had put together.
When I paint the Browns’ wild swings like that, I think it sounds pretty explainable. The real offense we’ve seen can consistently put 30+ points on the board and go toe-to-toe with any juggernaut in the NFL. Last week was great to see too, because even though Cleveland only scored 20 points, Mayfield had his most efficient game of the season, according to Pro Football Focus, and the Browns dominated the time of possession. Therefore, those 20 points on the board were just as impressive as all of the higher-scoring weeks, especially against a pretty solid Giants defense.
2. The Browns, like the Jets, have been a hard luck franchise for a long time. The Browns went through a two year stretch where they went 1-31, worse than anything the Jets have experienced to date. But now the Browns are on the verge of making the playoffs for the first time since 2002. How are Browns fans feeling about this new-found success? Are you confident the franchise has turned a corner and is entering into a new age of perennial playoff contention? Or are you waiting for the other shoe to drop?
We are freaking loving this new-found success. It is crazy because I am one of the longest-tenured SB Nation writers, having run Dawgs By Nature since February 2006, and I haven’t been able to blog a single playoff game during that time. I used to get extreme butterflies leading up to every Browns game, and feel so depressed after any loss. I was like that for years and years, but over the past five years, even though I still loved the Browns, I felt my emotions before and after a game being more “meh.” I became so used to losing. I’ll tell you what, though: last week, before the Sunday Night Football game against the Giants, when the TV correspondents kept saying, “If the Browns lose, their playoff chances would decrease dramatically,” the butterflies hit my stomach so hard, more than I’ve felt in years. I miss that feeling so much, and it’s one of the few things that has been bright about 2020 for me (and probably many other Cleveland fans).
I think the franchise has turned the corner. This is a very young team, and there is a lot of strength at the offensive positions as well as a few key defensive pieces. Sure, we still panic and speculate about the possibility of missing the playoffs despite an 11-5 record, but we’re not waiting for the other shoe to drop. The Browns are for real (despite their defense needing a lot of building next offseason).
3. The Browns and the Jets took their quarterbacks at picks #1 and #3 in the 2018 draft. Now it appears the Jets pick, Sam Darnold, may be on the way out. In contrast, the Browns’ Baker Mayfield is enjoying a fine season for the Browns. How do Browns fans feel about Mayfield? Do you think the team is set for the next decade at quarterback, or are you in wait and see mode?
The switch has flipped for Baker Mayfield. For the past two months, he is probably playing like a Top 5 quarterback in the NFL, up there with Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Aaron Rodgers. It is not just luck for the third-year quarterback — all of the flaws he had in the past were diligently worked on by this new coaching staff. His footwork has been drastically improved. Stefanski is utilizing the play action passing game when teams bite on the run, helping to minimize turnovers by making sure Mayfield throws to the outside or is on the move, away from the middle of the field where he used to struggle (tipped passes, linebackers dropping, etc). Even with that smart play calling, we’re also seeing Mayfield improved in other areas by scrambling for some key yardage at times, standing in the pocket to deliver strikes, and having better ball placement and accuracy. Cleveland is set for the next decade at quarterback, and contract extension talks should be on the horizon.
4. At 10-4 the Browns are on the verge of the playoffs, yet they have gone 0-3 against the Ravens and the Steelers, with two of the games blowout losses. Is the lack of success against their division rivals just random chance, or do the Browns still need to upgrade to compete for a division title?
I don’t think it’s random chance — but I already touched on those first two losses to Baltimore and Pittsburgh. I think you could’ve made a case that Cleveland can’t beat playoff contenders, but the team defeated the Colts and Titans, and in their re-match with Baltimore, they put on one of the games of the year in a 47-42 shootout loss. The bigger issue is on the defensive side of the ball, which I’ll talk about more in the next question. We’re really intrigued by the thought of Cleveland winning this week and Pittsburgh losing again, which would set up a Week 17 game with the AFC North title on the line. Sure, we definitely need some upgrades, but I don’t think the team needs upgrades to compete for a division title when we could very well be competing for one next week.
5. If you were coaching an opposing team, how would you attack the Browns on offense and on defense?
If you are attacking the Browns on offense, I would say to try playing tight man coverage against our receivers. That’s not to say that can’t win those match-ups, but defenses that have played zone coverage have been easily picked apart by Baker Mayfield. Another possible strategy is to blitz heavily, but only if the defense has the appropriate personnel to do so — really only the Steelers have been able to do that against Cleveland this year. The defensive side of the ball is where teams can attack Cleveland. My suggestion for the Jets is to run the ball early and often, and don’t give up on it. Cleveland’s linebackers and safeties are below average, and if teams would actually stick with the running game and then utilize the playaction game to attack the safeties deep, they’d find a lot of success. Most coaches just have not been patient or smart enough to do that. Doug Pederson comes to mind when we faced the Eagles: Philadelphia’s rushing game was gaining 5-6 yards at a time, and their offensive line was pushing us back each time. Yet, Pederson was insistent on having Carson Wentz throw the ball, which I was thrilled to see.