Monday, December 31, 2018

Monday leftovers

 Full disclosure . . . actually more like an admission . . .

When Browns General Manager John Dorsey defied the experts/pundits and selected Baker Mayfield for the Browns with the No. 1 overall pick in the last college football draft, I was skeptical at best.

I was steadfastly and stubbornly in the Sam Darnold camp almost from the time he dismantled Penn State in the 2017 Rose Bowl. The timing was perfect. The Browns would have the top pick when Darnold decided to leave USC.

He was the perfect choice to lead the Browns into a new era. A fresh young face with oodles of talent, Darnold was a winner. Dorsey surely had to know and see that.

What we did not know at the time is the GM also had his eye steadfastly and stubbornly on Mayfield mainly because of his intangibles. He was a leader. He didn’t just hate losing; he abhorred it.

And most important of all, he wanted to enter on the ground floor and build something. The only drawback was his height. In a league where prototypical quarterbacks are at least 6-3, he fell short (pun intended) at a thumbnail over six feet tall.

Why in the world would Dorsey risk his excellent reputation as a master talent evaluator on a short, arrogant, full-of-himself, supremely confident player at the most important position on a football team?

When he took Mayfield, I thought, “Okay. If that’s what he wants, he can’t take it back now. Might as well see how far this goes. Hopefully, this is not just another typical Browns draft blunder.”

He and the other wise heads he assembled in his front office in Berea said Mayfield reminded them of Brett Favre when he arrived in Green Bay from Atlanta in a trade. They had all seen him while serving in the Packers’ front office.

It was that self-assured Favre persona that helped make the Packers one of the National Football League’s best franchises that captured their attention. And they held on to that notion until NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell put them on the clock.

When Browns head coach Hue Jackson refused to give Mayfield a shot at the starting job in training camp, Dorsey and his guys remained silent, at least publicly. Their job was to provide him with the players; Jackson’s job was to coach them.

Because history has a way of ultimately correcting mistakes, it would be only a matter of time before Mayfield became the starter. It took two games and almost half of a third before Tyrod Taylor, Jackson’s anointed starter, was injured and the entire season turned. Just like that.

From the moment Mayfield trotted onto the field at home in a nationally televised game against the New York Jets, football felt different in Cleveland. The Browns trailed, 14-0, to Darnold and the Jets at the time, headed for their 20th straight game without a victory.

Mayfield led the club to a 21-17 victory, clicking on 17-of-23 passes for 201 yards, and a new era in Cleveland football was born. “I’ve just been waiting for my moment,” he said after the game. “I’m just getting started.”

Later, he added, “Dilly, dilly to the Cleveland fans. It’s not the only win we’re going to celebrate.”

As a prognosticator, he was right on. The Browns went on to win six of the next 13 games, which might not seem a lot but it served to elevate him to near royalty with Browns Nation. It forecast a bright future for this franchise.

Numerous losing streaks that had strangled the franchise began to tumble. The Browns appeared to be turning a corner for the first time in a long time and he was the reason why.

As a quarterback, though, he was even better. He excelled to the point where he has made NFL media seriously think of considering him for the league’s offensive rookie of the year.

Once Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley were fired in midseason, Mayfield flourished. He completed nearly 68.4% of his passes, averaged 282 yards a game and threw 19 of his NFL rookie-record 27 touchdown passes in the final eight games.

He also learned how to better protect himself in the pocket, limiting his sack total to just five in those eight games after being dropped 20 times in his four-and-a-half games.

There is no question he can make all the throws. He has the arm to laser an 18- to 20-yard out. Fitting the football into tight windows is not a problem. His touchdown throw to Antonio Callaway Sunday in Baltimore shows up in the stats as just a one-yard TD.

It was a lot more than that. Mayfield superbly squeezed the ball in to Callaway in heavy traffic at the goal line where only he could make the catch. Many veteran NFL quarterbacks have trouble making that play.

Mayfield can feather his passes with touch when necessary. He is also getting quite good at escaping the pocket when plays break down, extending them to where he can deliver a strike. And here is the best part. For someone so short, very few of his passes are deflected at the line of scrimmage.

So now everyone, including a certain former Darnold fan, knows why Dorsey picked him and are glad he did. His guy has quickly transformed the Factory of Sadness into a Factory of Happiness.
*       *       *
Dorsey might want to take a long look at his offensive line during the offseason, compare it to the Ravens’ and then do something about it. Because of what the Ravens did to the Cleveland defensive line Sunday, he might consider addressing that in the draft.

The Baltimore OL ravaged Cleveland’s front all afternoon, compiling just shy of an unbelievable 300 yards. The Ravens’ front is much more agile and athletic than the Browns’ plunderers.

The Browns are incapable of pulling the left tackle and left guard and execute successful counter plays and misdirection plays. Ronnie Stanley and James Hurst had a field day pulling and opening holes on the strong side of the formation with a lot of help from tight end Maxx Williams.

Greg Robinson of the Browns cannot pull and lead plays in the opposite direction, He excels in short area blocking, but is not athletic enough to do much else. Same with right tackle Chris Hubbard.

The middle of the defensive line needs also to get stronger and a whole lot quicker. As for the edges, Myles Garrett is getting virtually no help from the other side of the lone. Emmanuel Ogbah is thisclose to being a bust.
*       *       *
John Harbaugh is a terrific coach. He is arguably the best coach the Ravens have had since moving from Cleveland 23 years ago. He has coached numerous great players and even won a Super bowl with them.

That’s why it looked and sounded strange after the Ravens knocked off the Browns Sunday and gained a spot in the playoffs that he said the following:

“This is the best team I’ve ever been associated with in 34 years of coaching and even back to peewee. Look at this team, this bunch of guys. This is what a real team looks like. A bunch of guys who make a team. That’s why we’re where we’re at.”

Didn’t he notice how close the Browns came to eliminating him and his “bunch of guys” from the postseason in the last game for the second straight year? They scared the crap out of everyone else on that sideline. Perhaps Harbaugh was feeling somewhat overcome with joy and excitement after his team escaped disaster.

And “this is the best team” he’s been associated with? Really? This is a man who has won 104 games in 11 seasons and has coached teams that are 15-10 in playoff games with a Super bowl title after the 2012 season. Wonder how Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and that crew think.
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Finally . . . The next several years will be interesting in the Cleveland-Baltimore rivalry with Mayfield and Lamar Jackson meeting twice a year. If it’s anything like the season finale, buckle up. . . . It will be an upset if the Browns don’t open up competition for a new placekicker for next season. Greg Joseph was just okay after replacing the inconsistent Zane Gonzalez, who by the way nailed a 55-yarder for Arizona Sunday,  The Browns need better than okay at the position. . . . Nick Chubb just missed joining the 1,000-yard club Sunday. He was dropped for a five-yard loss on his last carry of the day on the penultimate possession, lowering his season total to 996. . . . Final Duke Johnson Jr. touch watch: Four carries, 21 yards; one reception, three yards. Total: Five touches, 24 yards. Final season totals: 40 carries, 201 yards; 47 receptions, 429 yards. Total: 87 touches, 630 yards, 7.24 yards a touch. Last season: 82 carries, 348 yards; 74 receptions, 693 yards. Total: 156 touches, 1,041 yards, 6.67 yards a touch.

Happy New Year One & All

Sunday, December 30, 2018

A bright future beckons

 Before the Browns closed out the 2018 season with the Baltimore Ravens Sunday, quarterback Baker Mayfield summed up the situation perfectly. “They are playing for a playoff spot and we are playing to prove who we are,” the rookie said.

After Sunday’s dramatic, pulse-pounding 26-24 loss in easily the best and most exciting game of their season, there is no question whatsoever who the Browns are. They proved to themselves – and the rest of the National Football League – that they are back in a big way.

They have or will soon become the off-season favorites to seriously challenge for the AFC North championship next season. At no point did it seem they were out of this one in a game that meant a whole lot more to the Ravens.

They proved it behind the wizardry of Mayfield, with a second half that scared the daylights out of the Ravens, making a game of it down the stretch with an excellent chance to ruin the Ravens’ playoffs hopes for the second year in a row.

This is a one tough football team.

Yes, they lost on the scoreboard, but won in many other ways. They no longer are the league’s doormat, the easy victory, the pushover. They do not scare easily. Those days are history.

They came away knowing, not hoping or thinking, knowing the light at the end of the tunnel now is not the oncoming train. It is the light that strongly indicates those awful years of abysmal football in Cleveland are over.

Winning football is back in Cleveland.

Based on what fans have witnessed the last half of the season, this team now has the ability and ammunition to inflict a lot of damage in the future, especially when they own the football. At no time did they think they were out of this game.

A lot of that is centered on Mayfield, who threw scoring passes to Breshad Perriman, Jarvis Landry and Antonio Callaway, giving him an NFL rookie record 27 touchdown passes this season in only 13 starts.

It more than proves the Browns, who wound up the season 7-8-1, are no longer out of contention in a game as long as Mayfield is vertical and healthy. He put on a dazzling display, especially in the second half, that silenced an otherwise boisterous Baltimore crowd.

After getting walloped physically in the first half in every conceivable way by an explosive Baltimore offense that ran roughshod, the Browns did not do what so many other Browns teams in the last 20 years have done in similar situations. They could have caved, but did not, even though they knew there was no next Sunday.

At no point, either, did Browns Nation think it was over as the Ravens took a 20-7 halftime lead, inflicting tons of damage in the run game, challenging the Cleveland defense to stop them and winning just about every battle behind rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson and an abusive offensive line.

That’s a character thing, a trait this team has displayed in interim coach Gregg Williams eight-game tenure, during which the club won five, clearly in his favor as General Manager John Dorsey launches his search for a new head coach Monday.

The Browns knew going into the game that the Ravens relied on the ground game to guide their offense. And yet they had no answers for Jackson and that ground game, which churned out 179 yards in the opening 30 minutes.

Large holes opened up just about everywhere as Jackson and running backs Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon took turns carving out huge chunks of yardage behind a line that bludgeoned the Cleveland front four.

Jackson scored both Baltimore touchdowns in that half on runs of 25 and eight yards, had a third of 33 yards negated by a holding call and lost a fourth when he coughed up the ball inches short of the goal line. All that in the first half.

It wasn’t until the Browns made second-half adjustments that either shut down and/or narrowed the running lanes for Jackson & Co. that they sensed the momentum was shifting.

Mayfield refused to let his team lose. Protected beautifully by his offensive line (no sacks once again), he willed it to a pair of second-half touchdowns with the kind of quarterbacking you just don’t see from a rookie.

The defense responded by literally tightening up the interior, limiting the Ravens to just a pair of field goals by Justin Tucker, who had four on the day. Even though the Ravens tacked on 117 more infantry yards in the second half for a total of 296, the Cleveland defense protected its goal line more zealously,

That enabled the offense, which was stymied in the first half after Mayfield connected with Perriman on a 28-yard scoring throw on the Browns’ second possession, to make it a game.

They actually had a chance to take the lead with a field goal in the final two minutes, but the desperate Ravens threw the kitchen-sink pass rush at Mayfield on four straight pass attempts from the Baltimore 39, forcing him to throw before he wanted.

Incompletions to David Njoku, Landry and Njoku again brought up a fourth down. On the last kitchen sink, he had running back Duke Johnson Jr. open over the middle underneath and tried to loft the ball to him over the head of Ravens linebacker C. J. Mosley, who tipped the ball to himself for Mayfield’s third pick of the day.

As the new face of Cleveland sports, who wound up with 376 yards passing, walked dejectedly off the field, Jackson came back onto the field and appeared to congratulate him on his effort. Little consolation, Mayfield seemed to indicate with his expression.

If you want to quibble on how close the Browns came to winning, all you have to do is go back to the final play of first half when Greg Joseph’s 46-yard field attempt drifted wide of the left upright by less than a foot.

Another quibble, this one centered on a quick whistle. Several minutes earlier, the Ravens had a chance to boost their first-half lead to 27-7 when Jackson ostensibly scored from the one-foot line on third down after jumping up and thrusting the football over the goal line with one hand.

As a sideline official ran in indicating touchdown, Browns linebacker Joe Schobert poked the football loose. It rolled to the 7-yard line, where safety Jabrill Peppers scooped it up and began running toward the Ravens’ goal line with no one in pursuit and got as far as the 35. A whistle had stopped play.

The call on the field was touchdown. But replay showed Jackson did not reach out far enough with the ball to break the plane of the goal line and it was overturned, giving the ball back to the Browns at the 7 due to the inadvertent whistle. Somewhat ironically, the very next play will also have Browns Nation talking.

Mayfield dropped back to pass and launched a perfect spiral to a wide-open Landry at the Cleveland 35. But as he reached for the ball, it hit his facemask and fell harmlessly to the ground. Had he caught it, it would have been a 93-yard touchdown and cut the lead to 20-14.

All in all, this game will be remembered by many fans for its many exciting plays and heart-stopping finish. But mainly it will be remembered as one where battling back in the face of a lot of adversity and nearly winning is a portent of a very bright future.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

A playoff game that isn’t

 It is not a playoff game. It can’t be. The standings say so and they do not lie. The Browns were eliminated last Sunday despite knocking off the Cincinnati Bengals at home.

So why does their season finale Sunday in Baltimore against the Ravens (a.k.a. the original Cleveland Browns) feel like a post-season game? Like a game with extra special meaning?

That’s because in this season of back-from-the-graveyard football that has lifted the spirits of Browns fans higher than just about anytime in this century, Sunday’s game has more significance than your routine season-ender. Oddsmakers say the Ravens are five points better than the Browns.

In a season where this franchise has won almost twice as many games as the previous three seasons combined, the quality of play they have displayed the last seven games elevates this one to playoff-like status. It’s a target with eyes clearly on next season, using it as a gauge as to what to look forward to in 2019.

The winning feeling, created by three straight victories and only one loss in their last six games, has produced a level of confidence in Berea that has them no longer hoping they can win. They really believe that now after all these years, it’s more than hope.

They know this will be their final game of the season and a victory will be like putting a bow on one of the biggest surprises in the National Football League in many seasons. They would love nothing better than to spoil the Ravens’ season.

That is why this is their playoff game. It is a test to confirm what they now believe after this remarkable second half of the season: The long slumbering Sleeping Giant has not just awakened. It thrives.

Wise men down through the years have said the best way to judge the quality of an NFL football team is to note how it finishes in November and December, when games are more meaningful.

The Browns have not played a game of this importance since 2007, when at 9-5 they had a legitimate shot at the playoffs, but lost in Cincinnati in the penultimate game of the season and finished in a first-place tie with the Steelers, who owned the tiebreaker.

Both clubs enter this one having won five of the last six games. The Browns do it with offense; the Ravens with a revamped running game and the league’s stingiest defense.
It’s that defense that has enabled them to be in their current position. It leads the NFL in just about every statistical category.

It permits only 284 yards a game on the average, a meager 85 yards per on the ground. The Browns netted 112 infantry-style in the first game in week five. And converting third downs is damn near impossible. Opponents have been successful just 34% of the time. The Browns are right there at 36.5%.

It appears as though the Baltimore defensive line tries to funnel everything on the ground to the outstanding linebackers corps of C. J. Mosley, Matthew Judon, Za’Darius Smith, Patrick Onwuasor and Terrell Suggs. Onwuasor, Judon, Smith and Suggs own 28 of the club’s 43 sacks.

The last time these teams met, Hue Jackson was the Browns’ head coach, Todd Haley was the offensive coordinator, Carlos Hyde was the running back, Desmond Harrison was the starting offensive left tackle and Mayfield was making only his second start as a professional.

Now, Gregg Williams is the interim head coach, Freddie Kitchens is the offensive coordinator, Nick Chubb is the running back and Greg Robinson is the offensive left tackle. The only constant is Mayfield.

The Ravens sacked him five times in the first game when the Cleveland offensive line was one of the worst in the NFL. One of the reasons for the big turnaround, though, has been the comeback performance of that line, allowing just three sacks in the last six games.

The Browns won the field-goal dominated first game, 12-9, when new kicker Greg Joseph knuckleballed a 37-yard field goal through the uprights as time ran out in overtime. Mayfield threw for 341 yards and the game’s lone touchdown.

The rookie in a short period of time has become the culture changer for the Browns, lifting the entire team inspiringly to heights it hadn’t achieved for a very, very, very long time.

In Baltimore, Joe Flacco is no longer the quarterback for the Ravens and Alex Collins is no longer the main running back. Rookie Lamar Jackson took over when Flacco went down with a sore hip and has totally changed the Ravens’ offensive approach.

Undrafted free agent Gus Edwards is the main running back, taking over when Jackson replaced Flacco. He is strictly a runner, coming out in passing situations. In the six games since this duo became the Baltimore backfield, they have accounted for 1,044 yards, or 77%, of the club’s 1,354 running yards.

Throwing the ball is an entirely different matter. Jackson, a 57% passer at the University of Louisville, is a 58% thrower in the NFL. He has thrown for only 1,022 yards and six touchdowns and been picked off three times. It’s a small sample size, for sure, but it appears Jackson is who he is – a terrific runner with an inaccurate arm.

His main targets figure to be possession receivers Willie Snead IV and Michael Crabtree, running back Buck Allen and tight end Mark Andrews, who played with Mayfield at Oklahoma, and speedy wideout John Brown.

The NFL has become a quarterback-driven league the last decade or so. Jackson’s predilection for running with the football has turned the Ravens’ into a run-first offense. Since he took over, the Ravens have averaged 226 yards a game rushing with a low of 194 in the loss to Kanas City, the club’s only setback since the bye.

There is no question Williams and his son, Blake, who has pretty much taken over as defensive coordinator, have made shutting down Jackson their No. 1 priority. Look for plenty of blitzing from just about anywhere and disguised defenses in the secondary.

As they did last week against Cincinnati’s Jeff Driskel, look for the Browns to load the box to stop the run. They want the former Heisman Trophy winner to throw the football. That’s the key. Make the Jackson offense one dimensional. Make him uncomfortable. Containment is certain to be stressed.

Jackson is a terrific runner in the open field and has the ability to slip out of the pocket, sometimes a little too quickly. That’s where the containment and gap integrity must be maintained. He is quick enough and fast enough to take advantage of defensive lapses. Strict discipline is a must.

Easier said than done? Absolutely.

So how can the Cleveland defense, which has been up and down this season against the run, pull this off? That’s where film (or is it tape?) study comes in.

Look for tendencies. Every quarterback has tendencies. What do they like to do in given situations? For example, does he favor one side of the field when trying to make a play? If so, force him in the opposite direction. Identify weaknesses and exploit them.

It’s entirely possible the Williamses will assign someone to spy on Jackson, move wherever he moves. Take away or at last minimize the run option. Strong safety Jabrill Peppers, who is capable of matching Jackson’s quickness and speed, would be the perfect choice. 

Each team has motivation to win. The Browns, of course, would rack up their first winning season since 2007. And the Ravens remember what happened a year ago at this time when they all but had a playoff spot wrapped up when the Cincinnati Bengals upset them in the final minute and eliminate them in the final game of the season..

Bottom line on this one: The Browns have a much better offense; the Ravens have a much better defense. In games like this, it’s wisest to go with the better defense. The heart says Browns; the head says Ravens with kicker Justin Tucker the difference maker. Make it:

Ravens 17, Browns 14

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Mid-week thoughts

 With Browns Nation caught up with excitement that has reached heights of downright giddiness in some sectors, many of those fans might not have noticed an important item has temporarily taken a back seat.

That is about to change.

An interim head coach and interim offensive coordinator are leading a team that has completely changed course in the last two months and become the talk of the National Football League.

Gregg Williams and Freddie Kitchens have done a remarkable job of completely changing the culture of the locker room, embracing the notion that the 2018 Cleveland Browns were really not as bad as they had performed in the first eight games of the season.

Once General Manager John Dorsey and owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam III removed the dys from the dysfunction that had strangled the team by removing Hue Jackson and Todd Haley, not many observers gave Williams and Kitchens much of a chance to succeed.

That obviously has changed with five victories in the last six games and a 5-2 overall record, resurrecting that other item of extreme importance.

Who will be the next head coach of the Cleveland Browns?

It has been a question that has burned ever so slightly the last couple of months following Jackson’s firing. But it has become a gigantic flame now that Williams and Kitchens have performed their little miracle.

Not so suddenly, many fans like what they have seen from Williams so much, they strongly suggest removing the interim from his title. Kitchens, too, considering how well he and rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield have bonded to make this the club’s best offense in many seasons.

Dorsey, who will eventually make the pick with (hopefully) solid support from the Haslams, undoubtedly hears the cries to keep Williams and Kitchens in their current roles and probably has already placed Williams’ name on the list to be interviewed.

Working against Williams is his less-than-sparkling record in his three-year stint as head coach of the Buffalo Bills many years ago. But, fans can argue, he is an entirely different coach now.

Starting Monday after the Browns conclude the season Sunday in Baltimore against the Ravens, the flag will drop and Dorsey will set out in earnest to make the important decision this franchise has seen in many years.

Why? Because finally after 20 seasons, the job as head coach of this team has become extremely attractive and should lure a strong field of candidates.

With young talents like Mayfield, Nick Chubb, Myles Garrett, Jabrill Peppers, Jarvis Landry, Joe Schobert, Denzel Ward, Christian Kirksey, David Njoku and an above-average offensive line, the Browns have finally become not just relevant, but broach contending status.

Anyone seeking a head coaching job in the NFL would be foolish to wait for something better to come along because this just might be the most appealing job available this offseason.

Dorsey obviously is holding his cards nice and tight right now. He’s been around long enough to know what kind of coach will be best for this team, one he put together so sagaciously after two disastrous seasons.

It is entirely possible he already knows whom he wants, but will dutifully go through the entire process before revealing his choice.

It certainly won’t be as in the past when the Browns time and again failed to land a solid head coach – because who would want to come to Cleveland? – and had to settle for seconds, thirds and sometimes fourths.

That’s why you wind up with tier 3 and tier 4 head coaches like Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur, Rob Chudzinski, Mike Pettine and, of course, Jackson. To a lesser extent, that list includes Romeo Crennel.

Speculation will run rampant for as long as the process lasts. Pay no attention to it. Consider it white noise because a vast majority of the rumors will be just that – rumors. Candidates will come and go amid the hoopla surrounding the selection process.

The final decision most likely will be announced right before Super Bowl LIII on Feb. 3 in Atlanta unless Dorsey’s choice is coaching in that game or sooner if the choice’s team is eliminated early.

Also take into consideration this is the first time the GM has been in this position, so expect him to be very deliberate and careful that he makes the correct choice. He probably will seek advice from wise football men he has encountered along the path that led him to the Browns.

Time to buckle up, enjoy the season-ender Sunday and start the countdown to the next head coach.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Monday leftovers

 When the National Football League put together the 2018 schedule, Sunday’s finale between the Browns and Ravens in Baltimore seemed like an inconsequential game.

By then, the schedule makers probably figured, the Browns would be buried in the AFC North basement again and the Ravens would make a good natural finish. You know, the Cleveland-Baltimore thing.

Guess again.

This game has drama written all over it in several different ways, some of which will be conflicting for many Browns fans. Their rooting interest will not be the least bit palatable.

Wanting the Browns to win their fourth game in a row and thus sweep yet another division season series will be the main theme of course. However, myriad intriguing story lines abound.

Yes, the Browns are hot, having won their last three in a row and five of their last six. But so are the Ravens. Maybe even hotter.

They have rebounded from a 4-5 start, which triggered whispers about the coaching future of head coach John Harbaugh. That included a 12-9 loss in Cleveland in week five.

Since their bye in week 10, the Ravens are virtually unbeatable, winning five of their last six games (the only setback a three-point loss in Kansas City) to vault to the top of the division with a 9-6 record, a half game better than Pittsburgh.

That half-game difference, courtesy of the 21-21 deadlock the Browns and Steelers forged in the season opener in Cleveland, has caused some anxiety among Steelers fans.

It also creates a fascinating rooting situation for Browns fans. A Baltimore victory clinches the division crown and eliminates the Steelers, who wind up the regular season at home against Cincinnati.

Imagine that. The Steelers, who have abused the Browns for the last umpteen years, need help from the very team whose fan base they have tortured in order to play at least one extra game.

The Ravens will be eliminated if the Browns knock them off again and the Steelers beat the Bengals, which is a strong probability considering the way they played Sunday in Cleveland.

So who do Browns fans root for? Do they root for the Browns to finish the season in grand style and provide a path for the Steelers to squeak into the postseason? Or root for the Ravens to end the Browns’ return-to-relevance season so the Steelers will be shut out of the playoffs.

A conundrum perhaps for Browns Nation, for sure, but also a ratings boost for CBS. Now that the NFL has switched the Browns-Ravens game to a later start, it conveniently coincides with the Steelers-Bengals contest on the network.

The Ravens will know their fate faster because they control their destiny. Win and they are in. Lose and hope the Bengals, playing at the same time of the day, can pull off the upset.

So what does history in the Browns-Ravens series indicate? If that’s the barometer used to forecast the immediate future, it certainly doesn’t look good for Cleveland fans or the Steelers.

The Browns have visited Baltimore 19 times since reentering the NFL in 1999 and won four times, two of the victories gained in overtime. The Ravens have outscored the Browns by more than 200 points in that time.

One other thing: This will not be the same Ravens team this time around with regard to couple of new key parts of the offense. Flashy Lamar Jackson, not Joe Flacco, is the quarterback and fellow rookie Gus Edwards has become the main running back.

More on that in the game preview later in the week.
*     *     * 
You have to love the swagger and sometimes braggadocio of Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield. Nothing wrong with being self-assured, especially if you’re a rookie quarterback in the NFL.

It certainly has lifted the entire Cleveland offense to heights no one would have even dreamed of at the beginning of the season, He has done the miraculous. He has transformed this team into a bunch of overachievers on both sides of the football.

That is an intangible that can’t be taught. Either you have it or you don’t. This kid has it in abundance and has backed it up.

The new Browns for years have been searching for the quarterback who possesses the “it” factor. In the old days, Otto Graham had it; Frank Ryan had it; Bill Nelsen had it; Brian Sipe had it; Bernie Kosar had it.

Pretenders like Tim Couch, Charlie Frye, Brady Quinn, Brian Hoyer and, yes, even Johnny Manziel, came along later and were thought to have had the “it” factor.

Mayfield in a very short period of time has blown them all away. And that’s why he should finally put to bed this distaste he has for Hue Jackson, his former head coach.

I can understand why he feels the way he does and, at the same time, rather enjoyed him displaying his feelings toward Jackson the two times he has had the opportunity. Makes for good theater and interesting sports talk radio.

But it’s time for Mayfield to give it a permanent rest. Twice is more than enough to harbor resentment. He has clearly made his point. Now it’s time to move on, quit the childish displays of anger and become a true professional. Keep the feelings, but learn to hide them.

This is not meant to protect Jackson as much as it is a suggestion for Mayfield to be remembered not for that, but what he does on a football field and how much he means to this franchise.
*     *     * 
Offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens added a couple of new wrinkles in the Bengals victory Sunday, both contributing to touchdowns. He has put more creativity into a Cleveland offense than any other coordinator in the last two decades.

On the first, wide receiver Jarvis Landry hooked up with Breshad Perriman on a 63-yard pass on the tail end of a gadget play that began with a handoff to Antonio Callaway. It led to the second touchdown of the afternoon in the second quarter.

Then early in the third quarter, Rashard Higgins scored touchdown No 3, taking a pass from Mayfield 17 yards to the end zone, diving acrobatically just inside the pylon at the end of the play.

What made it so creative was the design of the play. Higgins lined up in trips left and delayed running his route a second or two after the other two receivers cleared the area. He then ran a shallow cross to the strong side of the formation, caught the ball in stride from Mayfield and sprinted to the end zone.

Mayfield earlier connected with Higgins for a 55-yard gain on the second possession of the game, but the wideout was penalized for offensive pass interference, an iffy call at best. Higgins gently nudged Bengals free safety Jessie Bates to get a little separation to make the catch.

Michael Irvin of the Dallas Cowboys made a career – and the Pro Football Hall of Fame – with moves much worse than that without drawing a flag.
*     *     * 
Finally . . . Nick Chubb set the club record for rushing by a rookie in the Bengals victory. His 112 yards give him 972 on the season, passing Trent Richardson and the legendary Jim Brown for that honor. A little perspective here: Brown did it in 12 games. . . . Mayfield’s three TD passes against Cincinnati gives him 24 on the season, only two away from tying Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson for the most scoring passes by a rookie. He has thrown at least one touchdown pass in each of his 12 starts. . . . The Bengals ran only 46 plays from scrimmage for just 209 yards. One can only imagine how different it would have been if Andy Dalton, A. J. Green and Tyler Boyd were healthy. . . . The Browns owned the football for 35½ minutes. . . . Linebacker Genard Avery continues to impress in relief of the injured Christian Kirksey. The rookie had four tackles (three solo), a sack, two tackles for loss and a quarterback hit. . . . Duke Johnson Jr. touch watch: Two carries, 12 yards; six receptions, 54 yards. Eight touches, 66 yards. Season totals: 36 carries, 180 yards; 46 receptions, 426 yards. Totals: 82 touches, 606 yards. Average yards per touch: 7.39 yards.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

And the joyful beat goes on

 The undeniable and concrete proof that the 2018 Cleveland Browns have finally laid to rest the ghosts of the first 19 seasons since returning to the National Football League in 1999 was on display in the home finale Sunday against Cincinnati.

Critics who believe the team’s strong second half this season after beginning the campaign in much the same manner as those very forgettable losers of those last 19 seasons is a fluke, Sunday’s 26-18 victory over the Bengals should silence them.

Playing in front of a rare sold-out stadium by the lakefront, the brand new Browns, who entered the game knowing they were eliminated from the playoffs Saturday,  played a near perfect football game for the better part of three and a half quarters. They treated the believers and non-believers alike with the kind of football they have longed for for two decades.

In winning their third straight game and fifth in the last six, they made the Bengals look like the Browns of the last 20 years on both sides of the ball.

The final score in no way indicates how much the Browns dominated, compiling a 26-3 lead midway through the fourth quarter, putting points on the board on five consecutive possessions after whiffing on the first two.

Baker Mayfield threw three more touchdown passes against the Bengals, giving the rookie quarterback seven on the season against them as the Browns swept their first season series in the Battle of Ohio since 2002.

It also was the fifth home victory (5-2-1) of the season, only the second time since 1999 they own a winning record at home. The 2007 Browns won seven home games, dropping the season opener to (you guessed it) the Pittsburgh Steelers.

But this one didn’t come without a bit of drama in the final seven and a half minutes, painfully mindful of many games since the resurrection, due mainly to yet another special teams breakdown.

The Cleveland offense kept the Bengals defense off balance throughout most of the afternoon, Mayfield shredding the secondary with precise throws after starting slowly on the first two drives, and Nick Chubb grinding out tough yardage.

The two rookies, whose performances this season, especially in the last seven games, give rise to more than just hope among those in Browns Nation. They are legitimate threats to break a big play at any time.

Mayfield raised his touchdown pass total this season to 24 with scoring strikes to tight ends David Njoku and Darren Fells and wide receiver Rashard Higgins. Chubb gouged the Bengals defense for 112 yards, moving him within 28 yards of a 1,000-yard season.

After taking the 26-3 lead on the second of Greg Joseph’s two field goals, the Cleveland defense encountered its only belch of the game. permitting a six-play, 75-yard scoring drive, tight end C. J. Uzomah hauling in a 14-yard scoring pass from Jeff Driskel.

After forcing the Browns’ first three-and-out of the day, the Bengals became the third opponent this season to block a Britton Colquitt punt and took over at the Cleveland 23. Three plays later, it was 26-18 on a John Ross touchdowns and successful two-point conversion.

Other special teams transgressions that hurt included a double-team block on the opening kickoff and yet another in the season-long series of holds during a punt return.  It’s pretty safe to say special teams coordinator Amos Jones will be working elsewhere next season.

The crowd in some quarters no doubt anticipated the worst when the score tightened and another frustrating loss loomed. Don’t blame them. They have been conditioned over the years to feel that way in the latter stages of close games that usually end with a loss.

However, they did not take into consideration the Mayfield factor. These are not the old Browns that cave late. It is almost as though the kid wills his team to win. Big plays arrive quite unexpectedly.

That momentum the Bengals, who scored all their points in the final quarter, had disappeared suddenly – just as suddenly as they believed they were back in the game –  and dramatically with a shade more than two minutes left.

It was a simple, seemingly harmless, flat pattern run by Njoku on second-and-four at the Cleveland 31. The big tight end grabbed the ball at the 35, shed a tackle by free safety Jessie Bates, turned around and saw nothing but a wide-open field.

He matriculated his way down the field (as Hall of Fame coach Hank Stram liked to say) until Cincy linebacker Hardy Nickerson ended the foot race at the Bengals’ two-yard line.
It was a case of needing – and getting – a big play when it meant the difference between winning and losing.

Three knees later (the Bengals were out of timeouts) the victory was assured. It proved once again this team has finally discovered the secret to winning football, the ability to hold on to a lead, and know what it takes to achieve it.

That is one of the big differences – arguably the biggest – between this team, the one since the departure of head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley, and Jackson’s team for the first eight games of the season.

Mayfield, who is thoroughly enjoying himself since the Jackson firing, rubbed it in after Njoku’s’ 66-yard catch and run. After the play, he strutted almost tauntingly downfield along the Cincinnati sideline, where Jackson stood, glowering at him  almost chillingly for what seemed like 10 or 15 seconds, before backpedaling and spinning away joyfully.

It was as though he was telling his ex-coach this is not the same team he left two months ago. If the message wasn’t received following the Browns earlier victory down in Cincinnati, it surely was Sunday.

What Browns fans saw on this day was a portent of the future. The corner, as has been stated here, has been turned.

The old Browns most likely would have found a way to lose a game like this. And therein lies another big difference from seasons past. It sure looks as though the NFL’s most tortured fan base in the 21st Century finally has good reason to feel good about the future.

Wait’ll next year has clearly taken on a whole new meaning.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Seeking a series sweep

 The Browns have knocked down several losing barriers this season en route to one of their best seasons, relatively speaking, since returning to the National Football League in 1999.

Long-lasting losing streaks on the road, within in a season and against certain teams have fallen as the road to correctness continues during this surprising season of entertaining football.

Next up is conceivably ending up with not just a decent record within the AFC North, but their best since the resurrection.

Believe it or not, the Browns have never had a record better than .500 within the AFC North (and AFC Central before that) in the first 19 seasons. They have an excellent chance to change that in the next two weeks.

They enter Sunday’s home finale against Cincinnati, whom they beat in week 12, with a 2-1-1 division record and a good shot at finishing 4-1-1 in Baltimore against the Ravens, whom they defeated in week five.

Their lone blemish was a 33-18 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who check in a 3-1-1 before their season finale against the Bengals at home a week from Sunday.

Sweeping a season series is a big deal and a rarity for the current iteration of the Browns. The last – and only – time they swept the Bengals was way back in 2002.

They knocked off the Ravens twice in a season in 2001 and 2007 with a good shot at No. 3 this season, but have yet to register a season sweep of the Steelers after 20 seasons of trying.

Both of the final two opponents enter their games with head coaches on hot seats: Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati and John Harbaugh in Baltimore. The Bengals arrive in Cleveland fresh off ending a five-game losing streak last Sunday against Oakland and without their starting quarterback and two best wide receivers.

The Browns ended Andy Dalton’s season in week 12, the veteran quarterback sustaining a thumb injury in the first half of the Browns’ ridiculously easy 35-20 victory. It saw rookie Baker Mayfield throw four touchdown passes and the Browns take a 35-7 lead early in the second half.

A nagging toe injury has kept veteran wide receiver A. J. Green idle for most of the second half of the season and he was eventually placed on injured reserve. And Tyler Boyd, who picked up the slack in Green’s absence, suffered a sprained MCL in the Oakland victory and has been ruled out for Sunday’s game. Between them, they caught 122 passes for 1,722 yards and 13 touchdowns this season.

Jeff Driskel, who took over for Dalton, is completing 60% of his passes, but has only four touchdown passes and been picked off twice. He has thrown for more than 200 yards in a game just once.

The linchpin for the Bengals’ offense is bruising running back Joe Mixon, who is just five yards shy of 1,000 yards. He ran for 89 yards in the first meeting, mainly because Driskel was forced to throw the ball 29 times after falling behind so badly.

Look for head coach/defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to crowd the line of scrimmage in an effort to neutralize Mixon and force Driskel to put the ball up with a weakened receiving corps.

His main targets most likely will be tight end C. J. Uzomah, who caught six passes in the first game, but was targeted 12 times, and speedy wide receiver John Ross, who has caught only 19 passes this season, six of them in the end zone.

The Cincinnati defense has been a problem, maybe the main problem, for the Bengals all season. It has allowed 413 points, a 50.5% conversion rate on third down, 142 yards a game on the ground and 24 first downs a game.

To give you some idea of how porous the run defense is, the two leading tacklers on the team, by far, are safeties. Free safety Jessie Bates has 99 tackles (65 solo) and strong safety Shawn Williams has banked 95 tackles (69 solo). They have also picked off seven passes.

Defensive tackle Geno Atkins (10) and defensive ends Carlos Dunlap (eight) and rookie Sam Hubbard (six) lead the pass rush that was blanked by the Browns’ offensive line in the first game. They account for 24 of the club’s 33 sacks.

And then there’s the Hue Jackson factor, which probably will be a topic of conversation whenever these teams meet as long as the former head coach of the Browns remains with the Bengals in some capacity.

The Browns played arguably their best game of the season against the Bengals with Jackson on the Cincinnati sideline, probably wondering why the team didn’t play like that for him before he was canned midway through the season.

The answer to that, of course, is simple. He created the dysfunction on and off the field that eventually led to his dismissal and the insertion of Williams, who brought a much-needed semblance of balance and order to a team that underachieved and needed to hear a new voice.

The Browns, who get rookie cornerback Denzel Ward back after clearing concussion protocol, are whopping nine-point favorites, a heady situation they haven’t enjoyed since can’t remember when.

As such, it might be considered by some as a trap game, having rolled over the Bengals so easily in their initial meeting. Guarding against overconfidence – imagine saying that about the Browns – is rare foreign territory.

The guess here is Williams and his staff are going to make certain the victory down in Cincinnati just a few weeks after Jackson was cashiered was not a fluke. Winning a pair of season series undoubtedly is the carrot that will keep them focused for the next two Sundays.

Mayfield will not throw four more touchdown passes this time, but the Browns are much healthier and clearly the better team and he won’t have to. The Bengals use the revenge factor to stay close for a half before the Browns pull away in the second half. Make it:

Browns, 27, Bengals 13

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Mid-week thoughts

The mere fact the Browns are still alive with regard to the National Football League playoffs is so far beyond miracle status at this stage of the season, it’s almost otherworldly.

Over the last 20 seasons, conversation at this time of the season always, with one exception, centers around on how high the Browns will select and who they should take in the annual college draft. All but two of those years, the Browns were the franchise that couldn’t.

Fans are not used to talking about the playoffs in late December. Or late November, for that matter.

And yet, here we are as the NFL universe almost stunningly finds itself dealing with the possibility of the Browns, those lovable losers of the professional football world, are actually in the post-season conversation.

Never mind that all kinds of improbabilities have to take place in the next two weekends in order for the franchise to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and the only time since the resurrection in 1999.

That was the year the Browns were a dropped pass by Dennis Northcutt away from knocking off the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild-card game and advancing to the second round of the playoffs.

Since then, it has been nothing more than abject misery after season after season after numbing season of the most embarrassingly ugly football Browns Nation had ever witnessed.

That is why veteran NFL observers, who normally dismissed the team even before a game was played, started paying attention when the club’s 2018 season turned around in midseason and set a course for the postseason. The Browns?! Really?!

The Browns actually have a chance. They really do, albeit so slim, so infinitesimal, that even divine intervention probably won’t help as they attempt to set the pro football world on its ear.

Words like unlikely, won’t happen, are you kidding me? and last ditch accompany the club’s chances of playing really meaningful football in January. The only scenario that gets them there is mind-boggling.

Way too many things, including one improbability, have to happen. It’s this simple.

The Browns must win out Sunday in the home finale against Cincinnati and the following Sunday in Baltimore. Lose either one and next season comes quickly into focus.

Then the Miami Dolphins have to lose at least one of their final two games; the Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts must lose Sunday; and the Titans and Colts must play to a tie in the season finale.

That’s the only way the Browns can squeeze into the last wild-card slot. So they clearly do not control their destiny. Slim and none have a better chance than the Browns.

No matter what happens from here on out, this season has to be considered a success considering the dysfunction that accompanied the first half. No one can honestly say they saw the successful second half of the season on the horizon.

It definitely will serve as a terrific launching pad for the 2019 season, undoubtedly the most anticipated since 2003.
*       *       *
Austin Corbett, the offensive lineman without a specific position who has been sidelined with a foot injury the last few weeks, has resumed practice in what has to be considered a disappointing season for the rookie.

The Browns made Corbett, an offensive tackle in college, the 33rd overall pick in this year’s college draft and he has contributed next to nothing after spending just about all of the exhibition season playing guard.

When the season opened, rookie Desmond Harrison was surprisingly inserted at left tackle and Corbett became the forgotten man along the offensive line.

Extremely high second-round selections are not expected to watch 99.9% of the games from a sideline perch. They are expected to contribute right away in some way, shape of form. Corbett has not come even close.

Or course, it’s way too early to consider him a bust. General Manager John Dorsey, who made the surprising pick of the relatively unknown offensive lineman, agrees and has offered a lame reason for the pick.

“With regards to Austin, he has three very talented players in front of him at the respective left guard, center and right guard positions,” he said, referring to Joel Bitonio, JC Tretter and Kevin Zeitler.

Can’t argue with that, What I can argue is that Dorsey knew all along he had that trio in his bag and yet drafted Corbett when he had needs elsewhere.

What the GM doesn’t say is Corbett probably was targeted to replace the retired Joe Thomas at left tackle and has disappointed. From that standpoint, yes, he is a bust at least for this season.

Unless Dorsey plans to move any of the aforementioned trio during the offseason and plug in Corbett after their departure, the kid will continue to watch 99.9% of the games from the sideline. Unless, of course, the Browns plans to try him at left tackle next season.

Otherwise, the hope is Corbett will be the Swiss Army Knife along the offensive line. “Eventually, his strength is now that he will be able to play everything,” Dorsey said. “When his time comes to get into the lineup, whenever it is, he has to grasp it and take it. Knowing his person, he will grasp it and he will take it.”

At the risk of sounding repetitious, more should be expected from such a high draft selection than utility work on the unit that protects the team’s most precious commodity, the quarterback.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Monday leftovers

 After Saturday night’s escape with a 17-16 victory in Denver that had Browns Nation munching on nails in the final moments, one Gregg Williams characteristic stands out.

We all knew the Browns’ interim head coach used an aggressive approach on defense to build his reputation and résumé as a coordinator to the point where he is recognized as one of the best in the National Football League.

He has maintained that aggression as a head coach and has his club believing that anything is possible. After winning four of the last five games, the team is improbably and somewhat miraculously still alive in the playoff chase.

Don’t for one minute think Williams will not use the positive effect he has had on this team since taking over for Hue Jackson at midseason when he enters his name in the sweepstakes to find Jackson’s permanent successor once the season ends.

General Manager John Dorsey and owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam, who will eventually make that important decision, have to be impressed. Right now, the Browns are playing some of the best football the Haslams have seen since becoming the club’s owners.

And if the Browns win out the next two Sundays against Cincinnati at home and at Baltimore (it feels strange writing that so late in the season), Williams can build a powerful argument for dropping the interim tag from his current title.

His decision to eschew a short field goal with less than two minutes left in regulation that would have forced the Broncos to score a touchdown to win created many nervous souls in Browns Nation.

Didn’t bother Williams, whose faith in his defense was the motivating factor to go for it on fourth-and-1 at the Denver 10. The gamble failed when Nick Chubb was dropped for a three-yard loss.

His explanation to go for it was so Williamsian. “We came here to win the ball game,” he said after the game. “I don’t think anyone was ever worried about me not being aggressive. We came here to win it.

“Offensively, we were going to win it right there. If not, we’re going to come back and do it defensively.” The thought of not succeeding one way or the other never entered his mind.

It sure resonated with the players.

“It speaks to the volume of trust that our coach has to say we’re going for it on fourth-and-one,” said cornerback T, J. Carrie, who had one of the club’s two interceptions. “We’re up by one, knowing we’re going to have to play defense to win this game and his trust and belief in us if we don’t get it, our defense is going to win the game for us.”

What I liked about it was Williams’ refusal to play the dreaded prevent defense. The Browns attacked the quarterback as though it was the first quarter, Coaches too many times get burned by utilizing the conservative prevent because all it prevents is winning.

And that they did when strong safety Jabrill Peppers, who had the other club theft, barreled into Denver quarterback Case Keenum on a delayed blitz on a fourth-and-10 at midfield.

Echoed defensive end Myles Garrett, “He has complete confidence in us whether it’s on offense or defense, that we’re going to make the plays we’re supposed to make. He knew if (the offense) didn’t make it, we’d get the stop and we proved him right.”

Williams is piling up a lot of points, the good kind, with the players with his aggressive approach on both sides of the football. Winning four of the last five games can have that kind of an effect on a team.

The fans have to like what Williams has brought to the locker room. Winning, something that has been foreign to this fan base for the last 19 seasons, can have that kind of an effect on the most loyal and ardent fan base in the NFL.

Positive outcomes the next two Sundays could make Dorsey’s selection of the next head coach much more difficult than he initially thought. It would be hard to not take into consideration what Williams has done in the last six games.

He has done something numerous other Browns head coaches have failed to do since 1999. He has changed the culture for the better. That can’t be ignored.
*       *       *
Williams has turned Peppers lose this season to do what the Browns thought he would do when they drafted him last season. He spent most of his rookie season in another Zip code while playing free safety, often playing as many as 40 yards off the football.

That Peppers was rarely seen near the line of scrimmage in an effort to prevent large chunks of yardage by bomb-throwing quarterbacks. That changed when the Browns traded for Damarious Randall and plugged him at free safety, freeing up Peppers to move to strong safety,

Randall, a natural free safety, had been switched to cornerback in Green Bay and fell into disfavor. He has flourished with the Browns, leading the club in interceptions with four and solo tackles with 68.

Peppers has become an intimidating force the last few games, often swelling the population in the box to eight men in an effort to take away the run. As a result his tackling has improved dramatically.

It shows in the stats, Last season, he was in on only 57 tackles (44 solo); this season, he checks in with 68 tackles (47 solo) with two games left.

The ex-Michigan star is performing with much more confidence now that he is able to stick his nose in the action, Williams sending him on occasional blitzes. It paid off with the game on the line in the final stages of the Broncos victory.

He wound up with six solo tackles, the sack, two tackles for loss and a quarterback hit. Wonder how long it will take offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens to realize Peppers was a pretty good runner and decent receiver with the Wolverines.
*       *       *
There is nothing like dumb penalties that will tick off coaches quicker than just about anything. The Browns committed a pair against the Broncos, both on offense, both in the third quarter that had to bother Williams.

Rookie wide receiver Antonio Callaway made a tough 12-yard catch on third down midway through the Browns’ long drive that opened up the second half and showboated, dropping the football next to Denver cornerback Bradley Roby after the catch and signaling, almost defiantly, first down.

The closest official correctly threw his flag for taunting. So instead of first and 10 at the Denver 37, the dead-ball penalty moved the ball back to the Cleveland 48. The 15-play, 43-yard, nine-minute possession ended with a Baker Mayfield fumble.

Then Breshad Perriman, while blocking on a Nick Chubb run on the next possession, was engaged with ex-Brown Jamar Taylor, who wrestled the Cleveland receiver to the ground.

Taylor’s action drew a flag, which Perriman had to see. He nevertheless pushed back against Taylor and was flagged for unnecessary roughness. So instead of having the football at the Cleveland 36, the offset kept the ball at the 18.

Dumb, dumber, dumbest.
*       *       *
While offensive left tackle Greg Robinson has done a decent job protecting Mayfield’s blind side, he picked up yet another holding penalty. He seems to get flagged at the most inappropriate times.

His latest hold nullified a 35-yard scamper by Chubb late in the third quarter on the first play of the club’s second second-half possession. It would have advanced the ball to the Broncos’ 40-yard line.

Chubb reeled off a 40-yarder on the club’s final possession of the game, courtesy of a Robinson block. The rookie running back was cat-quick through a tiny crease between Robinson’s outside shoulder and the defender he was blocking. He was through it before the Broncos could react.

The second-round draft choice now has booked 860 yards on the ground in a little over half the season. He needs just 140 more to become the first Cleveland running back since 2010, when Peyton Hillis ran for 1,177 yards, to top the 1,000 yards.
*       *       *
One aspect of his defense has to concern Williams. The tackling against the Broncos was well below average at best. When you see a lot of arm tackle attempts, that usually means players are not in the best position to make a play.

The Cleveland defense is just fragile enough to the point where missed tackles can make a big difference in time of possession. Shoddy tackling will keep a defense on the field longer. For example, the Broncos controlled the football for nearly 34 minutes.
*       *       *
Finally . . . A correction. The Broncos sacked Mayfield twice Saturday night, not once as it appeared in the gamer. That’s still not bad against one of the best pass-rushing teams in the league. Rookie Bradley Chubb was shut out, while Von Miller collected one. . . . The Cleveland defense registered seven hits on Keenum, while the Cleveland offensive line surrendered only three hits on Mayfield. . . . The Broncos averaged only 3.9 yards a play. . . . Keenum completed 31 passes for only 238 yards. . . . Duke Johnson Jr. touch watch: Four carries, 28 yards; four receptions, 25 yards. Eight touches, 53 yards, 6.6 yards a touch. For the season: 34 carries, 168 yards; 40 receptions, 372 yards. Total touches, 74 for 540 yards, an average of 7.3 yards a touch.