1. The Browns now have quarterback Deshaun Watson on the field after serving his 11-game suspension. How is the offense now operating?
Two weeks ago, the offense didn’t score a touchdown against the bad Texans’ defense, and Deshaun Watson looked beyond rusty — to the point where I didn’t think he’d be able to shake the rust for several weeks. He was throwing half of his passes in the dirt, he was bailing from the pocket, and didn’t seem to know what he was doing. Last week against the Bengals, Watson looked much better; I could actually tell that the guy has played quarterback in his life. He stood tall in the pocket and delivered throws calmly with pressure, he took off and ran it a few times, and was pretty sharp with his accuracy. The issue that was still present was that he didn’t pull the trigger instinctively on a few throws downfield that were open. One of those hesitations led to an incompletion, and the other led to him trying to throw it late, which allowed time for the safety to come all the way across the field to intercept it. The bigger issue last week, though, was the offensive line, which has really struggled since our center was placed on injured reserve. Opposing teams are getting immediate pressure up the middle, which is consistently disrupting the running game or leading to holding penalties. We’ll see how Watson and company do in their third week together.
2. The Browns are coming off a 23-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. What went wrong in that matchup that the Ravens may take notice of and try to exploit similarly.
It was one of those games that was winnable. The Browns’ defensive line was doing a really good job pressuring Joe Burrow early on, forcing a lot of incomplete passes. It was a 0-0 game with the Browns forcing a punt in the second quarter, and then one of our guys roughed the punter. That was followed up by a few more big penalties on the defense that basically handed a free touchdown to Cincinnati. Then on offense, the holding penalties started, and it was just a challenge to build any momentum. In the second half, the Bengals got a few big plays that allowed them to pull away, but when I hear that the Bengals only scored 23 points, my expectation is that Cleveland should’ve had a legitimate chance to win it. Only scoring 10 points was deflating, especially since our playoff hopes were on the line. Right now, I’d say the two things to exploit are to rush the gaps up front to stop the Browns’ ground game, because the center isn’t getting a good enough push, and then Baltimore’s offense should run the ball early and often. There are spurts in which the Browns’ run defense plays decent, but when teams stick with it, they find their groove and can’t be stopped.
3. Other than Watson, are there some players that will also be on the field that weren’t a part of the first matchup against the Ravens in Week 7? What about players that won’t be on the field that could change the tide?
Center Ethan Pocic is now on injured reserve; the team’s running game was still doing great with him in there like he was in Week 7. In Week 7, Hjalte Froholdt played right guard for the injured Wyatt Teller. Teller is now back, and Froholdt has shifted over to center. On defense, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Jacob Phillips, and Sione Takitaki are all on injured reserve now, so you guys are seeing a whole new group. Deion Jones will see the bulk of playing time, and Tony Fields will probably see an expanded role too, but it’s never a good thing when you’ve lost your Top 4 linebackers to IR in what was already a below average group. Lastly, cornerback Denzel Ward is back, so he’ll be in the starting lineup.
4. Since the Week 7 matchup, it appears the run defense still is out of sorts for the Browns as they ranked No. 30 against the run. Where are the struggles coming from?
There is a lack of gap integrity by the defensive linemen and linebackers. I start with the defensive tackle position, where Cleveland tried to get away with having two below average starters at the position this year. We tried to turn a blind eye to it by hoping that the strengths at defensive end (with Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney) would make up for it. It hasn’t. It also impacts the rest of the defense too — last week, the Bengals ran a fleaflicker, and the safety and cornerback both started coming up for the run, completely ignoring the receiver who just ran by them for a wide open touchdown pass.
5. The Cleveland Browns are 3-point favorites according to DraftKings Sportsbook. Do you agree with the line? Where would you place it?
I’ve been very pessimistic about the Browns in the first four questions, but I like the line here. It’d be tough to bet on, though, because I see the Browns being able to pull this game off by a field goal, which would just be a push. The Ravens getting their running game going so well last week might make one wonder how Cleveland will stop it with their 30th-ranked defense, but teams need to have a threat of a balanced attack, which the Ravens don’t quite have with Huntley. I think Deshaun Watson and the offense will play better in his first game in front of his new home crowd, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Browns try to shift with a strategic pass-heavy approach to make up for the ground game being out-of-whack.