Photo by: Dave Spano
The Cleveland Browns discovered that reality last Sunday in their 33-29 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. In a confrontation of supposed NFL titans, the Browns often looked like the superior team, only to fall to a playoff-tested team that has represented the AFC in the last two Super Bowls.
An fumble by Nick Chubb, a dropped punt snap by Jamie Gillan and an interception thrown by Baker Mayfield on a drive late in the game proved costly. It was another example of the Browns being a team still learning how to win games against quality opposition.
You could almost feel it coming after the Browns took a 29-20 lead with slightly more than 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. The Chiefs, as quality teams often do, scored quickly on a long pass from Patrick Mahomes to Tyreek Hill. That was followed by another Chiefs touchdown after Gillan dropped a snap and tried unsuccessfully to scramble for the first down.
The Browns had one more chance to achieve a win that would have been huge in their development into a legitimate Super Bowl contender. It wasn’t to be as Mayfield was hit trying to get rid of the ball, resulting in the interception.
It’s never a good thing to talk about positives in a loss, but the Browns were playing on the road in a difficult venue (Arrowhead Stadium) against the vaunted Chiefs. For much of the game the Browns looked like a dominant force. That’s obviously of no solace to coach Kevin Stefanski, but at least he knows that without the miscues it probably would have been a win.
It’s now on to the home opener Sunday against the Houston Texans, who are playing without embattled quarterback Deshaun Watson. It will be interesting to see how the Browns react coming off a tough loss against a Texans team that is perceived as being weaker.
Of particular interest Sunday will be to see how the re-shaped defense performs. The pass rush wasn’t what it’s been anticipated to be against the Chiefs. That has to change if the Browns want to avoid shootouts.
What we learned last week is that the AFC North might be the toughest division in the NFL. The Steelers aren’t fading away, as many Browns fans predicted after last season, and the Bengals will be a tough out because of Joe Burrow’s return. The Ravens are hurting with injuries at running back, but Jon Harbaugh always has them well prepared.
Now isn’t the time to panic, which I don’t think will happen to the Browns. Their fans, maybe, but not the players. There’s a need to stay the course this week and good things should happen. As long as the punter can catch the damn ball.
The only win occurred at home in 2004 against the Baltimore Ravens, who played without Hall of Fame left tackle Jonathan Ogden. His glaring absence allowed Browns defensive end Kenard Lang to have a field day in harassing Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller. There would have been a win over the Kansas City Chiefs to open the 2001 season but an infamous helmet toss by linebacker Dwayne Rudd cost the Browns in an embarrassing way.
The NFL did no favors to the Browns this season by matching them against the Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday. The Chiefs represented the AFC in the last two Super Bowls, winning it in the 2019 season and losing to Tom Brady and Tampa Bay last season.
The last time we saw the Browns, they gave a decent effort in a 22-17 loss to the Chiefs at Arrowhead in an AFC semifinal playoff game. While the defeat obviously stung for a while, a realistic view of the season indicated that the Browns had arrived as a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
The missing ingredient would be the need for another banner offseason for general manager Andrew Berry, the man with the Midas touch since assuming the role in 2019. Berry appears to have done his job well, adding several key free agent additions and selecting two promising defenders in the draft – cornerback Greg Newsome (first round) and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu Koramoah (second round).
The key factor in Berry’s game plan was an almost tunnel-vision approach to bolstering a defense that was weak against the run, struggled in coverage and had only one legitimate pass-rush threat (end Myles Garrett).
The result of the additions have made the Browns as favorite pick of many to make a serious run at the AFC Championship. The last time anyone said that was when some guys named Bernie Kosar and Clay Matthews were still playing.
As important as the defensive additions are, it goes without saying that continued improvement by quarterback Baker Mayfield is the ultimate key to success in what will be a 17-game grind. Mayfield benefited from the offensive system deployed by first-year coach Kevin Stefanski to have one of the better seasons in the league.
Mayfield has the leaderships skills and physical talents to lead a team deep into the playoffs. He has matured on and off the field since his rookie season of 2018, which is so essential for the most important position on the field.
If the Browns return from Kansas City Sunday night with a win, all the preseason hype will be for real. Maybe it is best that the schedule-maker set up a brutal game one to see exactly where the Browns stand in the power structure.
Browns fans have been disappointed many times in recent decades. Perhaps this is the year that changes. Former coach Sam Rutigliano talked about having the audacity of hope. You get the feeling the 2021 Browns are buying into that thinking in a big way.
Photo by: Dave Spano
The brightest of those gems in the Cleveland Browns win over the Jacksonville Jaguars last Saturday was linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who looked more like a 10-year veteran than a rookie playing the entire game in intense Florida heat within weeks of dealing with Covid-19.
JOK was noticeable on seemingly every play, including one sack and a jarring hit on a screen pass when his eye-opening pursuit was on full display. In the matter of one game, JOK went from a potential situational player in backing up Anthony Walker, Sione Takitaki, Mack Wilson and Jason Phillips to a player that needs to be on the field on most snaps.
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The performance was reminiscent of another rookie preseason debut in 2018 against the New York Giants. Quarterback Baker Mayfield stepped onto the field in New Jersey and immediately looked like a player in control of the situation, making reads and throws not normal for most rookies.
JOK had “that” look about him. It was interesting to watch is pre-snap movements. Most rookies would align in one spot and wait for the snap. JOK was constantly moving (side to side and up to the line of scrimmage and back), anticipating plays and acting quickly as action unfolded. There were times when he was waiving a teammate to move into place.
Those are the actions of a leader in the making. It’s obvious why Browns GM Andrew Berry moved up in the second round to select JOK out of Notre Dame.
Two other rookies were noticeable – safety Richard LeCounte III of Georgia and running back Demetric Felton of UCLA. LeCounte was sidelined part of last season after a dirt bike accident. His draft stock, which was on the rise, dropped to the point that the Browns selected him in the fifth round.
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LeCounte showed the range needed to play single-high, once roaming to the right of the field to break up a pass. He also intercepted a Hail Mary pass in the first half.
Felton is a small back in the mold of ex-Brown Eric Metcalf. His speed was attractive to Berry, who realizes the need to increase the pace of the passing game. Felton is a candidate for playing time in the slot or as an option for Mayfield out of the backfield.
Other players to perform well were offensive lineman Michael Dunn, who’s battling Nick Harris, Drew Forbes and others to be a part of the interior rotation at guard, second-year receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones and rookie cornerback Greg Newsome II. Peoples-Jones was quarterback Case Keenum’s favorite target, and Newsome held up well in limited action.
The Browns next game is on Sunday, August 22 against the New York Giants in Cleveland, 1pm game time.