Six thoughts on the Cleveland Browns’ post-holiday travel (and quarterback) plans, Sunday’s game at Denver and the push for the playoffs.
1. There’s a long way to go. Perhaps Dorian Thompson-Robinson will continue to get more comfortable and the offense will eventually be more aggressive and more explosive. Or maybe every game will be a first-to-13 kind of battle, like last week.
If the Browns (7-3) keep playing suffocating defense, avoid big turnovers and Dustin Hopkins keeps making big kicks, they could end up winning 11 or 12 games. If some bounces don’t go their way, the offense doesn’t create any big plays and the opponents finally close what’s currently the league’s widest margin in offensive plays run, maybe things get a little hairy on Cleveland’s quest to get to 10 wins. At this point, neither would be especially surprising.
The Browns are in a good spot, though, and 10 feels like the target number for making the playoffs. On digital paper, the Baltimore Ravens have a much tougher remaining schedule than Cleveland at the moment, so winning the division remains in play. The Browns are about to take off on an extended road trip, and as long as they win one of the two road games against the Broncos and Los Angeles Rams, they’ll stay in a good spot as far as the postseason and big picture are concerned.
The defense really is that good. Jim Schwartz’s pressure packages are consistently winning, and a defense that’s hard to block is one that can keep winning its battles. The key to winning this week will be speeding up Russell Wilson and forcing him to turn it over, and though the Browns have the personnel to do that, this week they face what Pro Football Focus grades as a top-10 pass-blocking offensive line. The Browns should head to Denver feeling like they can run the ball, play for field position and try to win another close one.
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2. In September, the Broncos gave up 70 points — yes, 70, — to the Miami Dolphins and fell to 0-3. Now, they’re 5-5 and riding a four-game win streak that includes victories over the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills. They haven’t scored over 24 points in a game since Oct. 1, but they’re forcing turnovers and keeping themselves on the right side of late-game variance.
The Broncos have a plus-13 turnover margin in the five games they’ve won. In their five losses, they have a minus-seven turnover ratio. They were plus-three last week in a wild, last-second win over the Minnesota Vikings that saw Wilson lead his fourth game-winning drive of the season.
It’s never as simple as saying just don’t turn it over and you’ll win, but based on the way Kevin Stefanski called the game for Thompson-Robinson last week — and the way the Broncos have clawed out their recent wins — it’s not a stretch to think both coaches envision a 17-13 or 13-10 type of game. Both kickers have the full trust of their teams and coaching staff. Over the last four weeks, both Hopkins and Broncos kicker Wil Lutz are 10-of-11 on field goal tries. Lutz made five field goals last week alone. Wilson’s pass to Courtland Sutton with 1:03 left was the Broncos’ only touchdown of the game.
3. The Browns have ruled cornerback Denzel Ward out of this game due to a shoulder injury. That’s a significant loss, as Ward is having probably his best season and is playing as well as any corner in the NFL.
Potentially, the Browns could be without some major experience on defense. Linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. (hamstring) and safety Juan Thornhill (calf) are listed as questionable, and earlier in the week the Browns had to put safety Rodney McLeod on season-ending injured reserve. Most teams have to play at least 10 defensive backs over the course of the season and need to build their rosters accordingly — now Cleveland is at that number.
When Ward is healthy, the Browns have the league’s best cornerback trio in him, Greg Newsome II and Martin Emerson Jr. This week, special teams demon Mike Ford likely will move up to become the primary slot cornerback, and the Browns could call A.J. Green III up from the practice squad. Undrafted rookie Ronnie Hickman had to play safety last week following McLeod’s injury. Hickman and D’Anthony Bell are next in line even if Thornhill can play. McLeod’s loss is a significant one given his experience and versatility.
Emerson figures to draw the primary matchup with Sutton, a big-framed receiver who’s scored a touchdown in five straight games. Keep in mind that Newsome becomes extension-eligible after this season, and that’s going to be one of many important financial decisions the Browns face. Newsome has been good this season when healthy, and his interception return in Baltimore stands as one of the big reasons Cleveland is riding a three-game win streak into its Denver-LA road trip. Lots of defensive coordinators across the league would absolutely be fine with a Newsome-Emerson starting duo, but Ward has played at such a high level that the Browns will obviously miss him.
4. The best way to help a rookie quarterback is to run the ball. A week after their run game sort of stalled, the Browns will look to get back to riding the Jerome Ford–Kareem Hunt combination on Sunday in hopes they can help move the chains.
The Broncos have the No. 31 rush defense by DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average). They’re last by a significant margin in opponent yards per rush attempt (5.5) and yards per game (160). The gashing by the Dolphins somewhat skewed those numbers, but the Browns have to look to rev up their rushing attack and hope Ford can get back to making the big runs he’s made at various points of the season.
Otherwise, expect more safe passes from Thompson-Robinson early and Cleveland to move the pocket for the rookie. The Browns don’t want Thompson-Robinson to run a bunch and expose himself to many hits, but he’s mobile enough to extend plays and occasionally take off by design. The hope is the passing game can grow with more reps — the reality is the Browns are mostly fine with Thompson-Robinson continuing to try to feed Amari Cooper and David Njoku, who had 15 targets last week.
A lot of these games will continue to be decided by which team can get that monstrous yard in key third- and fourth-down situations. The Browns trust Hunt to always get a yard, and they trust their defense to get its share of stops. I’m interested to see how often the Browns are willing to let Thompson-Robinson throw downfield, either to keep Denver’s defense honest or try to catch it getting greedy.
5. Stefanski wouldn’t share his thinking on the quarterback depth chart, but Joe Flacco just completed his first week with the team. Though the obvious expectation is Flacco will go from the practice squad to the active roster at some point, the open spot from McLeod going to injured reserve might be for veteran linebacker and special teams player Jordan Kunaszyk this week. Cleveland has until Saturday afternoon to finalize its roster for the game in Denver.
Flacco has said he’s just here to help the Browns, and that he’s grateful for the opportunity. He sounded a little peeved that he was still available in late November, but he said he’s done his best to remain in shape and stay ready. It’s my belief that the Browns might wait at least a week before viewing Flacco as any kind of realistic option, but it’s Flacco’s experience that led to this new partnership. The obvious hope on the Browns’ part is that Thompson-Robinson continues to grow into the starting role and improve with more work.
The thought that the Browns should — or will have to — have a short leash on Thompson-Robinson isn’t necessarily right or wrong. They’re playing for a postseason berth and playing in high-stakes games. Stefanski has proven that he can game plan and coach around a quarterback’s inexperience, and there’s certainly a chance Thompson-Robinson will continue to get better. If defenses can rattle the rookie or force him into bad spots, and the Browns feel they can’t work around his weaknesses, then they’ll need to make a change.
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I don’t think Flacco should be viewed as a savior. Lots of teams have dealt with quarterback crises this season, and no one previously signed Flacco. I think he made perfect sense as the emergency option and the kind of player who’s been through a lot of important NFL Decembers. I’d guess that Stefanski hopes the Browns don’t have to find out what Flacco really has left.
Nothing about the Browns’ first 10 weeks tells us that the next seven will be especially predictable, so let’s see what happens — and continue to watch this defense work.
6. The Browns fly to Denver on Saturday. They’ll fly to Southern California after the game and practice next week at UCLA, Thompson-Robinson’s alma mater, ahead of their game against the Rams.
Stefanski put a lot of thought into these travel plans, and he ultimately chose this for both sports science and team chemistry reasons. The Browns will look to save their legs, enjoy seeing the sun a bit and focus — win or lose this week — on the stretch run. Clearly, team ownership has spared no expense in building this roster or OK’ing previous road trips to the Greenbrier Resort and Philadelphia, so the Browns will hope to benefit from the time away.
Will they be using the week to get Flacco ready? Will they have Ward back next week? Might they extend this win streak and be playing for first place in the AFC North when they face the Rams? It’s been a wild ride, and that should continue. Stefanski only talks about focusing on the next one, and Cleveland’s defense should see another game it has a chance to dominate.
(Top photo of Dorian Thompson-Robinson: Jason Miller / Getty Images)