Previewing Cleveland’s strengths and weaknesses

Dec 9, 2018; Cleveland, OH, USA; Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) runs through a hit by Cleveland Browns outside linebacker Jamie Collins (51) during the first quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

In order to reach the playoffs–Denver will not only need to win out–the Broncos will also need help from a variety of other AFC teams.

The Browns find themselves in a nearly identical scenario, resting half a game behind Denver in the AFC Wildcard race. In fact, if the Browns win out, the Steelers lose out and the Ravens lose to the Chargers, Cleveland would win the AFC North for the first time since 1989. Led by quarterback Bernie Kosar, the Browns (9-6-1) ultimately lost to the Broncos in for the 1989 AFC Championship Game.

Cleveland is trying to return its former glory and for the first time in two decades, the Browns are not the doormat of the AFC. With a young nucleus led by quarterback Baker Mayfield and edge rusher Myles Garrett, the Browns have one of the brightest futures in the NFL.

Strengths:

Myles Garrett is in just his second season and already is the clear leader Cleveland’s defense.

According to Pro Football Focus, Garrett is the highest graded player on the Browns’ defense and a top 10 edge rusher in the NFL this season.

Coming out of Texas A&M in 2017, Garrett was seen as head and shoulders above the rest of the draft class and the best edge rusher to enter the draft since Jadeveon Clowney or fellow Aggie Von Miller. The similarities between Garrett and Miller are apparent. Though no one is faster off the snap than Miller, Garrett also has one of the fastest releases and freakish flexibility.

Garrett put these gifts to use and now finds himself only behind Aaron Donald, Chris Jones (including Thursday’s 2.5 sack game), and Miller in sacks with 12.5 on the season.

Saturday will give him a great chance to at least pass Miller, as the Broncos’ offensive line has averaged a pass blocking grade of 49.4 over the past three weeks. On the other end, the Browns’ pass blocking has been among the best in the league as of late.

After a rocky start to the season, the Browns’ offensive line has been on a roll of late. Since Week 9 the unit has allowed a league-low four hits on the quarterback and zero sacks. Putting things into perspective, the Broncos allowed seven times that many hits on the quarterback, and the second-best team in the league still allowed five times more than Cleveland.

Though the tackles have struggled, two of the Browns’ interior offensive lineman have earned an “elite” pass blocking grade (90-100), while the third is just .2 points shy of a Pro Bowl caliber pass blocking grade (85-89.9).

Since moving on from offensive coaches Hue Jackson and Todd Haley, Mayfield and the rest of the Browns’ offense has looked much improved. This in large part thanks to new Browns offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens.

Kitchens has improved the offense in almost every category. Before making the switch to Kitchens, the Browns had been averaging 342.5 yards and 21.1 points per game. Since making the switch to Kitchens, they’ve averaged 386.6 yards and 24.6 points per game.

The greatest improvement the Browns have seen under Kitchens, though, has been Mayfield’s vast development. Under Hue Jackson and Todd Haley, Mayfield was completing 58.3 percent of his passes for 245.2 yards per game, had a touchdown:interception ratio of 8:6 and a passer rating of 78.9. Under Kitchens, Mayfield has completed 73.2% of his passes for 281.2 yards per game, has a TD:INT ratio of 11:4 and a passer rating of 114.5.

Weaknesses

One of the Browns’ greatest weaknesses is the receiving core. What appeared to be an incredibly deep unit in August with Jarvis Landry, Josh Gordon and former first-round pick Corey Coleman, ended up being one of the less exciting groups in the NFL.

Both Coleman and Gordon had maturity issues, resulting with them landing on new teams. Antonio Callaway is currently number two guy behind Landry, and, as you would expect, there’s a sizeable gap between Landry and everybody else. Landry is the only receiver on the Browns with a grade over 70, though he’s not devoid of blame.

Jarvis Landry ranks third in the league in dropped passes with six, while two of his teammates (Antonio Callaway and David Njoku) are tied for fourth with five drops.

The Browns’ defense has also had its fair share of struggles.

The group has been one of the very worst tackling units in the league this year, and generally have had a hard time wrapping anyone up. Cleveland (38.4) has the lowest tackling from PFF of any team in the league.

Cleveland’s tackling problem stems from poor play from the linebackers. Linebackers are the backbone of any defense and tend to feature the team’s leading tackles. Yet, the Browns’ linebackers can barely tackle. Starting linebackers, Joe Schobert and Jamie Collins, both have tackling grades under 50, with Schobert’s being a team-worst 30.0.

Watch for the Broncos to attack this weakness with Phillip Lindsay, who has broken a tackle on 16.2 percent of his touches this year.

The Broncos will play the Browns Saturday at 6:15 MST at Broncos Stadium at Mile High and on NFL Network.

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