Week 8, 2020 NFL season, the Las Vegas Raiders vs the Cleveland Browns — sort of has a nice ring to the whole sentiment as the nation deals with coronavirus spikes and the peak of voting season with Election Day looming.
Apologies for being a day late and a dollar short. OK, fine not a dollar short, but here we are on Friday instead of Thursday with our latest set of five burning questions with the enemy.
Chris Pokorny over at Dawgs By Nature was kind enough to answer this week’s five questions about the Browns who recently lost star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to a season-ending ACL injury. The national media is pegged on two sides of the fence on whether or not this helps or hurts former first overall pick Baker Mayfield, so let’s hear it from the local source themselves.
S&BP: How is the health of this Browns team, and is there any one position affected greater by injuries ahead of this one?
DBN: The health of the team is pretty banged up, which is why I’m looking forward to the bye week next week. Quarterback Baker Mayfield and wide receiver Jarvis Landry are dealing with rib injuries they are playing through. Running back Nick Chubb and right guard Wyatt Teller have been out with ankle and calf injuries, respectively. Tight end Austin Hooper is out after having an appendectomy. Obviously, wide receiver Odell Beckham tore his ACL and is out for the year now. The injuries are more lopsided toward the offensive side of the ball, but it hasn’t impacted the point total much — as you saw last week, Cleveland still scored 37 points against the Bengals.
The running game has been most impacted by the injuries. Although running back Kareem Hunt is a great back too, Chubb is just another animal on the ground with his vision, and Teller was by far the best-graded guard in the NFL prior to his injury, according to Pro Football Focus. He brought great athleticism to the pull guard runs to the left, which Cleveland has stopped doing since his injury.
S&BP: Baker Mayfield has certainly gone through his fair share of national scrutiny since his first overall selection. Is that scrutiny A) warranted? and B) is it the same or is it worse at the local level?
DBN: Baker Mayfield came into the league as a big trash talker, never afraid to speak his mind. Much of those comments caught flak at the national level, and Mayfield would make things worse by challenging those critiques on social media. I didn’t care for all of that background noise, I just wanted Mayfield to improve as a football player, and he suffered a big dropoff in production in his second year in 2019. I blame a lot of that on then-head coach Freddie Kitchens and the coaching staff, as they let his mechanics get completely out of whack.
Locally, fans have always been focused on his on-field performance. The fan base wants him to badly be the quarterback of the future, but some things have added up — his height being an issue throwing passes over the middle, throwing interceptions that are largely his fault, and seldom getting to his second read when throwing the ball. However, these have all been normal and justified criticisms. Mayfield has to be better. It doesn’t mean fans are looking for their next quarterback of the future. Last week’s turnaround for him was incredible — he started the game 0-of-5 with an interception in the first quarter, but in the final three quarters, he was 22-of-23 for 297 yards and five touchdown passes, including the first game-winning drive of his career. When Mayfield plays free and confident, he is at his best — and that’s one of the reasons why some fans have debated whether the offense could improve after the injury to WR Odell Beckham last week. It’s not because Beckham isn’t a huge asset, but rather that Mayfield seems better when he doesn’t key in on one particular receiver.
S&BP: Finish the sentence: The Browns will win this game unless ________.
DBN: The Browns will win this game unless the defense plays terrible again and misses the key turnover. I’m not naive: I know Cleveland’s defense is porous against the pass, and there is no quick fix for that. Some weeks, it’s a little better than others, but other weeks it’s just awful. The key element is that when the Browns’ defense is at its best, they are generating key turnovers. As crazy as it sounds, you can almost count on defensive end Myles Garrett to force a turnover each week.
Last week, in a back-and-forth shootout, the Browns had taken a second-half lead, and cornerback Terrance Mitchell dropped the easiest interception ever that could have been a pick six and given Cleveland a two-possession lead. The Browns have been in position for some big plays like that, despite all the yards given up — when those opportunities come up, they can’t miss them.
S&BP: We’ve seen a lot of opposing takes on Odell Beckham Jr.’s injury and its impact on the Browns this year. In your opinion, does OBJ’s injury hurt or ultimately help the Browns as a whole?
DBN: It really is a complex answer. I do not blame Odell Beckham Jr. at all, and I think he is a fantastic weapon in Cleveland’s offense. Just look at the impact he had against the Cowboys this season with a 3-touchdown performance. And while there were some chemistry issues with Mayfield last year and in Week 1 this year, ever since then, I thought the chemistry had improved quite a bit between the two.
After the injury to Beckham last week, though, it was evident that Mayfield started to play free and clear again — he didn’t care who his receivers were, he was back to ripping the ball to them and trusting them to make a big play. I really do think it has been a mental block for Mayfield in the passing game at times. Also, the injury gives a chance for Rashard Higgins to slide into the starting lineup, and for years, fans have believed that Higgins is the receiver who Mayfield has the best chemistry with.
So, what do I say? It sounds wrong to say that we’re a better team without Beckham, but I also don’t see the team suffering without him. I think the thing you lose is the ability for Beckham to rip off an amazing, key play to stun the world, but you gain a more focused offensive approach with the strong running game, spreading the ball around, and some level of comfort for Mayfield in the back of his head.
S&BP: What is your prediction for this game? Who wins? Final score?
DBN: I certainly love the Browns’ high-scoring offense, but the shootouts are making me pull my hair out. I keep thinking, “Why can’t the defense just be a tad more competent, is that too much to ask?” My assumption is that Raiders fans can relate a bit in 2020. Cleveland hasn’t lost at home yet and has thrived against defenses that give up a lot of yards, so I will pick the Browns to win another shootout — unless the rain kicks in, then all bets are off. Browns 31, Raiders 24.