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Browns Fail First Month of Season, Must Improve Quickly or Risk Being Left Behind

Entering the 2022 season, the Cleveland Browns had to take advantage of a weak first month in the regular season. They have failed to do that and now must find their way out of the hole they dug for themselves.
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From the moment the regular season schedule was revealed, it was apparent that the Cleveland Browns needed to capitalize on a weak opening month to the season if they had aspirations to make the postseason. Kevin Stefanski's team failed to do that and now find themselves with a disappointing 2-2 record and have yet to face off against a likely playoff team.

It's tempting to dismiss the poor start since they are tied with the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals atop the AFC North, but the Browns are a team that can't squander winnable games them due to the disadvantage resulting from Deshaun Watson's suspension. The meltdown against the New York Jets and offensive failure against the Atlanta Falcons are games that can quickly define a season.

The Browns look every bit as inconsistent as their record. An offense that looked to be the strength of this team was just one of three in the red zone against the Falcons. The defense has struggled in a multitude of ways in just a four-game stretch. Some of that is a product of bad luck including an ankle injury that has kept Jadeveon Clowney out for two games and the car wreck that kept Myles Garrett out at least against the Falcons, but they simply need to play better. The best the special teams units seem to be able to hope for in any game is a draw.

Head coach Kevin Stefanski has to own the inconsistency and the record as does the rest of the coaching staff. The Browns have had two opportunities to get on a roll and squandered them both. After a game they had to win against the Carolina Panthers to open, they suffered the meltdown against the Jets. They were able to rally on a short week with a critical win against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but then petered out against the beatable Falcons.

The Browns now prepare for a month that includes home games against the Los Angeles Chargers, New England Patriots and then a trip to Baltimore to take on the Ravens before hosting the Cincinnati Bengals. 

This slate looks more beatable now than when the season began, but it remains relentless. The Chargers are down their talented left tackle Rashawn Slater and standout defensive end Joey Bosa as quarterback Justin Herbert tries to heal damaged rib cartilage while playing. Meanwhile, the Patriots are 1-3 and are currently without their starting quarterback, Mac Jones

Nevertheless, both teams look more formidable than the four opponents the Browns could only manage a split. The Browns will need to be better, more consistent, which largely comes from avoiding the lapses that have plagued them in a season that has barely started. And because of their failures against the Jets and Falcons, those divisional games take on added importance.

If there's good news, it's that the Browns have improved in some areas and have the capacity to improve in others, but that isn't reflected in the standings and doesn't change how maddening the team is to watch. If anything, it only adds to the mounting frustration. The Browns have been forced to play a number of young players that will hopefully benefit from the experience as they work to develop.

After two games in which the secondary was unable to communicate effectively, corrections have been made and the play is better. The Olamide Zacchaeus reception against the Falcons stands out as a bust, but the defensive backs were up to the task the past two games. That must continue as the Browns prepare to face Herbert, Lamar Jackson and Joe Burrow.

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The defensive line simply needs to get healthy. It's unfortunate that the Browns couldn't win despite giving up only 23 points while missing three starters against the Falcons, but if they drag out the likes of Isaac Rochell to play 89 percent of the snaps against any of these next four opponents as they did against the Falcons, the Browns might as well notify the league they intend to forfeit.

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Getting the defensive line back would also protect the Browns linebackers that have had their weaknesses exposed the past two weeks. Especially with the loss of Anthony Walker Jr., the linebackers' lack of size has is difficult to ignore in the first half against the Steelers and Najee Harris running over and through them or the Falcons when they had to fight off blocks. It's why the Browns have targeted base ends like Clowney and Wright to team up with Garrett. Losing them unravels the basic design of the defense. It's also why they need to continue investing at the defensive end position, because it's so critical to their identity on that side of the ball.

The Browns issues on offense start with the quarterback position. Jacoby Brissett has turned in a pair of great performances and two games full or regret and missed opportunities. On one hand, it can be argued that Stefanski is trusting Brissett too much and perhaps they should lean on their running game more, but in both games Brissett struggled, he failed to seize on opportunities to make plays that would've produced points. Against the Panthers, he missed wide open passes down the field while on the road in Atlanta, simply executing one of their screens might have been enough to secure a victory.

The Browns aren't asking Brissett to be a hero. At times, he acts the part like on his scrambling touchdown against the Falcons, but the coaching staff is consistently putting the journeyman quarterback in position to succeed. That doesn't mean there aren't some bewildering play calls like the end around to David Njoku or trying to pass on second down from the one-yard line against the Falcons, but the play calling operation, on balance, has been operating at a high level this season.

Nick Chubb is the engine of the offense and they can't ask him to do much more than he's giving them already. He's averaging 114.7 rushing yards per game, averaging 5.7 yards per carry and has five touchdowns. Chubb is on pace for a career-high 344 carries this season, 46 more than his next highest season in 2019.

His running mate, Kareem Hunt, is having his best season since joining the Browns. He's produced two explosive run plays in the past month, which is the same number he had in 2021 and only one less than he did in 2020. Hunt also continues to be effective in pass protection and catching passes out of the backfield.

Amari Cooper has been great for the Browns, the Falcons game not withstanding. A.J. Terrell was great against him and took him out of the game. The Browns tend to have a philosophy where they are content to take what the defense gives them rather than force the issue. It should have been enough to win, but they probably should have done more to scheme Cooper open.

David Njoku has been productive in the passing game in back to back games. He is looking like the franchise tight end this team needs and is being paid to be, but he needs to keep it going. Between his blocking and his ability to impact the passing game, he's a difficult matchup for opponents.

Oct 2, 2022; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones (11) catches a ball past Atlanta Falcons cornerback Dee Alford (37) in the second quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Donovan Peoples-Jones had his second productive game of the season. If they can get him involved more consistently, it can diversify the Browns ability to attack defenses. The Browns appear to be satisfied as long as they can get two of their three primary receiving threats involved in the passing game at this point the season.

DPJ continues to offer an avenue for the offense to grow, but he's not alone. Harrison Bryant, the team's second tight end, can continue to get more involved in the offense. Rookie third round pick David Bell had two key catches against the Falcons. He may never be more than the fifth option on offense this year, but he could take on a similar role as DPJ had as a rookie.

As is always the case for the Browns, it all starts with what they are able to do up front. With Jack Conklin up and running, the Browns have the best group they can have this season. The emergence of Jedrick Wills has been a welcome addition to the front as he's been great in pass protection and added more options to the potent running attack, including their pin and pull scheme.

But for all the ways the Browns can improve, they have to go out and actually do it. Quickly, if they intend to be a factor for the playoffs this year, but they need to grow for the sake of the long term vision which is more focused on 2023 to 2026 when they have Deshaun Watson full-time. Without their star quarterback, this season has become an audition for young players and potentially a few assistant coaches to see who should remain part of the team for when the Browns contend in earnest

The Browns are likely 4-0 with Watson, but they could be 4-0 without him if not for issues within their control. Instead, they sit at an underwhelming 2-2 with no one but themselves to blame needing to once again rally.