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Browns Finished 1-3 in October; Why They Should be Optimistic

The Cleveland Browns had a worse record in October than in September, but the team is trending in a better direction that could pay dividends in the second half of the season.
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There is more reason to be optimistic about the Cleveland Browns coming out of October in spite of a 1-3 record than September when the Browns split those four games. The timing of the Browns one win in October helps, but the team is trending in a positive direction with just three games until Deshaun Watson is scheduled to the helm of the offense starting in December.

The Browns offense has remained effective in the face of increased competition. They are limited by defenses that can keep running back Nick Chubb in check and effectively cover wide receiver Amari Cooper as well as the talent of quarterback Jacoby Brissett. At his best, Brissett can usually find open receivers and move the ball. However, when under pressure, Brissett tends to get flustered, suffer from tunnel vision and becomes more prone to mistakes.

Although the Browns end up leaving too many points on the field, they enter the bye in a tie for sixth in points per game with 25. They also average 5.7 yards per play, currently tenth in the league. 

Chubb continues to lead the league in total rushing yards (841), explosive runs (9) and rushing touchdowns (10) while averaging 5.6 yards per carry. He's third in the league in attempts behind Derrick Henry and Saquon Barkley.

Of the Browns 1,862 receiving yards, the triumvirate of Amari Cooper, David Njoku and Donovan Peoples-Jones account for 74.5 percent of them. Cooper leads the way with 553 yards followed by Njoku with 418 and DPJ with 417. Cooper has five receiving touchdowns while Njoku has just one.

Injury is one factor that can slow down the Browns offense. Njoku is recovering from a high-ankle sprain, but could be ready to play coming out of the bye even if he's not yet fully recovered. The Browns could also see the return of guard Wyatt Teller who has missed time with a calf injury.

The other variable is Deshaun Watson. There's no question that he has more talent than Brissett. In addition to the work he put in over the summer, he's been in meetings in the facility and then working on his own. Getting back to game speed might take him a minute, but the bigger concern is how Watson will deal with hostile fans who want to see him fail as a result of his off-field issues. Six of the remaining Browns regular season games are on the road. This will be the fist time in his career where he's viewed as a villain and it could be adversity for which he isn't prepared.

The fact the Browns don't need Watson to perform miracles is critical in making a smooth transition. The Browns can run the ball and should actually have more room to run with Watson in the lineup as defenses have to account for his threat both as a passer and runner. Pass catchers that excelled with Brissett are likely to remain successful with Watson. That could enable Watson to find comfort quickly, allowing his talent to manifest.

But it's the play of the Browns defense that might be the biggest factor in an improved second half of the season. After six games of misalignments, missed assignments and poor tackling culminated in an embarrassing performance against the New England Patriots, the defense appears to have turned a corner.

Players are taking ownership of the defense. The group has played sound assignment football and have tackled better the past two games. That has increased their confidence and that side of the ball is playing much faster as a result.

Everything starts with Myles Garrett who is playing at an incredible level despite dealing with a shoulder injury caused by a car wreck earlier this season. It's unclear if the two weeks will allow it to heal completely, but it should be in a much better state when the team takes the field against the Miami Dolphins. The healthier he gets, the more dangerous he becomes and he has 7.5 sacks in the seven games he's played.

Garrett has needs to be great to make up for a defensive tackle position that continues to be a liability. The play there has improved slightly, but it's still bottom of the league and relies on other position groups to mask its ineffectiveness. Regardless of any improvement the defense enjoys in the second half of the season, that position group is undermanned.

The other key improvement has been in the secondary. The safety play has gone from wildly inconsistent to stable. They aren't making huge plays, but they aren't giving them up either. The corner play has gotten more consistent as rookie Martin Emerson gains confidence every week he's on the field and Greg Newsome progresses through some early season struggles in the slot.

Both of these position groups are missing or getting limited contributions from key components. Denzel Ward continues to recover from a concussion while Jadeveon Clowney has been hampered by knee and ankle injuries. If those two can come back healthy after the bye and simply play average relative to their abilities, it would provide a boost.

Clowney is a critical component in containing quarterbacks as well as forcing the run inside. Along with Garrett, it can render opponents more predictable. Blitzes can be designed to attack the resulting bottleneck. Ward's speed will become an important factor coming out of the bye in matchups Emerson's size and physicality might not be an ideal fit.

The linebacker play has improved largely due to the play of Sione Takitaki. Normally the SAM, Takitaki has been tasked with filling in at both MIKE and WILL as injuries have mounted. His size and strength are valuable in run defense, but he's outperformed expectations in coverage.

So much of it comes down to the fact that Takitaki consistently does his job. He doesn't waste much movement and he plays with effort that enables him to make tackles and occasionally find himself in position to make a big play.

Takitaki is unlikely to be a great matchup for some of the opponents the Browns have coming, but recent performances warrants discovering exactly what his limits are. The opportunity is there, but could be partly determined by the availability of Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Deion Jones is another factor as he get more comfortable in the scheme, offering another athletic option with range and the ability to blitz.

JOK missed the game against the Bengals with a knee injury. He's another player that could return healthy out of the bye. He played far more confidently against the Ravens and could be a valuable defensive weapon against heavy passing teams like the Dolphins and Buffalo Bills.

Those matchups will be a major challenge for the Browns defense, but if they can maintain their momentum coming out of the bye, it provides a fantastic opportunity to test their mettle against two of the most effective offenses in the league. Should the Browns defense prove they are capable of competing on their level, it will not only provide the Browns with an opportunity to win, but might propel them to a strong finish to the season.

Going into the season, a 4-7 record during Brissett's tenure seemed reasonable. Missed opportunities early in the season will continue to haunt the Browns as they could be in a much stronger position. They still have a good chance to hit that 4-7 mark, but If they can defeat a team like the Dolphins or the Bills, that would represent a meaningful victory that enhances the team's credibility as an aspiring contender.

One of the things that could get in the way of the Browns winning in those games is their special teams units, which continue to be abominable. The Browns have talent at kicker and punter, but everything else outside of long snapper is mediocre at best. Losing Jakeem Grant for the year was a major setback, but Grant wasn't going to be blocking for returners or protecting on field goal attempts.

The Browns will likely need to overcome their deficiencies on special teams to win games, but they must find a way to keep their momentum going on the defensive side of the ball and remain consistent on offense. That could pave the way for the Browns to go on a run when Watson takes the field for the final six games of the season. Even if it's not enough qualify for the postseason, it would provide confidence heading into a pivotal 2023 season.