Browns Survive the Colts, Literally 32-23 - The Good, Bad And Who is Left?
The Cleveland Browns move to 4-1 after defeating the Indianapolis Colts, playing well offensively in the first half, playing well enough to hang on in the second half and hemorrhaging players to injury the entire game.
Before anything else, the Browns are 4-1 and this season, it doesn't seem that anyone is playing opponents that are particularly good. Nevertheless, the Browns have won four games in a row, are keeping pace with a stacked AFC North and are in a great position to make the playoffs five weeks into the season.
Plenty can happen, but the Browns have been able to consistently able to stack up points the past month, finding different ways to generate offense and find ways to create opportunities on defense, even if they surrender a ton of points in the process.
There are a number of areas they can improve, but even if they were to go 5-6 the rest of the season, that is probably going to be enough to make the playoffs this year. The biggest concern for the Browns right now, is the health of their roster.
It's not just that the Browns are losing players, it's how ridiculously lopsided the injuries on with this team with so many coming on the defensive side of the ball. For a brief moment in the game, the Browns were down to just two defensive tackles - Vincent Taylor, who was acquired off of waivers when the season was set to start and Joey Ivie, who they promoted from their practice squad.
Larry Ogunjobi was out for the game, but Sheldon Richardon was hampered and then had to be evaluated in the medical tent for an issue followed almost immediately by rookie Jordan Elliott going down to an injury.
Ronnie Harrison was able to score a touchdown on an interception, but then left the game with a concussion. Jacob Phillips left with a knee injury. It's not clear if it was the same knee as the previous injury or not. Olivier Vernon left the game with a groin injury.
Offensively, Wyatt Teller went down in the first quarter with a calf. Harrison Bryant was checked out for something, but came back into the game. Baker Mayfield hurt his ribs, though he kept shaking his hand, so he may have whacked it as well. He intends to play, likely with a flak jacket next week.
D'Ernest Johnson was in the game for the final series in part because Kareem Hunt was being stretched on the sidelines, but came up with a few big plays.
And despite all of the injuries and as dubious as the outlook seems looking ahead to a road trip to the Pittsburgh Steelers, there's always a sense that if Myles Garrett is good to go, the Browns are in the game.
That's how dominant Garrett has been. Every game, he makes a game changing play. When he's not directly causing the turnover himself, like with the strip sack each of the past three weeks, he's creating turnover opportunities for teammates.
Against the Colts, he caused a safety and caused Philip Rivers to throw an interception to Sheldrick Redwine. He may have also contributed to the Harrison pick six.
At times, the Colts had three people blocking Garrett and he was still causing pressure. Rivers was always conscious of presence and reacted accordingly.
Beyond whatever post season awards he should be in the running for, such as Defensive Player of the Year, he is the heart and soul of this team, because despite playing defensive end, it feels like he singlehandedly give the Browns a chance to win any game.
Speaking of Redwine, the Browns coaching staff deserves a lot of credit. Certainly, the second week in a row where they produced points before the half while making sure the opponent had no time to do anything with the ball is great, but against the Colts, players who hadn't played in previous weeks made big contributions.
Redwine's first defensive snap of the game was an interception. Rashard Higgins wasn't even active the past two weeks and he came in and played like he had been in all year. Three catches on three targets, including a touchdown, showcasing the chemistry with Mayfield that had always been there. Higgins also made a key seal block to help close out the game.
Not only does this suggest the coaching staff is keeping guys prepared, but they are staying engaged. Guys don't seem to be pouting that they aren't playing, instead focusing on getting ready so when they get an opportunity, they are able to make the most of it. The Browns may not win this game if not for contributions from those two.
Offensively, the Browns passing game answered a number of questions in the first half. The running game was going nowhere and the Colts challenged Mayfield to beat them. He and his receivers did. Mayfield made a number of great throws, there were a couple of spectacular catches and they were able to put up 20 points.
The second half was as bad as the first half was good. Mayfield either didn't see or didn't care about a linebacker that was underneath an attempted to throw to Hooper which was intercepted. He didn't make many bad reads on the day, but that one was egregious and costly.
After making three spectacular catches in the first half, the Browns receivers dropped three key passes in the second half. Two of them were on third down that would've kept drives alive. They resulted in the only two punts Jamie Gillan had in the game. One led to the safety.
The hitch dropped by Odell Beckham could've been caught, but Mayfield had David Njoku open in in the middle of the field and missed him. The two dropped by Jarvis Landry were painful and both had open field in front of him to keep running. It was that much stranger considering he caught a ball off of a defender's helmet in the first half.
For the second week in a row, the offense seemed to lose something in the second half. Yes, defenses adjust and catch onto tendencies, but there were plays to be made that weren't and allowed an opponent to get back into the game. The team held on both weeks, but the Browns need to be better closing out games rather than seemingly holding on to win.
The main takeaway is that Mayfield is clearly capable at playing at an incredibly high level as is the offense in general, even when the running game isn't hitting on all cylinders. They were able to exploit holes in the Colts defense and move the ball consistently.
The flip side is the defense was better in the second half. Despite the injuries and giving up yardage, the defense went from getting gashed in the first half up the middle of the field in an all too familiar manner to getting stops and causing turnovers in the second.
The Browns did not allow Mo Allie-Cox or Jack Doyle to get a reception. Cox wasn't even targeted. The defense outscored the Colts offense in the second half, recording a safety and defensive touchdown while the Colts only had a pair of field goals.
Andrew Sendejo continues to be the defense's go-to player for fan scolding and while he deserves a ton of criticism, this was his best game as a Brown. For fans who hope he gets benched, they need to hope that Sheldrick Redwine can take that job.
Unfortunately, Redwine is going to be subjected to some of the issues Sendejo faces. Those are mostly caused by opponents flooding the deep middle of the field and the free safety can't cover multiple options at once. The free then decides which one to take or tries to play in between them. Either way, the quarterback is often able to pick a good option and the free gets blamed when he's in a no-win situation.
Malcolm Smith is playing really well for the Browns at linebacker, particularly in coverage, but that's the only linebacker giving them anything right now. That's part of why opponents attack the middle of the field so much.
One of the things learned today is rookie Nick Harris isn't a guard. Maybe in a year or few, but not now, so people can stop pretending he is. When Wyatt Teller suffered a calf injury that strangely went from probable to questionable to out, hopefully out of an abundance of caution, the Browns went with Chris Hubbard at right guard.
Hubbard is awful at right guard. He pass protects reasonable well, but he was bulldozed routinely trying to run block. If the Browns offensive line was Helm's Deep, Hubbard was the weak point and every Colts defensive tackle was an explosive.
Hubbard did come up huge at the end of the game, coming up with a pull to help seal the outside running lane for D'Ernest Johnson that went for 28 yards. The Browns were able to slowly manufacture a running game over the course of the game much as they did against Washington, but it was a struggle.
The fact the Browns went with their swing tackle at guard, who struggled, means that Harris is a center only, which is what he always was coming out as a rookie. He's not strong enough to do it and he may never be. They need him to be a quality center, which he appears capable of doing, but anything else is a bonus.
Jedrick Wills had the worst game of his his young career in pass protection. He surrendered two sacks and his pass sets on both were terrible. One resulted into the rib injury suffered by Mayfield and the interception, where he set up outside and couldn't work back in against Justin Houston who went right to Mayfield.
The other, Al-Quadin Muhammad was able to just run around Wills with a speed rush. Wills took a pass set and it was as if he didn't believe Muhammad would keep running the arc, barely getting a hand on him before he went and hit Mayfield.
Wills is learning and hopefully continues to improve from every rep he takes. There was plenty to learn from against the Colts. Wills will have to block Bud Dupree next week in Pittsburgh.
Hopefully the Browns will receive good medical news on their players this week because the Steelers will be an incredibly difficult game in the best of circumstances. Currently, the Browns are only in slightly better shape than the car at the end of Tommy Boy.