The Bengals and Browns are both trying to avoid the dreaded 0-2 start to the season. Cleveland came into 2020 with much higher expectations than Cincinnati, though. Will they be able to get off on the right foot during Thursday Night Football with the Bengals coming to town? We caught up with Chris Pokorny of Dawgs by Nature to get his perspective on the game.
Patrick Judis: The Browns offense obviously didn’t get off to the start they’d hope for. What was the biggest issue to their struggles in Week 1?
Chris Pokorny: There’s always something wrong with the Browns’ offense that it can’t just click like a normal NFL team. This offense had very solid play from the offensive line on Sunday, and the running backs were strong as well. A lot of teams would love to have a combination of Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry at the receiving position, to go along with some of the best backs in the NFL. From a personnel standpoint, Cleveland should have one of the better offenses in the NFL. And here we are, reflecting after Week 1, and seeing that the Browns put up the fewest points in the league.
The biggest issue I’m seeing right now is with Baker Mayfield. That’s not to say I don’t believe in him, but the fact is that so many other young quarterbacks in the NFL are thriving right now while he is coming up short despite having more weapons at his disposal. I thought he was able to trust his protection better against Baltimore, but the reading of the defenses, the low trajectory of some of his throws (which is a hindrance, given his height, because defensive linemen will knock them down), and the lack of chemistry he still shows when trying to get the ball to Odell Beckham remain the biggest struggles of the offense.
PJ: The Browns defense looks a lot different than last season, and it obviously didn’t put its best foot forward against the Ravens. Was that more of going up against Lamar Jackson or is this defense going to be an issue?
CP: Obviously, any NFL team that faces the Ravens or Chiefs will have to put their best foot forward to stand a chance, but it was even worse of a draw for Cleveland to have them in Week 1. This is a Browns team that is running a new offense and new defense during a shortened offseason, while the Ravens could carry on and build straight off of all the success they had a year ago.
I am not proclaiming that the Browns’ defense is tremendously better than what we saw against Baltimore, because we knew heading into the season that Cleveland has big holes at linebacker and safety. However, I also know that against Baltimore, you have to concede either the run or the pass to the Ravens, and hope that they struggle in the other area. Cleveland played to defend the run, but Jackson was very impressive in shredding Cleveland through the air. It wasn’t against the Browns’ outside cornerbacks, so I’m hoping Cleveland makes some adjustments with their safety depth this Thursday and that we can evaluate the defense better against a team besides Baltimore.
PJ: What was your first impression of Kevin Stefanski as head coach? What areas were encouraging and where are the places that need improved?
CP: It’s too early to tell. There was some criticism in the fact that on the Browns’ first special teams play of the season, they ran a fake punt backed up in their own territory, and it failed. Also, one of the big draws to Kevin Stefanski is the fact that he typically sticks to the running game, and makes effective use of the passing game off of playaction. We saw that offense for much of the first half, but when the game fell apart before halftime, Cleveland was behind so much that it became a pass-only offense where the Ravens’ defense could try to tee off every play. Much like some of my previous answers, I look forward to seeing how Stefanski coaches in the flow of a (hopefully) more competitive game against Cincinnati.
PJ: Who was one player who really surprised you in Week 1 that you hope continues to play well the rest of the season?
CP: I would have said tight end David Njoku, but he is now on injured reserve with a knee injury. Therefore, my vote will go to defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi. Fans in Cleveland love Ogunjobi for his sheer strength, and although he’s been a starter the past couple of seasons now, I thought that he’s been at his best as more of a rotational player (i.e. effective with fewer reps). In Week 1 against Baltimore, he had a terrific game against the run, and graded out as the top defender in the NFL by Pro Football Focus, ahead of even Aaron Donald of the Rams. It is a contract year for Ogunjobi, so let’s see if he can keep it up.
PJ: What is your prediction for the game?
CP: Well, it can’t get much worse than it was in Week 1 for the Browns, right? I think Cleveland can control the Bengals’ running game with their bulk up front, and rookie Joe Burrow will be prone to mistakes early in his career. The pass coverage will be much better off this week with the defenders knowing they can focus on the receivers and not have so many eyes worrying about Lamar Jackson taking off on the run. If the defense can keep the game competitive in that regard, then it allows the offense to stay in their element: run the ball early and often, and utilize playaction. I think the Browns’ offensive line and running game could be Top-5 in the NFL, so I’m cautiously optimistic that we see a turnaround for Cleveland on Thursday for a multi-possession victory.
Thanks again to Pokorny for taking the time to answer our question on a short week. If you’d like to see more of his work or more Browns’ coverage, make sure you check out Dawgs By Nature.