Written by: J.D. Bagley, @jdbagley5
With the Browns sitting at a disappointing 2-5 midway through the season, every game is going to get exponentially more important, starting this week in Denver. Cleveland has put themselves in a hole with very little margin for error on their side the rest of the way. The good news as I’ve mentioned before, their remaining opponents hold a winning percentage of .313, the 2nd easiest mark in the NFL over the rest of the season. After losing 11 straight games against the Broncos from 1991-2015, Cleveland went into Denver late in the season last year and pulled out a 17-16 win in prime time. The Browns chances of winning their second straight versus Denver recently went up with the news that starting QB Joe Flacco will miss this week’s matchup. Backup QB Brandon Allen in his 3rd year out of Arkansas, who has never attempted an NFL pass, will make his first career start.
The NFL’s trade deadline was Tuesday at 4 PM and the Browns, despite plenty of rumors, stood pat for the most part. On Monday they sent DE/OLB Genard Avery to the Philadelphia Eagles for a 2021 4th round pick. This was a no brainer move by the Browns considering Avery had only been active for 1 game this season and it didn’t seem like the team had any future plans for him. Cleveland had been heavily linked to Redskins LT Trent Williams for quite some time, but the asking price was just too high for the 31-year-old former All-Pro. With the benching of Greg Robinson, the Browns look to be moving forward with an offensive line that consists of Justin McCray, Joel Bitonio, J.C. Tretter, Eric Kush, and Chris Hubbard. I think it’s safe to say Cleveland will be addressing this unit in the offseason as it’s clearly the biggest weakness on the team.
Baker Mayfield is currently enduring a sophomore slump in which he is tied for the league lead in interceptions and hasn’t had a game this season where he has thrown multiple touchdowns. He had 9 such games last season. But, something tells me this is the week that he breaks out and shows some flashes of his 2018 self. Although the Broncos defense has a reputation for being one of the toughest in the NFL year in and year out, they will be without multiple key defenders including Bradley Chubb (knee, out for season), Bryce Callahan (foot), De’Vante Busby (neck, IR) and Will Parks (hand). With Chubb out after suffering a torn ACL back in Week 4, the Browns can turn their full attention to Von Miller in hopes of minimizing his impact on the game. Without Callahan, Busby and Parks available to play, the Cleveland receivers should have a much easier time getting open than they did last week against the league’s best secondary. The inexperienced Davontae Harris will get the start at corner opposite Chris Harris Jr. Mayfield should look to exploit this mismatch with whichever receiver/side of the field Vic Fangio decides to put him on. Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry have been unquestionably the top 2 receivers in this offense. But, who is the third? At the beginning of the season it was Damion Ratley while Antonio Callaway was serving a 4 game suspension and Rashard Higgins was out with a knee injury. Then, once Callaway came back he was getting the third highest snap share out of the receivers. Now Higgins is back, but has been brought along slowly by the coaching staff after the injury. This could be the game where he takes over more responsibility and locks in the #3 receiving role that many had him pegged into before the season started.
As previously stated, the Broncos will be without starting QB Joe Flacco for multiple weeks. As if it wasn’t already going to be tough sledding for backup QB Brandon Allen, Denver traded WR Emmanuel Sanders and a 5th round pick to the 49ers for a 3rd and 4th round pick. Taking over as the primary receiver has been 2nd year man out of SMU, Courtland Sutton. He has begun to find his footing in the league and has shown some flashes of playmaking ability this year after being taken in the 2nd round a year ago. Look for the Broncos to be very conservative with the ball, featuring a heavy dose of Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman to help take some pressure off of Brandon Allen in his first career start. This offense doesn’t have a top end threat that you’re particularly looking to stop, but they are a sound football team that usually doesn’t turn the ball over very often. The Broncos best chance at keeping this game close and pulling off the upset is in a low scoring, defensive affair with minimal mistakes.
With the way the season has gone so far and Baker’s most recent media battle, Mayfield has a big chip on his shoulder and that’s when he’s at his best. This is a perfect bounce-back spot for the Browns as the Broncos have their sights set on the 2020 season after an injury-riddled first half of the year. Especially now with Flacco missing an extended period of time with his neck injury, Denver won’t win many more games this season. Going into Mile High is never an easy task, but this one is set up nicely for the Browns to get things rolling in the right direction as long as they can avoid beating themselves.