Written by J.D. Bagley, @jdbagley5
On paper, the Browns seem to be playing much better football as of late, winning 4 of their last 5 contests. But, that can be misleading from the surface. All 4 of those wins came in Cleveland and the schedule has been much easier down the stretch. In reality, the Browns have been making the same mistakes throughout the entire season, but beating up on lesser competition has the ability to cover up some of those blunders. They get another crack at a sub .500 opponent this week as they travel to Arizona to take on the Cardinals, losers of 6 straight.
Preparing for the Cardinals is no easy task after they drafted Kyler Murray #1 overall back in April. It’s not every day you face a guy with the skill set of Murray, who requires specific game planning due to his ability to maneuver the pocket and create plays with his legs. If the Browns defense can keep him contained and minimize his impact on the game, they will like their chances in this one. Forcing the 5’10” Murray up into the pocket will make it difficult for him to see over his offensive line, whose average height is a shade under 6’4”. When he gets outside the pocket and on the move that’s when the Browns should be worried because he possesses great vision down the field and has a stronger arm than a lot of people want to give him credit for.
Getting after Murray should be a big part of the Browns defensive attack as he has been sacked 46 times this year, more than any quarterback in the NFL. After reaggravating his nagging knee injury two weeks ago in Pittsburgh, Olivier Vernon has been ruled out for the second straight week. Getting him back into the lineup would’ve been a big boost to a Browns defensive line that has been shuffling guys around for weeks now.
Since acquiring Kenyan Drake from Miami, former bell-cow back David Johnson has seen his role in this offense diminish right in front of his eyes. Battling injury all season long, Johnson hasn’t exceeded 10 touches in a game since Week 6 after averaging over 19 touches per game in 2018.
Just because the Cardinals are 3-9-1 doesn’t make traveling to the desert any less difficult. In fact, the Browns haven’t won on the road since Week 4 in Baltimore (that literally feels like ages ago.) For Baker Mayfield, there will be some familiar faces on the opposing sideline. Kyler Murray was Mayfield’s back up at Oklahoma in 2017, and Cardinals HC Kliff Kingsbury coached Mayfield back in 2013 when they were both at Texas Tech. Baker spoke to media members this week about the reunion saying, “...he’s trying to beat me this week, I’m trying to beat him… it makes for a fun one for us.”
Mayfield should be ready to throw quite a bit on Sunday versus Arizona’s 32nd ranked pass defense, giving up nearly 300 yards per game through the air. Although they are the bottom feeders of the league against the pass, the Cardinals don’t have a good defense in general. Ranking 24th against the run, I still don’t want to see a lack of touches for Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt like we saw in the 1st half last week. Getting them involved early will set up the play-action passing game perfectly against a weak secondary.
Since his return from injury, Rashard Higgins has seen the playing field on a very limited basis after being one of Baker Mayfield’s favorite targets in 2018. His disappearance and lack of usage have been a mystery to many outside of the organization. Higgins was held to just 1 snap last week versus Cincinnati.
On the injury front, one of Cleveland’s most consistent players throughout the year, J.C. Tretter, has been battling a knee injury and practiced for the first time on Friday after sitting out Wednesday and Thursday’s practices. He is listed as questionable. If Tretter is unable to go, Eric Kush will likely get the start at center.
Cleveland’s playoff hopes are still alive but it’s beginning to look like more and more of a long shot as each week passes by. Browns fans will be rooting for the Texans to take care of the Titans this week, and the Bills to beat the Steelers on Sunday Night Football. But, first and foremost Cleveland has to focus on the task at hand and come out of Glendale with a win before anything else even matters.