4:25 PM EST, CBS – Line: EVEN, Over/Under: 48
A pair of 3-1 teams who weren’t necessarily expected to be 3-1 clash today at FirstEnergy Stadium as the surging Cleveland Browns play host to the immovable Indianapolis Colts. Coming off a season in which they were dealt one of the worst possible hands in the form of Andrew Luck’s shocking and abrupt retirement during halftime of a preseason game, the Colts (3-1, 2nd in AFC South) were one of the more difficult teams to predict coming into 2020. Last year’s 7-9 finish featured a rash of injuries that rocked their roster leaving them seriously depleted down the stretch where they lost seven of their final nine outings. Now in his third season as Head Coach, Frank Reich, needed to find an answer at Quarterback, and alongside General Manager, Chris Ballard, went out and enticed longtime Chargers’ great, Philip Rivers (72.7%, 984 YDS, 7.8 NY/A, 4 TD, 3 INT, 64.8 QBR), to put retirement on hold and bring his talents and experiences to Indianapolis, where they really struggled at the position in 2019. Rivers, 38-years old, signed a one-year deal with the club after spending the first sixteen of his venerable career in San Diego/Los Angeles. While he’s certainly an improvement over those he replaced, there are legitimate concerns over how much the veteran had left. Is his arm indeed shot? Can he improve his decision-making at this stage of his career? Is he seriously only a one-year rental?
Well, through four games it’s clear that the answers to those questions are still very much to be decided. Behind a much better Offensive Line and more conservative playcalling, Rivers has been more efficient thus far, completing a career-high 72.7% of his passes while averaging a stellar 7.81 net yards per attempt, which is his highest output since leading the league in that particular category back in 2010. A sound running game is always an aging Quarterback’s best friend, and while the Colts haven’t necessarily been the most productive in this regard, they’ve remained committed to balance; though they rank fifteenth overall (115.3) on a league-worst 3.5 yards per carry (32nd Overall), it hasn’t been for a lack of trying, as Indy has averaged the fifth-most rushing attempts per game thus far (32.8). This commitment to the run has also afforded him much better pass-protection, which has allowed Rivers, who was rarely the recipient of quality protection during his stay with the Chargers, to remain largely upright, posting a sack percentage of only 2.4%, which would be the lowest of his career. With that said, his health and efficiency hasn’t really led to a more effective Offense; Indy ranks seventeenth in points (25.8) and twenty-first in total yards (365.6), while lagging behind the rest of the league on third down (34.6%) and in the red zone (46.7%), where they rank thirtieth and twenty-eighth respectively. So just how in the hell have they managed to win three games in a row, you ask? That’s due to the Defense, which has been playing out of their mind in 2020. Arguably the best kept secret in the league this season is a secret no more, for this unit has absolutely smothered the opposition through four weeks, yielding the fewest points (14.0), total yards (236.3), first downs (60), passing yards (159.3), net yards per attempt (5.0), and rushing touchdowns (1) in the NFL, all the while capturing seven interceptions (1st Overall) and relinquishing a scant 31.1% success rate on third down (1st Overall). Granted, they’ve played some rather poor Offenses throughout the early goings of the schedule, but one look at this group and it’s impossible to deny their quality. Defensive Coordinator, Matt Eberflus, has successfully implemented his own unique spin on Seattle’s Cover 3 scheme, with a number of players flourishing within it. 2018 Defensive Rookie of the Year, Darius Leonard (27 TKL, 2 TFL, 2 PD), has been a beast whether he’s been chasing down opposing Tailbacks or dropping into coverage, while Defensive Tackle, DeForest Buckner (18 TKL, 2 TFL, 8 QBH, 1.5 SK, 1 STY, 1 PD), looks like a bonafide candidate for Defensive Player of the Year following his acquisition via a draft day trade with the San Francisco 49ers. Furthermore, former Pro-Bowl Cornerback, Xavier Rhodes (6 TKL, 2 INT, 5 PD, 1 TD) looks reborn, alongside veteran Edge-Rusher, Justin Houston (9 TKL, 4 TFL, 5 QBH, 3.5 SK, 1 STY), who leads the unit with 3.5 sacks.
“I don’t want to sound crazy, but I did see this coming… I’ve been so fired up about the defense from Day One. The way we looked in camp, I look at our personnel, I look at our coaches, look at our schemes on defense how they fit our players. I’ve spoken about our defense since Day One. I felt like it was going to be real good.”Frank Reich, Indianapolis Colts Head Coach
When we last saw the Colts, they survived a defensive slugfest with the Chicago Bears, earning a hard-fought 19-11 victory last weekend. This one really was a throwback, folks, as the two teams combined for only 558 total yards and thirty-four first downs, with a turnover ultimately deciding the victor. Indianapolis started strong enough offensively, with Rivers (16/29, 190 YDS, 1 TD) marching them fifty-three yards downfield culminating in a 13-yard touchdown pass to Tight End, Mo Alie-Cox (11 REC, 194 YDS, 17.6 Y/R, 2 TD). From that point though, it was pretty tough sledding against Chicago’s staunch Defense; Reich’s charges would punt on five of their next eight possessions, with a quartet of field goals putting some crucial distance between them and the hosts. However, the visitors remained committed to the run, totaling a whopping THIRTY-EIGHT rushing attempts, which led to converting 8-of-19 on third down, 103 yards and an advantage in time of possession (32:28). Thankfully, the Defense absolutely stymied the Bears to the tune of 269 total yards, including a scant twenty-eight of the rushing variety, and 4-of-14 on third down. Indy managed to keep Chicago out of the End Zone until the final drive of the game, with Rookie Safety, Julian Blackmon (4 TKL, 1 INT, 5 PD), picking off Bears’ Quarterback, Nick Foles, on the previous drive. The Colts did not escape Sunday’s trip to Soldier Field unscathed though, as the aforementioned Leonard sat out of the Second Half due to a groin injury, leaving his availability for today’s clash with the Browns, and their prolific rushing attack, up in the ar.
Meanwhile, it may be entirely too soon but with four games in the books it’s hard not to be impressed with what the Browns (3-1, T-2nd in AFC North) have been doing lately, having won three consecutive games since their disappointing showing in the Season Opener at Baltimore. Then again, how many times was the public burned by Cleveland last season, in which they were projected by many to reach the Playoffs for the first time since 2002, but instead slumped to a miserable 6-10 finish? Turnovers, penalties, suspensions, poor Quarterback play and even poorer coaching led to an unmitigated train wreck of a campaign, in turn leading to Ownership (once again) pulling the plug on both Management and Coaching Staff, forcing the club to do something that they’ve grown very accustomed to: rebuild. The list of General Managers and Head Coaches that have come and gone through this organization is nearly as long as the list of Quarterbacks that have started for them, with the newest figures to preside in those roles being (General Manager) Andrew Berry and (Head Coach) Kevin Stefanski. So with that said, where have these two managed to succeed where so many of their predecessors have failed?
Well, Berry hired Stefanski, who in turn has completely streamlined the Offense by implementing a run-heavy scheme that has really made life easier for third-year Quarterback, Baker Mayfield (62.6%, 729 YDS, 5.73 NY/A, 7 TD, 2 INT, 73.3 QBR). The former No. One Overall Pick served as the poster boy for Cleveland’s struggles last season, with the young gunslinger failing to progress through his reads behind an Offensive Line that was for all intents and purposes a sieve. As a result, the 25-year old tossed only one more touchdown (22) than interceptions (21), with a sack rate that ballooned from 4.9% as a rookie to 7.0% as a sophomore. This season, he’s enjoying slightly more time within the pocket (2.7 seconds) with his pressure percentage dropping from 21.8% in 2019 to 16.8% thus far. Of course, it’s much easier to play Quarterback when you have a rushing attack that is churning out a league-leading 204.5 yards per game. Stefanski was masterful in coordinating the run game when he was in Minnesota, and it appears that he has brought those tactical nous to Cleveland; in addition to leading the NFL in rushing yards, they also sit atop the proverbial mountain in rushing touchdowns (8) and yards per carry (5.9). Berry did a tremendous job in the Offseason placing an emphasis on improving this area of the Offense, signing former Pro-Bowl Right Tackle, Jack Conklin, alongside Tight End, Austin Hooper (12 REC, 96 YDS, 8.0 Y/R, 1 TD), in Free Agency, while spending the Tenth Overall Selection in the 2020 NFL Draft on Left Tackle, Jedrick Wills, who dominated on the right side at Alabama. The Browns were already loaded in the backfield, with Pro Bowl Tailbacks, Nick Chubb (57 CAR, 335 YDS, 5.9 Y/A, 4 TD) and Kareem Hunt (50 CAR, 275 YDS, 5.5 Y/A, 3 TD), the former who posted the club’s highest rushing total since the franchise returned in 1999 (1,494 YDS), while the latter has returned to full action after missing most of the 2019 season due to suspension. Unfortunately, Chubb will miss the next several weeks after suffering an MCL sprain in his right knee midway through last weekend’s 49-38 drubbing of the Dallas Cowboys, having been placed on the short-term Injured Reserve List. However, the ground game should be in good hands with Hunt, who as a rookie with the Kansas City Chiefs back in 2017 led the league in rushing with 1,327 yards, and in his two seasons with the club averaged a robust 110.6 yards from scrimmage per game. Stefanski has already begun to factor him into a crowded passing attack that features the likes of All-Pro Receiver, Odell Beckham Jr. (16 REC, 236 YDS, 14.8 Y/R, 3 TD), and Jarvis Landry (17 REC, 191 YDS, 11.2 Y/R, 0 TD), hauling in eight receptions for forty-two yards and a pair of touchdowns. Cleveland also announced the healthy return of another weapon, Tight End, David Njoku (3 REC, 50 YDS, 16.7 Y/R, 1 TD), who had missed the past three games with a sprained MCL of his own that was suffered in the Season Opener.
“It’s funny, Kareem (Hunt) before the play was like, `We just need 5 yards,”… And Harrison Bryant, the rookie is giving me advice and coaching me up and telling me to stay inbounds. I said, `Thanks, rook.’ And I turned the corner and everybody was blocking and I just turned the jets on and found the end zone.”Odell Beckham Jr., Cleveland Browns Wide Receiver on his two reverse plays.
When we last saw the Browns, they truly opened the eyes of the national consciousness in that aforementioned victory over the Cowboys, who despite going through their own struggles, particularly on the defensive side of the football where they have been an utter disaster, are still capable of scoring points wholesale against most opponents. After the hosts took an early 14-7 lead at the end of the First Quarter, Cleveland proceeded to run off a staggering THIRTY-FOUR unanswered points to take a commanding 41-14 lead heading into the final frame of play. Run would be the key word, as Stefanski’s charges rushed for a season-high 307 yards and three scores on forty carries, with Chubb totaling forty-three yards on just six attempts before departing the gridiron with that aforementioned knee injury, while Hunt added seventy-one yards and a pair of touchdowns on eleven carries, and seldom-used Sophomore Tailback, D’Ernest Johnson (14 CAR, 100 YDS, 7.1 Y/A, 0 TD), leading the way with a career-best ninety-five yards on thirteen attempts. Even Beckham got into the act with what was arguably the play of the game, taking a reverse fifty yards for a score with just over three minutes to play in the game, clinching the victory after Dallas had cut the deficit to 41-38. Mayfield was efficient, completing 16-of-30 passes for 165 yards and two touchdowns and no turnovers, while the Defense made the plays when they needed to, with Texas native, Myles Garrett (11 TKL, 2 TFL, 6 QBH, 5.0 SK, 3 FF, 2 FR) logging a pair of sacks and a forced fumble, while Sophomore Cornerback, Denzel Ward (12 TKL, 1 INT, 6 PD), ended the affair with an interception of Cowboys’ Quarterback, Dak Prescott, on the hosts’ final drive.