Ladies and gentlemen, please pause for a moment and welcome the Cleveland Browns back to NFL relevancy. It has been a long time since the Browns were in the mix for a playoff spot, but after their 24-18 win over the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, that is where they find themselves.
While a weak AFC North has helped them, Cleveland has also played some very solid football. Well, at least when Brandon Weeden has not been the starting quarterback, that is. With Weeden as the starter, they are 0-4, and with anyone else, they are 4-1.
The new “anyone else” is Jason Campbell, and he enters the bye week will a ton of confidence and a rib injury. There should not be too much concern, as head coach Rob Chudzinksi said, via Nate Ulrich of the Beacon Journal, Monday that his ribs are just bruised and he will “probably practice” on Tuesday.
This Browns dodged a bullet because the one series that Weeden played Sunday, while Campbell was on the sidelines, was ugly. Campbell just feels pressure in the pocket and makes better decisions with the football than Weeden. Then again, so does just about everyone else.
So now the Browns have two weeks to get healthy and game plan for the only team sitting above them in the division, the Cincinnati Bengals. Remember, Cleveland beat the Bengals in Week 4, 17-6, at home.
AFC North Standings
The Cincinnati Bengals are one of the toughest teams in the NFL to read. For three weeks they looked as good as anyone in league and appeared to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Then, last week, they laid an egg on Thursday Night Football against the Miami Dolphins.
If they cannot find some consistency, the division will be wide open for Cleveland and Baltimore to make a run. Someone has to win the division, even if it only takes nine victories.
The Ravens have now lost three games in a row after losing to the Browns Sunday. Head coach John Harbaugh lost for the first time after a bye week, and that shows the problems are deeper than just execution. The Ravens simply do not have the talent to compete at an elite level right now.
On offense, they cannot run block, and Flacco has been erratic. He has thrown nine interceptions to just 10 touchdowns. On defense, they simply cannot make a play when needed in the clutch.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are an absolute mess right now. They are one of the worst defensive teams in the NFL and have allowed 31 points per game in their six losses. Their numbers look good against the pass, but when you analyze the games, it is because teams get big leads on them early and then run the rest of the time.
By the way, the Steelers are 31st in the league against the run.
OLB Quentin Groves (ankle) left the game Sunday and will not practice Tuesday.
WR Greg Little (shoulder) left the game Sunday. There is a “good chance” he will practice Tuesday, according to Chudzinski, via Ulrich.
QB Jason Campbell (ribs) left the game Sunday but returned. X-rays were negative, and he will “probably practice” Tuesday, according to Chudzinski, via Ulrich.
TE Marqueis Gray (hamstring) left the game Sunday and will not practice Tuesday, according to the transcript of Chudzinski’s conference call with the media Monday.
The bye week could not have come at a better time for the Browns as far as injuries are concerned. The extra week of rest will give both Jason Campbell and Greg Little additional time to let their injuries heal.
The most concerning injury is Quentin Groves’ ankle. He has aggravated this same ankle injury three times this season, and it’s starting to look like he will need an extended absence to get it healthy.
He played Sunday for a short amount of time, and even recorded a sack, but could not continue. His depth allows defensive coordinator Ray Horton a fresh rotation of blitzing linebackers on every third down. Anytime they're down a body at the outside linebacker position, the defense feels it.
What Must Improve
The Browns were 4-of-15 on third-down plays Sunday and remain 29th in the league in that category. What makes that number even harder to swallow is the amount of short-yardage third downs that the Browns fail to convert.
“We’re really going to spend some time on our third downs during the bye week and dissect that whole situation and see what we could do better there,” said Chudzinksi according to the transcript of his conference call with the media Monday. “We played well in spurts, at times, on the third downs, but we need to be more consistent as I’ve talked about before.”
This has been a point of emphasis all season, and the Browns need to find a way to rectify this problem if they want their offense to be good enough to make the playoffs.
Every team is beat up at this time of the year, but the Browns cannot afford for Jason Campbell to miss any time. If he has any trouble practicing, they will most likely have to bring in another quarterback in case of an emergency.
Brandon Weeden does not even seem serviceable as a backup at this point. The Browns will continue to use him, but his confidence is so shaken that the second he enters the game, the entire offense changes.
It is almost like he forgot the offense and cannot remember where the football is supposed to be thrown.
Greg Little would also be a huge blow to the offense if he were to miss any time. He had his best game of the season Sunday, catching seven passes for 122 yards. He will see plenty of targets if teams continue to try and take wide receiver Josh Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron away from Campbell.
Little has the ability to turn mediocre plays into large gains and change the dynamic of a drive. Most of his yardage Sunday came after the catch.
Find Ways to Get Running Game Working
Running back Willis McGahee is not going to start rushing for 100 yards per game anytime soon, but there are ways the team can make the rushing attack more efficient.
Since trading running back Trent Richardson, the Browns have signed Fozzy Whittaker and now Armanti Edwards. Neither of these names will excite the fanbase, but they can be used to generate more yardage on the ground.
Whittaker has shown the burst that McGahee lacks. They need to try and get him into space with draw plays or pitches and utilize his speed to the outside.
Edwards played with Chudzinski in Carolina. During his time there, he was used as a running back and wide receiver in special packages.
During the grind of a season, it is tough to add new packages on the fly, but I fully expect the Browns to use Edwards in a similar role that they were using Travis Benjamin before his season-ending ACL injury. If they can get him a few touches a game, it may just open up the inside for McGahee.
All quotes and observations were gathered firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Additionally, the Cleveland Browns email all media members and myself the transcript of press conferences after their completion.