Chargers Preview: Getting To Know The Cleveland Browns
The Los Angeles Chargers are coming off consecutive divisional victories over the Chiefs and Raiders, and sit at 2-0 in the division for the first time in a long time. Brandon Staley’s team has displayed a very high level of resiliency and toughness to get to their current 3-1 record, and they’ll be tested again this week against the Browns. There are a lot of intriguing individual matchups in this game (none greater than Rashawn Slater vs Myles Garrett) and it should be a barn burner.
That being said, let’s dive into the Browns team.
2020 Season In Review
After surging during Baker Mayfield’s rookie season, the Browns elected to stick with former interim head coach Freddie Kitchens. This of course was a severe lack of judgment on their part and the Browns went 6-10 in 2019, Kitchens lone season as head coach. Then, much like the Chargers are this year, the Browns began the 2020 season by hiring a young and innovative head coach in Kevin Stefanski. Similar to Staley, Stefanski was hired to right the ship around their franchise quarterback and bring a more forward-thinking presence to a Cleveland franchise that desperately needed to enter the modern era of football. Stefanski worked his way up the food chain with the Minnesota Vikings where he had coached since 2006.
Early returns for the Browns and Stefanski have been very positive. In his first season as their head coach, he led them to their first playoff appearance since 2002 and helped them win their first playoff game since the ’90s. The NFL awarded him for his efforts by giving him the Coach of the Year award.
One of Stefanski’s major coaching influences is Gary Kubiak, who of course is a branch off from the Shanahan tree. Stefanski employed a similar plan with the Browns last year, and they ended up having the most efficient rushing attack in the league (148 YPG), which really took a lot of pressure off of Mayfield.
The Browns nearly pulled off an upset over the Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL’s Divisional Playoff Round, but they were unable to stop the Chiefs’ high-octane offense when they needed to most. As a result, the defense would be the focal point of the 2021 offseason.
Key Additions And Departures
Priority number one for fixing the defense was the secondary. They dealt with injuries on the back end in 2020 and did not have the depth to keep up with opposing offenses at the end of the season. This led them to the biggest free-agent signing of their offense in safety John Johnson. They needed a playmaker and leader in the secondary and Johnson brings that in spades. They also signed cornerback Troy Hill, drafted cornerback Greg Newsome (who likely won’t play on Sunday), as well as safety/linebacker hybrid Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. The Browns also essentially got another first-round pick after safety Grant Delpit returns from injury after missing his entire rookie season.
The other focus on defense for the Browns was to upgrade their pass rush alongside Garrett, who teams could frequently double team because they didn’t have a true sidekick. To that point, they went out and signed Jadeveon Clowney and Takkarist McKinley, as well as defensive tackle Malik Jackson to aid the pass rush.
The Browns and the Chargers entered the 2021 season on a similar footing in that a significant number of people around the league had them pegged as dark horse Super Bowl contenders. Which made this matchup so interesting before the season, and even more so now that they are both 3-1.
In order for the Browns to reach their ceiling, they need(ed) the revamped defense to take a significant leap forward, and for Beckham Jr. to reintegrate himself into the offense at a high level and stay on the field for the majority of the season. Through four games this season, the defense has been playing at a very high level, despite another round of injuries in the secondary. The pass rush has been as advertised, and Garrett is playing like the early favorite for Defensive Player of the Year. He has racked up 25 pressures (T-2nd most), Clowney has 21 (T-6th most), Jackson has 13 (T-9th most among defensive tackles) and McKinley has been a solid complement with 10 (T-43rd most).
The offense, however, has sputtered out to a slow start this year. Some of that is health, Mayfield is dealing with a torn labrum on his non-throwing shoulder, Beckham Jr. is still working his way back to health, Landry has missed games, and Jedrick Wills and JC Tretter have been banged up on the offensive line. They are still running the ball at a very high level with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, but their passing attack is leaving a lot on the plate so far. In particular, Mayfield has really struggled to push the ball down the field and has the fifth-worst adjusted completion percentage on passes that travel at least 15 yards in the air, per PFF.
Despite these struggles, the Browns are still 3-1 and are still a very good football team. With the way the Steelers have played this year, they are definitely not in the mix, but the Browns will still have a dog fight on their hands with the Ravens for the division crown. The Bengals are also much improved, but they should come back down to earth in the near future as their schedule gets significantly more difficult.
History Against The Chargers
The Chargers have played 27 total games against the Browns, and have won seven of the last 10 matchups, dating back to 2001 – including two in a row. They lead the all-time series 17-9-1. The most recent matchup occurred in 2018, and the Chargers won in dominant fashion 38-14 in one of Mayfield’s first career starts. Melvin Gordon and the offensive line put out an incredible performance on the ground in what was one of Gordon’s best games on the team. He totaled 132 yards and three touchdowns on the day, Austin Ekeler added another 60, and Keenan Allen even contributed 40 himself. The defense was dominant as well and got sacks from Isaac Rochell, Corey Liuget, Damion Square, and Rayshawn Jenkins. Desmond King also picked off Mayfield twice.
Overall this is a matchup that I had circled before the season because I thought both teams could be right in that second tier in the AFC behind the Chiefs. So far they have lived up to that expectation. This should be an incredibly entertaining game with tons of top-tier talent and two evenly matched rosters. If you are on the fence about going, I strongly suggest you get off and buy tickets.
That being said, I think the Chargers have a significant advantage in this game at quarterback with Justin Herbert playing at an MVP level, and with the way Slater is playing I have confidence, he will be able to limit the damage against Garrett – for the most part. Because of those two things, I’m taking the Chargers 23-16 in a low-scoring affair.