Photo Credit: Cleveland.com
Heading into Saturday’s primetime matchup against the Denver Broncos, Baker Mayfield and the Browns look to build off of an impressive stretch of games, winning three of the last four over the past month. In that stretch, the offense has seemed to take significant strides under interim Offensive Coordinator Freddie Kitchens. Under Kitchens, Mayfield has shown improvement under center accounting for an average of nearly 280 yards per game with a touchdown to interception ratio of nine to three. The run game has certainly complemented Mayfield and the passing game as Nick Chubb has finally seen the bulk of the carries, as well as the offensive line, hitting their stride, being able to keep Mayfield upright over the past month. If the Browns want to keep their playoff hopes alive they will need to play a complete football game against a desperate Denver team also looking to sneak their way into the postseason.
On the offensive side of the ball, Kitchens needs to keep the play calling aggressive. Under his watch, the Browns have been able to take deep shots downfield at a high rate while also limiting the number of shots their franchise quarterback has taken by opposing defensive lines. The Denver pass defense ranks 26th in the league so look for Mayfield and Kitchens to continue to dial up the deep passing plays to exploit a weak defensive backfield that will be without their best cornerback Chris Harris Jr. To be able to succeed in the passing game the Browns will need to take care of the explosive defensive line of Denver starting with All-Pro Vonn Miller and Rookie Bradley Chubb. Although Mayfield has seemed to handle pressure particularly well, look for Kitchens to call a lot of designed rollouts and play action passes to limit the pass rush and keep Mayfield upright. Perhaps the most encouraging thing from last weeks game was the reemergence of wide receiver Jarvis Landry. The Browns and Mayfield have been searching for a go-to receiver as Landry has seemed to have a relatively quiet season, but with Landry’s involvement in the run game as well as deep passes down the field has been a positive sign for a surging offense. I expect Kitchens to involve Landry more in the run game as well as continuing to target him in the passing game giving Mayfield a primary target in a hostile environment.
Defensively the Browns will be put up to the test. With a struggling run defense, it will only get harder as the Broncos have the 8th best rush defense averaging over 5 yards a rush. Phillip Lindsay, an undrafted rookie out of Colorado, has turned into one of the league’s best backs this year and is looking to surpass 1000 yard mark on Saturday. The Browns might be handicapped as defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi is questionable for Saturday’s matchup. Regardless of Ogunjobi’s status, I would expect Gregg Williams’ defense to pack the box with defenders to stuff the running game of Lindsay and company. If the Browns are able to keep the run game in check this will create a lot of third and long situations allowing Myles Garrett and the defensive line to apply pressure to Case Keenum. Keenum has thrown ten interceptions on the year so look for the Browns to get to Keenum and force him to throw into tight windows. Although the Browns will be without rookie cornerback Denzel Ward for the second straight week this will bode well for the opportunistic Browns defense ranking second in the NFL in takeaways.
Overall, the Browns will need to play a complete game to get a tough road victory in primetime. Even if the Browns are not able to keep their playoff hopes alive the most important aspect of this game will be to see if Baker Mayfield continues his progression into the last few starts of his rookie year. I expect Mayfield to put up big numbers as the number one pick always seem to put on a show when the lights shine the brightest. Finally, I expect the game to be close heading into the fourth quarter with Mayfield ultimately leading a game-winning drive to give the Browns the edge 27- 20.