The Browns are in first place in the AFC North for the first time since 2014.
Consider that for a moment. A week after head coach Freddie Kitchens had to answer countless questions about late-game playcalling and offensive struggles, Cleveland’s offense racked up 530 yards and scored 40 points. The defense forced three turnovers, including two interceptions of previously interception-free quarterback Lamar Jackson.
The final result: a 40-25 win in the same place in which the Browns came painfully close to finishing above .500 at the end of last season.
Here are our three big takeaways from the statement victory for the Browns.
1. Introducing your 2019 Browns offense
Again, we’ll point out the obvious: The Browns finished with 530 yards of offense.
This came after finishing with 346 in Week 1, 375 in Week 2 and just 270 last week. For the first time under Freddie Kitchens, the offense looked like it did back when Kitchens was calling plays but carrying just an interim coordinator title. Kitchens was ambitious, inventive and confident in his gameplan and his situational decisions all afternoon, making aggressive calls when appropriate and sprinkling in just the right amount of tricks among a Nick Chubb-reliant rushing attack.
In fact, perhaps it was Chubb’s play that brought everything back to normal for these Browns. Chubb rushed 20 times for 165 yards and three touchdowns, and while his gaudy rushing total was indeed buoyed by his 88-yard touchdown, the other 19 carries mattered nearly as much.
Why? Because they provided rhythm and balance to the offense and kept the Browns on schedule, something with which they struggled in previous games. This time they turned to Chubb frequently and he delivered, averaging 4.05 yards per carry on those 19 other rushes and keeping Baltimore’s defense honest. This balance allowed room for Baker Mayfield to work.
Mayfield looked more comfortable, though he got off to a familiar start. His first pass, a run-pass option, was batted down and his second dropback ended in a sack after he pump-faked but didn’t release the ball. That was the last of that version of this offense, though, because it finally emerged from the darkness of the offseason with its next possession, a methodical 13-play, 84-yard drive that saw the Browns overcome multiple setbacks in an impressive sign of things to come.
The drive was an eye-opener that set the tone of the afternoon for the Browns, who were not taking no for an answer when they possessed the ball. Mayfield was poised and became increasingly decisive as the game progressed, looking like the player who set the rookie passing touchdown record and singlehandedly stimulated the jersey market in Northeast Ohio before the addition of Odell Beckham Jr.
Speaking of Beckham, his statistical output didn’t wow anyone, but he made plays without the ball. The Browns’ first touchdown, a pass to Ricky Seals-Jones, was open because Beckham ran a drag in the opposite direction of Seals-Jones and drew the attention of three defenders, including two in the middle who likely should have trailed Seals-Jones, but hesitated because No. 13 was in front of them. That proved to be enough to open the space needed to score.
And finally, it’s unfortunate that he suffered a concussion, but credit should land on both shoulders of Jarvis Landry. The wise-beyond-his-years wideout had his first big game of 2019 and helped establish Cleveland’s take-no-prisoners attitude with his eight catches for 167 yards. One needn’t look any further than his 65-yard catch and run that might have gone for a touchdown had he not stumbled for a good 20 yards. The key: Landry’s glare and heavy, angry bull-like breathing once he got off the ground, a common expression that embodied what these Browns are about when they hit the road.
2. We can say it now: This defense is legitimate
The first three weeks gave us enough evidence, but Sunday’s win felt like confirmation: This is a talented defense playing at a very high level.
Lamar Jackson had much of the league raving about Baltimore through three weeks, and the Browns put the clamps on him. Defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi said during an interview on the Best Podcast Available that the Browns had to “cage” Jackson in order to limit the amount of damage he could cause, and they did that, coming at Jackson from all angles and rarely giving up their maintenance of gap integrity up front. Jackson was put in uncomfortable situations often, resulting in two interceptions and two fumbles (one lost). For the first time in 2019, Baltimore’s offense looked pedestrian.
“We just sent a bunch of different looks at (Jackson) and we were sending different people at him because we’ve got to keep somebody close because he’s special,” safety Damarious Randall said following the win. “Just hats off to the guys executing the game plan.”
The game plan also produced the aforementioned takeaways, which were timely and swung the game in favor of the Browns. By the time the third occurred, the defensive victories shifted from momentum-swingers to simply piling on.
“The way we did it, there’s a difference between winning by three and going out there and dominating in all phases,” Randall said. “That’s just what we did. For us to just know that we’re capable of doing it instead of just talking about it feels good and we’ll continue to keep building on it.”
This isn’t a one-week sample size, either. Cleveland has now held Le’Veon Bell, Todd Gurley, Mark Ingram and Lamar Jackson each under 100 yards rushing, and though Baltimore still finished with 173 rushing yards, that total fell well below the Ravens’ league-leading 216.7 rushing yards average.
“Defensively, they took it as a challenge to stop the run and they did a good job of that,” head coach Freddie Kitchens said afterward. ... “Just a good job defensively all day of keeping the pressure on.”
3. Even after one quarter with plenty left to accomplish
We’ll keep this takeaway short. Thanks for sticking with us to this point.
The Browns are 2-2 and atop their division for the first time since that jovial Thursday night win over Cincinnati that happened in 2014, but feels like decades ago. That’s a win, especially considering how the schedule set up for them with plenty of early tests.
This one, though, counts as two, because it deals a divisional opponent a loss while securing the Browns a win. It also earns part of a tiebreaker should things get tight in December. And most importantly, it gives the Browns a big boost and a weeklong break from relentless needling from those outside the team. This week, the questions will be about how to build on a positive performance and travel across the country with the goal of stringing together wins, again on the national stage.
That will be a tall task in itself, but it’s an opportunity for the Browns to prove to the rest of the league that they are not a hype train without fuel. Sunday’s win was the first shred of evidence of this, and a second straight win would be another example.
As Baker Mayfield said Sunday, the Browns would love to be 4-0 at this point. But they’re 2-2 after one quarter of the season, own the division lead and are trending toward moving beyond that point. That sounds a heck of a lot better than 1-3.