Dave Choate: What do we think of Baker Mayfield thus far? I think he’s going to be special and I’ve seen glimpses of that in the admittedly small number of Browns games I’ve seen, but how is he performing in his rookie year and what can he improve?
Chris Pokorny: Baker Mayfield has performed quite well for a rookie quarterback. When you watch him play, you’re not going to see what you would typically think of as “rookie mistakes.” For him to already be this good, on a team with some offensive line issues and trouble at the receiver position, provides a lot of optimism for the future. He has a strong arm, a good command of the offense, and makes improvised throws when he rolls to his right. The “bad” is that some of his throws have been a little low, allowing tips (but not as much as of late), and he sometimes runs right into pressure unknowingly. The improvements, though, are less on Baker and more on the help around him. Put him with the Chiefs or Steelers offense and he’d be lighting it up too.
Dave Choate: This ground game worries me a bit. Talk me through how Cleveland divvies up touches in its backfield without Carlos Hyde there, and how you’d recommend trying to stop them. Oh, that’s not a question?
Chris Pokorny: Since the trade of Carlos Hyde, rookie Nick Chubb has become the starting running back and will get almost all of the carries. He has a great burst of speed to the second level if he gets a hole. Other times, he sees the blocking well to quickly bounce a run to the outside.
Duke Johnson is one of the best receiving backs in the NFL, and it drove fans insane that Hue Jackson and Todd Haley refused to use him for the first eight games before being fired. Last week, under a new coordinator, Johnson caught 9 passes and 2 touchdowns, looking exactly like the weapon everyone in the NFL knows he is as a receiving back. It’s tough to stop him in that area, but the actual run blocking is too inconsistent for Cleveland to wear Atlanta down in that fashion.
Dave Choate: The Falcons’ defense was great against Washington, but I’m curious to see how they’ll slow this Cleveland passing game. How’s the pass protection and receiving corps at FirstEnergy?
Chris Pokorny: The pass protection has been suspect. Cleveland has two of the highest-paid guards in the NFL, and while neither one is a disappointment, they aren’t playing at a Pro Bowl level like I thought they could be. The tackle positions have been the sore spot. Chris Hubbard was paid a big contract this offseason to be the starting right tackle and has been average at best. On the left side, with future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas retired, the team started rookie Desmond Harrison, an undrafted free agent. It hasn’t gone too well. Veteran Greg Robinson started last week at left tackle and appeared to play better, so he may continue to start moving forward for the sake of Baker Mayfield.
Right now, Cleveland lacks a true No. 1 receiver. We thought that Jarvis Landry could graduate into that role in Cleveland, but the more I see of him, the more I realize he is more of a really good No. 2 receiver. Tight end David Njoku has good athleticism, but makes big mistakes in blocking and still has too many open drops. Duke Johnson, as I mentioned earlier, is the big weapon on this offense. Will Atlanta be able to stop him? (Editor’s Note: Um, maybe.)
Dave Choate: Now the question I was dreading: How good is this defense, and who specifically does Atlanta need to watch out for Sunday?
Chris Pokorny: This defense has been saved by two things: they force a ton of turnovers and play good third down defense. Besides that, they allow a lot of yardage. The past few weeks have been tough due to injury. Last week, both starting cornerbacks left after a series due to injury, a starting linebacker left, and they were already without a starting safety and another starting linebacker. Some help returns this week, but I think the defense has lost that motivation factor or killer instinct they had from earlier in the year due to more and more losses piling up.
Dave Choate: Who wins this game, what is the season outlook for the Browns, and who do you expect to be coaching this team next year?
Chris Pokorny: I would be intrigued by Dave Toub or Bruce Arians coming to coach the Browns. Cleveland should be a very attractive landing spot this year for coaches because they already have a young franchise quarterback in place. The season outlook for the Browns is to still re-group and be competitive. As crazy as it sounds, this is still the same team that very easily could’ve started the season 5-0. I can’t pick Cleveland to win this week because of the downward spiral they’ve been on defensively, but the bye week next week gives them a chance to focus on the second half of the year and playing the spoiler card.