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What to know about the Cleveland Browns before tonight’s preseason matchup with the Falcons

The preseason finale offers a glimpse at one of the early favorites in the AFC.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Cleveland Browns Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

The Browns have not had all that many reasons to feel cheery over the past two decades. That’s finally, blissfully changing for Cleveland, which has the makings of one of the AFC’s best teams in 2021. They’re fresh off an 11-5 season that saw them make the playoffs for the first time since 2002, and while they were bounced in the Divisional Round after a Wild Card win, the talent on hand is evident.

Figuring out how good the Falcons are going to be this year is challenging with a new coaching staff and significant roster question marks, but I think most fans would agree even a modest improvement on 2020’s 4-12 record would be an indication things are heading in the right direction. For the Browns, it’s playoffs or bust in a division with a calcifying Ben Roethlisberger, brutally bad Bengals team and quality Ravens squad, and I fully expect them to put up double digit wins again in a 17 game slate. With the Falcons expected to roll out at least most of their starters, this will be the ideal final tune-up before the season, and a chance to see how Atlanta looks against a contender even if key pieces of the roster do sit and we won’t see all the wrinkles of the regular season offense and defense.

Here’s what you should know about the Browns ahead of tonight’s matchup.

2020 comparison

Falcons vs. Browns Rankings 2020

Team Record Points For Yardage For Passing Yards Rushing Yards Points Against Yardage Against Passing Yards Against Rushing Yardage Against Turnovers Created Turnovers Surrendered
Team Record Points For Yardage For Passing Yards Rushing Yards Points Against Yardage Against Passing Yards Against Rushing Yardage Against Turnovers Created Turnovers Surrendered
Falcons 4-12 16 18 5 27 19 29 32 6 18 9
Browns 11-5 14 16 22 3 21 17 22 9 18 4

The Browns were the team Falcons fans pointed to most often in 2020 to underscore how unlucky Atlanta was, or alternatively how close to being a much better team they were. This was a team that won 11 games, after all, despite having a negative point differential, and some of these rankings on offense in particular are strikingly close.

Of course, that doesn’t tell the whole tale. The Falcons of 2020 were only, if I may offer a familiar criticism, well-coached on one side of the ball, and then not for the entire season. Atlanta’s overall talent level versus the Browns was also not up to snuff last year, something that’s even more striking in 2021 despite what I consider at least modest improvement for our favorite team. The Browns also had the misfortune of getting obliterated in two of their five losses, dropping one game each to the Steelers and Ravens by a combined score of 76-13, which helped disguise how well they played the rest of the season.

The more useful takeaway here might be that you can be a good team and not be a top 10 team in terms of these very high level rankings, which feels like somewhat of a best-case scenario for the Falcons in 2021.

How the Browns have changed in 2021

Andrew Berry is gaining a reputation as an excellent general manager already, which he affirmed by...signing Takk McKinley? No, wait, that’s not it.

The addition of Takk, who is at least a solid player when healthy and not fighting to leave town, is the kind of low-cost flier the Browns need to fill out the edges of their roster. The big moves that might help put this team over the top are definitely the signings of safety John Johnson III and cornerback Troy Hill, who are both coming off terrific seasons for the Rams and figure to upgrade a secondary that did need some help. Neither Jadeveon Clowney nor Malik Jackson is at the peak of their powers these days, but both add size, physicality and some pass rushing prowess to a talented Cleveland defensive line.

The draft class should be impactful, too, with rookie first round corner Greg Newsome joining Denzel Ward, Hill and Greedy Williams to form what could be an excellent young cornerback group. Linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramah was a highly-drooled over prospect and looks as fast and impactful as advertised so far, though he is dealing with an injury right now. Receiver Anthony Schwartz and defensive tackle Tommy Togiai could be useful reserves this year, while James Hudson III is pushing for a backup role at tackle.

The only truly significant losses I see for this team are defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, who headed to Cincinnati, solid cornerback Terrance Mitchell and tackle Kendall Lamm, who is competing for a starting job in Tennessee. It’s hard to argue with the notion that the Browns, already talented and well-coached, got better this offseason. There are some intriguing teams in the AFC this year, but few have more upside than the Browns.

What to know for tonight

Cleveland will be without a few starters dealing with injuries and will park a few more, but they’ll at least throw Baker Mayfield and a good number of their top players out there tonight. The Falcons are expected to do so the same, so if you squint really hard this will feel like a regular season game for at least a couple of series.

That will be either refreshing or bracing, depending on how those guys play. It’s never smart to read too much into a brief preseason stint for starters, but we’ve seen very little of them outside practice, and Matt Ryan and Calvin Ridley in a new offense plus brand new starters like Matt Hennessy, Kyle Pitts and Mike Davis means there are a lot of unknowns on offense in particular. I’m keen to see this team in action, if only for a little bit, so we have even an inkling of what to expect against the Eagles in a couple of weeks. As I’ve hopefully made clear, this is a good football team they’re facing, so if they impress it’ll be a good sign.

Beyond the starters, it’ll be worth watching battles and backups against the Browns reserves, who are also generally pretty good. There’s Josh Andrews versus Jalen Mayfield at left guard, Christian Blake versus Frank Darby for what we’re assuming is the fifth and final receiver spot, Dorian Etheridge versus Erroll Thompson for the fourth inside linebacker gig, and two intriguing special teams battles with Cameron Nizialek and Dom Maggio at punter and Chris Rowland versus Avery Williams at punt returner. Cutdowns will be happening as soon as Monday morning and have to be wrapped up by Tuesday afternoon, so this truly is the end of the line for all these competitions, making them worth monitoring even when the game inevitably spins into sloppy, boring territory.