Week 4 is here, and the Atlanta Falcons finally got in the win column with a hard-fought victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Week 3. Atlanta is returning home for only the second time this season, but the Falcons are currently 1-point underdogs against the Browns according to DraftKings Sportsbook.
Here at The Falcoholic, we like to think we keep you all incredibly well-informed on all things Falcons. We’re not nearly as diligent in covering the Browns, so I’ve enlisted the help of a Cleveland expert: Chris Pokorny. Chris is the executive editor covering the Browns over at SB Nation’s Dawgs by Nature.
I brought five questions to Chris to try to get a better read on how the Browns have looked over the first three games, including some impressive wins and a surprisingly good performance by backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett.
Q1. The Browns have fared remarkably well on offense with Jacoby Brissett at the helm, as the team is sixth in scoring offense and fifth in total yardage through three games. How impressed have you been with Brissett’s play so far, and do you have any concerns about the passing game heading into Week 4?
Chris Pokorny: I had some concerns about Jacoby Brissett in Week 1, as I was focused on his limitations that he doesn’t throw a great deep ball (there were two open receivers who he missed) and that he is generally a big slow with his movements. In addition, Cleveland’s offense had some pre-snap and issues getting the play off in time during the opening week. Fortunately, we’ve been able to see just how efficient Brissett can be over these past two weeks, which includes overlooking his weaknesses in favor of his strengths. First, the mechanics of getting the play off in time has not been an issue at all these last two weeks; I think the issues in Week 1 stemmed from him having had very little time with the first-teamers in training camp, thanks to Deshaun Watson taking a good chunk of the reps. Second, Brissett throws an absolute laser on passes anywhere between 5 to 15 yards, and he has been putting it right on the money. An underrated benefit to his game — which I never realized — is that he successfully converts a 3rd-and-short quarterback sneak every time. He did it three times last week, and another time, he lined up for it and instead tricked the defense by handing it to Kareem Hunt (who motioned late to the fullback spot) to pick up about ten yards. With how successful the running game is and how good the offensive line blocking is, Brissett doesn’t need to be a superstar in most weeks — but him playing efficient football has led to the impressive statistical rankings that you mentioned.
Q2. Cleveland is once again among the NFL’s most elite rushing attacks—first in rushing yardage and sixth in yards per attempt—with Nick Chubb leading the way and a very capable rotational back in Kareem Hunt. What’s been the key to the run game thus far, and how important will it be to run the ball well against Atlanta?
CP: Building off what I said in the first answer, the running game is always important for Cleveland. If you don’t have that, then our receivers after Amari Cooper are not the most threatening at getting open, and if the defense knows Brissett has to throw every time, you lose that balance and take him out of his element. The Browns feature a really solid offensive line, both in pass blocking but especially in run blocking. You could argue that they have three Pro Bowl caliber players in left guard Joel Bitonio, right guard Wyatt Teller, and right tackle Jack Conklin. Cleveland feels comfortable pulling their guards and using their athleticism to keep defenses off balance, and then both Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are as good as they come as far as cutting and then bursting through the hole goes. Chubb will make the quick cut and break tackles, while Hunt will do the crazier hop step cuts and still shake off tackles. Both are also very good receivers, so defenses have to be aware of them in the screen game department or in the flat. It is such a luxury to have Chubb be able to rip off big runs of 10, 12, and 8 yards, and then you just bring in Hunt who proceeds to do the same. In my mind, the Browns have two of the top five backs in the NFL; and they’ve also added a few wrinkles to the system this year by occasionally using both of them at the same time.
Q3. The Browns defense has been up-and-down through three games, as the unit is 23rd in scoring and 14th in total yardage. What has been the biggest weakness for the unit so far, and do you have any concerns about facing a reinvigorated Falcons offense that is somehow ninth in scoring heading into Week 4?
CP: The defense finally tightened up in the second half of last week’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but yes, the defense is still quite the concern. I’ll touch on injuries a little more in your next question, but for the first two weeks, the secondary was the Browns’ biggest issue. The defense was actually playing outstanding in Week 1 against the Panthers, but then had two completely blown coverages where the safeties or cornerbacks were confused on what coverage they were in, so the receiver just ran a route by everyone untouched. In Week 2, the collapse happened in the final two minutes when Cleveland was up by 13 points. The way the Browns lost that game was truly a once-in-a-lifetime moment of futility, but again, the major lapse came because of the secondary not being on the same page. On top of all of that, cornerback Denzel Ward, who received a 5-year, $100.5 million extension this offseason, has mind-blowingly been the worst-graded cornerback (just about) by Pro Football Focus through three games. When you factor in some early injuries impacting the depth along the defensive line and at linebacker, then yes, it is a bit worrisome to see how the Falcons’ offense has Cordarrelle Patterson rushing for 100+ yards, and Drake London and Kyle Pitts as threatening receivers to account for.
Q4. The injury report is a scary one for Cleveland this week, with a number of starters (Myles Garrett, Jadeveon Clowney, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Denzel Ward) held out of practice on Wednesday. What’s your level of concern for those players missing the game, and are there any other injuries to monitor?
CP: Head coach Kevin Stefanski won’t rule anyone out until Friday or later, but based on those four key players, if I had to guess, Jadeveon Clowney is probably the least likely to play this week, followed by Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Denzel Ward’s injury just popped up so I’m not sure when it happened, so I don’t know what to think about that one. For Myles Garrett, obviously he was in a wicked car accident and is very fortunate that all he has is a few bumps and bruises. He rested on Wednesday and will come to the team facility on Thursday. My instincts tell me that he will play, but we’ll know more later in the week. Altogether, it is significant if two or three of those guys miss the game, because you arguably listed the team’s top four defenders (on paper). There aren’t any other injuries this week that I’m worried about yet.
Q5. The betting markets have this as a very close game, with Cleveland favored by 1.5 on the road. What’s your prediction for Week 4’s game, and your thoughts on the Browns chances of making the playoffs this season?
CP: I actually had a layover in Las Vegas on Monday night, so I went to the Strip and put $20 on the Browns (it was -2 at the time); it seemed like one of the most attractive picks of the week because it’s as close to a pick’em as you can get. Cleveland’s offense has played so efficient these first three weeks, and Atlanta’s defense has not been sharp. The Browns have also been good at putting together lengthy drives, so I like that formula of the Browns continuing to do that, and hopefully giving less possessions to a potent Falcons offense. Making the playoffs is still a bit of a stretch for Cleveland; we’re taking advantage of the softer stretch of our schedule now, but in a couple of weeks, it gets a lot tougher and I don’t know if Brissett is up to the task of leading the Browns from behind if our defense can’t stop other top offenses in the league.
Many thanks to Chris Pokorny for taking the time to answer my questions. Give him a follow at @DawgsByNature on Twitter. If you’re in the mood for a Seahawks perspective on things, follow Dawgs By Nature at @DawgsByNature.
If you’d like to see my answers to Chris’s questions, you can find that story right here.
Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.