Next up on their AFC North tour, the 5-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers will face off against the 3-7 Cleveland Browns, following a Week 11 bye, on Sunday afternoon at FirstEnergy Stadium. The matchup is slated for a 1:00 p.m. ET kickoff on November 27 and will be televised on FOX. Coming into the Week 12 clash, the two teams are moving in opposite directions. Tampa Bay will look to strengthen their hold atop the NFC South after a historical outing in Munich with a complementary outing in Ohio which would allow the Bucs to hold on to sole possession of first place in their division. Meanwhile, the embattled Browns are faced with a harsh reality. Cleveland has lost six of its previous seven games, dashing playoff aspirations and causing disillusionment.
"We're in search of a win any which way we can get it," Head Coach Kevin Stefanski said following a 31-23 loss to Buffalo. "I know these guys are putting in the effort. We just have to finish football games, and it's really frustrating."
The Week 11 showing against the Bills became a microcosm of the Browns' repeated woes down the stretch in 2022. Cleveland was in the driver's seat to start the game and marched down the field, scoring on two of the team's first three possessions for an early 10-3 lead. Jacoby Brissett led the Browns on a well-oiled opening drive touchdown completing four-of-four attempts, culminating in a 25-yard pass to Amari Cooper to put the Browns on the board. In addition, Nick Chubb looked on track for a breakout game after compiling 64 yards from scrimmage in the first quarter (seven runs, two receptions) but the downward spiral dictated/shifted the offensive game plan.
The Bills got a much-needed break when Brissett fumbled a snap from backup center Hjalte Froholdt midway through the second quarter, shifting the momentum. Up to that point, Buffalo was without a first down in the ballgame, while getting outgained 181 yards to a mere 12. The Browns' offense is predicated and built to run the football. Cleveland continuously has success early on in games with a desired balanced approach – a mix of inside zone, outside zone, quarterback scrambles and screens in a run-pass option centric attack to open up play-action – however, when the Browns fall behind and are forced to become one dimensional, the struggles are evident. With Chubb's early success in getting the Bills' defense to over-pursue, then cutting back for chunk yardage, Buffalo adjusted by bringing safeties and linebackers down. The same was true of Amari Cooper, whom the Bills began to double to try and mitigate the big play-threat downfield and in the red zone. Brissett finished with 342 passing yards, which was his first 300-yard game since the 2019 season, but the offense endured a 40-minute drought without a score, making that feat void by the outcome.
Over the final two quarters, once the Bills offense found its rhythm running the football, Cleveland's defense had no answers. The interior of the Browns' defensive line consistently got driven back which led to gaping holes for Devin Singletary and James Cook – who both finished with a season-high 86 yards on the ground. The Bills rolled to 171 yards on the ground, finishing with 342 yards of offense over the final three quarters. The Bills scored on all five of their second-half possessions, besides the final kneel-down – a team that had not scored a touchdown in the second half in four games. Singletary's five-yard run ended the aforementioned streak and to add insult to injury, the Bills stopped Brissett's sneak on fourth-and-one and Buffalo blocked a field goal in the third quarter to fortify a 22-10 lead. The loss of Anthony Walker at linebacker was a devastating blow for the Browns' defense but it should not devastate the infrastructure. The Falcons, Chargers and Dolphins have rushed for season high totals against the Browns' defense in 2022.
The Browns are loaded with talent on both sides of the ball but a porous run defense, special teams' woes and the inability to close out games on offense has led to the club's overall demise. Cleveland certainly has the personnel to be productive boasting downhill phenom Chubb and savvy route-runner Cooper as the focal points of the offense and sensational pass-rusher Myles Garrett and ball-tracking superstar Denzel Ward powering the defense. However, missed opportunities and miscues have prevented the Browns from being able to right the ship with Deshaun Watson nearing the end of his 11-game NFL suspension.
On this week's edition of the premier compilation of star-studded difference-makers, featuring Browns' headliners as the name suggests, these four stand out. Many could have been included in the rundown; however, this group could help swing the game in favor of Cleveland on Sunday:
RB Nick Chubb
Nick Chubb continues to be one of the most feared backs in the league. He currently ranks second in the NFL in rushing touchdowns (11) and is fourth in rushing yards (923). He has an NFL-best 29 rushes of 10-plus yards. Since 2000, Chubb is one of only 16 players to have 900 rushing yards and 11 rushing scores through the first 11 weeks of a season. He is one of two players (also Derrick Henry) to have at least 5,700 rushing yards since 2018. If a defense over-pursues, Chubb takes advantage with lateral cutbacks. The one-cut, downhill back is the engine of Kevin Stefanski's offense. He is rarely brought down by one man in the open field with contact balance through arm tackles and initial contact. Chubb's patience allows him to run with little wasted movement. He is quick to hit the hole, encompassing a combination of instincts and power. He thrives in a wide-zone scheme but has the elusiveness to be effective in a power-man, as well. Chubb is a three-down workhorse with his blocking and pass-catching upside. On Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium, controlling and maintaining gaps will be crucial for the Buccaneers' defense in going up against one of the best rushers in the NFL.
WR Amari Cooper
The Browns got Amari Cooper, a former first-round pick, for a steal this past offseason and the move has paid dividends for the franchise in 2022. Cooper leads the Browns in receiving yards (698), receptions (50) and receiving touchdowns (seven). The latter category is tied for fourth in the NFL this season. Highly touted as one of the best route-runners in the NFL, Cooper has a knack for creating separation. From Cooper's pacing on routes to how quickly he is able to transition in-and-out of breaks, he is an anomaly between the hash marks. After a dead-leg maneuver, he can subtlety stick his foot in the ground to gain yardage/create cushion. Cooper has at least 70 receptions in five of his seven NFL seasons and can produce against any coverage. Cooper possesses the ability to win downfield and is a dynamic weapon in the short-to-intermediate area of the field with a feel for traffic and willingness to take a hit. He may have a reserved and quiet demeanor, but his play speaks for itself. Tampa Bay's secondary will need a stout outing against No. 2. Cooper has become an offensive catalyst in Cleveland, elevating their aerial attack.
DE Myles Garrett
Garrett recorded a sack against the Bills in Week 11, increasing his season total to a team-high 8.5 and making him the Browns all-time sack leader (67) in Week Six when he passed Clay Matthews' 62. In addition to his stat total, Garrett has accumulated nine tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and 12 quarterback hits in 2022. He is the tone-setter of the Browns' defense, wreaking havoc on offenses around the league with rare bend and remarkable burst off the snap. In the second meeting against the Ravens in 2021, Garrett overcame a triple team to sack Lamar Jackson – encapsulating his ability. With a lethal stutter step, Garrett is able to cover more ground to out-leverage tackles. Garrett routinely commands double teams, and yet _still _imposes his will at the line of scrimmage with a blazing get-off. With a devastating inside spin move and diabolical arsenal of moves, Garrett throws offenses into disarray. He possesses the ability to transition from speed to power, is gap sound and has good balance to fight off blockers. This week, the Bucs' offense will gameplan around No. 95.
CB Denzel Ward
In the spring, the Browns' locked up defensive cornerstone Denzel Ward, making him the highest-paid cornerback in league history with a five-year extension. Ward is sixth in the NFL in passes defensed since 2020 (35) and is tied for fourth since he was drafted in 2018 (57), along with Xavien Howard. His seven passes defensed in 2022 are tied for a team-high, fortifying the Browns' defense. Ward has cemented his legacy in the league holding his own against league-elite receivers. Ward is an effective mirror-and-match cornerback with outstanding route feel and pattern recognition to achieve tight coverage. With precise footwork, Ward maintains balance through routes, allowing him to adjust speed to keep pace. Ward challenges at the catch point with a 'ballhawk' mentality and come Sunday, Tom Brady will know where Ward is lined up at all times. He can shift the momentum of a game and the Bucs' offense will have to account for Ward.
Here are some ways in which the Browns have excelled in 2022:
- 150.9. The Browns rank fifth in the NFL in rushing offense, averaging 150.9 yards on the ground per game. Cleveland's ground game fuels the offense and ignites the play-action game, benefitting Amari Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones. Although it has struggled as of late, the personnel is in place to dominate when revitalization occurs.
- 107.9. Jacoby Brissett has a 107.9 passer rating when targeting Amari Cooper according to Next Gen Stats, his highest rating to any teammate during the NGS era.
Negative factors hindering the outcome of games for Cleveland in 2022, most notable:
- 26.9. The Browns rank in the bottom of the league (30th) in points allowed, surrendering an average of 26.9 points per game to opponents.
- 8. The Browns have forced just eight turnovers this season, tied for third-worst in the league behind only the Saints and Raiders. Cleveland is 29th in turnover ratio at minus-six.
- 19. Nick Chubb was held to a season-low 19 rush yards in the Week 11 loss to Buffalo, marking the fewest rush yards in a game in his career in which he had 10-plus carries.
New Faces in 2022
The Browns made one of the most surprising moves – and certainly one of the most controversial – when they sent three first-round draft picks, a third-round pick and a fourth-round pick to Houston for Deshaun Watson and a sixth-round pick in late March. He was suspended 11 games and fined $5 million for violating the league's personal-conduct policy. Watson, who was accused of sexual misconduct by more than two dozen women during massage therapy sessions, reached a settlement with the league in April following legal proceedings. He has since been cleared to return to practice, after only being permitted to attend meetings and work out at the team facility. The day after the Watson trade, the Browns inked a one-year deal with veteran quarterback Jacoby Brissett to become the primary backup option to replace Watson.
The Browns addressed their thin receiving corps with another trade. With Dallas undergoing salary cap issues, Cleveland was able to snag four-time Pro Bowl veteran Amari Cooper for just a fifth-round selection and a swap of sixth-rounders; Cooper averaged 1,056 receiving yards and seven touchdowns over the previous three seasons with the Cowboys. He joined Donovan Peoples-Jones in the starting lineup.
The Browns boosted their special teams unit during the offseason with a new set of kickers after they signed former Packers punter Corey Bojorquez and drafted LSU kicker Cade York in the fourth round. During the frantic offseason, Cleveland was able to avoid the loss of their second-leading sack producer, Jadeveon Clowney, when they reached a one-year deal with him in late May. Clowney claimed to have turned down more lucrative offers elsewhere to return to the Browns.