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Arizona Cardinals vs Cleveland Browns 2021: 5 questions with the enemy

Cleveland Browns v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Happy game day one and all.

As the Arizona Cardinals get ready to take on the Cleveland Browns, we have a bevy of information to help you get ready.

We have not had many of these this year, but Chris Pokorny of Dawgs By Nature was kind enough to exchange questions and answers with me.

Enjoy.

Baker Mayfield has seemed to be more of a game manager this year statistically. Is that something that was planned or is it based on how games are going?

I think the statistics paint a little bit of a misleading picture regarding the notion that Baker Mayfield is more of a game manager in 2021. The running game has been above-and-beyond effective, and Cleveland goes to that often down near the red zone, which takes away potential passing touchdown stats from Mayfield. Also, Cleveland has not really been “behind” or losing badly in any game this season, so there haven’t been any of those weeks where the running game needs to be abandoned for the sake of time management.

Mayfield has had four solid games in 2021, and one really poor game (against the Vikings). Against Minnesota, many are pinning that on the left shoulder injury he sustained the previous week against the Bears. In the grand scheme of things, I guess it depends on what your definition of a “game manager” is. To me, that sounds like a quarterback who is asked to simply be smart with the football to compensate for his lack of ability to make above average NFL throws. That is not the case with Mayfield at all, so I would say that the perception is (as I mentioned earlier) based on how the flow of games are going.

Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt may be the best 1-2 punch running back combo in the NFL, how do the Browns deploy them and what makes them so lethal?

Head coach Kevin Stefanski has mastered the rotation of both running backs, and the number one thing that helps with that deployment is the fact that the run blocking on the offensive line is so good. Often times, Nick Chubb will be involved in three straight plays, one of which was a big run, so then it’s natural to insert Kareem Hunt into the game and then he takes the next five snaps of the drive, the last of which may have been a screen play in which he broke several tackles. Then, Chubb comes back in. That is just one example, but the unbelievable consistency of the ground game makes the insertion of each running back so natural. Hunt also sees more utilization in the two-minute offense for his receiving abilities (although Chubb has no issues catching the ball himself). Browns fans are still waiting to see if Stefanski will ever unleash a package that features both backs at the same time — although that might be counter-productive, since part of the reason they are so good is that each back is fresh without being burned out.

Unfortunately, with Chubb being ruled out this week with a calf injury, that one-two punch will be put to the test. I think the Browns will try to still have a rotation of running backs, and D’Ernest Johnson and Demetric Felton have some playmaking ability, but it’d be much more comforting to have Chubb in there. Johnson has more experience being a rotational back.

Injuries seem to be an issue for the Browns as much as the Cardinals, which injury situation has been the biggest issue for the Browns this season? Is there one in particular you are monitoring heading into Sunday?

My head is spinning thinking about which players are going to miss Sunday’s game with an injury, because there are so many key contributors on that list. Chubb being out is obviously a big factor. Left tackle Jedrick Wills and right tackle Jack Conklin both missed practice this week, and that makes it tough for any offense to maintain its continuity when both tackles could be missing. With that said, the situation I’m monitoring more closely is the status of defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. The Browns’ defense had just put two solid games together against the Bears and Vikings, including the front four starting to take over games. Clowney had his knee flare up prior to last week’s game and was an unexpected scratch, and Cleveland’s pass rush suffered significantly as a result of that, allowing for that game against the Chargers to be a shootout that Cleveland was on the losing side of. If Clowney is able to play on Sunday with Myles Garrett, that’ll give the secondary a better shot at playing looser knowing that Kyler Murrary will have to speed up his time to throw a little more.

What’s up with the Browns defense? They’ve looked downright dominant against the Bears and Vikings, while looking pedestrian against the Chargers and Chiefs. Is there a middle ground?

I would attribute the first week (and the second) to a lot of new players not playing together before. I initially thought the Week 3 performance against the Bears was more related to Chicago’s offense being god awful, but then the Week 4 performance against the Vikings was awe-inspiring. After allowing a touchdown on the opening drive, the defense was dominant the rest of the game. Cleveland’s run defense has been great every week, so it really comes down to the pass rush and the pass defense. That was very good against the Vikings, with the front four generating pressure by themselves and the defensive backs able to play man coverage at a high level. Where Cleveland got burned last week is the aforementioned injury to Clowney, which reduced the team’s pass rush.

Then, cornerbacks were dropping like flies to injury against the Chargers, forcing them to dig far back on the depth chart. Last, but not least, the safeties had awful miscommunications with each other on 2 or 3 occasions, leading to wide open, uncovered-for-20-yards touchdown passes. It was very frustrating, but not something that I think you’d see every week. Another frustrating thing was that Cleveland’s defense forced some key stops on third down, including in their own territory, but Los Angeles kept going for it on fourth down and converting. If the defense stopped just one of those fourth down plays, the Browns probably win by two possessions.

What are your expectations for the Browns this season and through five weeks are they living up to those expectations?

My expectations for the offense have been met for the most part, although the team still needs to get Odell Beckham worked into the offense as an X-factor. I think it’ll help this week if Jarvis Landry is able to return to action. Otherwise, the running game, the aggressiveness, and Baker Mayfield’s overall body of work is top-notch. The defense has had way too many ups and downs, and now injuries are biting them a bit. I hope they can get things straightened out before long. One benefit is that Cleveland has yet to play a division game, and that’s where I think the team can dominate against the Bengals, Steelers, and then [hopefully] split a game with the recently-lucky Ravens. Winning the division is still the expectation I have for the Browns, and then it’s anyone’s game in the playoffs. I don’t know if many teams want to face a Cleveland rushing attack in January that seems to be able to churn out 200 yards rushing per week in their sleep.