Just a few short weeks ago, the Cleveland Browns sat 3-1 with optimism aplenty. Behind a dominant defense and an offense hinged upon its ability to take an opposing defense's will in the run game, Cleveland looked primed to compete once again for a division title. Fast forward to Halloween, and the Browns occupy the cellar of the AFC North, and a once-dominant defensive unit has become a skeleton of its former self, losers of three of their last four games. Following a 37-14 drubbing by the Arizona Cardinals in Week 7 and a squeaker victory over the Denver Broncos last week, the Browns' struggles continued in a 15-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.
Numbers have been deceiving, injuries have taken a toll, and a unit, on paper, that looked to serve as one of the most dominant in all of football, has quickly seen the mirror turned on them after missed opportunities and lackluster play over the last four games.
A look back to Week 3 against the Chicago Bears showcased Cleveland’s front to a T. Nine sacks, four of which came from Myles Garrett alone, had Justin Fields amass just one net passing yard in 60 minutes of play. And in Week 4, despite allowing an 80-yard, 14-play opening drive to Kirk Cousins, Cleveland limited Dalvin Cook to just 34 yards on nine carries, and Cousins’ early touchdown pass to Justin Jefferson proved to be the only points allowed by Cleveland on the afternoon. The Browns dismantled Minnesota’s front five, as Cousins was on his heels throughout the game with Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney breathing down his neck—Cleveland’s defense as a whole registered QB pressures with seven different defenders. It looked to be the lighting of an impressive defensive fuse, and with premier talent littered within each level of Joe Woods’ defense, their ceiling looked untapped.
Then the injury came Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, arguably the best first-year defender in all of football. The nucleus, sideline-to-sideline rookie entrenched within a defense overflowing with elite defensive prowess, Owusu-Koramoah was the Browns’ highest impact defender in both the run and pass game. Sidelined with an ankle injury, Koramoah joined running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, and wideouts Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. among Cleveland headliners who have all missed time as we near the halfway point of the campaign.
A season that initially kicked off with promise has quickly turned on its head. And while it’s easy to point the finger of blame under center and to the performance of Baker Mayfield, look elsewhere, mainly to the outside, where the Browns’ issues on offense have become overwhelming as Cleveland begins to prepare for the Cincinnati Bengals. A receiving corps expected to produce in bunches behind the duo of Landry and Beckham, the latter looks completely uninterested, and Landry, despite five catches against the Steelers, reeled in just half of his targets, and at times, looked lethargic and soft when asked to create in tight confines.
Although a 4-4 record isn’t the end of the world, within a division as competitive as any, it’s been tough to provide a clear answer when asked the question “what has happened to the Browns?” While it could be attributed to a tough schedule or the aforementioned slew of injuries, Cleveland must learn to “beat the best”, as they have yet to record a victory against a team with an above .500 mark heading into Week 9. With the third-toughest remaining schedule of any club in the league, Cleveland’s issues won’t solve themselves.
It’s gut-check time for the Browns, as a season once pedestaled with promise could soon quickly slip through the hands of a roster in charge of living up to high expectations and punching their ticket to the postseason for just the second time since 2002.