With so much to fix and injuries mounting, Browns are running out of time
CLEVELAND — The 17-game season is at a mythical midpoint, but the sand in the Browns’ hourglass is three-quarters gone.
They have much to fix. Time is dwindling. Injuries are mounting.
The AFC playoff race is wide open, but even with six playoff spots, they are in danger of getting left behind.
Sunday’s 15-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at FirstEnergy Stadium dropped the Browns to 4-4, last in the AFC North. The Super Bowl looks like a pipe dream; a wild-card berth seems like a leap, at least in the costly defeat’s wake.
The issues that have dawged them all season on defense show no signs of improvement.
Every time quarterback Baker Mayfield flees the pocket as he plays with a damaged left shoulder feels like a cover-your-eyes moment.
Key starters continue to go down. Considering the speed of the cart summoned for him, right tackle Jack Conklin dislocating his left elbow Sunday had to be a gruesome injury. Free safety John Johnson III was knocked out of the game with a neck sprain.
Jack Conklin injury:Browns All-Pro right tackle knocked out of Steelers game with dislocated elbow
Their most reliable receiver, Jarvis Landry, had a blatant drop, let another high ball go through his hands, and lost a fumble. The fact that it was forced by ex-Browns linebacker Joe Schobert made it more of a dagger.
Once again tasked with leading a game-winning drive when behind by a touchdown or less, Mayfield failed again, just as he did this season against the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers.
Star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. continues to be an expensive decoy.
Opponents are doing everything they can — legally and illegally — to contain star defensive end Myles Garrett and there has been no consistent pass-rushing threat on the other side to change that strategy.
Missed tackles that had been less of a problem in recent weeks resurfaced.
Stupid penalties continue, including safety Ronnie Harrison’s out-of-bounds hit on Steelers’ running back Najee Harris in the second quarter.
Reigning NFL Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski is experiencing a sophomore slump, especially when it comes to play-calling. Outsiders’ confidence in defensive coordinator Joe Woods is at a season-low.
Tight end Austin Hooper may be an outstanding blocker, but he hasn’t been the game-changer the Browns thought they were signing to a four-year, $42 million deal in 2020. David Njoku, with one foot out the door for much of the previous two years, is the most dangerous threat in that position room.
On Wednesday, Landry deemed the AFC North opener a “must-win,” which emphasizes how much of a flop the Browns’ mistake-filled performance was. Even though next week's foe, the Cincinnati Bengals, lost to the New York Jets, the Bengals have scored 106 points in the past three games. Considering the Browns' current offensive state, they might not reach that point total in the remaining nine games.
No Browns voiced their doubts, although the outcome had to spoil some Halloween celebrations.
“We have some things to fix,” Landry said.
“The crown of the AFC is still up in the air, at least in the AFC North,” Garrett said.
“We need to be worried about us,” Mayfield said. “We can’t be worried about the big picture. We have to take it one week at a time and just chip away at this.”
Middle linebacker Anthony Walker Jr., a free-agent signee from the Indianapolis Colts, was ready to assume his share of the blame, especially after a couple of missed tackles.
“Not good enough. Top to bottom. I own that. It starts with me,” Walker said. “We are not good enough defensively right now. We have to be a lot better to be a championship team. The defense has to be a lot better, and it starts with my play.”
In 2020, the Browns were masterful in dealing with the adversity of the COVID-19 pandemic. They finished 11-5, reached the playoffs for the first time since 2002, and went 1-1 in the postseason.
Handling the target on their backs after years of irrelevance is a greater challenge.
In the AFC, the Buffalo Bills, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans, Las Vegas Raiders, and Bengals have at least five victories. The playoff chances of the Chargers, Chiefs, New England Patriots, Steelers, and Indianapolis Colts cannot be discounted. The Detroit Lions look like the only gimme on the Browns’ remaining schedule, which includes two meetings with the Ravens and Bengals, another with the Steelers, the Patriots, Raiders and Green Bay Packers.
Woods said he used the mini-bye last weekend to simplify the defense. That is in order across the board. As they try to take the next step, the Browns are trying to do too much, carry too much of the load, make a SportsCenter-worthy big play.
“We just have to execute. Do the simple things. Make the routine plays,” Mayfield said.
Considering how much must be done, that’s the only way forward.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read more about the Browns at www.beaconjournal.com/browns. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.