While the modern-day rivalry between the Cleveland Browns and New York Giants isn’t very historical or dramatic, as they only play once every four years and don’t have any championship games against one another, there was some extra spice to this late-season match-up. First, the 2019 CLE Head Coach Freddie Kitchens took over play calling duties for NYG for Jason Garrett, who missed the game because of Covid-19. Second, former CLE starting QB Colt McCoy was starting for the injured Daniel Jones. And third, these two teams traded players and picks with each other two offseasons ago, creating a “revenge” feel for many. Beyond that, the national TV, flexed game was a big one for NYG. Because of a WAS loss earlier in the day, NYG would be back in 1st place if they were able to pull off the upset against CLE, winner of 4 of their last 5.
Following a 48-yard return on the opening kick to midfield by Dion Lewis, NYG was set up nicely to start the game. Thanks to a 22-yard pass from McCoy to Sterling Shepard, NYG quickly had the ball in the red zone. After a failed touchdown pass attempt to Evan Engram, the NYG field goal unit came on for a 25-yard field goal attempt. The trickster in Joe Judge has been getting more and more aggressive, but this next decision took the cake. NYG rushed into an odd formation with everyone split out besides three down linemen. Center Nick Gates, an eligible receiver, snapped the ball then ran into the end zone. Punter Riley Dixon took the snap, dropped back like a quarterback similar to that time he did it in recess a couple decades ago, and lofted a pass to Gates who was surrounded by 3 CLE defenders. The ball fell incomplete, turnover on downs.
CLE then turned the ball over on downs near midfield, giving NYG another strong starting field position. This time, they turned it into 3 points. McCoy hit Darius Slayton for 35 yards on this drive and even though everyone knew points would be tough to come by, it was a good sign this team got into the red zone on both of their first two possessions. They were only up 3-0, however. Baker Mayfield, the #1 pick from the 2018 Draft, looked smooth, confident, and decisive. CLE used that to go up by a score of 7-3 via a 2-yard pass to tight end Austin Hooper.
Once again, NYG drove the ball down the field and breached the red zone. They were faced with a 4th-and-2 from the 6-yard line, enabling Judge to stay aggressive. A rush attempt failed to convert the first down and instead of points, it was a turnover on downs for the second time. NYG has an All-Pro contender at kicker, they have a hard time scoring points, and they now were down 7-3 instead of up 9-7. The seemingly automatic Mayfield continued to complete pass after pass on the next drive. They near-seamlessly put another touchdown on the board on a 2-yard pass to Jarvis Landry. Landry was flagged for taunting, however, pushing the CLE extra point attempt back 15 yards. Kicker Cody Parkey ended up hitting the upright on the PAT attempt, keeping the score at 13-3 as halftime approached. NYG has scored a combined 3 first half points over the previous 3 games.
CLE had the momentum and started the second half with the ball. If NYG wanted any shot at a comeback win, these opening second-half possessions were vital. Dexter Lawrence sacked Mayfield for an 11-yard loss on a 2nd-and-11. This was the play that was supposed to change the flow of the game. However, on the ensuing NYG drive, and after two first downs that brought NYG to midfield, Wayne Gallman was tackled for a 3-yard loss due to a failed attempted block by Engram, a wide receiver who sometimes lines up where a tight end is supposed to. This created a 3rd-and-12, which NYG did not convert.
CLE then went on a 14-play, 8+ minute drive that ended in a 1-yard touchdown by Nick Chubb. It was 20-3 and the NYG offense just couldn’t get anything going from sources like Colt McCoy, Alfred Morris, and a group pass catchers who are among the least-intimidating in football. NYG was able to put 3 more points on the board a couple possessions later to make it 20-6 (rather than 20-12) with 4 minutes left. CLE was done scoring but they did force NYG to burn their timeouts before getting the ball back with a minute left. A few pointless and meaningless gains later, the clock read 0:00 and NYG remained in 2nd place as they lost their second straight.
NYG loses, 20-6.
-Colt McCoy: 19-31 / 221 yards / 0 TD – 0 INT / 82.9 RAT
For the second time in 3 weeks, McCoy got the start for an injured Daniel Jones. Expectations for a 34-yard old career backup are never high and whatever they may be, McCoy met them. He made a couple of really nice throws in the first quarter that led NYG to the red zone, but he couldn’t seal the deal on a couple of opportunities in the end zone. McCoy just didn’t put the ball where he needed to on a few occasions and that is often the difference between good and mediocre at this level. NYG went over 15 years without having to deal with a backup starting the game. We’ve now seen it twice in three weeks. It really is such a limiting factor.
-Alfred Morris led the way with 39 yards on 7 carries while Wayne Gallman added 29 yards on 7 carries. Dion Lewis caught 2 passes for 14 yards and had a 48 yard kick return to start off the game but fumbled later in the game as a returner for the second week in a row. It wasn’t a bad day for the NYG backs, but it lacked impact and Gallman getting stuffed on a 4th-and-2 where he just didn’t have the sheer power to push the pile forward was a killer.
-Darius Slayton led the way with 74 yards on 4 catches. He had an awful drop that would have converted a 3rd-and-10 (even if he did, there was a penalty on the offensive line that cancelled the play altogether). Still a really ugly look for Slayton. Those 74 yards were 29 yards more than what he accrued in the previous 3 games combined. However, 2 of those catches and 18 of those yards came in the final minute of the game where pretty much nobody cared.
-Sterling Shepard added 51 yards on 4 catches and Golden Tate caught 2 passes for 13 yards. That is a combined 6 catches for 64 yards. Just over 10 yards per catch, yet again from these two. The more games I see this offense play, the stronger the notion is that this team is starving for playmakers on the outside that scare a defense.
-Evan Engram had a bad game. He did catch 4 passes for 46 yards but he added another drop to the list and his blocking was poor. He just isn’t a guy that can handle the rigors of blocking in-line. He allowed a TFL and caused both Morris and Gallman alike to alter the running lane on one occasion each. There was a near-touchdown that can’t be called a drop, however both of his hands were on the ball first and it was jarred out by CLE safety Karl Joseph.
-Kaden Smith and Levine Toilolo both deserve a positive write up. Smith was a key blocker on a couple of NYG’s longer runs. They used him as a trap blocker a couple times and he did some serious damage on contact. Toilolo added a catch for 14 yards and recovered the Dion Lewis fumble.
-After a horrific match-up against Haason Reddick a week ago, Andrew Thomas bounced back against Myles Garrett. Garrett didn’t look like his old self at points, but I like how Thomas played him. He was really aggressive with his hands and he kept his balance post-contact. He did allow a half-sack late in the game but besides that, he didn’t give anything. 0 Pressures, 0 TFL, 0 penalties.
-Cameron Fleming and Shane Lemieux were poor. Fleming just doesn’t have it snap to snap; he is pretty much always going to get beat eventually within a sustained drive. He allowed 2 pressures, got flagged for a hold, and allowed a half sack. Lemieux allowed 2 pressures and was flagged for a hands-to-the-face penalty which ended up being declined. His issues have more to do with the fact he just isn’t powerful enough yet. I think that will come with time. His twitch, balance, and technique look good.
-Kevin Zeitler allowed a TFL and Nick Gates was pretty quiet. He didn’t get left alone much but still produced quality run blocking with his ability to move guys laterally.
-It was a quiet day overall for the group, but Carter Coughlin was the stand out. He had 4 tackles and a pressure. He did get beat badly in coverage by Austin Hooper twice, one of which was for a first down. He isn’t natural in that role because remember, he was purely an edge guy in college. I can remember writing in his scouting report that he had the skill set and intelligence to play a role inside down the road. With the BUCK role being an edge role that can fill in next to the MIKE inside at times in this defense, Coughlin is making a strong case to be considered for that role next year. He just needs to figure out coverage more than anything.
-NYG held the CLE rushing attack (top 5 in the NFL) to a quiet day on the ground. The 106 yards were the lowest since November 1. The two catalysts? Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams. They were excellent off the line and showed range. They both had 6 tackles and a TFL, Lawrence also had a sack and pass deflection on 3rd down. Williams added 2 pressures and made rookie left tackle Jedrick Wills look like a child in the running game.
-B.J. Hill, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Austin Johnson all continued to rotate and provide solid run defense. None offered much against the pass. Johnson had a TFL.
-Blake Martinez looked, moved, and hit better than he did last week when he seemed to be recovering from his back injury. He was back to the level we had gotten so used to all year and it was a great combination with what NYG was working with up front. He had 10 tackles and 2 TFL. Not many guys can stone Kareem Hunt, but Martinez did. He played smart, instinctive, and physical. He is one of the best LBs in the league when it comes to noticing and reacting to the screen.
-Tae Crowder added 6 tackles and a TFL. Devante Downs and David Mayo rotated in but it is as clear as anything that Crowder is the guy there. Downs and Mayo both badly missed tackles in space. Those two need to play less and Crowder needs to be the only inside guy on the field next to Martinez.
-With both James Bradberry and Darnay Holmes out, NYG had to get a little creative at cornerback with Julian Love and Logan Ryan, both collegiate corners. Both of them played well in their roles, respectively. Ryan had 9 tackles and Love finished with 6. They both were beat by Jarvis Landry on separate 3rd down conversions and both missed a tackle.
-Isaac Yiadom was expected to step up in this one, and he did not. CLE clearly wanted to go after him and they ended up having a lot of success there. He allowed a touchdown to Landry and allowed two downfield completions to Rashard Higgins. He didn’t have a lot of help in this one and he just did not come through.
-In his first game back against the team that made him a 1st round pick in 2017, Jabrill Peppers was as quiet as we have seen this year. He had 3 tackles and just didn’t seem to make a physical presence known against the strong CLE rushing attack. He got caught over-pursuing two outside runs that I did not count as missed tackles, but it did create more yards for them.
-Rookie Xavier McKinney saw a slight uptick in playing time because of the vacancies at corner. He made 4 tackles and was often playing a preventative deep role in coverage. He didn’t really have an opportunity to display much against the pass.
-K Graham Gano: 2/2 (Made 39 and 37)
-P Riley Dixon: 2 Punts / 34.5 avg / 31.5 net
-DT Dexter Lawrence, DT Leonard Williams, OT Andrew Thomas
-OT Cameron Fleming, CB Isaac Yiadom, TE Evan Engram
3 THOUGHTS ON CLE
CLE went a combined 1-31 in 2016/2017. Their last winning season was 2007 (the first Eli Manning Super Bowl). They are now 10-4 and heading toward the playoffs with a big arrow pointing upward. How did they turn it around? Three things. One, they’ve crushed the early draft picks. DE Myles Garrett in 2017, Baker Mayfield and Denzel Ward in 2018, Jedrick Wills in 2020. Two, their Head Coach Kevin Stefanski has created a system on offense that fits his personnel perfectly and he sticks to it. Three, they have created one of the best offensive lines in football.
More on that offensive line because it deserves its own write up. Baker Mayfield has been sacked just 18 times this year. In 2019, he was sacked 41 times. Kudos to this Front Office for double-dipping at the OT spots by signing Jack Conklin in free agency and then using their 1st-round pick on Jedrick Wills. Those two, in combination with what I consider to be the top trio of interior offensive linemen in the league has instilled so much confidence in Mayfield in addition to paving the way for a top-5 rushing attack.
The CLE offense is better without Odell Beckham. I mean that 100% and I say it without hesitation. This is not a knock on Beckham at all. This has more to do with my thoughts on NYG and whether or not they should pursue a top WR in free agency. They need an uptick in talent there, but you need to tread carefully. An offense works best, in most cases, when the ball is being spread around. Mayfield was forcing the ball to Beckham and it was making him a less effective quarterback, plain and simple.
There may not be a less effective offense in the NFL than what NYG is working with. Granted, they are working with a backup QB and they are missing the focal point of their offense in Barkley. But 30 points over 3 games (including 13 over the last 2) against three defenses that do not include any top 10 units is just embarrassing. The silver lining here is I would rather go into the offseason trying to fix a bad offense than a bad defense.
How does the 31st ranked offense get fixed? This offensive line needs to become dominant. Not good, they need to be dominant. I think NYG can go into next year with Thomas and Peart at tackle but both of those guys aren’t dominant players. Nick Gates is a keeper at center. The question and opportunity for upgrade will be at the guard spots. Whether it is a high priced free agent (Joe Thuney/NE?) or a 2nd round pick (there are a few), or both, NYG needs to go in that direction. It isn’t sexy, but I feel it is the most efficient and reliable way to go about it.
Two games left and yes, NYG still has a shot at this division crown. The biggest issue? They are matched up against a hot BAL team that, when all things are clicking, can be as hard to stop as anyone. While I am confident in NYG’s ability to stuff a traditional rushing attack like CLE, BAL is simply a different animal. Think about the way ARI was able to pick up chunk gains with Kyler Murray. This will be on the NYG defensive line, yes. But we really need to see that second level (LBs and safeties) step up.