Yesterday felt like the start of something. Whether it was start of Justin Herbert and Baker Mayfield battling for their share of AFC supremacy or the start of a budding rivalry between Brandon Staley and Kevin Stefanski, Los Angeles’ 47-42 win
over Cleveland was exciting, fun and had the attention of the football world. While Cleveland’s final drive will be dissected ad nauseam across radio booths and barstools across Northeast Ohio, there’s plenty of blame (and praise) for
the Browns team as a whole. Before the season, the matchup against the upstart Chargers was circled on everyone’s calendar. On Sunday, we found out why. Before the Browns turn their sights to a home game with the equally talented Arizona Cardinals, here are our takeaways from the loss.
It wasn’t the defense’s finest day. After putting together back-to-back standout performances on defense in previous weeks, Cleveland’s defense took a step back against the Chargers, giving up 493 yards and 47 points. Now, both of those stats came with caveats. Those first two defensive performances
came against the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears (two teams that are nowhere near as explosive as the Chargers). Sunday’s performance came on a night where the Browns spent most of the game swapping out personnel due to injuries to starters. Those injuries
loomed the largest in the secondary, as Denzel Ward, AJ Green, Greedy Williams, MJ Stewart and Troy Hill all visited the blue injury tent at some point. Ward and Stewart were both ruled out during the game (additionally, corner Greg Newsome was inactive
due to an injury). Stefanski said that Williams, Ward, Stewart and offensive lineman Jack Conklin will all need MRIs due to injuries. Linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah was sent to the hospital after the game for a throat contusion.
We need to talk about that final drive. Mayfield will always be judged through an unfair lens. Whether that’s because of his status as a first overall pick, his brash demeanor or his anointment as the Browns’ savior is a debate for another day. Regardless, Sunday’s game is an example of that lens. Mayfield (23-for-32 passing, 305 yards, two touchdowns) played his best game of the year, slinging the ball around the field confidently while leading scoring drive after scoring drive. Yet, I’d guarantee most of the debate around his talent relates to the final drive — which, by the way, wasn’t good. Whether those dink-and-dunk plays were the result of Stefanski’s play calling or Mayfield’s hesitancy in the pocket, there’s no excuse for the Browns needing 30 seconds to gain five yards with the game on the line. Sunday’s loss showed both Mayfield’s strengths and weaknesses. And that’s OK.
And that pass interference call. Let’s be clear: the blown call didn’t lose the Browns the game. But it sure didn’t help. With 9:10 left in the fourth quarter (and the Browns leading 35-28), Green was called for a pass interference call on Mike Williams that was, in a word fit for print, bad. Stills of the play showed that Williams was the one committing interference, as he went up for the ball while also holding onto a chunk of Green’s jersey. After the game, Mayfield said that the calls shouldn't have been made, prefacing the comment with “they might as well just forward the fine letter now.” I’m sure most people in Cleveland would help hit foot the bill if he asked.
David Njoku had a career day and Donovan Peoples-Jones got off the milk carton. Games like Sunday are the reason the Browns continue to invest in David Njoku. Njoku put up 149 yards on seven receptions, one of which came on a 79-yard fourth quarter touchdown pass where Njoku caught a bullet from Mayfield, broke a tackle and outran the Chargers secondary. With the Browns pass game still adjusting to the lack of Jarvis Landry, Njoku’s breakout game provided some explosiveness. On that same token, Donovan Peoples-Jones had his best game of the season, recording 70 yards on five catches. The second-year receiver had four catches for 57 yards through the Browns first four games.
J. Herbo’s the truth. After bursting onto the scene as a rookie last season, Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert is using his sophomore season to put the rest of the NFL on notice. Herbert finished 26-for-43 for 398 yards and four touchdowns while also rushing for a touchdown. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen get a lot of the attention in terms of top-tier AFC quarterbacks (and rightfully so), but it’s probably time we add Hebert into that conversation. Sunday won’t be the last time Herbert contributes to a stressful afternoon in Northeast Ohio.