On the first drive in Sunday's tilt between the Cleveland Browns and the Minnesota Vikings, the Vikings looked unstoppable. In 15 plays, Minnesota marched down the field and Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins connected with star receiver Justin Jefferson in the end zone. It felt like Cleveland's defense, one of their biggest overall weaknesses last season, was going to burn them once again. That meant the Browns were going to have to lean on their offense, which struggled at times last week against the Bears. It also could have meant that Cleveland was going to be in for a long, and frustrating, Sunday afternoon.
Again, that all could have happened. But, none of the hand wringing mattered once the Browns settled in on defense. Instead of life being hell for Cleveland, it was Cousins and his Vikings that ended up having a bloody Sunday. Myles Garrett, Malik Jackson, Takk McKinley and the rest of Cleveland's defense spent a lot of time hitting Cousins or altering his throws. The Browns tightened the screws when they needed to, and ultimately the Vikings ran out of time.
"I think the Browns did a good job and made it, after the first drive, they did a good job just kind of making it a tough day for us trying to move the football," said Cousins. "They had a good pass rush. It was understood going into the game, and they did a good job throughout the game. They also did a good job on coverage. I think, for sure, one of the sacks was a coverage sack. They did a good job."
When comparing this game to the shootout in Cleveland's loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, this feels like a different Browns team on defense. After their win over the Vikings, the Browns have the tenth-best defense based on DVOA, a metric created by Football Outsiders. This defense-adjusted value over average is derived from looking at every play and judging how the offense or defense performs based on the situation.
Last season, the Browns ranked twenty-fifth overall in terms of DVOA. A lot of that does have to do with Cleveland's offseason – they added 13 key defensive pieces to their roster. A lot of credit goes to Browns general manager and executive vice president of football operations Andrew Berry for going out and assembling the talent to improve Cleveland's defense. Even more credit should go to Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods, who has this defensive unit firing on all cylinders over the last two games.
In their win over Chicago, Woods and Cleveland's defense made it clear they were going to shut down the Bears and rookie quarterback Justin Fields. The Browns did exactly that, sacking Fields 9 times and holding the Bears to 114 yards of total offense. Against Minnesota, meanwhile, Cleveland faced a different monster offensively.
The Vikings love to throw the ball deep down the field, with stars like Jefferson and Adam Thielen as reliable targets for Cousins. Minnesota's game plan wanted to set that up against the Browns, but Cleveland's pass rush wouldn't allow it. Cousins and the Vikings were under constant pressure and a normally elite Minnesota offense look lost out on the field.
"It just shows that last week wasn’t just a one time. We can hold up against anybody and everybody," said Myles Garrett. "That first drive they hit us with some things that we weren’t expecting, but after that, we cleaned it up and got rolling.
"We applied a lot of pressure and made plays against some great wide receivers and a great running back today. I think we showed a lot today."
Garrett is dead on that Cleveland's defense showed a lot in Sunday's win over Minnesota. More than anything the Browns showed that they have the grit, and toughness, on defense to keep Cleveland in games when the offense struggles as it did against the Vikings. This is the second game in a row where it felt like the Browns have clear stability in their rushing tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. But, Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield struggled to find a rhythm Sunday against the Vikings, much like he did the week prior against the Bears.
"A win is a win. Ugly ones count," said Mayfield. "Gets the same as, you know, the pretty ones do. We're a good team. We have to play, you know, a complete game. And that's, you know, in all three phases. I thought the defense played great. Special teams, obviously, was great. And then another good game by Chase [McLaughlin] and that unit. And so, I just have to pick it up. So we're a good team, like, today where I'm off, I can lean on those guys and make sure that you know, I have that accountability.
"There's a lot of easy throws there that I think I missed. And then, you know, situationally, getting into running the ball and you don't have a couple throws for a while, you just get out of that rhythm. So I need to do a good job of taking advantage of my opportunities and staying on track. I pride myself on being extremely accurate. And today, I don't know what the hell that was."
Mayfield does shoulder the majority of the blame for Cleveland's inability to move the ball down the field. So does head coach Kevin Stefanski. A lot of it does have to do with losing Jarvis Landry to a knee injury and also trying to build on-field chemistry with Odell Beckham. Thankfully, the NFL season isn't a sprint it's a marathon so the Browns have time to figure things out offensively. With the high-powered Los Angeles Chargers up next for Cleveland, they may have to lean on the defense once more. But, unlike last season, that won't be a problem for the Browns. In their win against Minnesota, Cleveland showed they're a defensive force and the rest of the league is officially on notice.
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