It's over! It's over! Cleveland is the city of week 1 champions once again!
Jokes aside, the Cleveland Browns were able to finally get a serious monkey off their back on Sunday afternoon. It's the first time the Browns have won a season-opening matchup since the 2004 season. It's also the first time Cleveland pulled it off on the road since the 1994 season which was before the original Browns were even the Ravens and Bill Belichick was roaming the sidelines.
Sure, former Browns quarterback and current Panthers signal-caller Baker Mayfield was feeling dangerous in the second half. In fact, he drove Carolina down the field and nearly snatched victory from the jaws of defeat after a disastrous start. But, in the end, Cleveland's defense and running game were up to the task to clinch the win, which was to be expected. The same can be said for rookie kicker Cade York as well, who became a household hero along the shores of Lake Erie. Today, we'll break all that down, and more, in the first of many weekly takeaways on this year's iteration of the Browns.
But, before we get started, a quick housekeeping note. Over the weekend, I participated in the ninth-ever VeloSano, which is Cleveland Clinic’s premier fundraising initiative in which 100% of every dollar raised supports lifesaving cancer research at Cleveland Clinic and Cleveland Clinic Children’s. Thanks to your support, I was able to shave off nearly 30 minutes from my time last year. But, we're still a little short of the initial goal overall. Thankfully, you still have until October 1 to donate if you're able!
Here is a direct link to my fundraiser page. With every dollar donated we may not be able to eradicate cancer tomorrow but, we'll be one step closer to ending it for good. Thank you for your support!
Cleveland's defense showed it's able to bend but not break all while showcasing elite talent
Heading into this matchup against the Panthers, the Browns were expected to lean heavily on their defense and running game. With a new quarterback under center in Jacoby Brissett (more on him in a bit), the Browns needed both to step up while Brissett eased into things. Thankfully, Cleveland made a statement early on the defensive side of the ball, holding Carolina to just seven points in the first half.
Browns superstar Myles Garrett was a driving force by the stout defensive effort. He finished the game with four tackles and two sacks, which has raised his career total to 60.5 and currently sits 1.5 sacks back of Clay Matthews for the most in franchise history. Not only that but, Garrett's 60.5 career sacks not only rank first among all active players and No. 1 overall picks in their first 69 games but are also fifth among all players in history in the same timeframe. Garrett also became the fifth player since 1982 with 60-plus sacks in his first 70 games. He joins Reggie White (79 sacks) and Derrick Thomas (61), as well as brothers T.J. Watt (62) and J.J. Watt (61).
"I want to be the most dominant force on the field whenever I play," said Garrett on Friday. "No matter if it is offense or defense, it doesn’t matter. Glad to be recognized, but it takes these next 17 games and hopefully some more for that to actually mean something.”
Clearly, Garrett is in the right head space for the season overall and set the tone early for the remainder of the season. This will hopefully have a trickle-down effect on the rest of Cleveland's defensive unit who finished the day against the Panthers with four sacks, five tackles for loss, six quarterback hits, seven pass deflections and one interception in the first half by Grant Delpit. Again, the Browns are going to have to lean heavily on their defense in order to continue their climb in the win column. But, based on how the second half went, Cleveland might need to get Brissett acclimated more quickly so that they don't burn out their most stable unit.
In the fourth quarter alone, Carolina scored 17 points including a touchdown run from Mayfield and a quick 75-yard dagger to Robbie Anderson soon after. Sure, it wasn't going to be a near-perfect effort the entire way from Cleveland's defense. But, when the Browns gave an inch of hope to the Panthers, momentum shifted almost entirely back to the home team and Cleveland's losing streak could've continued.
Thankfully, that ended up not being the case but, the Browns need to find a way to get Brissett more comfortable and find balance on both ends of the football. Until Deshaun Watson is back, having a healthy dichotomy on both ends is going to be a recipe for success. Thankfully, next week Cleveland plays host to the New York Jets who just gave up 213 receiving yards as well as 3 passing touchdowns to the Baltimore Ravens. Like the Browns, the Ravens don't have the greatest passing threat on the field. But, games like those against the Jets could help build momentum toward the remainder of the season.
Plenty of thunder on the ground but not enough lightning in the air for the Browns
Not only will Brissett finding comfort under center help out Cleveland in spades on defense, but it'll also help their running game as well. Against the Panthers, Brissett connected on 18 of his 34 passing attempts for 147 yards and a touchdown. But, on the ground, Nick Chubb (141), Kareem Hunt (46), Anthony Schwartz (20) and Brissett (10) combined for 217 rushing yards and a touchdown.
Usually, an opposing defense giving up that much rushing yardage typically indicates that this was a blowout. It also indicates that the Browns dominated the ball as well – and they did! Cleveland possessed the football for 38 minutes and 26 seconds on offense. But, clearly, the narrow 26-24 victory seems to indicate otherwise.
Yes, the primary strength for the Browns on offense is and will continue behind their rushing attack. It's what head coach Kevin Stefanski has built as the team's primary identity on that side of the ball. But, in the first half, the Browns had the majority of their rushing yards with 122 overall to only 75 yards in the air. That would seem to indicate a pretty solid balance between rushing and passing based on strength, unfortunately for Cleveland, football is a game of two halves.
In the third quarter, it seemed like the balanced effort was set to continue with the Browns netting 48 rushing yards and 18 passing yards. In the fourth quarter, meanwhile, things started to get tighter as Cleveland only rushed for 48 yards and had to throw for 54. Sure, 22 of those 54 passing yards came up clutch in the closing moment of the game for Brissett. But, that drive was also able to stay alive thanks to a weak roughing the passer call against Carolina as well as an incorrectly called spike on the field. Clearly, the Browns cannot rely on fluke calls all season long. So, in order to avoid becoming too predictable, they need to narrow the gap between their rushing and throwing attacks a bit.
A lot of that responsibility falls on the shoulders of Stefanski, who is the architect of this offense for Cleveland. The Browns went out and got Amari Cooper from the Dallas Cowboys as their new no. 1 receiver and have plenty of other pass-catching options as well that can support Brissett, despite his deficiencies. Brissett has everything you want in a quarterback including size, a big arm, mobility and a grasp of how to play the position. The issue is he's incredibly inaccurate at times. His arm talent allows him to make some ridiculous throws, as fans saw with his completion to Donovan People-Jones toward the end of the game on Sunday.
But, in order to stay consistent in throws like that, Brissett needs to build momentum early in the game and carry it throughout. Hopefully, next week's game against the Jets will be the remedy and help the Browns find actual balance on offense.
Browns rookie kicker Cade York came out strong in his regular season debut for Cleveland. His play showcased why the Browns spent a draft pick on him. Photo credit: Grant Halverson/Getty Images
Cade York's late-game heroics showed exactly why Cleveland drafted him
During the pre-draft process, a reliable kicker was a clear need for the Browns. They haven't had stability at the position since 2012, Phil Dawson's last year with the team. Since then, Cleveland has not retained the same kicker for two straight seasons. Typically, NFL teams don't take kickers in the NFL Draft and typically, the Browns are no exception to this.
So, despite it being a need, Cleveland wasn't going to draft a kicker just to have one on their roster. With a position where there's so much uncertainty, wasting a pick can sink or swim a team's hopes the following season. Just ask how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers felt with Roberto Aguayo. If the Browns were going to take a kicker during the draft, he had to be the right guy. In Cade York, who Cleveland took in the fourth round, they felt like they had that.
Coming out of college, York showcased that he has the leg strength as well as the accuracy required of an NFL kicker. During warmups and throughout training camp, he regularly booted attempts from 60-plus yards out and made them without breaking a sweat. This quickly made York a fan favorite and expectations were put on his shoulders by the fanbase, on top of the already existing ones from the organization.
Thankfully, for York's sake, he proved everyone right on Sunday. Against the Panthers, York hit the first field goal of his career, a 26-yarder in the second quarter to put the team up 17-7. York also made on from 34, 36 and 58 yards out, breaking the team record for most field goals made by a Brown in his first career game by two. He also tied Austin Siebert for the Cleveland rookie record for the most made in a single game as well.
But, the final 58-yard field goal attempt was York's best work by far. After Jacoby Brissett drove the Browns down the field, the Cleveland rookie was asked to win the game. Mind you, that's no easy task since the Browns were on a season-opening losing streak that's old enough to vote. It was also on the road in a fairly hostile environment as well. Nevertheless, York wasn't phased and his 58-yard game-winner was the longest by a Browns kicker since 1984. It was also the longest game-winner by a rookie ever in NFL history.
Granted, it's only one game and York still has a ways to go. He still has to learn how to kick while facing winter gusts off the shores of Lake Erie and there's bound to be plenty of growing pains. But, with one kick, York showed why he was worth the 124th pick and more to the Browns. They finally might've found their guy at the position nearly a decade later.
Featured image credit: Grant Halverson/Getty Images
Evan Dammarell is a sports journalist covering all things Cleveland right off the shores of Lake Erie. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You can also email him at email@example.com. Did you enjoy this edition of Right Down Euclid? You can get it in your inbox two to three times a week by subscribing here. All it takes is either your Facebook account or email address!