Browns, Colts each hoping to extend a win streak to 4
Maybe the experts were right about the Cleveland Browns.
Just a year later than predicted.
Winner of three straight, Cleveland is tied for second place in the AFC North as it enters a big one Sunday at home with the Indianapolis Colts at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Expected to contend for a playoff spot in 2019 after a great finish to 2018, the Browns instead were among the league’s biggest disappointments. Undisciplined, inconsistent and not cohesive, they wobbled to a 6-10 record and got coach Freddie Kitchens fired after just one year on the job.
Kevin Stefanski was seen by some as another “settle” hire by Cleveland, but the former Vikings offensive coordinator has tapped into a formula Kitchens couldn’t. The Browns (3-1) lead the league in rushing and are fourth in scoring, enabling third-year quarterback Baker Mayfield to become more efficient and less mistake-prone.
“It’s about understanding our guys,” Stefanski said. “I think I’m getting a better grasp of what our guys are good at, and we have to double down on those things and protect our things. We have a bunch of guys who are working hard and want to contribute to this.”
One of those guys is out of the equation this week. Nick Chubb, the league’s third-leading rusher with 335 yards, injured his knee in the first half of last week’s wild 49-38 win at Dallas. But Cleveland showcased excellent depth at running back in former Chiefs star Kareem Hunt (71 yards, two touchdowns) and rookie D’Ernest Johnson (95 yards).
That said, Hunt, Johnson and a good offensive line might have a tougher assignment this week. Even if Indianapolis (3-1) has to play without stud linebacker Darius Leonard, who missed the second half of last week’s 19-11 win in Chicago, it still has a defense that is allowing a league-low 14 points per game and leads the NFL with seven interceptions.
But Colts coach Frank Reich, whose team has won three straight since a shocking Week 1 loss at Jacksonville, says the Browns pose a difficult task for his club.
“This will be our defense’s biggest challenge,” Reich said. “You know, you’ve got the No. 1 offense as far as running the ball. The other thing is that they’re No. 1 at explosive plays in the running game.”
Indianapolis’ offense has had to reboot a bit after losing 1,000-yard rusher Marlon Mack to a season-ending Achilles’ rupture in the loss at Jacksonville. But rookie running back Jonathan Taylor has played well in Mack’s place, averaging 75.7 yards in three games as a starter.
It’s also helped that veteran quarterback Philip Rivers has hit the ground running in his first year with the Colts after 16 seasons with the Chargers. Rivers is completing nearly 73 percent of his passes, characteristically spreading the wealth among a deep receiving corps.
Rivers is enjoying the opportunity to play complementary football with an excellent defense, something he couldn’t always do with the Chargers.
“Our job is to score one more point than the defense allows,” he said. “Certainly the way our defense is playing and the confidence that we have in our defense, it would be crazy for me to say I expect our D to give up a lot of points.”
Leonard (groin) and linebacker Bobby Okereke (thumb) didn’t practice on Wednesday, and left tackle Anthony Castonzo (rib) also sat out practice. Cleveland defensive tackles Sheldon Richardson (thigh) and Larry Ogunjobi (abdomen) were absent from practice on Wednesday.
–Field Level Media