CLEVELAND, Ohio – Scribbles in my notebook as the Browns prepare to face the Miami Dolphins:
1. The Dolphins are 6-1 and average 30 points a game when Tua Tagovailoa is the starting QB. So that’s what the Browns are facing. They could be the fastest team in the NFL, at least when it comes to their passing game. They are averaging 294 yards per game in the air, second only to Kansas City.
2. So the defense is a big deal for the Browns in this game. I wrote a column with this question: Are the Browns real or phony? I meant the defense, which has shown some significant improvement in their last two games vs. Cincinnati and Baltimore.
3. Yes, defensive coordinator Joe Woods is on the spot. Not in terms of being fired. His job is safe for the rest of the season. But if the Browns are going to be more than the 3-5 team we’ve watched in the first half of 2022, Woods has to keep making adjustments. The Browns are without linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (knee injury). He was drafted in 2021 for his speed and to play in these type of games.
4. The Browns do have Denzel Ward (concussion) back in action. The entire secondary is ready. One of the best defensive stories for the Browns has been rookie cornerback Martin Emerson Jr. Browns defensive backs coach Jeff Howard said: “What stands out since the day (Emerson) has been here is his willingness to compete and his competitive fire day to day. I think it rolls into games. I don’t think it is something that he turns off. It (the NFL) hasn’t seemed too big for him.”
5. Tagovailoa will test Emerson and the rest of the secondary, often using play-action passes. Miami coach Mike McDaniel is a disciple of Kyle Shanahan. The goal of the offense is have enough of a running threat to stall the defense with those fakes – and then attack the middle of the field with throws. Yes, there are some long passes. But it’s more about a rhythm offense, lots of quick short and medium throws to Tyreek Hill and Jason Waddle. They have combined for 123 catches, 1,916 yards and nine TDs. They have 32 catches of at least 20 yards.
6. Wish I had some confidence in the Browns slowing down Miami, but I don’t. Tagovailoa has been sacked only eight times in seven games with 15 TD passes compared to three interceptions. The Dolphins have a decent running back Raheem Mostert, who has averaged 5.3 yards per carry in his career. He has mostly been a backup running back. Miami has thrown 302 passes compared to 202 runs this season. They’ll throw the ball as the offense is averaging only 3.9 yards per rush.
7. Analytics loves how the Dolphins play. The stats show play-action passes are often more effective than standard drop-back throws. Throwing to the middle of the field in the 10 to 15 yard range also looks good, according to the stats. The Dolphins run a lot of very fast pre-snap shifts, which can confuse the defense. Woods has had two weeks to prepare for this, so we’ll see how the Browns defense looks.
8. Miami’s defense is allowing 24.9 points, the same as the Browns. Their secondary is weak and has had some injuries. They blitz a lot. They are vulnerable to the pass as they play a lot of man-to-man coverage with so-so or worse defenders.
9. Coach Kevin Stefanski has had two weeks to watch video of Miami’s defense. The stats show Miami’s defense is allowing 4.6 yards per rush, perfect for the Browns to attack on the ground. But if you dig deeper, they are giving up only 3.7 yards per rush to running backs. It’s mobile QBs such as Justin Fields who have hurt the Dolphins running the ball.
10. Stefanski could be tempted to come out throwing against Miami. It all depends on the passes. How about more play action? Jacoby Brissett is 31 of 45 passing after faking to a running back – averaging 10.6 yards per completion.
11. Browns offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt rolled out some stats about the Browns being one of the best in the NFL in converting third downs when it’s 6 yards or fewer for a first down. He said, “One of the points of emphasis is to have productivity on first and second downs.”
12. That said, how about more play-action passes? Any time the ball appears to be headed into the hands of Nick Chubb, that will attract the attention of the defense. Same is true of faking a handoff to Kareem Hunt.
13. To win this game, the Browns offense has to carry a heavy burden. That doesn’t mean scoring 35 to 40 points. It does mean controlling the ball, long drives that chew up the clock. Keep Miami’s defense off the field.
14. Van Pelt mentioned the Browns are “in the top third of red zone stats.” He’s correct. They rank ninth out of 32 teams. I’ve been dwelling on this theme for two months. The offense overall has been good. It should be even better when Deshaun Watson plays, although expectations also should be tempered because he’s been out for 23 months.
15. Van Pelt also mentioned the Browns have improved from 26th in pre-snap penalties in 2021 to having the third fewest this season. He said, “We cut our holding penalties almost in half” from a year ago. These are significant stats because they lead point to the coaches having their messages embraced by the players.”
16. I heard the Browns never came close to trading Hunt. The market value wasn’t high. The Browns also realized they can do more with him in the second half of the season.
17. The Browns are thrilled with the play of center Ethan Pocic, who took over for the injured Nick Harris. Pro Football Focus ranks Pocic the No. 2 center this season behind Creed Humphrey of Kansas City.
18. Two other underrated players this season have been Sione Takitaki at linebacker and D’Anthony Bell on special teams. The coaches were especially pleased with them as they did their midseason review.
19. I’d add Donovan Peoples-Jones to the list. He’s caught 30 passes for a 13.9-yard average. He’s had only one drop. He’s become very reliable.
20. My prediction: Miami 31, Browns 23. Too much for the Browns defense to handle. My record is 4-4.
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