With a weekend to mull it all over, we’re breaking down three of the overlooked storylines from the Browns’ 21-7 win over the Steelers. There was plenty to build on as Cleveland embarks on its final six games of 2019.
1. Kareem Hunt has changed the Browns’ offense
Kareem Hunt averaged 2 yards per carry Thursday. That’s not ideal and shouldn’t be expected at any other point the rest of the season.
Here’s the thing, though: He was arguably the Browns’ offensive MVP against the Steelers, as a number of his best plays seemed to come at pivotal moments for a Cleveland offense that needed to maximize every opportunity against a stingy Pittsburgh defense.
Three of Hunt’s six receptions provided third-down conversions. None was bigger than his 20-yarder on third-and-long on Cleveland’s opening drive, as Hunt turned around to pluck the ball out of the air through the arms of a defender. He also had a 7-yard run on third-and-5 early in the fourth quarter, allowing the Browns to milk some more clock on their way to a much-needed division victory.
“I think Kareem is doing a good job of staying in the moment and doing his job and letting his skill take care of everything else,” Browns coach Freddie Kitchens said Monday. “Mentally, he has been hooked up for a while now and it shows every time he goes out there.”
Hunt was on the field for 39 of a possible 71 snaps. Nick Chubb played 51. Though Cleveland didn’t deploy the two out of the backfield as much as it did a few days earlier against Buffalo, they shared the field on plenty of occasions, and Hunt was seemingly lined up at nearly every spot along the line of scrimmage.
Hunt’s 13 receptions are tied for the most of any Browns player over the past two games. Chubb, meanwhile, has run 47 times for 208 yards. His average of 23.5 carries during this stretch is three higher than his average per game for the season.
“It definitely gives us an advantage because defenses don’t know how to prep for it,” Chubb said. “They don’t know what we are doing or what is going on so it gives us the edge on that.”
The Browns won last week after a missed field goal by the Bills in the last minute. Flip through photos of the post game celebration.
2. Baker Mayfield is playing his best football of the season, and it’s come against the best defenses
Baker Mayfield’s performance since the bye week is worth noting and one of the main reasons why Cleveland has been in the thick of all of its games since the bye week, even if not all of them have gone the Browns’ way.
In his last four games, Mayfield has completed just under 63 percent of his passes for 898 yards, six touchdowns and one interception. That pick, by the way, is hard to pin on the quarterback, who had his quick toss attempt to Jarvis Landry blown up by Patriots defensive lineman Lawrence Guy. His quarterback rating of 91.8 during this stretch is pretty darn close to the 93.7 he posted as a rookie. Compare that to the 56.5 percent completion rate, five-TDs-to-11-INTs ratio and 66 QB rating he had in the first six games, and it’s safe to say progress has been made.
What’s been most impressive about it is that it’s come against some of the league’s toughest pass defenses. After Sunday’s games, New England ranks second in the league in pass defense, Denver is fifth, Buffalo is third and Pittsburgh is 10th. The Patriots and Steelers are first and third, respectively, in interceptions while Denver and Buffalo are middle of the pack.
Landry has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of Mayfield’s resurgence. In Cleveland’s last three games, Landry has 19 receptions for 191 yards and three touchdowns. He’s noticed an elevation in the quarterback’s confidence along the way.
“He's been playing well,” Landry said. “He spoke to you guys about his urgency and the things he's been doing as far as a leader, bringing other guys along with him.
“He's been doing a hell of a job."
3. Appreciation for Joe Schobert, Cleveland’s LBs
The stats jump off the page, but there’s more to the story for one of Joe Schobert’s best games as a professional.
The fourth-year linebacker racked up 10 tackles with two interceptions and a sack against the Steelers. He was all over the field, making big play after big play on a night Cleveland’s defense had a bunch of them.
The latter of that came into focus Monday. Kitchens said there are games for Schobert where he makes a similar, positive impact on the game without the gaudy statistics.
“That is a pretty good stat line for him,” Kitchens said, “but above all else, he did an excellent job of getting guys where they were supposed to be, to enable them to make plays, also.”
Schobert hasn’t been doing it all himself at linebacker. Since becoming a full-time starter Week 3, Mack Wilson has seemingly grown more and more comfortable at the position. He’s played nearly every snap since Christian Kirksey went down with a pectoral injury and has appeared to benefit from a trial-by-fire indoctrination to the NFL.
"I think Mack is getting better every time he goes out on the field,” Kitchens said. “He continues to gain experience with different offenses and what his keys where he eyes are supposed to be. As he continues to get better with his eyes - he definitely got the physical tools to make the plays. His eyes has to be what gets him there, in position to do that."