Browns Mailbag

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Browns Mailbag: How different are Browns, Ravens since last year’s memorable season finale?

It’s that time of the week, and we’re knocking out five of your questions on this sunny Friday in Berea.

Antonio Callaway is a talented player who was playing his best football when the Browns and Ravens met at the end of last season. He was seemingly at his best when the Browns were spreading the ball around and not relying on one specific receiver -- a stark difference from the first part of the 2018 season. He finished with 43 catches for 586 yards and a team-best five touchdowns. Not bad for a rookie season.

So, yes, I think it’s fair to say the Browns will benefit from Callaway’s return, but he can’t be viewed as the saving grace/what’s been missing through the first three weeks. Even without Callaway, Rashard Higgins and David Njoku -- the last two of whom have been sidelined with injuries -- the Browns have enough talent and weapons to be producing better than they’ve been thus far.

“We are just trying to put it all together and play a complete game,” wide receiver Jarvis Landry said. “Special teams played well last game. Defense played great. Offense, we did great things. Obviously, we had four opportunities there at the end, and we just could not quite finish it. At the same time, we can take a lot from that game and learn a lot. We learned a lot from that, and hopefully, we can put it together this game.”

You forgot to mention the Browns added Odell Beckham Jr. That’s kind of important, no?

I kid, I kid. What I like most about this question is how it emphasizes just how much a team can change from one year to the next, even after an offseason where there wasn’t wholesale change for either team. The Ravens and Browns met in a memorable Week 17 showdown, and both offenses produced a handful of explosive plays. Who can forget Baker Mayfield pitching the ball to himself before making a big throw downfield?

The Ravens had their way on the ground that afternoon, but they’ve changed up a bunch of things on offense in an attempt to best enhance Lamar Jackson’s skill set. The addition of Mark Ingram was massive, and the Ravens boast multiple, new playmakers -- led by star rookie Marquise Brown -- who can take the top off a defense in ways they couldn’t last year. This is a new challenge for a Cleveland defense that is likely to be missing at least a handful of starters in the secondary on top of veteran Christian Kirksey, who is on injured reserve.

The Browns, of course, made some moves, too. But you’re right, they won’t have any of those guys you mentioned. The two players from that list they’re missing the most are Higgins and Njoku because they went into the season planning to use each of them in a big way. Damion Ratley has stepped up nicely in Higgins’ absence and Demetrius Harris caught his first touchdown Sunday while playing nearly every snap in the role Njoku typically occupies. Still, depth matters in the NFL, and you always want to go into an AFC North matchup with as full of a deck as possible. You just won’t hear any excuses about that from Browns players and coaches.

“When you lose a player that is a starter, he is taking whatever percentage of the reps you have had up until that point so everybody else play a little bit of catchup, like any position,” offensive coordinator Todd Monken said. “The other guys have talent. That is why they are in the NFL. We just have to keep bringing them along and utilizing their skillset to the best of their ability.”

I liked what I heard from Mayfield on this topic Wednesday, and we wrote about it at ClevelandBrowns.com. It’s not just about getting the ball more to Beckham, who has a team-high 30 targets through three games. It’s about taking advantage of the opportunities presented by the numerous double teams Beckham faces and getting the ball in the hands of the players who benefit from some looser coverage.

“I think formatting stuff and just finding the one-on-ones and taking advantage of it,” Mayfield said on how to succeed with Beckham on the field. “We are having to adjust on how teams are playing us because of him and some of our other pieces, but we are figuring it out.”

There’s been confidence every week because this team, rightfully so, believes it can be very good. For this particular week, it’s been about the belief that this team can be so much better than it’s shown through three weeks and the understanding that it’s very close to executing at a much higher level. No one expressed that better than Landry did Thursday.

“We talked after the game, and I told (Freddie Kitchens) we were going to be a great team,” Landry said. “I didn’t really give him an explanation, but I kind of just said that. It’s about adversity and coach Freddie says it all the time, running together and not away from each other. I think this team has that.”

The Browns are encouraged by the progress of Chris Hubbard, who returned to practice Thursday and is likely a game-time decision Sunday. He’ll be the starter if he can play. That said, the team has been impressed with Justin McCray, who is naturally a guard. McCray caught on fast because of his knowledge of offensive line coach James Campen’s system, and that’s allowed him to fill in nicely while the Browns are in a major pinch with two injured tackles.

“For a guy that came in here a few weeks ago, he has played well – as well as could be expected that has not been with us, running the system and battling,” Monken said. “At times, he is going to get beat like all of our players. He is no different than any of our players or any of our players that are going to get covered. You are going to have times losing one-on-one battles. We have been pleased with him.”

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