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Browns Mailbag: Where can the Browns make the biggest strides in the 2nd half of the season?

Senior Writer Andrew Gribble answers your questions every week

There's no real midpoint on a 17-game schedule, but we're gonna go ahead and act as if we're currently experiencing it.

We've got two questions — one with four answers — to tackle as the Browns push forward into November.

Zero snaps for Johnny Stanton against Pittsburgh. Why does Stefanski refuse to acknowledge the value of a lead blocker? — Brett P., Boston

Both Kevin Stefanski and I would strongly disagree with that statement about how the coach values a lead blocker. Stefanski loves the fullback position — he's gone on record saying that multiple times — and the Browns have had one on the active roster for every week he's been the head coach. The same can't be said for a lot of teams around the league during that stretch.

As for Stanton on Sunday, it should be acknowledged he was a late addition to Friday's injury report with a calf injury. He was active for the game but did not see any snaps, and that included special teams. The previous week against Denver, Stanton got 11 snaps on offense and 11 on special teams.

How can the Browns improve going into the second half of the season and beat the Bengals? — Rob M., Charleston, West Virginia

This is a good question, and it's one the Browns are digging deep into as they prepare for Sunday's game against the Bengals and the rest of the remaining schedule. The Browns, unfortunately, don't have a bye week placed smack dab in the middle of the season like they did last year, so they'll need to turn things around over the next four weeks before they can do the extensive work that gets done with an extra week of rest.

We've identified four areas where the Browns can be better. Fixing some, if not all, likely would have a major impact on turning the Browns' .500 record into a winning one.

1) Force more turnovers

The Browns' offense is doing its part in the turnover equation through eight games. The Browns have committed just eight turnovers and have had four games with zero. Through eight games last year, the Browns committed 10 turnovers and had just two turnover-free games. Forcing turnovers, though, has been a much different story. Cleveland ranks 30th in the NFL with just five forced turnovers and has gone without a turnover in four games. In 2020, the Browns had forced 14 turnovers by this point of the season and had just two turnover-free games.

"We just have to stay the course," CB Greg Newsome II said. "Every single day at practice, it is stressed, emphasizing just trying to get the ball out. It is eventually going to come. You just have to stay the course."

2) Execute better on third and fourth downs

The Browns are middle of the pack in third-down conversions, ranking 15th in the league with a 40 percent success rate. On the surface, that's not bad at all with room to grow toward last year's mark of 45 percent. The problem has been the team's consistency on third down, particularly when it comes through the air. In their four losses, the Browns converted just 12-of-39 third downs (30 percent). When the Browns attempt to convert a third down through the air, they are 21-of-64 (32 percent). Granted, many of those downs have a higher degree of difficulty, but this is also reflective of the precarious situations the offense has found itself. The Browns' 13 plays from a distance of 11-15 yards on third down is the third-highest in the league.

On fourth downs, the Browns are 6-of-16. Considering the risk/reward nature of fourth down decisions, that's far too few for the Browns' liking. They're 3-of-4 when rushing on fourth down (all of those plays have been from fourth-and-1 or shorter) and 3-of-12 when passing on fourth down (9-of-12 of those attempts have been from 5 yards or shorter).

3) Execute better on third and fourth downs 

Yes, this headline is exactly the same as the previous one. But the focus here shifts to the defense, where the Browns rank 25th on third-down success rate and 26th on fourth downs. Three times this season, the Browns have allowed their opponent to convert better than 50 percent of third downs — two losses, one win (Week 2 vs. Houston). In the Browns' four wins, the opponent has converted just 36 percent of third downs — a big decrease from its average of 43 percent on the season.

4) Cut down the penalties

The Browns are averaging roughly eight penalties per game and have lost more yardage to penalties than their opponent in five of eight of their games. Last year, the Browns averaged a little less than seven penalties per game.

"You have to play clean on all sides of the ball – offense, defense and special teams," Stefanski said Sunday. "I do not think we played clean enough. We had some costly ones. Those are little things, and all those little things add up to the big thing. We have to get better in that area."

OBJ was targeted once in 31 attempts against Pittsburgh. Has he lost his ability to get open? — Bill F., Dublin

Stefanski tackled this question directly Monday, one day after Beckham caught one pass for 6 yards in the Browns' loss to the Steelers. Despite multiple injuries, including a painful shoulder injury he's currently playing through, Beckham remains a dynamic player who affects how defenses guard and scheme against the Browns offense, Stefanski said.

"He gets a lot of attention from the defense," Stefanski said. "There were a bunch of plays where the safety is cheating to him, and that opens up opportunities for other guys. I think of an early third down that we had where the post safety stayed to the boundary side because he was cheating towards Odell, and we hit a big play to Jarvis (Landry). His effect on our offense is there, but I do need to do a better job of making sure that the ball makes its way into his hands.

"I just think he can affect the game. That is where I am really making sure that myself and coaches, we have to put him in position to make some plays."

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