The Browns Mailbag is back after a brief, unexpected hiatus.
The topsy turvy nature of the past couple of weeks has made it a challenge to deliver, but that's the last you'll hear of our excuses. The Mail always perseveres, and so will we.
We're delivering today, and we're tackling three of your questions to carry us into 2022.
How can Baker Mayfield bounce back against the Steelers? It seems that he plays well when the running game is churning? — Rob M., Fairmont, West Virginia
Following the Browns' Christmas Day loss in Green Bay, Mayfield was adamant he would bounce back over the final two games, starting Monday in Pittsburgh. The performance wasn't up to Mayfield's standards, and he shouldered the blame for the 24-22 loss. Coach Kevin Stefanski has also been confident in Mayfield's ability to bounce back and move past the four interceptions he threw in Green Bay.
"Baker told you the other night, he did not play up to his standard, and we expect him to play at a high level," Stefanski said. "I think confidence-wise with the quarterback position, you get too much credit, and you get too much blame. That is just how it is. He will bounce back, and I think he will be better for it."
As for Mayfield's performance and how it correlates with the running game, let's take a look at his three best starts from 2021.
In Week 1, Mayfield threw for a season-high 321 yards and was only intercepted on the Browns' final play of the game. On that day, the Browns finished with 153 rushing yards, averaging nearly 6 yards per touch, and scored all four of their touchdowns on the ground.
In Week 5, he was 23-of-32 for 305 yards and two touchdowns against the Chargers. The Browns scored a season-high 42 points and also rushed for a season-best 230 yards.
In Week 9, Mayfield was 14-of-21 for 218 yards and two touchdowns in a dominant victory over the Bengals. Nick Chubb led the way with the majority of Cleveland's 153 rushing yards.
So, yes, just like almost every quarterback in the NFL, Mayfield has played some of his best football when the ground game is also humming at a high level. The Browns offense, in general, is at its best when both facets are clicking on all cylinders and the defense is put on its heels.
Getting both rolling Monday would be the fastest path toward a bounce-back performance and could help extend Cleveland's playoff hopes one more week.
Check out exclusive photos from the practice fields at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus of the Browns preparing for their Week 17 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers
The Browns have dealt with various waves of players missing time due to injuries and/or COVID-19 protocols throughout the season, but should fans feel a sense of optimism as we return many of our key starters heading into our final two must-win games against divisional opponents? — Nick D., Glendale, Arizona
I think so. The Browns, though, have to take care of business Monday in Pittsburgh — and get some help from the Chiefs against the Bengals on Sunday — to extend their playoff hopes to the final week of the regular season. That's why all of the team's focus is locked onto this one, singular game. Without it, the season ends after Week 18 no matter what.
"We are playing Monday night so we will have an idea of what kind of happens this weekend, but the most important thing is for us to get a win against Pittsburgh," G Joel Bitonio said. "They are right there in it. The whole division is kind of right there. I think that is the most important thing – obviously, we need help, and we appreciate the help – is we have to handle our business, and that is really the main thing."
Monday's slew of activations should also be encouraging. The Browns got back eight players, including six who can be considered starters. Two of them — CB Troy Hill and RB Kareem Hunt — are also dealing with injuries, but they're in a better spot to play Monday than they were for the previous two games. The Browns have more than held their own without a number of starters on both sides of the ball, but it's always a good thing to get some of your best players back on the field.
"Hopefully, we went through our COVID outbreak a little earlier, and now, we can kind of bring everybody back and everybody gets healthy and gets a few days off, their bodies are rejuvenated and get ready for this home stretch," Bitonio said.
Nick Harris, D'Ernest Johnson, Harrison Bryant and Anthony Schwartz are among the young players that could contribute in the next two games. The defense has done well with Owusu-Koramoah, M.J. Stewart, and Odenigbo. Your thoughts as the team adapts to the COVID adversity? — Rob M., Fairmont, West Virginia
The players you mentioned have all stepped up in a big way over the past two games. The Browns expected these kinds of performances from their "next men up," and they've gotten great snaps from players who previously hadn't seen the field much this year.
Let's talk about a couple of them, starting with Schwartz.
Schwartz benefited from the delay of Cleveland's Week 15 game against the Raiders and got back on the field after missing the previous four games with a concussion. His biggest impact, though, was felt this past Saturday in Green Bay, when he touched the ball three times and saw good things happen with each one. Schwartz took two end-arounds for 11 and 13 yards, respectively, to pick up key first downs. Then, with 4:31 to play, Schwartz found and opening in the back of the end zone and hauled in his first NFL touchdown, a 5-yarder, to get the Browns within striking distance of a potential comeback.
This was the kind of production Cleveland was looking to get from Schwartz when it selected him in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft. He's overcome the adversity of a concussion and is now poised to make more plays like these in Cleveland's final two games.
"For sure with Anthony, coming off of the concussion protocol, getting into these games and getting him some touches, I think his role will grow as he is just playing more football," Stefanski said. "He was not playing there for a little bit."
Then there's Stewart, who has been an absolute rock star for the Browns while they've dealt with injuries at safety and in the slot. Stewart has played almost every snap over the past two weeks while lining up as both a safety and nickel cornerback. He's led the Browns in tackles in both games, and a number of them have come with a high degree of difficulty in the open field.
Stewart came to Cleveland as a cornerback but has primarily focused on safety in his second full season with the team. He's bided his time for moments like this and has delivered in a big way.
"The only thing that came to my mind was 'it is my time now.' That is literally the only thing, and just take advantage of this opportunity. With football, you never know how many opportunities you are going to get. You do not know when your next one is coming so any opportunity you get, you have to take full advantage of it. That is all I told myself."