The Browns are coming off a critical win during Week 17 when they beat the Jets and clinched a playoff berth for the first time since 2020. In Week 18, they will face the Bengals for the regular-season finale before they play in a Wild Card playoff game.
As we head into the final game of the regular season, we opened up the mailbag and answered your questions.
Will the running game improve going into the playoffs? – John Dages, Baltimore, MD
The opportunity is there for the Browns run game to improve heading into the playoffs, just like we saw against the Jets in Week 17. The run game played a critical role in the success of their offense as the Browns found a balance in the run and pass game.
On Dec. 28 against the Jets, the Browns rushed for 127 net yards. They also scored one rushing touchdown on a 7-yard carry from RB Kareem Hunt in the fourth quarter.
This season, the Browns run game has gone through its ups and downs, not always finding a high level of success in games. For four consecutive weeks starting in Week 13, the Browns failed to reach 100 net rushing yards. Against the Bears in Week 15, they rushed for only 29 net yards, which was their lowest of the season.
As the Browns are set to face the Bengals for the final game of the regular season, they have another opportunity to continue improving the run game. When Cleveland first faced Cincinnati in Week 1, the Browns rushed for 206 total yards and one rushing touchdown. As the season has played out, the Bengals' run defense is 26th in the league with 2,041 total rushing yards allowed this season and allow 4.7 yards per carry. They have given up 17 rushing touchdowns this season and 122 rushing first downs.
Finding ways to establish the run game and create a balance with the pass game could be beneficial for the Browns offense in helping to create opportunities in the pass game, and vice versa.
Intuition is that the Browns do have some impact rookies. Some are showing ability such as Ronnie Hickman while others may make a mark when the opportunity arises such as Austin Watkins and Mohamoud Diabate? Other veterans such as Za'Darius Smith, Greg Newsome, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Sione Takitaki are prime young developing stars who could follow in the path of David Njoku. What are your thoughts on the biggest surprise of all Joe Flacco? – Rob McCoy, Fairmount, WV
I think there are a couple of things. First, how smooth of a transition it has been for Flacco to a new team in the middle of the season. His 16 years of NFL experience surely helped with that transition, but he has acclimated to the Browns from the jump and continues to lead them to success since he first started in Week 13.
Then, on top of that, is the immediate connection he created with the receiving corps. From his first game, Flacco found ways to connect on deep passes with guys like Amari Cooper, Elijah Moore, Cedric Tillman and others in the receiving corps.
OC Alex Van Pelt said on Thursday that he was also surprised at how quickly Flacco built a connection with their pass catchers.
"I mean, there's some routes down the field that are like handoffs, and that's just a guy that's like I said before, he's accurate at all three levels of the field," Van Pelt said. "But that to me, has been the most impressive. To come in and just be on the same page right away with the guys, it just shows what a vet is."
His arm strength has been on display since he joined the Browns, as he's thrown for over 300 yards in four of his five games and has a total of 1,616 passing yards in five games with the Browns. Flacco has also thrown 13 passing touchdowns in five games. He's helped rejuvenate the passing game this season as he's connected with multiple pass catchers each game, spreading out opposing defenses and creating opportunities for different players to catch the ball.
How is the team always so happy, even in the tough moments? – Owen M.
It's a great question, especially as the Browns have had a multitude of tough moments with injuries over the course of the season. From our perspective and what the players share, it goes back to the camaraderie they have built as a team – which started back at the Greenbrier in preseason.
As they have embodied the next man up mentality and rely on the resilience of the group, it allows them to support one another and stay positive. That translates to their success on the field as well and has played a key role in their 11-5 record heading into Week 18.
LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah reflected this week on how they as a group have been able to overcome all the injuries this season, and still hold that belief in who they are as a team.
"I think for us, it was just like, hey, we've set in place a platform, we set in place a culture, a standard to which anyone who is inside of this framework has to keep that 1-0 as we talk about all the time," Owusu-Koramoah said. "I think for us it's like, are you keeping a standard? Are you doing little things that will allow us to continue to propel ourselves forward?"
There is something to be said for the way that they all lift one another up and rely on each other, even as they have dealt with countless injuries to starters and key players on a weekly basis throughout the season. And yet, that has not wavered their belief in who they are as a team, and I think we see that on the field with the defensive celebrations or how offensive players pick one another up after plays.