The Browns return to action Monday night for another meeting with the New York Jets and a chance to bring their record to even at 1-1 after two games.
It won’t be easy, thanks to the offseason additions made by the Jets. The most important, at least in this space? Running back Le’Veon Bell, who has an opportunity to make the Browns dislike him in two different uniforms in his career.
The former Pittsburgh Steeler made his regular season debut with New York on Sunday in a 17-16 loss to the Buffalo Bills, logging 17 rushing attempts for 60 yards. He was kept out of the end zone on the ground, but not through the air, where he’s demonstrated his ability to shred defenses in the past. He caught six passes (nine targets) for 32 yards and a score in the loss to Buffalo.
Ninety-two total yards seems less than remarkable, leaving one to wonder why they’re hearing about this guy. Perhaps the same person didn’t watch football prior to 2018.
Allow us to refresh your memory:
Bell’s importance only increased when Jets head coach Adam Gase informed reporters Thursday that second-year quarterback Sam Darnold would miss Monday’s game due to mononucleosis. Enter Trevor Siemian, who will need to lean on Bell in both the run and pass games while also facing a Browns defense that will likely pin its ears back in pursuit of Siemian.
Oh, and there was the concern about Bell’s health. He sat out of Thursday’s practice with shoulder soreness and underwent an MRI — setting off the alarm bells — to better understand the state of his issue. The good news for New York: the MRI was negative.
So, Darnold is out, but Bell is good to go alongside new addition Demaryius Thomas, who arrived via trade this week. They’ll work with Siemian, Robby Anderson and Jamison Crowder, boasting threats at all levels of the field.
But for the Browns, the defensive battle begins with Bell.
In Week 1, the Browns were stout against the run early, even against multiple tight end sets. Much of that had to do with the play of Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi, who plugged running lanes well early and consistently pressured the quarterback by pushing the opposing offensive line backward. It didn’t result in sacks, but it did ramp up their desire to get home, which unfortunately left them to be victimized by a screen later.
“I thought we did a really good job of stopping the run early,” Browns defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said of Cleveland’s Week 1 loss to Tennessee. “If you look at how we played the run in the first half, I thought it was great. Guys came off the ball. Violent hands. Linebackers played downhill. As we mentioned early in the year, teams are going to do certain things to try to combat our pass rush with the kind of guys that we have up front.
“I thought they did a good job of trying to neutralize a little bit with play action, the boot game and those kind of things trying to get us going sideways. Starting with me, we have to come up with different ways to be creative in how we are going to attack certain teams. I think we are all right in that situation now moving forward in some of the things that we going to try to do.”
The need to stop the run also left the Browns vulnerable to the play-action pass, which Tennessee rode heavily from start to finish, thanks in part to the mobility of quarterback Marcus Mariota. This matters for Week 2 not because Siemian is incredibly fleet of foot, but because the Jets will again attempt to build out from the run, especially because of Darnold’s absence. That’s the easiest way to make things more comfortable for Siemian and to keep the Browns’ pass rush honest.
That presents an issue for Cleveland, though, because Bell is just as dangerous as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. Remember the screen pass to Derrick Henry that went for a 75-yard touchdown? Bell is a much better version of Henry and has the potential to rip off such a gain on more than just a screen pass.
The key for the Browns in Week 2, then, is to play within themselves defensively. Don’t allow the emotion and desire to record tackles for loss to influence decision making. Maintain contain and keep everything in front of you. Bell’s patient running style will allow for running lanes to open, especially if defenders don’t play their gaps responsibility. Run fits are important this week more than perhaps any other. Bottling up Bell is paramount to success.
And, as always, swarm to the football.
“A guy that talented, you just have to do a great job of really corralling the ball, getting 11 hats to the football,” Wilks said when asked about Bell. “These guys do a great job with yardage after catch. He does a great job of yardage after contact. Point of emphasis has been that we have to do a great job corralling, tackling the ball carrier and making sure that we just do not assume that he is down.”
If they can do so, the pressure shifts to the shoulders of Siemian.
Check out photos from today's practice by team photographer Matt Starkey