The 2020 season did not start the way the Browns wanted, but the good news is Week 2 comes quick, and the Browns have a great chance to even their record against the Cincinnati Bengals on Thursday Night Football. The Bengals also lost their season opener, albeit in much more dramatic fashion, as a missed field goal sealed their fate against the visiting Los Angeles Chargers.
This game will be played on the 100th anniversary of the formation of the NFL, which took place September 17, 1920, just down the road in Canton. Ohio is the birthplace of the NFL, and it is only fitting the Battle of Ohio will take center stage on such an important night in NFL history.
Also on full display will be incredible talent at the quarterback position, as it will feature 2018 No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield against 2020 No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow. Both quarterbacks are in search of their first wins this season, and this game definitely seems to have heightened importance for a Browns team with playoff aspirations. It is critical the Browns take care of business in their home opener.
Here are three ways to do just that in this week's Winning Mix.
1. Avoid self-inflicted wounds
In the season-opening loss to the Ravens, the Browns made critical mistakes early that allowed the defending AFC North Champions to take the lead immediately and ultimately pull away by halftime. The opening drive ended with an interception, and the second drive ended on a failed fake punt, both of which directly led to 10 Ravens points and an early double-digit deficit.
After closing the gap with a touchdown, the Browns missed an extra point leaving the score at 10-6. On the next Baltimore drive, Larry Ogunjobi forced a fumble, which was recovered by Myles Garrett. After moving the ball down the field, the Browns were driving to take the lead and faced first-and-10 at the Baltimore 29. After consecutive penalties, it quickly became first-and-29. A sack and another penalty followed, and the Browns now found themselves in third-and-41 from their own 40-yard line, well out of field goal range. They ended the drive by punting the ball instead of scoring points.
On the very next possession, the Browns had driven deep into Baltimore territory and were facing third-and-2 at the Ravens 23-yard line. A dropped pass on third down effectively ended the drive, the Browns missed the subsequent field goal attempt on the very next play and the chance to make it a one-possession game evaporated.
You can't win in the NFL when you put yourself in a hole early and self-sabotage any chances to seize momentum and get back into the game, especially against the Ravens, who are among the league's most talented teams. In a game against a young Bengals team, it is even more critical to play clean and take care of business so you don't hand any momentum or easy points to the opponent.
The Browns' offseason roster on April 1, 2021
2. Contain Joe Mixon
One reason the Chargers defense had so much success against the Bengals in Week 1 was their containment of the dynamic Joe Mixon. Mixon was held to just 69 yards rushing on 19 carries and added only one catch for 2 yards on two targets.
Mixon finished the 2019 season in spectacular fashion and was the NFL's second leading rusher over the final eight games of the season, totaling 817 yards. He also topped 100 yards rushing in three of the final four games of the year for the Bengals, as he established himself as one of the premier featured backs in the NFL. Two of those games came against the Browns, and he totaled 308 yards rushing, three touchdowns and 54 yards receiving in those contests. In the Bengals Week 17 win over the Browns, Mixon was a one-man wrecking crew, running 26 times for 162 yards, two scores and amassing 176 total yards.
If there was a lone bright spot from the Browns defensive performance in Week 1, it was they did a good job containing the Ravens rushing attack. Running backs Mark Ingram, J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards combined to rush for 68 yards on 21 carries, which is just 3.2 yards per attempt. They also held that trio without a single reception in the game.
In the Matchup to Watch article this Week, I detailed how rookie QB Joe Burrow struggled under pressure in his NFL debut. Limiting Mixon, especially on early downs, and forcing Burrow to operate in third-and-long obvious passing situations has to be the primary task of the Browns defense on Thursday night.
3. Get Austin Hooper involved early and often
Hooper was the star of the Browns training camp and appeared to be one of the most consistent and reliable weapons for Mayfield. In Week 1 against the Ravens, however, Hooper was the target on only two of Mayfield's 39 pass attempts, and he caught both of them for just 15 yards.
That was Hooper's lowest receiving output in a game since the 2018 season, and his involvement in the offense should conceivably increase Thursday. In the Chargers' Week 1 win against the Bengals, tight end Hunter Henry was the team's leading receiver, hauling in five of his eight targets for 73 yards.
Henry did most of his damage against the Bengals strong safety Vonn Bell, who is better known for his physicality in the run game than his coverage, and the team's young linebacking corps, led by second year player Germaine Pratt along with rookies Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither. Sixty-two of Henry's 73 yards came against Bell and the linebackers, while converting every target into a reception working the middle of the Cincinnati defense.
The Browns will pound the ball with running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt — who totaled 132 yards rushing on 23 carries in the opener — against a Bengals defense that will be without defensive tackles Geno Atkins and Mike Daniels. When they pass it, look for the Browns to attack the middle of the field with Hooper, who, along with Harrison Bryant, should have an increased role in the offense on Thursday.