After an inspiring 49-38 win over the Dallas Cowboys in Week 4, the Browns sit at 3-1 for the first time in nearly 20 years. While it was easy to see a shootout was going to be brewing in Big D, this week presents an entirely different challenge, as the 3-1 Indianapolis Colts come to town led by the league's top-ranked defense. The Browns will have to adapt from track meet to slugfest against the Colts and will have to do so without star running back Nick Chubb, who was placed on IR earlier this week with an MCL injury.
Coach Kevin Stefanski has shown tremendous preparation and adaptability from week to week to attack the weakness and mitigate the strengths of each opponent. He will need to do so again this week against the Colts, who have not allowed more than 11 points during their three game winning streak. A strong ground game, an efficient passing game and a ball-seeking defense have fueled the Browns three-game win streak.
Let's look at how to keep that win streak alive in this week's Winning Mix.
1. Another clean sheet for Baker Mayfield
Since Week 1, Baker Mayfield has completed 67.1 percent of his passes, thrown six touchdowns with one interception and has a quarterback rating of 108.4. His quarterback rating has been 100 or better in every game during the Browns three-game winning streak, and he has not thrown an interception in either of his last two starts. Extending that interception-free streak will be a tall task but a critical one against the Colts.
Indianapolis currently leads the NFL with seven interceptions, making its No.1 ranked pass defense all the more formidable. Avoiding turnovers has been key to the Browns winning streak. On Sunday, minimizing costly mistakes against the ball-hawking Colts will be Priority No. 1 for Mayfield. After all, the Browns are 8-2 when Mayfield does not throw an interception, so a clean sheet for QB1 is clearly a winning formula.
2. Force Philip Rivers to beat you "outside of the numbers"
If you had TE Mo Alie-Cox pegged to be the Colts leading receiver after four games, you were among the few. Alie-Cox leads the Colts with 194 yards and two touchdowns on 11 catches, while averaging a whopping 17.6 yards per catch. He also leads all tight ends with three catches of 25 yards and has really dominated the middle of the field. When thrown to over the middle, Alie-Cox has caught six of his seven targets for 99 yards and one touchdown. Keeping tabs on Allie-Cox has be to a main focus for the Browns on defense. Thus far, tight ends have scored four times in four games against the Browns and are averaging seven catches and 69 yards per game.
The Colts do not have a single wide receiver averaging more than 50 yards per game or 13 yards per catch this year. Rivers is doing his best work in the middle of the field, and that is hurting the productivity of his outside receivers, especially T.Y. Hilton. When targeting Hilton outside of the numbers and to the right, Rivers has completed just 4-of-10 attempts for 41 yards and one interception.
Rivers, who is still completing 73 percent of his passes overall in 2020, is dangerous in his comfort zone but struggles to make some of the longer throws that require him to really drive the ball. For example, on passes of 10-19 yards in the air, Rivers is 13-of-18 for 233 yards with a quarterback rating of 114.4 when working the middle of the field. On throws of 10-19 yards in the air outside of the numbers, he is 9-of-17 for 152 yards, one interception and a quarterback rating of 44. Defensive coordinator Joe Woods must try to lock down the middle of the field and force Rivers to drive the ball to the outside against the Browns' talented cornerback duo of Denzel Ward and Terrance Mitchell.
The Browns' 53 man roster as of December 18, 2020.
3. Third down efficiency on both sides of the ball
Third down is the money down in the NFL, and in what figures to be a lower-scoring game than recent Browns contests, they will take on even greater importance. In the Browns' Week 1 loss to the Ravens, they converted on just 3-of-12 third downs (25 percent). During the three-game winning streak, the Browns have converted on 15-of-33 third downs (45.5 percent). To put that in context, the top third down team in the NFL is currently the Kansas City Chiefs at 53.9 percent, and 45.5 percent would rank 11th overall through four weeks. The Browns will be challenged by this Colts defense, which ranks No. 1 in the NFL by allowing just 31.1 percent of their opponent's third downs to be converted. Now, the best thing the Browns could do is avoid third downs altogether, which they have been excellent at this year, but when they do come up, the Browns must convert to extend drives and put points on the board.
When the Colts have the ball, it is imperative the Browns are stout on the early downs and force them into as many third down situations as possible. So far, the Colts rank 30th in the NFL, generating first downs in just 34.6 percent of their third-down opportunities. Unfortunately, third down has been the Achilles' Heel for the Browns defense this year, as they are surrendering first downs 49 percent of the time, the seventh-worst mark in the NFL. It will take all 11 men on the Browns defense to tighten up on these critical downs to make the stand and get the ball back for the offense. The team that comes out on top of third down situations Sunday will have a definite advantage when it comes to the final score.