The Browns will have to bounce back in a hurry from the tough-to-swallow, 47-42 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 5 because the only unbeaten team in the NFL, the Arizona Cardinals, are coming to FirstEnergy Stadium this week.
Under Kevin Stefanski, the Browns have never lost consecutive games but face, perhaps, their stiffest challenge yet against a surging Arizona team that has no problem playing on the road. The Cardinals are 3-0 away from home this year and have won their road games, including a domination of the then-unbeaten Los Angeles Rams, by an average of 18 points per game. The Cardinals are led by Kyler Murray, who is only the third quarterback in NFL history (Peyton Manning and Drew Brees are the others) to throw for more than 1,500 yards while completing 75 percent of their passes in the first five games of the season. Arizona is averaging 31.4 points per game, fourth-most in the NFL, and is allowing just 19 per game, sixth-fewest.
The Browns will need to turn in a complete game in all three phases to get a big win, and we will look at just how to do that in this week's Winning Mix.
*1. Limit the big plays in the Arizona pass game *
Last week, the Browns were victimized by some busts in coverage that led to massive plays in the vertical passing game. Against the Chargers, the Browns allowed three completions on passes of more than 20 yards in the air, and those three completions netted 151 yards and two Charger touchdowns. The Browns will most certainly be tested vertically by Murray and the Cardinals in this game and must hold up on the back end to limit these chunk plays.
Murray currently leads the NFL in just about every conceivable category in the vertical passing game. Murray is tops in the NFL in terms of completions (16), completion percentage (69.6 percent), yards (510), yards per attempt (22.2), touchdowns (four) and first downs (16). The Cards have such a talented wide receiver group as well, with four different receivers already over 260 yards this season. They will play with four receivers more than any other team in the league (22.1 percent) and attempt to stress the opposing defense vertically. For the Browns' banged-up secondary, communication and coverage will be key. When facing a team that leads the league in four-WR sets, the Browns would like to be able to match with a dime package that includes four cornerbacks, but we won't be sure if that is possible. The Browns likely will continue to play a lot of quarters coverage to try to combat these big plays, so again, communication as the receivers are passing through the zones is absolutely critical. If there is one silver lining, Murray also leads the NFL with three interceptions on vertical throws, so good communication and coverage should provide the Browns with at least one chance to get a game-changing takeaway. Even without snagging an interception, keeping the Cardinals receivers in front of the defense and not allowing those back-breaking big plays will be a major key to victory.
Check out exclusive photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Arizona Cardinals
2. Clean sheet on offense
On Sunday, the Browns suffered their first loss under Stefanski in a game in which they did not commit a single turnover. They still sit at 8-1 in such "clean sheet" games, so it remains an incredibly strong predictor of a Browns win. It will be very important this week against a ball-hawking Cardinals team that has been the best at capitalizing on turnovers during their five-game unbeaten streak to start the season. Arizona has produced 42 points off of turnovers (8.4 per game), the second-most in the NFL, trailing only the Bills in that category. The Cardinals have generated a takeaway in three straight games and in four of five overall this year. In the four games in which they have forced a turnover, the Cardinals have won by an average of 15.25 points per game. In their lone game without forcing a turnover, they narrowly beat the Minnesota Vikings, 34-33, thanks in large part to a missed chip shot field goal at the end of the game.
The Browns have not committed a single turnover in three straight games and will look to extend that streak against Arizona. The Cardinals have recorded an interception in three straight games and have forced nine fumbles on the season, so you know Stefanski will be preaching ball security all week at the CrossCountry Mortgage Campus. One fun fact to note, the Cardinals, themselves, have fumbled eight times, but have only lost one. That luck is bound to run out, and why not this week?
*3. Extend drives on 3rd and 4th downs *
We have focused a lot in this space on the defense stopping teams on third (and fourth down), and yes, that is definitely a critical component to a winning defensive performance against Arizona on Sunday. However, I want to hone in on our ability to extend our drives and execute offensively on the money downs. In their 17-10 win over the 49ers, the Cardinals held them to just three-of-11 (27 percent) on third down and just one-of-five on fourth down, including a goal line stand. A few more conversions could have tipped that game in favor of San Francisco, especially in the critical moment near the end zone. The Cardinals have held their opponents to fewer than 30 percent third down conversions in three of their five wins so far this season, so they know how to get off the field.
In the Browns' three wins this year, they have converted 19-of-44 third down chances, which is a solid 43 percent rate. In their two losses, the Browns were held to just six-of-19 on third downs, which is a lowly 31.5 percent. Extending drives leads to more points, more touchdown opportunities in the red zone, and it also helps the Browns maintain their dominance in time of possession, which has the benefit of keeping Murray and Co. on the sideline.