Everything that could have gone wrong against the Arizona Cardinals did, so the 3-3 Browns must quickly turn the page and their attention to the visiting Denver Broncos for Thursday Night Football.
The Browns will not be at full strength on offense in this game, as Case Keenum will get the start at quarterback against his former team due to Baker Mayfield's shoulder injury. D'Ernest Johnson will get the start at running back as well with both Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt out for the game. The list ultimately might be even longer than that, but the Browns must find a way to win this game, and the next man needs to step up.
The Broncos are battered themselves and come to Cleveland in the midst of a three-game losing streak that includes losses to both the Baltimore Ravens (23-7) and Pittsburgh Steelers (27-19). The Browns will need a suffocating defensive performance against a struggling, but dangerous Denver offense led by QB Teddy Bridgewater, RBs Melvin Gordon III and Javonte Williams and pass-catchers Courtland Sutton and Noah Fant. Denver is a top-five defense, so the Browns' makeshift offense will have its work cut out for it in primetime, but a clear path to victory exists, so let's take a look at this week's Winning Mix.
1. Protect Case Keenum
The Broncos boast the fourth-ranked defense in the NFL both in terms of scoring (18.3 points per game) and total yardage allowed (314.7 yards per game). They are also ninth in sacks with 14 on the season, led by former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Von Miller, who has 4.5 sacks on the season. Given the uncertainty at the Browns tackle situation (both Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills didn't practice Tuesday), protecting Keenum and getting the ball out quickly will be essential.
In Keenum's best season, which was 2017 with Kevin Stefanski and the Minnesota Vikings, Keenum was very efficient when kept clean. While operating free of pressure that year, Keenum completed 74 percent of his passes, averaged 8.1 yards per attempt and threw 18 touchdowns vs. only six interceptions for a quarterback rating of 107. Keenum was also very effective in the quick game that year, completing 74.5 percent of his passes for 1,719 yards (7.3 yards per attempt) with 14 touchdowns, five interceptions, only three sacks and a quarterback rating of 105.6 (third in the NFL that year behind only Drew Brees and Russell Wilson).
Keeping Keenum clean and utilizing the quick passing game will be key to slowing down Miller and Co. for the aggressive Denver defense. If there is one bright spot, it's that the center of the Browns offensive line is fully intact with LG Joel Bitonio, C JC Tretter and RG Wyatt Teller. That trio should be able to hold the middle of the line and give Keenum the ability to step up in the pocket and deliver the ball in between the numbers, where he thrives. In that 2017 season, Keenum was elite between the numbers, throwing 12 touchdowns with only one interception and posting a quarterback rating of 104-plus at every level (112.2 behind the line of scrimmage, 104.5 0-9 yards, 114.9 10-19 yards, and 126 20+ yard). Creating the right environment for Keenum and keeping the Denver pressure at bay will be critical to offensive success.
Check out exclusive photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Denver Broncos
2. Raw Power Defensive Performance
While the Browns offense is without many critical pieces, the Browns defense is relatively healthy. Other than LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, the Browns have all of their starters on defense and the top rotational players available for this game. This is the game that all of the big free-agent acquisitions, the first-round draft picks, the stars of the Cleveland Browns defense need to turn in another dominating performance and help carry the offense to victory.
The Browns defense turned in the best performance in the 75-year history of this franchise when it held the Chicago Bears to just 47 net yards of offense in a 26-6 win back in Week 3. They shut down an elite Minnesota Vikings offense in Week 4, limiting them to just seven points and securing a tough road win 14-7. In fact, in the Browns' three wins this year, the defense has allowed an average of just 11.3 points and 201.3 total yards per game. In those games, they have recorded a grand total of four takeaways and recorded 12 sacks in playing dominant, winning football.
In the Browns' three losses this season, the numbers have been significantly different. In defeat, the Browns defense has surrendered an average of 39 points and 414 yards of total offense per game. They also generated just one turnover and garnered six sacks. To be fair, those three games were against truly elite offenses, something the Broncos have not shown this season.
The Broncos enter Week 7 with the 22nd-ranked scoring offense (21 points per game), but are 13th in total yards and passing yards and 14th in rushing. Denver has already allowed 19 sacks on the season, third-most in the NFL, and the Browns' highly touted defensive line will need to wreak havoc up front. After all, 12 of the Broncos 19 sacks allowed this year have come in their three losses, while they surrendered only seven in their three wins. It should also be noted that Denver turned the ball over six times in its three losses, so the Browns need to find a way to force a turnover or two on defense.
The Browns have many stars on defense, from Myles Garrett to Jadeveon Clowney, Denzel Ward, John Johnson III, Malik Jackson, Anthony Walker Jr., Greg Newsome II and many more. It is time for them to shine bright on the national stage under the lights and propel the Browns to a crucial win.
3. Money on Money Downs
Third and fourth downs once again victimized the Browns in their loss to the Arizona Cardinals. The Browns offense converted just 3-of-10 third downs and 1-of-4 fourth downs, including two failed conversions in Arizona's red zone. The Browns defense allowed Arizona to convert on 8-of-15 third down chances and their only fourth down attempt. The Browns allowed touchdowns to the Cardinals on third-and-19 from the 21-yard line and third-and-goal from the 13-yard line in the early stages of that game, which really set the tone for the loss.
The Browns must find a way to execute and come through on the money downs Thursday. Denver has the worst third down offense in the NFL with just a 29.9 percent success rate. They have, however, converted 9-of-12 fourth down plays, which is the most in the NFL this season, so the work is not done with a successful third down stop. In the Browns' three wins, they have held their opponents to 14-of-41 (34 percent) on third down and 1-of-4 (25 percent) on fourth down. In the three losses, they allowed conversion on 27-of-42 (59.5 percent) third downs and 4-of-4 on fourth down. This is a stat that clearly correlates to the outcome of games for the Browns and one that takes on even more importance this week with the defense needing to dominate.
Quickly on the offensive side, 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 three losses, the Browns were held to just 9-of-29 on third downs, which is a lowly 31 percent. To make matters worse, the Browns have failed on five of their last seven fourth-down conversions as well in the two losses to the Chargers and Cardinals. Extending drives leads to more points, more touchdown opportunities in the red zone and will hopefully lead the Browns to a big win.