One week after turning in arguably the most complete performance of the season, the Browns suffered their worst defeat of the year, 45-7, at the hands of the New England Patriots.
The Browns have not been able to maintain a consistently high standard of play of late, and the result is a team that is 2-2 in its last four games and 5-5 on the season. The Browns need to figure out how to stack wins together in a hurry as the season is now basically a seven-game playoff with four remaining games in the AFC North and five remaining in the conference, all ripe with postseason implications.
Stacking wins always starts with going 1-0 in a given week, and in Week 11, the challenge comes in the form of a winless Detroit Lions team that sits at 0-8-1. The Lions may not have a win this season, but the Baltimore Ravens needed the longest field goal in NFL history to beat them at the buzzer, and they are fresh off of a tie against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Yes, the Browns are the better team and must act accordingly, but they are in no position to take a victory for granted.
With that in mind, here are three keys to victory in this week's Winning Mix.
1. Money on Money Downs
Through 10 weeks, the Browns have had games in which they have excelled in the money downs and situations and weeks when they have not. Typically, success on third down and in the red zone has directly correlated to Browns victories. Failures, such as last week, have led directly to Browns losses. This team needs to become consistently solid on both sides of the ball in these critical situations if the Browns are to realize their potential in 2021. That has to start somewhere, and Sunday could not be a better time to become a truly elite football team when it matters the most.
The Lions enter Sunday's game ranked 31st in the NFL as a third-down offense, converting on just 32.5 percent of their attempts for the season. The Lions are especially bad in third-and-long, something that has been an Achilles' Heel for the Browns defense this year. On third down attempts of 7-plus yards, the Lions are just 12-for-66 this season, which is just 18.2 percent. The Browns defense has been solid on third downs in wins, surrendering just 34.9 percent conversions (22-of-63). In the Browns' losses, however, third down has been a real issue, as they have given up conversions a whopping 54 percent of the time. The Browns must get off of the field on third downs against a Detroit team that averages 13 attempts and only four conversions per game.
When the Browns have the ball, they must execute on third downs significantly better than they have of late. Over the last three weeks, the Browns have converted just 7-of-31 third down attempts, which is a paltry 22 percent. Keep in mind that the Lions are 31st in the league for the season at 32.5 percent conversions. In the Browns' losses this year, they have managed to extend their drives on third down just 26 percent of the time (13-for-50). When the Browns are better on third downs, they win. In the five victories, Cleveland has successfully kept the drive alive on 46 percent of their third-down opportunities (31-of-68). For the season, the Lions have given up 42.3 percent of their opponent's third downs and have been even worse of late. Over the last three weeks, the Lions have surrendered 52.5 percent third-down conversions (21-for-40). The Browns offense needs to extend drives on Sunday and then deliver touchdowns in the red zone against a Lions team that has allowed touchdowns on 77.8 percent of their opponent's red zone trips, most in the NFL.
Extending drives on offense, stifling drives on defense and then getting sevens and not threes in scoring situations will ensure a much-needed Browns win Sunday.
2. Tight Coverage and Good Tackling
This is the week for the Browns corners, linebackers and safeties to buckle up their chin straps because they will be busy not only covering, but tackling early and often against the Lions. First of all, the Lions are coming off a game against the Steelers in which they ran for a season-high 229 yards on 5.9 yards per carry. The Steelers aided the Lions rushing attack by missing a whopping 10 tackles in that overtime tie. The Browns must tackle cleanly and consistently against the Lions who will continually try to get the ball quickly to their playmakers, most notably, RB D'Andre Swift.
Swift is the top weapon in the Detroit attack and a true dual-threat running back who can hurt you as not only a runner, but as a receiver. He has 839 total yards this year, split evenly with 419 coming as a rusher and 420 as a receiver. Swift leads all running backs with 50 receptions on the year and is third in the NFL behind receivers Cooper Kupp and Deebo Samuel with 448 yards after the catch. Swift has already forced 17 missed tackles as a receiver, and the simple fact that he has more yards after the catch than total receiving yards tells you just how dangerous he is with the ball in his hands. Accounting for Swift and getting him to the ground quickly is a must this week.
As a team, the Lions lead the NFL in percentage of yards gained after the catch at 61.1 percent, so swarming to the ball and tackling is more important against this team than any other in the league. The Lions also lead the NFL in catches by running backs and are second with 127 total catches among their running backs and tight ends, which are led by T.J. Hockenson (48 receptions for 448 yards and two touchdowns). This is not a team to fear at the wideout position, which is not heavily involved in the passing game and has accounted for just over 100 yards and less than half of a touchdown per game.
The Lions also do not throw the ball down the field often, as just 9 percent of their pass attempts go for more than 20 yards in the air. The Lions also rank last in vertical passing yards (173), yards per attempt on vertical passes (5.3) and quarterback rating on vertical throws (48.3). The Browns need to play with no fear, crowd the line of scrimmage, press the inexperienced receivers and let their excellent corners (Denzel Ward, Greedy Williams, Greg Newsome) eliminate them from the game. The rest of the defense needs to funnel to the football under control, watch for screens and reverses to take advantage of quick pursuit and finally tackle with high efficiency when they get there. That should absolutely lead to a total shutdown of the Lions offense and clear the path for the big win in front of the home fans.
3. Raw Power First Half and Don't Let Up
In a high-pressure, must-win game, the quickest way to calm any nerves and alleviate any anxiety is to execute at a high-level right out of the gate and try to end this game by halftime. The Lions are in the position of a team that can have a "here we go again mentality," and the onus is on the Browns to put points on the board and put negative thoughts into their heads. Detroit has been outscored 48-20 so far in the first quarter. The Lions have scored two touchdowns all year in the opening stanza and have been shut out after one quarter in six of their nine games. The Browns have been outscored, 48-45, in the first quarter this year, so they are basically even, but a quick start would do wonders at First Energy Stadium.
A lead at the end of the first all but ensures a sizeable lead at the half for the Browns. Detroit has been outscored 88-39 in the second quarter this season, and the Browns are one of the best second quarter offensive teams in the league this year, having already scored 90 points in the period alone. The Lions are down by an average of 15.1 to 6.5 after the opening half this season, which is nearly a double-digit lead and represents a two possession game.
So come out at home prepared and fired up, execute at a high level in the critical situations noted above, take a big lead into the half and then do not let up and give the Lions any chance of getting back into this game. I am looking for a carbon copy of what happened down in Cincinnati, where the Browns took a big lead into the half and then built upon it en route to a comfortable victory.