The Browns should have been feeling great, fresh off of a 24-22 win over the Ravens that catapulted them right into the thick of things in the race for the AFC North and the AFC Playoff picture. However, this has been one of the most unpredictable weeks of the season, as a COVID-19 outbreak has put 20-plus players and coaches on the COVID-19 reserve list headed into a critical AFC matchup with the Raiders.
Kevin Stefanski, Baker Mayfield, Case Keenum, Jarvis Landry, Jedrick Wills Jr., most of the safety room, Jadeveon Clowney, Malik McDowell, Troy Hill, A.J. Green and more are on the reserve list as of this writing. The Browns are without five-plus starters on each side of the ball and do not have either CB Greg Newsome II, RB Kareem Hunt or T Jack Conklin due to injury. Nick Mullens will be the team's quarterback if both Mayfield and Keenum aren't able to go Monday, so the team must find a way against a struggling Raiders team that has lost five of its last six games.
Next man up has never been more important or true for the Browns, who will have to dig deep and find a way to pull out a short-handed win in what is a must-win game Monday at FirstEnergy Stadium.
How do the Browns pull it off? Well, let's take a look in this week's Winning Mix.
1. Dominating Defense
The Browns have relied on their defense lately, and this Monday will be no exception. Being without both of the top two quarterbacks means this is game that will have to be won with a great ground game (more on that in a bit) and tenacious defense. The Browns will still have (as of this writing) numerous stars on defense, including the Big 3 of Myles Garrett, Denzel Ward and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. They will be joined by veterans such as Malik Jackson and Malcolm Smith and players looking to make their mark, such as Sheldon Day, Jordan Elliott, Sione Takitaki, Greedy Williams, M.J. Stewart, Richard LeCounte and other gameday call-ups.
Regardless of who is out there for the Browns, they have to continue the elite level of play we have seen from Joe Woods' unit of late. The Browns have generated multiple takeaways in three straight games and four of their last five with 12 total in that span. The Raiders have turned it over multiple times in four of their last six games, including five giveaways in their 48-9 blowout loss to the Chiefs last week. Over those six games, the Raiders are 1-5 and have turned it over a whopping 12 times. That's two per game, and the Browns are 10-1 in their last 11 games when generating two takeaways on defense.
It should also be noted that for the season, the Raiders are 1-6 when they lose the turnover battle this year. The Raiders offense also enters this game struggling to score points. Over their last six games, they have produced 16 or fewer points five times, with the notable exception being the big 36-33 overtime win over the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving. The Raiders are 0-7 this year when failing to score 20 points and 6-0 when producing 20 or more, so it is critical the Browns play a lot of bend-but-don't-break defense and keep Las Vegas under 20 points for the game.
Check out exclusive photos from the practice fields at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus of the Browns preparing for their Week 15 game against the Las Vegas Raiders
2. Limit Hunter Renfrow
Las Vegas WR Hunter Renfrow comes into this game on an historic tear for the Raiders and he must be a focal point of the Browns defense Monday. Last week, Renfrow became the first receiver in franchise history to post eight-plus catches and 100-plus yards in three straight games. During that span, Renfrow has 30 grabs for 353 yards, which rank first and second, respectively, in the league during that span. Renfrow is coming off a monster 13-catch, 117-yard game against the Chiefs and has at least seven receptions in six of his last seven starts.
With TE Darren Waller out and the Raiders struggling to run the ball, the Browns defense needs to limit big plays to DeSean Jackson (28.8 yards per catch) and Bryan Edwards (18.5 yards per catch) and then focus the attention on Renfrow, especially on the money downs. Over the last three games, Renfrow has 15 receptions that have gone for first downs, most in the NFL. However the Browns choose to try to slow down Renfrow, limiting him is key, as he is the top target for Carr, especially in high-leverage situations.
3. Run It, Run It And Run It Some More with Raw Power
The Browns are poised to start Mullens at quarterback, and while he has been with the team all season on the practice squad, he did not get to take a single rep with the starters this week. Mullens has five career wins under his belt along with a 64.5 percent completion percentage, 8.0 yards per attempt and 4,714 yards with 22 touchdowns passing in 16 career games. He boasts a quarterback rating of 87.2 and, heck, he even has a win over the Raiders back in 2018. In that game, Mullens started for the 49ers and completed 16-of-22 passes while throwing for 262 yards, three touchdowns and posting a rating of 151.3 en route to a 34-3 win.
No one is expecting a repeat performance on that level, but Mullens knows the wide-zone scheme and is more than a capable thrower. That being said, while Mullens may get to take some shots off of play action, this is the game to lean on Nick Chubb and D'Ernest Johnson to pound the Raiders into oblivion. The Browns are undefeated at home and 4-1 on the year when they have a 100-yard rusher. The Raiders currently have the 26th-ranked run defense in the NFL, allowing 125.3 yards per game on the ground. The Raiders have also lost by double-digits every time they have allowed an opposing running back to top the century mark. Over the last four games, opposing running backs are averaging 101 yards and 1.5 touchdowns rushing per game in addition to another 44 yards receiving and 0.5 touchdowns per game. That means backs are putting up 145 total yards and two scores per game against the Raiders during that span, and the Browns must capitalize on that Monday. Chubb is the best player on offense for the Browns this (and every) week, so now is the time to feed him relentlessly, and I wouldn't mind seeing 25-30 carries Monday.
It is worth noting that the Raiders can absolutely get to the quarterback with their ends Maxx Crosby (five sacks) and Yannick Ngakoue (nine sacks), but they are not great against the run. The dangerous Ngakoue, in particular, is the worst-graded run defending defensive end in football this year, according to Pro Football Focus. The Browns do not have their typical starting tackles, but Blake Hance (who could start at LT) is an excellent run blocker and should be able to generate push against Ngakoue. It should also be noted that the Raiders are without their top tackler and run stopper, LB Denzel Perryman. Pounding the rock and using play action to target the struggling Raiders linebackers and safeties in coverage should lead to better than expected offensive production given all of the key missing pieces on offense.