Browns looking pretty average as injuries, losses mount

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December 25 2021 12:00 am

CLEVELAND (AP)The injuries, and not just your run-of-the-mill bumps and bruises but significant ones to big-name players, are piling up quickly for the Browns.

So are the losses.

Cleveland’s season, still just six games old, has suddenly gone astray. Picked to compete with the NFL’s elite and maybe contend for a title, the Browns (3-3) are currently pretty average across the board.

On Sunday, quarterback Baker Mayfield re-injured his left shoulder in a 37-14 shellacking at the hands of the Arizona Cardinals and running back Kareem Hunt suffered a calf injury that will sideline him for weeks and reduce Cleveland’s devastating 1-2 running back punch to a 1 – Nick Chubb.

And, he’s hurt as well.

These are challenging days for Browns coach Kevin Stefanski, who has little time to prepare for a Thursday night matchup against the Denver Broncos with no clear decision on whether Mayfield, Chubb, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. or his starting offensive tackles will be available.

”I really don’t know, is the truth,” he said.

What has become apparent in the past two weeks is that the Browns might not be as good as originally thought. Cleveland has plenty of talent on both sides of the ball, but talent is only part of the equation on game days.

In consecutive losses to the Los Angeles Chargers (4-2) and Cardinals (6-0), the Browns made too many mistakes – many of them self-inflicted – to beat quality teams. The defense has been prone to communication breakdowns while Stefanski, hampered by personnel issues, can’t seem to find the right run-pass balance on offense.

And then there’s Mayfield’s injury.

He has not played well since partially tearing a labrum in his non-throwing shoulder in Week 3. There’s no denying his toughness and it’s admirable Mayfield, who is wearing a harness to stabilize his ailing shoulder, fights so hard to stay on the field.

But his accuracy hasn’t been good, and Mayfield, who insists he’ll play Thursday night against Denver, has either missed open receivers or not seen them at all.

Something’s off and until their quarterback starts playing better, the Browns may hover around .500.

Late Sunday, Mayfield, with his arm immobilized by a sling, said ”our backs are up against the the wall.”

That doesn’t mean they’re not swinging.

”Nobody’s flinching right now,” linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. said. ”We understand what we have in our locker room, the men that we have in our locker room, the leadership from coach Stefanski. We understand that nobody’s going to flinch in our locker room.”

WHAT’S WORKING

There was finally a spark in the missing connection between Mayfield and Beckham, who caught a team-high five passes for 79 yards.

When the two hooked up on a 24-yard play, Browns fans chanted ”O-B-J” as if they were begging for more.

And while there was some progress in his ongoing, on-field chemistry issues with Mayfield, Beckham didn’t come up with a crucial fourth-down catch as the Browns were rallying.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Cleveland’s defense is in shambles.

For the second week in a row, the Browns were picked apart by another free-wheeling offense, erasing any progress made by coordinator Joe Woods’ unit in back-to-back strong performances against Chicago and Minnesota.

The Browns have given up 84 points in two games and there have been alarming breakdowns in the secondary.

Penalties have also been a problem. The Browns were called for four infractions – two pass interference calls on cornerback Denzel Ward and two personal fouls against defensive tackle Malik McDowell – on Arizona’s second scoring drive.

STOCK UP

Donovan Peoples-Jones is becoming more relevant for an offense missing key parts. He positioned himself perfectly to outjump several smaller Arizona defenders to haul in a 57-yard Hail Mary TD to end the half – a play that gave the Browns momentum.

The second-year wideout finished with four catches for 101 yards.

STOCK DOWN

The injury is a major issue, but Mayfield has been inconsistent for weeks. His two fumbles on Sunday were the result of him hanging onto the ball too long when throwing it away was the better option.

He’s been a gamer in playing through some pain, but his erratic performances are hurting the Browns.

”We had been doing a decent job of taking care of the ball up until yesterday,” Stefanski said. ”We just were a little too careless at times.”

INJURIES

Rookie linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah suffered a high ankle sprain against the Cardinals and is likely headed to injured reserve with Hunt. … Stefanski may not know until game time about the status of tackles Jack Conklin or Jedrick Wills Jr., who both sat Sunday.

KEY NUMBER

73 – Yards rushing Sunday without Chubb. Cleveland entered the game averaging a league-best 187.6 yards per game.

NEXT STEPS

The short week may have arrived at the worst possible time as it coincided with all the injuries. One positive is that the Broncos are also sliding with three straight losses.

More AP NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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