The Cowboys and the Browns have something in common. Both teams entered the 2019 season with big expectations and fell far below them, fired their head coach, and brought in new coaches who preach the importance of analytics. But through three games, it’s the Browns who have gotten off to a better start.
Cleveland, led by former Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, started off by facing the Ravens and, to no one’s surprise, got spanked to the tune of a 38-6 final score. Baker Mayfield, trying to bounce back from a sophomore slump, looked lost and flustered. But the Browns have rattled off two straight wins since, getting a 35-30 victory over the Bengals and beating the Washington Football Team 34-20 last week.
Dallas, on the other hand, hasn’t been able to hit their stride just yet. They were slow out of the gate against the Rams, barely overcame shooting themselves in the foot against the Falcons, and fell just short to the Seahawks. Their vaunted offense has more or less found its footing, averaging nearly 30 points a game and leading the NFL in yards. But the defense and special teams have continued to struggle, and both had plenty to do with the Seahawks’ most recent victory.
Yet the Cowboys are the favorite leading up to this contest. A big part of that has to do with the quality of opponents. The Browns’ two wins came over two teams who combined for five total wins last year, and they were demolished by the Ravens. Even with those two wins against pretty bad teams, Cleveland hasn’t been the picture of a perfect football team.
Their offense has been fairly inefficient, ranking 25th in offensive DVOA. Mayfield has looked erratic and uncomfortable with alarming regularity despite having an offensive line playing at a high level and a bevvy of weapons including Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham Jr., David Njoku, and Austin Hooper. But the Browns can afford to have below average performances from Mayfield, at least right now, because Stefanski’s offense is very heavy on the run.
Stefanski called 36 run plays against Dallas when he was with Minnesota in 2019, which was the most any opponent ran it against the Cowboys last season.— Bobby Belt (@BobbyBeltTX) September 30, 2020
The good news for the Browns is it’s working well, as their rushing attack is currently 10th in the league in DVOA. Their running back tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt is downright unfair, and it’s part of what makes Stefanski call his offense the way he does. Whether that’s sustainable or not is up for debate, but against a Dallas defense whose weakness is the deep pass, Cleveland may need to open things up a bit.
Defensively, the Browns haven’t been great either. Through the first two weeks, they ranked 21st in defensive DVOA, and got a gift in facing the Washington offense; that game alone, in which they recorded three picks and three fumble recoveries, boosted their defensive DVOA rank to eighth in the league. That’s a massive jump, and probably more indicative of the small sample size combining with a total deconstruction of a pretty poor offense.
Cleveland isn’t without impact players on that side of the ball. The big name is Myles Garrett, who’s had double-digit sacks the last two years and already has three this year. The rest of the defensive line consists of Adrian Clayborn, Sheldon Richardson, Olivier Vernon, Larry Ogunjobi, and rookie Jordan Elliott. Together, this line is a real handful for any offensive line, especially one as banged up as the Cowboys’. Although Cleveland faces some injuries along that line.
To that point, Dallas still has questions to answer in the trenches. Tyron Smith has missed the last two games with a neck injury, but there’s optimism he’ll be able to return this week. La’el Collins is eligible to be activated off of the injured reserve, but that will not happen. So the Cowboys will have to continue to roll with at least one of their backup tackles against Cleveland’s intimidating pass rush.
Both Terence Steele and Brandon Knight have held up well to this point, but the Cowboys don’t want to push their luck. They’ve witnessed how dangerous this offense can be when Dak Prescott has time to throw, so getting their offensive tackles back to full health has to be a priority if this team wants to start winning games.
This week against Cleveland seems as perfect a time as any to start a run. The next five teams on their schedule have a combined record of 5-9-1, and only the winless Eagles were a playoff team last year. This seems like a golden opportunity for Dallas to kick off a winning streak, and it starts against the Browns. Luckily, the game is in Dallas, and after winning the home opener against Atlanta, Mike McCarthy improved to 4-0 all-time in AT&T Stadium. Getting that fifth win could end up being the turning point for his first year as the Cowboys head coach.