With training camp underway and the preseason fast approaching, Last Word on Pro Football is analyzing the schedules of all 32 NFL teams. Each team’s schedule will be split into the least difficult (9-16) and most difficult (1-8) games. Let’s kick off the series by taking a look at the hardest games for the Cleveland Browns.
Cleveland Browns Most Difficult Games of 2019
1. Week Three – vs. Los Angeles Rams
Cleveland’s first SNF game in a long time could be a litmus test of whether or not the young team is ready for the spotlight. Even though they benefited from a blatant missed pass interference call and laid an egg in the Super Bowl, the Los Angeles Rams still made it all the way. They have a great receiving corps and a good young quarterback (depending on who you ask), plus a talented defense. Still, the Browns should be able to counter LA in every facet, except for one player; Aaron Donald. Cleveland’s o-line issues could be a dealbreaker here, as Donald is a bona fide game-wrecker and arguably the best player in the NFL. Baker Mayfield is great at extending plays, but having Donald in his lap all game is not a recipe for success.
2. Week Eight – at New England Patriots
Three things are certain in life: death, taxes, and the duo of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady finding NFL success. Tom Terrific is still in the lead against father time, even at the age of 42. The defending Super Bowl champions will entertain Cleveland at the midseason point right after Cleveland’s bye week. There’s a small chance that Josh Gordon will be able to face his former team, but even if he isn’t, the New England Patriots will be a tough opponent.
3. Week Four – at Baltimore Ravens
These two teams split the season series in 2018, with the Browns narrowly winning 12-9 in Week 5 (thanks to Denzel Ward) and the Baltimore Ravens sneaking by 26-24 in Week 17, punching their ticket to the playoffs. It remains to be seen whether or not Baltimore’s exotic offense is sustainable and if Lamar Jackson can become a passable passer (no pun intended), but despite losing key defensive pieces in Eric Weddle, Za’Darius Smith, and C.J. Mosley, Baltimore should still field a top defense, especially with Earl Thomas now playing center field.
One added issue is that the Browns will be coming off their Sunday Night battle with the Rams, a game that could take a lot out of the team.
4. Week Six – at Seattle Seahawks
They may not be the feared team they once were, but the Seattle Seahawks are still very good. Russell Wilson is still one of the NFL’s best QBs, the defense is perennially solid, and Wilson also has a new toy in rookie WR D.K. Metcalf. The 6’3″ 230lbs freak of nature could be a very tough assignment for Pro Bowl cornerback Denzel Ward, and the Browns could decide to match rookie CB Greedy Williams, who played well against Metcalf in college, instead.
The last time these two teams met was during the Johnny Manziel era, a 30-13 drubbing by Seattle. Hopefully things turn out differently this time around.
5. Week 13 – at Pittsburgh Steelers
The second battle with the Pittsburgh Steelers is at Heinz Field, and the last time the Browns traveled there, they were pounded 33-18 (the game was not as close as the score made it seem), in what was the final game of the disastrous Hue Jackson era. Playing the same team twice in three weeks is very unusual, so coaching will play a huge role in the second matchup.
6. Week 16 – vs. Baltimore Ravens
This second matchup with the Ravens could have big divisional implications. Most everything that was said above applies here too. Last season, Mayfield threw three costly interceptions during the second matchup with this team, so a key to victory will be to limit turnovers. If they are able to do that, the Browns could lock up the division here.
7. Week 11 – vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
For the first time in a while, the Browns aren’t ending their season against Pittsburgh or Baltimore. They play the Steelers twice in three weeks in the middle of the season, two games which should have massive implications on the division race. The first battle is at First Energy Stadium, where Pittsburgh narrowly escaped without a loss (a 21-21 tie) last season.
By Week 11, the Steelers should be completely over losing Antonio Brown, and every game between these two divisional foes is a tough one. Getting Freddie Kitchens a win against Pittsburgh in his first game against the Steelers as a head coach would give the Browns momentum as they play four divisional games over the final six weeks of the season.
8. Week Five – at San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers get this spot for a few reasons. The first is George Kittle, one of the NFL’s biggest breakout stars of 2018. For years the Browns have struggled to defend tight ends, and although new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks is employing techniques and schemes designed to patch this weakness, if it doesn’t improve quickly, Kittle will have himself a field day, especially if rookie Greedy Williams has a mental error or two like he did in Cleveland’s first preseason game.
The second is the 49ers defense, particularly their defensive line. The Jets Leonard Williams and Quinnen Williams should form a very stout interior DL in New York, but San Francisco’s DL is likely to be even better. Dee Ford is one of the league’s best speed rushers, and second overall pick Nick Bosa should be an excellent player, just like his older brother. Moving inside, Arik Armstead is a very good run stopper, and DeForest Buckner is an elite three-tech. Cleveland might have the best skill position players in the NFL, but their offensive line is a legitimate weakness. Left guard Joel Bitonio and center J.C. Tretter are both among the best at their respective positions, but the other three spots are question marks.
Left tackle Greg Robinson started the last eight games of 2018 and was an upgrade over initial starter Desmond Harrison, but that was a low bar in the first place. Robinson oozes physical talent, which is why he was the second overall pick back in 2014. But he has yet to put it all together in the NFL. Robinson will need to be significantly better than he was last season if Baker Mayfield is to stay upright. The same goes for right tackle Chris Hubbard, who is now in the second year of a $36.5 million contract. He isn’t terrible, but he’s not a top-five RT either.
Right guard is the biggest question mark. 2018 33rd overall pick Austin Corbett was originally expected to slide into that spot, but it seems as if free agent signing Eric Kush has locked up the starting job (meaning the Corbett selection is now a disaster, but that’s a topic for another day).
All this means that the 49ers defensive line should be able to put consistent pressure on Baker Mayfield, and penetrate the backfield enough to limit Nick Chubb‘s effectiveness running the football. If 2017 third overall pick Solomon Thomas is used correctly, this advantage would become even more significant. That’s to say nothing of Kyle Shanahan’s brilliant offensive scheme, multiple playmakers, and a (presumably) healthy Jimmy Garoppolo. Cleveland will have their work cut out for them.
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