It’s never a good sign when a football team receives the opening kickoff, and nine seconds later that team is losing 7-0. That’s what the Cleveland Browns faced Monday night at Pittsburgh – and for the Browns, that wasn’t even the low point of the evening.
The low point came late in the second quarter when the left knee of Cleveland’s Nick Chubb, arguably the best running back in the league, exploded following a collision near the goal line. The result was a season-ending injury that dealt a brutal blow to a Browns team that, coming off a season-opening 24-3 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, and with a loaded roster, seems capable of finishing first in its division for the first time in 34 years.
“Very disappointed for Nick,” said Browns coach Kevin Stefanski in his weekly session with reporters, following the 26-22 loss to the Steelers. “He means a lot to this team, a lot to this organization. He will be missed. But he will bounce back. Of that I have no doubt. We’ll miss Nick, but we’ve got to move on.”
Losing Chubb for the remainder of the barely-started season is a major setback for the Browns, but with or without Chubb, Cleveland’s season will likely hinge on how soon quarterback Deshaun Watson can shake the doldrums that have plagued his play in the first two games of the season.
Monday night against the Steelers, Browns fans didn’t have to wait long to see evidence of Watson’s ongoing battle with himself to return to the elite performer he was in his peak years with the Houston Texans, where he was a three-time Pro Bowl selection.
On the game’s first play from scrimmage, Watson threw a pick-6 to the Steelers that put the Browns in a 7-0 hole a mere nine seconds into the game.
It didn’t get any better than that for Watson the rest of the game. In addition to throwing a pick-6 to start the festivities, his fumble halfway through the fourth quarter led to a scoop and score by the Steelers’ T.J. Watt.
For the game overall, Watson completed 22 of 40 passes for 235 yards and one touchdown. However, he also fumbled twice, threw an interception, was sacked six times, and was called for two facemask penalties. That’s right, a quarterback penalized twice for grabbing an opponents’ facemask.
“We have to play better, particularly on offense, and we have to take care of the ball,” said Stefanski, whose team turned the ball over four times.
In the Browns’ first two games of the season Watson has completed just 55% of his passes. The only quarterback in the league with a lower completion percentage is the Jets’ Zach Wilson. Watson has thrown for two touchdowns, two interceptions, with three fumbles and nine sacks.
With Chubb done for the year and Watson still playing well below expectations, Stefanski is facing a challenge in trying to get the Browns’ offense to a level expected from one led by a $230 million quarterback.
Fortunately for Stefanski, his defense is a monster.
New defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has created a swarming band of bandits. Among all NFL teams only the Cowboys have allowed fewer yards than the Browns’ swarming defense.
That may have to be Cleveland’s formula this season: keep strangling opposing teams’ offenses until Cleveland’s offense can squeeze out enough points to win.
For now, the offense is in a holding pattern, and will be until Watson is able to solve his personal Rubiks internal quarterbacking cube.
“It’s never about one person,” said Stefanski, when, in this situation, it certainly looks like it is. “I completely understand that the quarterback gets way too much of the credit and way too much of the blame. I know what he’s made of and how he works.”
The problem now, however, is that the way Watson works is not working. The loss of Chubb is a haymaker to the offense, chiefly because, without him, it removes Watson’s safety net and puts even more pressure on a quarterback incapable at the moment of delivering the quarterbacking that’s necessary.
So Stefanski is left with no choice but to take one for the quarterback.
“We’re 1-1,” said the coach. “Deshaun’s 1-1, our team is 1-1, I’m 1-1. We did enough to win the first (game). We did not do enough to win the second one. You’ve got to let the wins go fast, and you’ve got to let the losses go fast.”
In the NFL, of course, you only get 17 chances to make your case.
The Browns are already on the clock.