What We Saw: Week 2 2018
Browns vs. Saints
To Josh Gordon:
I struggle to find the words to express what sorrow I feel at the news of your departure. We Browns fans have loved you, deeply and genuinely. We have stuck by you during your struggles and wanted only to see you free of your demons. Sure, it was partly selfish, as mostly we wanted to have you go bananas in our lineups, but while you are hardly the first player to have a career interrupted and possibly ended by personal demons, it is hard to think of another player for whom there was so much excitement and anticipation for watching. I hope that wherever you land, you will be able to find continued success. I hope that we all can continue with silly jokes and memes about what an amazing player you are. But mostly, I hope that you can find peace in your life to live well, whether that is in football or elsewhere.
Your fan forever,
If you did not know it yet, last Friday WR Josh Gordon was unexpectedly called “out” for Sunday’s game against the Saints after apparently injuring his hamstring at some sort of promotional event. Additionally, he was reported to be late to Saturday’s practice where he “was not acting like himself” according to Browns beat writer Mary Kay Cabot. Following the sudden out tag, he was then told by Browns GM John Dorsey that he was going to be released Monday, though of course other teams immediately started calling to discuss a trade. There is no news about a failed drug test so for the time being Gordon, who is one substance abuse infraction away from a lifetime expulsion from the NFL, can either be traded or picked up as a free agent by other teams following his release.
On to the game. Boy, what a heartbreaker for the Browns. Having won only a single game over the last two seasons and adding a ton of talent lately, Browns fans have high hopes for their team’s prospects. And while they were facing huge odds against a fantastic Saints team, the Browns looked like they might actually get the upset win and have their first win. It would have been glorious. It would have been part of any number of sports stories featuring underdogs that overcome all odds to beat a superior team. Especially after ending a game with division rivals in the Pittsburgh Steelers in week 1 with a tie, the Browns were thirsting to end their winless record and this would have been a spectacular way to do just that.
So… what happened?
Well, the Browns defense played very well. They sacked Drew Brees 3 times and recovered 2 fumbles. Yet despite the up-and-coming defensive capabilities of the Browns D, the offense still struggled to get things going. I predicted in my game preview that the Browns would start the affair with a conservative game plan designed to keep the ball away from the Saints. That prediction came true. But when the defense demonstrated they were able to contain the Saints, the Browns did not take advantage of the opportunity to open up the offense and score some points and take a commanding lead. Instead, RB Carlos Hyde rushed mostly into the backs of his own linemen 16 times, gaining a paltry 43 yards. While Hyde did have an excellent touchdown run to the edge, it was clear to me by about midway through the second quarter that slow playing wasn’t working and still the coaching staff stuck to that plan. Case in point, the Hyde touchdown led to an incredible 12-3 lead over the Saints but the Browns insisted on nursing their lead instead of growing it. The result was that when the Saints did start scoring late in the 4th, it took only two touchdowns to take the lead, and an additional field goal to seal it (oh, yeah, and an easy 2-pt conversion by Kamara). Here is the Hyde touchdown- it really is a great run by Hyde.
In addition to rushing way more than they should have given the ineffectiveness, the Browns’ game plan included limiting deep shots by QB Tyrod Taylor and sticking mostly with short- and mid-range passes for limited yardage. Taylor attempted only 30 passes, compared to 40 for last week which was in bad weather. Predictably, this lead to the Browns converting just 4 of 12 third downs. There were a few designed runs for Taylor included in this game which was nice to see and further demonstrates his safe floor for fantasy purposes. If Taylor’s rushing threat is utilized more often it will start to open up greater running lanes which Hyde desperately needs. The lack of aggressive passing could have been due to the receivers were not getting open often, but the Browns overall simply looked anemic on offense so I find that explanation unlikely. Taylor can throw it downfield well, as evidenced by a 47-yard throw to WR Antonio Callaway in the 4th quarter.
You can see how perfectly that ball is placed, hitting Callaway in stride. Technically, the throw is probably closer to 53 air-yards but of course that bit of extra beyond the goal line doesn’t get counted. It’s an impressive throw, is what I’m saying, and the Browns are not asking Taylor to make very many of them even though he is perfectly capable. I have predicted that Taylor will be a top 10 QB this season, but that is starting to seem unlikely.
Whether it’s OC Todd Haley (unlikely) or decisions by coach Hue Jackson (probably), Cleveland’s stubborn refusal to make full use of their excellent receivers will haunt them. While the Browns did finally capitalize on an overturn to score, it was for just 3 points on a field goal after moving very little down the field. It is possible that there was simply much better receiver coverage by the Saints compared to last week, but play-calling was either utterly boring and predictable or baffling (such as a 4th-and-1 conversion attempt by rushing RB Duke Johnson, Jr straight into the pile instead of one of their bruiser-type RB’s in Hyde or Nick Chubb). As a result, I’m deeply saddened by the loss, but not surprised. I have a feeling getting rid of Hue is the last move the Browns need to make before they can start winning and before so many of the Browns players will have the fantasy relevance they real-life skill suggests.
Antonio Callaway, by the way, looked great.
Look at that fire. Callaway is a name that you should be familiar with if you are a regular reader of my Browns coverage and is the clear beneficiary to Gordon’s absence on the field. He makes for a great WW pick up, but I would only recommend a stash for at least the next week to get more evidence of how he will be used and with what regularity. Callaway did not saw just one target in week 1, but he had 4 targets out of 30 in this game and when you make a huge touchdown like he did it commands more playing time. WR Rashard Higgins also had some nice catches and did get more targets than Callaway, but I would guess Higgins is more valuable in PPR and Callaway is more valuable in standard as the big play receiver. Both take a back seat to WR Jarvis Landry who somehow had a measly 7 targets. Compared to Landry’s 15 targets in week 1, the 7 targets is incomprehensible given that Josh Gordon was not playing. This game, played inside the Superdome where weather was not a factor, suggests that Landry will have some big games and some disappointing games, and in all cases, it will come down to coaching decisions and not talent.
And, of course, I would be remiss if I did not bring up the big news from the game, which is that kicker Zane Gonzalez was absolutely terrible. Not only did he miss 4 kicks (two PATs and two FG’s), but the final kick he missed would have been a game-tying field goal so this loss looks like it’s largely on his shoulders. I will not be shocked if Gonzalez becomes Hue’s sacrificial lamb.
The Browns were helped by a couple of lucky moments (such as Brees overthrowing wide open TE Benjamin Watson in the end zone or Wil Lutz missing his own 44-yard field goal attempt) but were simply unable to overcome bad coaching. The Browns’ O-Line was also routinely beat by just 3 Saints pass-rushers, so the line clearly has work to do to keep Taylor from taking sacks. Ultimately, until Cleveland starts to make a better use of Taylor’s arm, better use of their full complement of weapons such as Duke Johnson and TE David Njoku, and stop making stupid play calls like a Draw Play to Higgins that had no chance of success, the Browns are in trouble. I remain hopeful for the future, but it’s a muted hope. Landry, Njoku and the Duke may be buy-low candidates, but it’s just as possible that their owners are in for a rough ride with little upside.
I want to clear the air in this game. Everyone loves the Browns this year, and that is understandable. The hard knocks, loveable losers who have so much hope makes for a great story. If you could not tell, I am not enamored with this type of storyline. What I do see is a team that made some very smart draft selections this offseason and can be good—in the future. They are not ready to win right now. While they have been cast as unlucky—particularity in this game—I would venture that they might have been lucky to even keep up with the Saints. While the Zane Gonzalez left 8 points on the field, Will Lutz also missed a field goal. So let’s bump that down to a combined -5 in the kicking game for the Browns. Still brutal. The real difference in luck came down to fumbles. The Saints had two fumbles in the first half, recovered by the Browns in great field position. In comparison, the Browns fumbled 3 times, 2 of which bounced off the field and one that fortunately bounced right back to Tyrod Taylor. My point in all this? The ball hit the turf 5 times in this game and the Browns ended up with possession in all 5 occasions. I am not trying to take anything away from the Browns defense which did play very well, the fumbles are just something I have noticed has been overlooked in this game. Not to mention the fact that the drive that led to the Carlos Hyde touchdown had 2 pass interference calls that were questionable. Even the Tyrod to Antonio Callaway bomb was somewhat of a miracle last resort throw on 4th down. I apologize if this rant seems more biased than the usual article. In the end, weird stuff happens on the football field every single game. The Browns, given what did happen, could have won this game with a more competent kicker, that is for sure. But when the world reacts today saying the Browns should have beaten the Saints, remember a lot of other plays went their way. I encourage you to read the Browns portion of this post and decide for yourself! They are still an exciting team with many fantasy-relevant players to look out for. For now, I will dive into the Saints.
What happened Drew?
Drew Brees certainly had an off game. It started with a huge missed opportunity on the goal line where he needed to complete a pass of maybe 2 air yards to a wide-open Benjamin Watson. The play call was brilliant and he had the look he wanted but the ball sailed over Watson’s head. After this play, a holding forced a 3rd and long as the Saints were forced to kick. Brees missed two more throws on the day. Both were deep balls to Ted Ginn Jr. that probably would have led to touchdowns. It did not seem to be a problem of arm strength, rather it seemed he miscalculated both throws. Either way, if Brees can connect on two of the three plays, this game looks a lot different. Other than these misses, Brees showed his usual poise in the pocket and pounded the ball to both Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. Brees did enough in this game to not lose but was uncharacteristically shaky. His final stat line was decent enough (243 yards, 2 TD) so fantasy owners should not be too disappointed. I still firmly believe Brees is elite and should continue producing solid fantasy numbers.
A new Dynamic Duo
Last year the narrative surrounding the team focused on the dual production of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram II, while Michael Thomas quietly dominated yet again. With Ingram out, a new duo has truly stepped to the forefront. Kamara and Thomas were responsible for the entirety of the Saints offense. Even with the Browns stout run defense, Kamara fought, wiggled and juked for yards play after play. In the second half and 4th quarter most importantly, he ripped off a few key runs that kept the Saints offense moving. In the passing game, these two were the focal point combining for 18 of the 28 completions. Most of Kamara’s receptions came around the line of scrimmage, as he was not targeted on many deeper routes. This was definitely different than previous games as Kamara usually sees a few targets of more depth. Either way, he still made the most of his receptions, going for 53 yards, a lot of which came after contact. The real star in the passing game was Michael Thomas. His 12 catches lead the team by a wide margin as he got open nearly every play. Drew Brees is favoring Thomas more than I have ever seen him favor any other player. When Thomas gets open, he is getting the ball. His 26 receptions through two games are the most by any player in the first two games of a season…ever. If this kind of combination continues, we could be looking at a monster season from Thomas. Before I move on I want to highlight Thomas’s first touchdown reception.
If you read my season preview for this team, I highlighted one specific play that I saw the Saints run in the preseason. What you are looking at above, is that exact play. My point of highlighting that play was that head coach Sean Payton is a genius, and if he trusts Michael Thomas, he will get him the ball. I was so encouraged by this play in the preseason because it meant that Thomas was being schemed open, specifically for touchdowns. Regardless of how good a player might be, if they are getting plays designed for them near the goal line, it is a great sign of future production. This play indicates the Thomas is going to score a lot this year and confirms that he has significant touchdown upside this year.
The Weekly Ted Ginn Jr. Update
Ted Ginn is still fast. At least once a game he runs by helpless defensive backs. Drew Brees knows this and is going to throw Ginn the ball. Will all of them end in touchdowns? Nope. Just like this week, if they do not connect on these few plays, Ginn is mostly useless for fantasy. However, he has a decent shot at a 70+ yard touchdown every week. He should absolutely be on fantasy rosters as a valuable depth piece with an actual possibility to put up double-digit points on any given week.
Is This Defense Good?
I have been asking myself the same question. Against the Browns, they certainly played well. As I mentioned in my opening paragraph, there were some unlucky plays for this defense but the kicker did leave 8 points on the field, so I am calling it a wash, 18 points allowed. So what went right for the Saints in this game? Corner Marshon Lattimore and safety Marcus Williams both played much better than they did week 1. Williams jumped a Tyrod Taylor pass and forced the first turnover of the season for this team. Maybe he has finally erased the Stefon Diggs miracle from his memory. Rookie edge rusher Marcus Davenport continued to apply pressure despite not registering a sack. Defensive end and superstar Cameron Jordan was dominant as always notching 2 sacks and 2 tackles for loss. Finally, Demario Davis was FLYING all over the field at middle linebacker and was a force to be reckoned with in the run game recording 9 tackles. This combination of talented players should encourage Saints fans, as well as Saints defense/ST owners. There is still one lingering issue on this team and that would be Corner Ken Crawley. Crawley was torched last week by Desean Jackson and was torched yet again by Antonio Callaway. The ridiculously impressive throw by Taylor is not to be overshadowed, but it did come in coverage from Crawley. The annoying thing about defenses, especially secondaries, is that single weak links can be exposed. It does not matter how good Lattimore is if Crawley cannot cover he will be abused by opposing offenses. It is not time to throw in the towel on this defense but this is something that I will monitor closely every week. If Crawley returns to his level of play in 2017, this defense will be very good.
Taysom Hill is Spectacular
Before I conclude this article, I would love to highlight one more player. Taysom Hill, backup QB/special teams ace/kick returner is my new favorite football player. The athleticism and energy he brings is unparalleled. He might not be a good enough quarterback for the NFL, but he deserves credit for the effort he has put in. He has become a surprisingly valuable part of this team and is honestly so much fun to watch. I cannot wait until they throw that ridiculous number 7 onto the field as a linebacker or safety or running back. Best of luck to Taysom Hill, I hope he stays a Saint forever.
The Saints have a great divisional matchup next week against the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons defense, without Keanu Neal and Deion Jones, is not nearly as athletic or formidable as they were, but will still be a good test for Brees, Thomas, and Kamara. The defense will have their hands full with a diverse, talented offense, that played very well this week. For a more in-depth look at this upcoming game and every other matchup, check out the QB List weekly previews as we break down every matchup for every team!