(CBS Pittsburgh) — The Cleveland Browns came into the 2020 season with a fair bit of talent, but few wins to show for it. New coach Kevin Stefansky reorganized that talent and led Cleveland to 11 wins and their first playoff appearance in almost 20 years. In the Wild Card round, the Browns downed the Pittsburgh Steelers, who they had already lost to twice during the regular season. They then fell just short of topping the Super Bowl-bound (and then reigning Super Bowl champion) Kansas City Chiefs.
Expectations are much higher in Cleveland this season. And the Browns aren’t going to surprise anyone, least of all their Week 1 opponent. The Chiefs, behind Patrick Mahomes, advanced past that Divisional Playoff win over the Browns to the Super Bowl. But their second consecutive appearance did not result in their second consecutive win. On Sunday, Kansas City will start what could be yet another Super Bowl run on Sunday at home against Cleveland.
Stefansky has turned the Browns into a legitimate contender in just a season. “To Kevin Stefansky the team is bigger than any one individual,” according to former NFL coach and studio analyst on The NFL Today Bill Cowher. “It isn’t about how many touches I get here, how many touches I get there. Kevin Stefanski is about building a culture.”
“No one’s bigger than the team,” Cowher continued. “And I think if he takes it one game at a time until he really accomplishes something. There’s a simplicity about Kevin Stefanski… Coaching is about bringing people together, it’s about identifying what your strengths are, and, more importantly, the ability to mask what your weaknesses are. But to have people embrace the roles that they have. And I think that’s the one thing, that he has brought is humility to that football team and unselfishness to that football team.”
The Browns have quality players across the lineup. And that starts with Baker Mayfield at the quarterback position. “I think he’s a terrific thrower of the ball,” said studio analyst on The NFL Today Phil Simms. “He moves around well. He’s got a great first move out of the pocket, throws extremely well on the run. And he has that quality. He’s got a photographic memory, from what I understand, and he’s just kind of a natural leader. I think players gravitate towards him. He grew up last year, we saw the real talent that he is.”
The offense that Stefansky built, or imported from the Minnesota Vikings, gives Mayfield some flexibility, without the pressure to make things happen on his own. Cleveland was third in the NFL in rushing last season behind Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. The pair combined for 18 touchdowns and over 1,900 yards on the ground. That legitimate ground threat helped in the play-action as well. Hunt hauled in 38 catches out of the backfield. Wide receiver Jarvis Landry had 72 catches of his own, even after Odell Beckham’s injury made him the focus.
Beckham’s return enhances a Browns offense that could use his speed and play-making ability, but already knows how to put up points. “Odell Beckham is going to return to this team hungry but humbled,” said The NFL Today studio analyst Nate Burleson. “This isn’t the same Odell Beckham from years ago, rocking the number 13 in New York City, acting like a rock star. This is an individual who’s coming off his second significant injury and knowing he’s joining a squad that did it without him and almost beat the Chiefs without him.”
The Browns should be able to put up points this week, but can they stop the Chiefs from doing the same? The upgraded defense promises to be one of the NFL’s more physical units. That starts with defensive end Myles Garrett, who has the potential to be Defensive Player of the Year. He’s bookended by new arrival Jadeveon Clowney, with tackle Malik Jackson another new addition. Linebacker Anthony Walker steps into the middle of the Browns defense, and safety John Johnson bolsters the secondary.
“They’re loaded on defense,” The NFL Today studio analyst Boomer Esiason pointed out. “They can pass rush, they got a good secondary, and they finally got the right coach doing the right things and getting the best out of their young quarterback.”
Will Mayfield be able to keep up with his counterpart Mahomes? It may very well depend on whether the Chiefs new-look offensive line can hold off the Browns’ pass rush. The old unit’s failure to protect Mahomes in the Super Bowl is a big reason the team made offensive line an offseason priority. They signed Center Austin Blythe and guards Joe Thuney and Kyle Long in free agency. The Chiefs traded away their first-round pick for left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and then drafted center Creed Humphrey and guard Trey Smith. Lucas Niang steps in at right tackle after opting out of last season.
If the offensive line comes together, the Chiefs offense may actually improve this season, which is a scary thought for the rest of the NFL. Kansas City was the only team to put up over 5,000 passing yards last season. Tight end Travis Kelce hauled in 105 passes for 1,416 yards, the second most in the league. Wide receiver Tyreek Hill wasn’t far behind, with 87 catches for 1,276 yards. Both return, along with receivers Mecole Hardman and Demarcus Robinson, who also remain threats. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who averaged 4.4 yards on his 181 carries, is also a pass-catching threat out of the backfield.
The Chiefs’ high-powered offense has covered for their defense in recent seasons. The unit, while better against the run than the pass, allowed an NFL-worst 415.8 yards per game last season. The difference may have simply been a function of opponents playing from a deficit and having to pass more. This year’s defense may be a step up from last year’s, given a few offseason changes. Chris Jones slides over from defensive tackle to defensive end, possibly improving the pass rush. Second-round pick Nick Bolton steps in at linebacker, though fellow linebacker and second-round pick Willie Gay will be out until at least Week 4. Safety Tyrann Mathieu wears a lot of hats in this defense, and Daniel Sorensen led the team in tackle last season. Mathieu, however, remains on the team’s COVID list and could miss Sunday’s game.
The Browns play the Chiefs Sunday, September 12 @ 4:25 p.m. ET on CBS.