CLEVELAND — Six weeks into the season, we know what works for the Browns—the running game, the kicker, and that’s about it (consistently, at least).
But after losing to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, the Browns have some new questions to address before their next game against Denver in four short days.
The Browns have already been bitten by the injury bug early in the season. With running back Nick Chubb, receiver Jarvis Landry, left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. and right tackle Jack Conklin all on the sideline heading into Sunday's game, and numerous other players playing banged up, the Browns took more hits to their health throughout the game.
Running back Kareem Hunt was carted into the locker room with a calf injury in the fourth quarter. As he left the field with medical staff helping to keep him upright, Hunt could not put weight on his right leg.
The Browns ruled Hunt out for the remainder of the game with a calf injury. Head coach Kevin Stefanski said there's no concern of an Achilles injury and that Hunt will undergo an MRI to determine the severity of the calf injury.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield also was injured Sunday, taking another hit to his left shoulder, which was already injured with a partially torn labrum in Week 2. Mayfield was playing through it, in a harness, when he was sacked by Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt.
Mayfield entered the medical tent on the sideline, and after leaving and heading back in multiple times, Mayfield put on his helmet and returned to the game.
"It feels like s***," Mayfield said of his shoulder after the game, coming to the press conference in a sling.
Mayfield said his left shoulder dislocated on the hit and then later popped in and out on a non-contact play later in the game after he returned to the field.
Although Mayfield's answer when asked if he'd be able to play on Thursday was a firm "absolutely," a shortened week and a strain on an already injured shoulder might put that decision in question as the week goes on. He'll undergo an MRI on Monday as well.
Rookie linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is also in question after he injured his ankle late in the game. The severity of the injury is unknown, and he'll also have an MRI, but his loss would be impactful after performing consistently each week he takes the field.
4th down issues
Week in and week out, the Browns take sacks on fourth down.
The Browns are analytically driven, and those analytics tell Stefanski to be aggressive and go for it more times than not.
And yet: "We have not been good on fourth down, and it's frustrating," Stefanksi said. "We haven't done a good job. I've got to get guys open is the truth. "
But guys have been open, and the team has not executed, as ESPN's Jake Trotter highlighted in the Browns fourth down attempt on their second drive of the game. Odell Beckham Jr. was open but not targeted as Mayfield took the sack.
Cleveland is now 6-for-15 on fourth down attempts. It isn't working.
While analytics will tell Stefanski to go for it on fourth down, those statistics don't take into account a team playing with two backup offensive tackles, a banged up quarterback, one of the star running backs sidelined or any other scenario the Browns are dealing with at the moment.
It may be time for Stefanski to begin questioning when going for it on fourth down is aggressive and when it's foolish.
There were two weeks where the defense shined, and the other four weeks it was lackluster. In the past two games, the defense has given up 84 points. Things have not gone well.
Stefanski said he still has faith in defensive coordinator Joe Woods, but six weeks in, the Browns might need to start questioning where the issues on the defense stem from.
"It's all communication. Everybody needs to echo the calls out and make sure we're on the same page," said cornerback Denzel Ward after Sunday's loss.
Yes, the team says that communication is the issue, and that can be seen in the blown coverages, missed tackles and a lack of turnovers. But that issue is something the Browns have said they need to fix after each poor performance from the defense.
Defensive end Myles Garrett won't use players sidelined through practice with injury as an excuse because they've practice together for months now and said that they'll need to watch film to improve on those communication issues that have once again appeared on the field.
"We practice with everyone. Through training camp and throughout the year, everybody plays a role in practice. They've shown they can make big plays in games," Garrett said. "Right now, we have to find ourselves. We're not rushing like we're supposed to. We're not covering like we're supposed to.”
The defense has shown what it's capable of, but the question now is how to make those explosive performances appear more often than the lackluster ones.
With a short week ahead and the Denver Broncos coming to town for Thursday Night Football in just four days, the Browns have limited time to answer these questions and others if they don't want their record to fall too behind to manage.
At 3-3, the Browns aren't close to giving up and are confident they'll bounce back from this week's hard hit.
"Eleven games left. Got time to be 14-3. I'm not too worried," Garrett said. "It's like a boxing match, you lose a couple rounds, come back with some flurries and get the momentum on your side."
So don't ring the bell on the team just yet, Browns fans.
Download the News 5 Cleveland app now for more stories from us, plus alerts on major news, the latest weather forecast, traffic information and much more. Download now on your Apple device here, and your Android device here.