First game of the 2022 season, Baker Mayfield versus the Browns defense, watching the game with my fellow Middle Tennessee Browns Backers. THAT’S why I’m watching. This Sunday the Browns travel to Carolina for a 1:00 p.m. (EST) game against the Panthers. This is the game Browns fans are both excited for and dreading at the same time. The combination of 1-21-1 and the opposing quarterback will turn Browns Twitter during this game into something I think I’ll avoid. It’s all about peace of mind. So, what am I watching?
Browns Offense Vs. Panthers Defense. In 2021, Carolina’s defense finished the season ranked number two. They allowed 114 yards rushing per game, 192 yards passing per game and 23.8 points a game. When their defense held their opponent to 15 points or less, they were 5-0, when allowing more than 15 points a game, they were 0-12. Last year the Panthers’ problem was red zone defense. They finished 30th allowing 35 touchdowns on 52 trips (67%) and a QBR of 108. Carolina plays a traditional 4-3 defense, with both their defensive ends Brian Burns and Yetur Gross-Matos playing at about 250 lbs. Burns (nine sacks) and Gross-Matos (3.5 sacks) are the Panthers returning sack leaders. Former defensive end Hasson Riddick led Carolina in sacks last year with 11 sacks. In 2021 the Panthers blitzed the most on first and third down (40%). The Browns will need to control the edges, use play action and run quick passes early to stop the blitz. Every Browns fan wants to see both Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt in the backfield at the same time and so do I.
The matchups I would like to see are WR Donovan Peoples-Jones vs. CB C.J. Henderson, WR Amari Cooper vs. CB Donte Jackson and TE David Njoku vs. S Xavier Woods. It wouldn’t surprise me to see head coach Kevin Stefanski take a few shots downfield early.
Browns Defense Vs. Panthers Offense. In 2021 the Panthers offense finished 30th. They averaged 108 yards rushing, 192 yards passing and about 18 points a game. A lot of the blame can be placed on the injury to running back Christian McCaffrey and an unsettled quarterback position. With McCaffery the Panthers were 4-3 and without him they were 1-9. The media is making a big deal out of the Browns stopping quarterback Baker Mayfield; however, the Browns need to concentrate on stopping McCaffery and wide receiver D.J. Moore. Moore in 2021 had 93 receptions for 1157 yards, four touchdowns and a catch rate of 57.1%. The Panthers’ other main receiving threat is Robbie Anderson, with 53 receptions for 519 yards, five touchdowns and a catch rate of 48.2%.
The Browns linebackers are going to have to be active to stop the Panthers’ running game. LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is the perfect player to keep tabs on McCaffery both in the running game and the passing game. Cleveland’s defensive line needs to not only provide pressure but also contain on the edges. The Panthers are starting a rookie at left tackle, Ikem Ekwonu. I would rotate Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney against the rookie during the game. As the game progresses, I expect defensive coordinator Joe Woods to mix in an occasional safety or cornerback blitz. The Browns safeties will also have to keep track of the Panthers’ tight ends and running backs. In the preseason new Panthers’ offensive coordinator Ben Mcadoo had QB Baker Mayfield playing more in the shotgun than play action and he threw to the TEs and RBs about 73% of the time.
Special Teams. Head Coach Kevin Stefanski needs to get away from the need to always score touchdowns and replace it with the need to score points. The Browns have a kicker now. If it’s fourth and goal, kick the field goal, it worked for the Bengals last year. The one position I’ll be watching on special teams will be the punt returner. I can’t remember a game when a punt return helped the Browns win a game. The Panthers have a new kicker, Eddy Pineiro after placing Zane Gonzalez on IR. Pineiro was listed on the first injury report with a hip injury.
To say this is a big game is an understatement. I’m watching to see if Stefanski dials up the offense early (similar to 2020) to control the game, then turn the ball over to the running game late. As for the Browns’ defense, I’m going to be watching coverage schemes and disguised blitz packages. Everybody enjoy the game.