The Cleveland Browns, after taking a 38-14 head slap delivered by the Los Angeles Chargers, have reached a crossroad in their first full season with general manager John Dorsey in charge.
The Browns take a 2-3-1 record to Tampa to face the Buccaneers on Sunday. They are once again in their familiar residence in the AFC Central Division — last place.
Losing to the Chargers the way they did, being overwhelmed on both sides of the ball in a home game, was deflating. The Buccaneers give them a chance to rebound. After that they play in Pittsburgh and host Kansas City then Atlanta before their bye comes up on Nov. 18.
“We’re going see what type men we have on this team,” Browns linebacker Christian Kirksey said.
The Buccaneers are going in the wrong direction, too. They have lost three straight after winning their first two games and, like the Browns are below .500. Tampa Bay fired defensive coordinator Mike Smith on Monday.
The Bucs and Browns are 1-2 among teams with the longest playoff drought.
Cleveland hasn’t sniffed the postseason since 2002, the year Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl. The Buccaneers haven’t made it to the playoffs in a decade.
Both have No. 1 overall picks at quarterback. The Browns’ Baker Mayfield shows promise and mobility.
“You can see why he was picked where he was,” Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter said.
Tampa Bay is hanging with Jameis Winston, who has lost 10 of his last 11 starts, including his return from a three-game suspension last week at Atlanta.
Winston had one of his better games, throwing for nearly 400 yards and four touchdowns. But it was his second-half interception that helped doom the Bucs.
The difference in Sunday’s 1 p.m. game is that the wheels may be falling off for Tampa Bay.
The Buccaneers have given up 16 touchdown passes and five more on the ground. That should play into the Browns’ hands, especially given Tampa Bay’s vulnerability through the air.
In the Bucs favor is the fact that injuries have left the Browns so desperately thin at wide receiver that they signed Breshard Perriman off the scrap heap the Saturday before they played the Chargers. On Tuesday, Cleveland elevated Da’Mari Scott from the practice squad.
Their other receivers are rookie Antonio Callaway, rookie Damion Ratley and fifth-year player Jarvis Landry. Landry is the only reliable target Mayfield has, and he faces a double-team on almost every play because the other wide receivers are so inexperienced.
“I think we can do some things better so that when Baker needs an escape route there will be one there for him,” Browns head coach Hue Jackson said. “I think it’s a combination of everything. There’s going to be tape built now on Baker and how to defend him. That comes along with the territory. That’s just a part of it.”
The Chargers taught the Buccaneers and all future teams on Cleveland’s schedule something else: The Browns are vulnerable to outside running plays. Melvin Gordon rushed for 132 yards on 18 carries. He picked up most of that running outside the tackles.
The Buccaneers don’t have anyone to match Gordon’s talent in their backfield. Their leading rusher is Peyton Barber with 230 yards on 63 carries. Their only rushing touchdown was scored by quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Still, Cleveland can expect Tampa Bay to crank up the ground game until the Browns prove they can stop it.
The Browns are going to be without leading tackle Joe Schobert for the foreseeable future. Schobert, a middle linebacker, suffered a hamstring injury playing the Chargers last Sunday and is listed as week-to-week.
“He’s a really, really good athlete,” Cleveland defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said. “I’m talking about an excellent athlete. On top of that, he’s very smart. He’s very prideful. He does not ever like making a mistake. On top of all of that, our middle linebacker is the quarterback in and on the defense.”
Christian Kirksey is moving from outside to inside to take Schobert’s spot.
The Browns definitely want to emphasize the run on Sunday. The Buccaneers have yielded those 16 passing touchdowns, but the Browns are so young with three rookies at wide receiver that they cannot rely on a heavy air attack. Running back Carlos Hyde has a nose for the goal line and Nick Chubb is hard to track down from behind once he turns the corner. Hyde has five rushing touchdowns and Chubb has two.
Bucs linebacker Kendell Beckwith, whose season-long recovery from ankle surgery has left a major void defensively, did not practice on Wednesday — the first day he was eligible to return to the field.
Beckwith, who was placed on the non-football injury list to open the season, said his recovery is going well.
“It’s definitely been a battle,” Beckwith said. “But the battle is almost over.”
Still, there’s no clear timetable for Beckwith, and his uncertain return is a hit for a struggling defense. Beckwith played an important role as a rookie last season as the team’s starting strong-side linebacker. He logged 73 tackles while filling in elsewhere when starting linebackers Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander missed time with injuries.