(Five points of interest in Sunday’s game)
WE AND JULIO
Falcons receiver Julio Jones can’t be stopped. At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds with sprinter’s speed, strong hands and a sprawling catch radius, he’s going to make plays no matter what a defense throws at him. The Browns should be content to slow him down, and will need to devote extra resources just to do that.
“He’s doing everything that he needs to do for that offense to thrive,” cornerback TJ Carrie said. “And when you’ve got him taking up two (defenders), it’s an expectation for everybody else to win.”
The Browns could try to cover Jones with rookie Denzel Ward or Damarious Randall, but they’re battling injuries and that’s an impossible task even when healthy. A likely alternative is having Carrie — who’s taking over as a starter for E.J. Gaines, who’s on injured reserve with a concussion — at the line of scrimmage with Randall over the top in constant bracket coverage.
“Big, fast, strong. I mean, you name it,” Randall said. “He’s the guy that if you had to pick a receiver No. 1 in the league, I’m pretty sure probably all 32 teams would pick Julio Jones.”
Jones, 29, is healthy after battling injuries in the past. He ranks among the league leaders with 60 catches (seventh in the NFL) for 933 yards (second) and is first with 116.6 yards a game. He got his first touchdown last week in a win over Washington, and the whole team celebrated. He’s had five 100-yard games and is about to hit 1,000 yards for the fifth straight season. He has 9,987 yards in his career and needs 13 more to become the fastest in NFL history to reach 10,000.
The numbers aren’t just scary, they’re sad. The Browns were in position to draft him in 2011, but then-general manager Tom Heckert traded the No. 6 selection for a bunch of picks that went to waste in Phil Taylor, Greg Little and Brandon Weeden.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was the MVP in 2016 and is playing like one again. It helps that rookie Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu join Jones at receiver and Tevin Coleman is a dual threat at running back. The Falcons have the second-ranked offense (320.1 yards per game) and have scored more than 30 points in five of eight games.
“They’re a very dynamic offense, something like the Chiefs, but I feel like they actually have a little bit better weapons than the Chiefs do,” Randall said. The Chiefs scored 37 against the Browns last week and made it look easy.
Ryan’s numbers at midseason put him among the elite. He leads the league with 335.6 passing yards a game, is tied for fourth with 19 touchdowns and only three interceptions, ranks fourth with a 70.8 completion percentage and 115.1 rating and fifth with 8.92 yards a throw. He’s also clutch, posting a 126.9 rating in the fourth quarter (fourth) and a 116.1 rating on third down (third).
“It does not happen overnight. I wish that you could come here to see the way that he puts in the work to prepare,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “The guys here totally believe in him, rely on him, because he is so consistent. He is one tough competitor. On the outside, you would not know. He is what we describe as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He goes for it in every single way.”
With Jones drawing much of the defense’s attention, Ridley, Sanu and Coleman are taking advantage of single coverage. Ridley, the No. 26 pick out of Alabama, has seven touchdowns, and his 463 receiving yards are second among rookies. Sanu has 28 catches for 369 yards and three touchdowns. And Coleman had a big day last week in a win over Washington, rushing 13 times for 88 yards and catching five passes for 68 and two touchdowns.
PIECES TO THE PUZZLE
Linebacker Christian Kirksey (hamstring) and Gaines are done for the season. Linebacker Joe Schobert and Randall are back, along with Ward, who left last week’s loss in the first quarter.
That’s an upgrade overall, but the struggling defense won’t be whole again for the rest of the season. That’s no excuse. Enough talent remains — defensive end Myles Garrett, defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, Schobert and Jamie Collins at linebacker, Randall, Ward and safety Jabrill Peppers — to stop the hemorrhaging. The Browns have allowed 33.5 points a game during a four-game skid and must play much better to keep the Falcons from putting up a similar number.
“We have to do a better job of tackling this week,” interim coach Gregg Williams said.
“You play the game to play the best, you play the game to acknowledge that you’re one of the best, and this is going to be another feat for us,” Carrie said. “And I can say that we didn’t play as well last (week), we failed. And from a defensive standpoint, we need to do more and we need to look at ourselves more to be able to come out on top.”
The key to the defense’s success early in the season was the takeaway. The Browns still lead the league with 23 but got only one last week and in the loss to the Chargers that started the skid. The whole team needs a momentum change, and that could come from a couple of Garrett strip-sacks or interceptions by Randall or Ward.
LIVING ON THE EDGE
The Falcons’ pass rush doesn’t look scary with only 17 sacks through eight games, but the Browns can’t afford to take it lightly. Not only did Vic Beasley have 15.5 sacks in 2016 and spend much of last week in Washington’s backfield, but on the other edge will be veteran Bruce Irvin and his 40 career sacks after signing Thursday. He sacked Baker Mayfield in Week 4 with the Raiders.
Greg Robinson is expected to make his second straight start at left tackle and will see a lot of Irvin. Robinson helped stabilize a struggling line last week and will need to build on the performance. He was the No. 2 pick of the Rams in 2014 and has another chance to fulfill his potential.
Right tackle Chris Hubbard draws Beasley. His only sack came in Week 3 but he’s still capable of wreaking havoc.
“He’s quick, athletic as I don’t know what, reminds me of Myles getting off the ball quick,” Hubbard said. “I think Myles is a little bit more powerful, but he’s an athletic guy.”
Hubbard has tweaked his technique over the last few weeks and is feeling better about his game. He and Robinson must secure the edges to give Mayfield the time he needs to exploit a suspect secondary.
WORTH A SHOT
Mayfield wants to throw the ball down the field. Williams told him to “cut it loose” and not be afraid to make mistakes. Enter receiver Breshad Perriman.
In Freddie Kitchens’ first game as coordinator and play caller, Perriman stepped off the sideline to play 26 snaps, gain 45 yards on four touches and give the Chiefs something to think about. With rookie Antonio Callaway disappearing for large chunks of games, the Browns need another deep threat to stretch the field and stress the defense. Perriman can still fly and has good size. He didn’t last in Baltimore, but with the suspect state of the receiving corps, the Browns are doing the right thing by giving him a chance.
“We have to be able to threaten people down the field with shots,” Mayfield said. “He is one of those guys that has the capability of doing that.”
Perriman’s expanded role should include end-arounds, bubble screens and go routes. If the Falcons ignore him, he can beat them deep. If they respect him, the middle of the field should open for receiver Jarvis Landry and tight end David Njoku.
Cleveland’s record since it last played the Falcons in 2014, when a 26-24 win in Atlanta made the Browns 7-4
Consecutive passes for Atlanta’s Matt Ryan without an interception, before throwing one last week
Yards given up by the Falcons on first down, last in the league
Teams going in opposite directions collide and a shootout breaks out. Falcons 34, Browns 31.