CLEVELAND — This Sunday, the Cleveland Browns head north to take on the Minnesota Vikings in a tough road matchup against a team that appears better than its 1-2 record. The game also serves as a homecoming for Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski, having worked in different roles for the Vikings from 2006 until he accepted the Browns head coaching position after the 2019 season.
What follows are three keys to victory for the Browns this weekend:
Stopping Minnesota’s explosive passing game
Through three games this year, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins has been one of the better signal-callers in the NFL. He’s not yet thrown an interception compared to eight touchdowns and is coming off a great game against Seattle last week. Cousins has one of the best one-two combinations at the wide receiver position in Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson. That pairing has combined to catch 41 of Cousins’ 88 completions thus far on the season. With the Browns missing rookie cornerback Greg Newsome II due to a calf injury, expect the Vikings to target his replacement, Greedy Williams, frequently with one of Thielen or Jefferson.
The best way to stop this type of attack is going to be with the same type of pass rush the Browns deployed against the Chicago Bears last week. The Vikings have been able to hide a mediocre offensive line by getting the ball out of Cousins’ hands quickly. He ranks seventh in the NFL, with just an average of 2.58 seconds elapsing from snap to throw, per NFL Next Gen Stats. Defensive coordinator Joe Woods may need to be a bit more creative with his play-calling to turn Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney loose in the backfield.
Turn up the turnovers
The Vikings have turned the ball over just one time on the season -- a Dalvin Cook fumble in a Week 1 loss to Cincinnati. Cousins has the longest active streak in the NFL of passing attempts without an interception, with 200 attempts since he was last picked off against the Chicago Bears at the end of a 33-27 loss last December.
The Browns haven’t exactly been a turnover-creating machine so far this year, either. They’ve only intercepted one pass on the season – coming in Week 2 against Houston. The only other turnover the Browns have created came on a fumbled punt they were able to recover against the Texans. Defensively, the Browns have certainly improved throughout the season, but the turnovers they should be capable of creating haven’t turned up yet. Cousins’ interception-less streak cannot last forever, and the Browns breaking through this week would go a long way to helping them land their first road victory of the season.
Play with a lead
It’s no secret that the Browns are built – perhaps better than any other team – to hang on to leads late in the game with a punishing run game. With running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, the Browns are able to demoralize opponents down the stretch by pounding the ball on the ground. As evidenced this past weekend against Chicago, the runs that were modest gains in the first half become larger, chunk plays in the fourth quarter. To date this season, Chubb is averaging 6.9 yards per carry in the fourth quarter, while Hunt is at 5.9 yards per carry.
The Browns getting out in front and controlling the clock could go a long way in keeping Minnesota’s offense off the field. Playing with that lead is also a way the Browns can deploy the version of their defense that’s most creative. While the secondary may not be at full strength, with each week that passes, the Browns should see more of rookie linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and safety Grant Delpit on the field, forcing the Vikings to deal with a number of different looks.
Locked On Browns:
On the latest Locked On Browns podcast, Jeff Lloyd previews the Browns' upcoming matchup against the Vikings with Luke Braun of Locked On Vikings.