Rookie Greg Newsome combined with Denzel Ward to make for a frustrating day for Bengals top rookie receiver Ja'Marr Chase. (Sports Illustrated)
Second thoughts: If they play aggressive and physical like in Cincinnati, Denzel Ward and Greg Newsome could be better than Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield
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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland.
Second thoughts on Browns’ 41-16 rout of Cincinnati Bengals …
1. Over the last 35 years, Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield was the greatest cornerback tandem I’ve seen on the Browns. Besides their physical ability and their chemistry as inseparable teammates, what made them special was their aggressiveness and physicalness. They were pugnacious, two pit bulls that not only defended receivers but intimidated them. Nowadays, coaches would say of them, “They compete.” I thought about Top Dawg & Mighty Minny watching Denzel Ward and Greg Newsome totally take Ja’Marr Chase out of his game Sunday in Cincinnati. Ward and Newsome each took turns single-covering Chase without much safety help. Each had his best game of the season. They’re different from Dixon and Minnifield, however. Ward and Newsome both are fantastic coverage corners, able to mirror every step of a receiver’s route. They haven’t been as physical as they were Sunday because they haven’t been permitted to be. They’ve played “off” coverage way too much. I’m hoping Sunday’s performance convinces coordinator Joe Woods to unshackle Ward and Newsome and let them be more aggressive in press coverage, more physical overall. If so, Ward and Newsome could be better than Dixon and Minnifield, who were the key to Marty Schottenheimer’s defenses in the Browns’ playoff run in the late 1980s.
2. I asked Kevin Stefanski if Woods will continue to be aggressive with his pair of first-round cornerbacks. “I think that is how we want to play,” Stefanski answered. “Obviously, game to game, you have certain adjustments and certain coverages that you are going to play a little bit more of. We want to be aggressive in our zone coverage, and we want to be aggressive in our man coverage. When the guys have one-on-one opportunities, we want them to deny their man the ball. That is the simple way of putting it. We want our guy to take their guy out of the play. I think you saw that, but to say that that was different than this season, I think our guys understand that they have to play aggressive. When the time calls for it and when the defense calls for it, you have to go deny your man the ball.”
3. Not only did Ward and Newsome have their finest games, so did nickel back Troy Hill and safety John Johnson. That’s four defensive backs having their best games in the same game. That’s how you hold Chase to 49 receiving yards on 13 targets (more on that below) and Tee Higgins to 78 yards despite six receptions on eight targets. Fortunately for the Browns, the Bengals forgot about Tyler Boyd (one catch, 11 yards, two targets), but that may be because Hill was so effective blitzing from the slot (two sacks and another quarterback hit that resulted in a sack for Anthony Walker after a scoring change). Those four players combined for 17 tackles, 2 sacks, 6 pass breakups, 2 interceptions, 1 TD by Ward, and 1 forced fumble by Johnson.
4. Ward’s 99-yard interception return on Cincinnati’s first offensive series was the play of the game. Turning a potential 7-0 deficit into a 7-0 lead was huge. Teams that score first historically win 65 percent of NFL games, according to various Websites. But after Joe Burrow stormed straight down the field on his second possession to tie the score, Baker Mayfield’s first offensive possession became just as important as Ward’s Pick 6. The Browns scored in nine plays with Nick Chubb touching the ball on six of them, including a bull run through the line from 1 yard for the touchdown. That 14-7 lead turned to 21-7 on Mayfield’s 60-yard scoring bomb to Donovan Peoples-Jones. After that, Joe Burrow and his suspect offensive line had no chance, and the rout was on.
5. Chase is on everybody’s mid-season “all-pro” team and is the runaway leader for offensive rookie-of-the-year. Ward and Newsome held him to six catches on 13 targets for 49 yards. Chase was involved in all three Browns takeaways. Ward jumped his route at the 1-yard line and Chase’s fall to the ground enabled Ward a healthy headstart to his long return; Johnson forced a Chase fumble after a catch with a left shoulder hit on the ball, which was recovered by A.J. Green; and Burrow was intercepted again when Ward got his left hand inside Chase on a slant route and deflected the ball to Johnson. Chase also blew a touchdown when a perfect Burrow pass over Newsome went through Chase’s arms in the end zone. Chase also had Newsome beat by a step on a deep ball in the fourth quarter, but Chase dropped the ball at the Browns’ 20. The Bengals scored a touchdown, anyway, after the Chase drop in the end zone. The second drop, with the Browns ahead, 34-16, with 8:58 to play, might have made the final minutes tighter. I would argue that the physical play of Ward and Newsome throughout the game got in Chase’s head and influenced the drops.
6. CBS analyst Tony Romo became popular for uncannily predicting plays in his early years as Jim Nantz’s partner. On Sunday’s broadcast, he made a prescient comment early in the second half. The Browns had the ball first after halftime and had to punt after attempting to throw on five of six plays. After a screen play was blown up by the Bengals on the first play of the Browns’ second possession, Romo pontificated about the Browns’ strong running game orchestrated by line coach Bill Callahan. “Make the game simple and just hand the ball to Nick Chubb,” Romo pleaded to Stefanski. “Just give it to him a little more. Ride him a little bit in the second half.” At the time, Chubb had 7 carries for 40 yards and a touchdown. On the very next play, Chubb blasted through a hole created by pulling right guard Wyatt Teller’s pancake of Bengals safety Jesse Bates, broke a faint tackle attempt of cornerback Eli Apple, and accelerated to the end zone, leaving safety Vonn Bell and cornerback Chidobe Awuzie coughing up vapor trails.
7. When Bill Belichick was named Browns head coach in 1991, Stefanski was 9 years old and playing Pop Warner football in suburban Philadelphia. Thirty years later, Stefanski will get to match wits with Belichick, author of six Super Bowl championships as coach of the Patriots. This will be Stefanski’s first game against Belichick as a head coach. As an assistant with the Minnesota Vikings, Stefanski saw Belichick’s Patriots win four times – in 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018. “I have not had the opportunity to meet Coach Belichick yet,” Stefanski said. “This is the first time [as head coach] facing off against him. Obviously, he has my utmost respect. As we all know, there are probably not superlatives from me necessary, but we have to go make sure we are prepared because we know it is a well-coached team. They play sound ball. We have to make sure we are at our best Sunday up there.”