Cleveland Browns @ San Francisco 49ers
Live on Sky Sports Action
Freeing up Mayfield's arm for Cleveland
The Cleveland Browns are slowly working it out. And, in fairness, in the mutually-cancelling dogfight of the AFC North, there's no huge rush to find solutions. Simply finish ahead of the Baltimore Ravens in the regular season - Cleveland already hold a head-to-head advantage - and the Browns will be into the play-offs and not without hope in one of the more open seasons in recent memory.
More immediately, they have a tricky assignment on the road at the Fog City for a late-night primetime match-up against the undefeated San Francisco 49ers, who have opened up the current campaign with an impressive 3-0 to head the NFC West, perhaps the most competitive division out there this season.
Jimmy Garoppolo continues to attract media plaudits under center in San Fran, but I still think the jury should remain out on the admittedly talented 27-year-old, formerly just an expensive benchwarmer in New England in the considerable shadow of Tom Brady. Indeed, the 49ers' offense has already turned the ball over a whopping eight times, so they hardly appear to be a unit readily responsive to every tug of Garoppolo's reins.
Niners' G can't save their D
Instead, and as ever, their defense (third in yards allowed per game) remains the Niners' trump card. And while they are arguably yet to hit their highest gear so far this term, they still rank inside the league's top 10 for sacks per game and sack percentage, while their pass rush should be bolstered by the return of rookie edge rusher and defensive end Nick Bosa. This stud D have also forced seven turnovers, featuring two six-picks, and are clearly gelling under the seasoned leadership of All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman.
All of which spells trouble, if not doom, for a Cleveland O-line desperately trying to protect the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield. The 24-year-old has been a fast learner at every stage of his career, and it's proven to be a similar case in the professional ranks too. For, after a lacklustre start to the season, Mayfield has given himself a stern talking to and pledged to minimise his initial mistakes. After all, a succession of shortfield cuts can represent a more successful strategy than the occasional deep downfield strike, even if you have the might of Odell Beckham Jnr straining at the leash.
The Browns' crack corps of receivers may even have "Hollywood" Higgins (presently listed as questionable) returning to the line-up this evening, in which case Mayfield will like his options. However, the safest and most effective option for the young QB seems to be simply handing off the pigskin to his in-form running man Nick Chubb who racked up 165 yards and three touchdowns last weekend. Collective Cleveland cohesion is slowly but surely arriving to this potentially explosive offense.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the roster, the Browns also sport their own bulwark defensive quartet, possessed of an ominous rush that (granted, if fit and well-marshalled) which could soon demand double-coverage, naturally freeing one or other of their crew up to bring the heat to rival quarterbacks. So there's a chance they can stampede over the Niners' more makeshift line to get to Garoppolo, shutting down his sub-prime receivers.
Sure, they're a few ifs and buts in tonight's big-game analysis, but I truly believe Cleveland have the stronger personnel man-for-man to overturn some patronising Vegas lines in Levi's Stadium. And when you're playing within the safety of some generous handicaps, it makes these bets look all the more appealing.