A new era. Justin Fields’ time is upon us. He will start his first NFL game on Sunday when he returns to Ohio for the battle for the Midwest: Bears vs. Browns. The Bears will travel to “Believeland” for a noon kickoff against the Browns. The Bears come into this game as major dogs, with a spread of +7 coming into the game.
What better way for Fields to introduce himself to the league than to travel to his college state and pull off the upset? I mean, cover the spread. Maybe just make it a good game. The state of Ohio adores the Bears' young signal-caller for all he did for the Ohio State football program. This game could serve as a homecoming for him, of sorts, as long as he gets the chance to start.
Cleveland will always hold a special place in my heart, as a Cubs fan. Just 347 miles east of home is where the Cubs managed to end the curse. However, I am not so sure that I will be as happy about the results on Sunday. If you happen to be traveling to the game this weekend, here is a fun tourist video for you:
Bears vs. Browns History
This game will be the fifth matchup between the Bears and Browns since Cleveland returned to the NFL in 1999. In that time, the Bears are 4-1 against the Browns with a point differential of +44. In 1996, Art Modell moved the Browns from Cleveland to Baltimore, changing the team name to the Ravens. Including games against the 1944-1995 Browns, the Bears lead the series with a 9-7 record.
In 2020, the Bears snuck into the playoffs with a record of 8-8. The Bears have the eighth-worst odds among all NFL teams to make the playoffs (+245). They have the third-best odds to win the NFC North (+413), behind the Packers (-250) and Vikings (+375). Additionally, the Bears have the eighth-worst odds to win the Super Bowl (+10,000).
In 2020, the Browns ended a 17-season playoff drought, posting a record of 11-5. The Browns have the fifth-best odds among all NFL teams to make the playoffs (-250). They have the second-best odds to win the AFC North (+155), second only to the Ravens (+140). Additionally, the Browns have the eighth-best odds to win the Super Bowl (+1,600).
Bears vs. Browns Betting Lines
In the above table, I have noted the spread and the projected spreads according to my two models, PFF, and 538’s two models for Bears vs. Browns. Why two models from one source? I like to use multiple models to crosscheck each other. The more models that say something is a good bet, the more assurances you get. That's what all of us gamblers want, assurances.
I should note that my model is very hit or miss in the first three weeks of the season. There is just not enough data available on current roster production to avoid using projections to some degree.
Bears vs. Browns Team Stats
On average, the Browns offense is a powerhouse, ranking fifth in the NFL using DVOA, EPA per Play, success rate, and PFF Grades. They boast the top rushing offense in the NFL in three of the four categories, with an average rank of fourth. Through the air, they have an average rank of ninth. It is good to be Baker Mayfield.
The Bears defense ranks 14th in the NFL using the same metrics for the other side of the ball. Against the pass, they have an average rank of 14th. On the ground, their defense also ranks 14th. Who says they are inconsistent?
The average ranking for the Bears offense is 21st using those same metrics. The Bears offense shows quality metrics for the ground game, ranking 13th across the four sources. However, their passing attack ranks 24th. What else is new?
Meanwhile, the Browns defense ranks 18th in the NFL. Cleveland’s defense has been stout against the run, ranking fourth in the NFL. However, they have been susceptible to big plays through the air, ranking 28th against the pass. Their secondary is loaded with talent, which makes me wonder if they are just finding their footing.
Browns 2021 Roster
The “2021 Percentile” uses multiple position-specific stats to generate a relative ranking for each player at their position. The PFF Grades represent each player’s offensive or defensive PFF grade for 2021, and their previous two seasons. The PFF grades are only here to give an idea of each player’s historical production. PFF grades are not included in the percentiles for any position except for the offensive line.
- It is good to be Baker Mayfield. The feisty signal-caller has gotten off to a good start in 2021. This offense does not rely on the QB as heavily as many other team would. Baker ranks seventh in EPA per play, first in success rate, and first in CPOE. However, he ranks 31st among 31 QBs in usage rate. No other starting QB is relied on less to move the team down the field.
- Nick Chubb is a problem. There is no other way to say it. He ranks as the best RB in football, and rightfully so. Fifth in yards, third in yards per touch, second in TDs, fifth in EPA per play, and eighth in RYOE. Chubb is a runaway train, and he gets plenty of rest with the 23rd-ranked RB, Kareem Hunt, behind him.
- The mismatch formula the Browns depend on leans heavily upon their tight ends. David Njoku, Austin Hooper, and Harrison Bryant have all played north of 20 snaps through two games. All three tight ends rank in the top 20 across the NFL, currently. The trio has combined for 227 yards on 18 receptions this season.
- Cleveland’s offensive line is full of grown ass men. This unit is very good at what they do, and that is road grading. This could make for a fun matchup with the Bears DL. I am moving away from using PFF grades in the future, and looking for alternative ways to assess OL play as a whole rather than individually. In order to do so, I totaled the pressures and sacks allowed by the Browns. I then compared those pressures and sacks allowed by others who played the same opponents. The Browns ranked 28th in OL pass blocking performance, by this metric. This metric is volatile when the sample size is small, and should normalize with time. Using Football Outsiders Adjusted Line Yards metric for run blocking, the Browns rank second. They also rank ninth in power success rate.
- On the defensive line, the Browns have a revamped front centered around monster-man edge rusher Myles Garrett. Paired with fellow number one overall pick Jadaveon Clowney, both edge starters rank as top-20 players at the position. Garrett might be the best edge defender in football.
- Cleveland added Malik Jackson and Malik McDowell on the interior this offseason. Jackson is a veteran who has a strong record of accomplishments when healthy. McDowell is a former first-round pick who had never played a down before 2021 due to an ATV accident. This defensive front does lack size inside. Among players who have played any snaps in 2021, only two defenders weigh over 300 lbs.
- At WR, the Browns have less than ideal depth due to recent injuries. Ideally, they would field a dangerous duo of Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. However, due to injuries, Beckham has not yet played a snap in 2021. Landry will not likely play against the Bears. There is a good chance that Beckham sees his first action of the year against Chicago. Cleveland’s number two WR will likely be second-year pro Donovan Peoples-Jones. Peoples-Jones was a favorite of mine in the 2020 draft. He has seen limited snaps since entering the league. I would also expect speedy rookie Anthony Schwartz to see plenty of snaps Sunday. Schwartz runs a 4.26 40-yard dash and holds the world record for under-18 best time in 100 meters. He is not the most technically sound WR, but his speed is very real.
- The CB position is a little perplexing for the Browns. Denzel Ward is widely considered one of the better CBs in the league. Ward currently ranks 85th in yards allowed, 58th in yards per catch, and 70th in completion percentage allowed. I would not expect these stats to last for Cleveland’s talented young CB. Meanwhile, rookie first-round pick and former Northwestern great, Greg Newsome III, has gotten off to a strong rookie campaign. He currently ranks fourth in yards, first in yards per catch, and 14th in completion percentage allowed. Those Northwestern kids sure are good at their jobs. Defending the slot, Cleveland typically deploys a veteran CB Troy Hill. Through two games, Hill has been susceptible in slot coverage, allowing 48 yards on six targets (8 Yds/Tgt). There is a lot of talent here at the CB position, but the Browns secondary as a whole has struggled.
- On the back end, the Browns signed former Rams free safety John Johnson III to a lucrative contract in the offseason. Through the first two games, he has had a rough adjustment, allowing 103 yards on five targets. This could just be a lack of chemistry with the other DBs, but only time will tell. Across from Johnson, the Browns are starting former Jaguar Ronnie Harrison, who ranks 55th among safeties. Harrison has been notable against the run, ranking in the top 10 for run defense among safeties. In coverage, he has allowed 50 yards on four targets.
- At LB, the Browns have played a combination of five different defenders regularly in 2021. Malcolm Smith has been the most used LB on the defense. He has not accumulated favorable stats against the pass or the run, ranking as the 76th best LB out of 77. Anthony Walker has played the second most, and has been used much more heavily in passing situations. The former Cowboy is strong in coverage, but not as strong against the run. The other LBs with notable snaps are Mack Wilson, rookie second round pick Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, and Sione Takitaki.
Bears 2021 Roster
- David Montgomery ranks fifth among 38 RBs with 20-plus touches. He continued to look good in week two despite blocking breakdowns. He ranks seventh in touches, sixth in yards, and seventh in YAC/Attempt.
- The Bears DL (EDGE and iDL) are very talented group. Last week, they logged 11 pressures and four sacks. They get Mario Edwards Jr. back from suspension this week. Edwards Jr. was one of the most efficient pass rushers from the defensive interior in 2020. Although, he only played 278 snaps. Eddie Goldman will remain out for Week 3. This could be a major concern given the potent Browns rushing attack.
- Roquan Smith is a super hero. He looks like one of the best linebackers in the NFL for the second straight year. Watching him fly around the field is one of the best things about Bears football. Especially watching him move in coverage. Alec Ogletree put together a bounce-back effort against the Bengals, playing sound football in most facets. He sometimes gets the benefit of “hiding” on passing downs, handling other responsibilities. Ultimately, I am not sure he is truly a liability out there, but it bears watching.
- Not much to note here on Fields' season so far. His stat line for his first full-time action against the Bengals does not inspire. We need more context though. Allen Robinson dropped a 35-yard touchdown that would significantly change Field’s stat line. That was not the only error, which could be partially be due to a lack of reps with the starters.
- On to a more perplexing situation, the Bears WR room has really struggled. While all of the starters have remained healthy through two games, they have not produced. Star WR Allen Robinson has struggled with drops (two drops on 14 targets). Darnell Mooney has the most volume (15 targets). However, 53% of those targets have come within 10 yards of the LOS. Goodwin is the most efficient on a yards per catch basis, but he still only ranks around league average. The Bears have lacked much downfield attack, which is evident in the numbers.
- After being a key target Week 1, Cole Kmet went unused in routes Week 2. We should expect to see his role grow in Week 3. Jimmy Graham has logged 36 snaps through two games. His usage seems likely to grow, given his contract.
- Moving over to the safety position, the Bears safeties bounced back nicely in Week 2 for the most part. Jackson allowed 27 yards on four targets against Cincinnati while also forcing a key fumble. Jackson still missed a tackle, but I am generally happy with his Week 2 play. As an added surprise, Jackson currently ranks as one of the top run-stopping safeties in the NFL. Although, I am not sure how long that will last against Cleveland. The Bengals only attacked Gipson twice, gaining only 13 yards on those plays. Adding a missed tackle did not help his case, but with generally sound play, Gipson is on the right track.
- The Bears offensive line is a hot topic. I am moving toward avoiding PFF grades in the future, and looking for alternative ways to assess OL play as a whole rather than individually. In order to do so, I totaled the pressures and sacks allowed by the Bears. I then compared those pressures and sacks allowed by others who played the same opponents. The Bears ranked 13th in OL pass blocking performance by this metric. Using Football Outsiders Adjusted Line Yards metric for run blocking, the Bears rank 24th. They also rank 20th in power success rate. It is safe to say the run blocking has room to improve, while the pass blocking has surprised.
- At CB, Jaylon Johnson has played extremely well, even earning PFF’s Defensive Player of the Week. Opposite him, Kindle Vildor let up 56 yards and two touchdowns in coverage against Cincinnati. In the slot, Duke Shelley represents an upgrade form week one starter Marqui Christian. Shelley does not necessarily inspire confidence though. He allowed seven catches on eight targets for 86 yards against CIN. The CB room remains a major concern for this team, outside of Johnson.
Bears vs. Browns Head Coaches Cover History
Since 2019, Nagy has been a 7-plus point road dog three times, posting a record ATS of 0-3. Nagy is 0-3 on the money line (Bears to win straight up) in these situations. He is 2-1 on the over.
Since the start of 2019, Kevin Stefanski has been a 7-plus point home favorite three times, posting a record ATS of 1-2. Stefanski is 3-0 on the money line (Browns to win straight up) in these situations. He is 3-0 on the over. Regardless of being home or away, Stefanski is 1-3 ATS as a 7-plus point home favorite. Baker Mayfield's metrics ATS since 2019 match Kevin Stefanski’s.
Bears vs. Browns Summary
Cleveland has a more talented roster than Chicago does. That much is clear. The Bears may have the upper hand in the front seven, but that is about it. There is one other thing we need to consider though. We MUST consider that Bears vs. Browns will be Justin Fields' first career start.
Since 2017, there have been eight first-round QBs to make their first career start during the first half of the season, outside of Week 1. Why limit it to the first half of the season? I want to see the immediate impact a rookie QB has on a team that is still in the playoff race. Why not use QB’s who started Week 1? Because I want to be able to compare results before the rookie saw the field to after he came in. These eight QB's went 6-2 ATS in their first starts. The offenses improved notably in EPA per play. Defenses improved even more heavily, based on the averages. Six of the eight offenses improved in that first start. Five of the eight defenses improved in that first start.
Bears - 23
Browns - 27