Kevin Stefanski finally gets to show us how his offense evolves with a new quarterback.
There are a few clues about the changes as the Cleveland Browns travel to Carolina to take on the Panthers.
Fans hope the release of fullback Johnny Stanton means we’ll finally see Kareem Hunt line up next to Nick Chubb.
— Fred Greetham (@FredGreetham9) August 15, 2022
And waiting until this week to sign a third tight end alludes to the diminished use of 3-tight end packages.
We’ll see if Jacoby Brissett lets Stefanski run something closer to a Deshaun Watson attack than a Baker Mayfield offense.
Of course, most folks might be more interested to see how Mayfield runs the Panthers’ offense.
— Craig Fountain (@CraigAFountain) August 30, 2022
But Browns fans simply want to see Mayfield run, with Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney hot on his trail.
Cleveland’s former signal-caller is the key to saving head coach Matt Rhule’s job.
And Browns fans aren’t the only ones waiting to see if the Browns’ vaunted secondary can shut him down.
But here are 3 other key matchups that will determine the outcome of Sunday’s game.
Panthers’ Brian Burns vs. Browns’ Right Tackle
Cleveland’s signing of former Steeler right tackle Joe Haeg heightens questions about Jack Conklin’s availability for the season opener.
Last season, injuries to Conklin and swing tackle Chris Hubbard pushed rookie James Hudson and guard Blake Hance into service.
Hubbard played in all the preseason games, but now comes word he hasn’t practiced in over a week.
Speculation that neither Hubbard nor Conklin will be ready for Carolina has Carolina’s right edge rusher, Brian Burns, salivating.
Brian Burns with the sack. Nice game call up front. pic.twitter.com/uhY880ZLsC
— John Ellis (@1PantherPlace) October 24, 2021
Burns came up with 9 sacks off the right edge in his 2021 Pro Bowl season one year after grabbing another 9 sacks off the left side.
He also tallied 39 QB hits and 21 tackles for a loss over the past 2 seasons among 108 total tackles.
Carolina lists him as their left-side edge rusher heading into his contract season.
James Hudson and Haeg could have their hands full protecting Brissett’s right side.
Nick Chubb vs. Damien Wilson, and Jeremy Chinn?
One can argue that Carolina benefitted from a light schedule to keep its defense ranked among league leaders for much of 2021.
And while they wound up with the 4th-ranked pass defense, they were a more modest 15th-ranked unit against the run.
With Jacoby Brissett behind center, most expect Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt to spearhead the Browns’ attack.
Cleveland’s strong interior line should make short work of Carolina’s tackles, leaving the middle linebacker to deal with runners.
Weekly Nick Chubb touchdown tweet pic.twitter.com/YCZf9shMC8
— Matt DeBary (@MattDeBary) January 3, 2021
Damien Wilson finished last year with 106 tackles, but he was not the most tackles for a Carolina defender.
That honor went to the safety behind Wilson, Jeremy Chinn, someone the Browns runners expect to keep busy again on Sunday.
Carolina can stack the box and bring Chinn in close to counter a run-heavy offense and dare Brissett to throw.
But if Stefanski doesn’t take the bait, Chubb and the rest of the rushing offense are up for the challenge.
JOK, Anthony Walker vs Christian McCaffrey
Carolina has a dominant running back of their own for Joe Woods’ defense to worry about.
Injuries diminished Christian McCaffrey’s numbers in 2021.
But whenever he was in the game, even coming off injuries, McCaffrey was a difference-maker.
Carolina’s perennial All-Pro can make even the best defensive front look silly at times.
Recognition, block deconstruction, and textbook tackle! JOK is one of the biggest steals in this class. pic.twitter.com/kHNfXs8mzH
— Full-Time Dame 💰 (@DP_NFL) November 29, 2021
And after watching Cleveland’s defensive tackles struggle in the preseason, the linebackers better be ready to help.
Anthony Walker was re-signed to cover the middle again after a team-leading 113-tackles in just 13 games last year.
But fans shouldn’t be surprised to see the speedy Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah shadowing the Panthers’ star.
Walker and JOK will need to bring their best pass defense and tackling skills to contain McCaffrey.