Three Keys to Broncos-Browns

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- During their three-game winning streak that ended last Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers, the Broncos discovered a successful formula after two frustrating seasons of trying to find one that worked for their skill set and strengths.

On offense, the Broncos ran the football well and protected the football. In those wins over the Chargers, Steelers and Bengals, they rushed for 100 or more yards every time and turned the football over just once in three games.

Defensively, the Broncos cranked up the pressure, leading to sacks and takeaways. Denver's defense forced eight turnovers during the team's three-game winning streak -- with special teams contributing another takeaway via a fumble recovery -- and maintained the team's per-game sack rate, averaging 3.0 sacks per game, in line with the season-long average of 3.1.

The sacks were still there against the 49ers; Von Miller and Bradley Chubb combined to bring down San Francisco quarterback Nick Mullens three times. The offense didn't turn the football over. But the other elements of the success equation evaporated.

As a result, the Broncos' clash with the Cleveland Browns on Saturday is, for all intents and purposes, an elimination game.

The Broncos are battered by injuries, but they were missing some key players at various points during their three-game winning streak, as well. But regardless of personnel, the Broncos found their road map to success -- which makes it easier to get back there after a stumble like last week's.

"Really, it's just us getting back to playing complementary football in all three phases of the game," said wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton, who started and scored his first professional touchdown last week. "And that's what I've learned in the NFL, that all three phases have got to play almost flawless football -- or better football than the other team -- because any slip-up in one area, two areas or all three, and that's when you start piling losses or things get out of hand."

But a key element of the Broncos' complementary football is takeaways, and given that Cleveland is 1-4 this season when it does not have a positive turnover margin, that will be crucial once again.

"We've got to get back to getting the ball," safety Justin Simmons said.

The Broncos still have a pulse for the playoffs, although it grew fainter with their loss last week. Any realistic chance of postseason play rests on forging another three-game winning streak while getting help from other results around the AFC.

Beyond winning the turnover battle, what are the keys to taking the first step towards a winning streak Saturday?

1. Limit the damage from Mayfield

Since the Browns replaced head coach Hue Jackson with Gregg Williams, quarterback Baker Mayfield has sizzled, settling in as one of the league's most precise passers.

Among the 39 quarterback with at least 50 attempts since Week 9, Mayfield's completion percentage of 73.2 is third-best behind Dallas' Dak Prescott and New Orleans' Drew Brees. His passer rating of 114.4 in that span is also third-best behind Brees and Miami's Ryan Tannehill.

Mayfield hasn't built that completion percentage on controlled, short passing, either. His average per attempt of 9.19 yards since Week 9 leads the NFL.

His success comes as no surprise to Hamilton, who caught passes from Mayfield on the North team during Senior Bowl practices 11 months ago.

"He has the anticipation. He has a strong arm; he throws a rocket," Hamilton said. "You wouldn't assume that with his [6-foot] stature, but he throws a really, really fast football. He knows how to put the ball in tight spaces. He knows where you're going to be before you even get there -- and that was just with me practicing."

Mayfield's willingness to spread the football around has also made the Browns difficult to defend, as five players have at least three touchdown receptions, with two more having another pair of scoring catches apiece.

"They do have a lot of targets, and Baker is going to be a hell of a player for years to come, too," safety Darian Stewart said. “I like what I see on film.

"We just have to make him uncomfortable, and that starts up front with our D-line and our outside linebackers. But just make him uncomfortable, man, and as DBs, we're going to have to cover [the opposing receivers] twice, because he extends plays. He's going to test you, and he's going to put the ball in tight windows."

Mayfield's elusiveness has helped; opponents have sacked him once in the last five games, and he's done well at exposing defenses whose pass rushers get too wide and behind him, using his mobility to step up and maximize the vacated area.

"Our main thing is to keep him the pocket," outside linebacker Bradley Chubb said. "You've got to keep him in the pocket so you can limit some of the things that he does. I feel like if we do that, it should be good enough."

2. Win up front and establish the run

Among the myriad reasons why the Broncos lost last week was their inability to generate a consistent, productive ground attack. With defenders pouring into the backfield, the 49ers held Denver's running-back corps to its lowest per-carry average of the season -- 3.3 yards per attempt on a collective 20 carries for 66 yards from Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman.

Denver's offensive production is tied to a prolific running game. The Broncos are are 0-5 when their running backs fail to amass at least 100 yards, averaging just 16.2 points in those games. Not once in those five games did the Broncos surpass 20 points.

When their runners hit the century mark, the Broncos are 6-2, and their offense accounts for an average of 24.4 points per game, Denver's offense has not failed to score at least 20 points this season when its runners rush for at least 100 yards.

*3. Build a first-half advantage *

Historically, Cleveland has struggled to rally. The Browns' comeback from a 14-3 halftime deficit against the New York Jets in Week 3 snapped an 34-game winless streak in games that they trailed at halftime.

What's more, even when games are close, the Browns have failed to seal the deal. Since 2008, Cleveland is a league-worst 6-36 when they trail by one score going into the fourth quarter, according to pro-football-reference.com. By comparison, the Broncos are 12-16 in the same scenario, the league's fourth-best mark. 

So while a good first quarter could be crucial, the Broncos need to find a way to sustain it. Denver has struggled in the second quarter this year; its minus-44 point differential in that quarter is 28th in the NFL. But Cleveland is worse; its second-quarter margin of minus-48 is 29th. Cleveland has also lost five consecutive games this season when allowing 10 or more points in the second quarter. 

Whichever team solves its second-quarter riddle Saturday should be well-positioned to win.

"We just need to start fast and keep our foot on the gas pedal, and stay going fast," Simmons said.

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