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The Cleveland Browns are a 'big, ugly machine'
Did we all miss the sleeper team in the AFC? Go Long catches up again with Wyatt Teller. The Browns are bringing the brutality already.
He’s no different than you. When Wyatt Teller became a parent on Dec. 19 of last season, his perspective on life changed. Instantly. His No. 1 goal is to now give his son the best life imaginable.
Genes are already kicking in. At nine months old, Brooks is a solid 24 pounds. He’s got Dad’s gregarious smile, too.
Still, Teller knows that raising a child is an exercise in both nature and nurture. Brooks is a sponge. Brooks watches his every move. So when the Cleveland Browns welcomed the Cincinnati Bengals to town last weekend, Teller took the presence of his son up in a suite to heart. Ten minutes into the 2023 season, on third and 4, Dad got his paws on Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Germaine Pratt at the 43-yard line and took him for a ride. With his right arm anchored into Pratt’s sternum, the 6-foot-4, 315-pound right guard drove Pratt back… back… back. All the way to the 20-yard line before — mercifully — depositing the linebacker like bag of trash for the stadium’s sanitation crew to pick up later.
Nick Chubb gained the first down. Browns fans roared in approval.
Somewhere up high was Brooks Teller in his own No. 77 jersey.
“I don’t want him to think that his Dad’s soft,” Teller says. “So I’ve got to whup some butt.”
On second thought, Wyatt Teller is a little different than us Dads.
These 2023 Browns have a chance to be something different in the AFC, too.
It’s always hazardous to draw sweeping conclusions from Week 1 of an NFL season. The football gods have been particularly inhumane to this franchise on the shores of Lake Erie. But sometimes in this sport, you believe it when you see it. And this was a bloodbath. Reflecting back on all of Sunday’s zany outcomes — the Zach Wilson-led Jets embarrassing Buffalo, the Rams’ no-name receivers torching Seattle, the New York Giants’ vanishing act — the Cleveland Browns’ 24-3 clubbing of the Cincinnati Bengals is the most genuine. Honestly, the final score should’ve been worse.
The Browns are loaded with talent and malicious intentions on both lines of scrimmage.
Football is cyclical. An endless sequence of actions and reactions. While it’s true that the Browns cannot entertain championship fantasies until there’s proof that quarterback Deshaun Watson is himself again, bully ball can absolutely get the Browns to the playoffs this season. This highlight-reel block by Teller was merely the opening salvo of a three-hour ass-kicking. On both sides of the ball, the Browns boast large, violent human beings that are hard to find in the modern game. Their timing’s impeccable, too. This isn’t how most NFL teams have been constructed. The proliferation of Shanahan and McVay offenses has demanded lighter, athletic linebackers capable of covering space.
Teams have sought 225-pounders in the middle of their defense. Finesse, not brutality.
Perhaps this is the next great counter for NFL offenses.
At one point during our conversation this week, Teller even stumbled into one hell of a nickname for this team.
“We’re a big, ugly machine,” he says, “working together.”
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Bad weather helped, and the Bengals are too talented to stay in this rut. For one day, however, it’s mind-boggling that an offense featuring Joe Burrow, Joe Mixon, Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd was held to six first downs, 142 yards and went 2 of 15 on third downs in a league that’s rigged in the offense’s favor. Burrow threw for all of 82 yards on 31 attempts, a meager 2.6 yards per attempt. While the general populace freaked out over other AFC storylines, all the Browns did was go all-in with defensive additions at every level: defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson (four years, $57 million), edge rusher Za’Darius Smith (one year, $11.7M), end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (three years, $19M) and safety Juan Thornhill (three years, $21M). Of course, this was a unit already in possession of a top 3 pass rusher in Myles Garrett and top 3 cover corner in Denzel Ward. The best player on the field vs. the Bengals? Omnipresent safety Grant Delpit.
Under new coordinator Jim Schwartz, this looked like a completely different defense.
They’ll take on his temperament. They won’t bat an eye vs. the quarterbacks glamorized ad nauseam.
Offensively? The Browns have been one of the best rushing teams in the NFL since 2020.
It’s no secret how head coach Kevin Stefanski intends to win. On Sunday, his offense gashed one of the NFL’s best defenses for 206 yards on 40 attempts. Teller is often front and center and Teller, as we’ve covered, is also why we love football. Most telling this chat is how exceptionally critical the Browns’ offensive line is of itself. Teller knows there’s always a million things he could’ve done better, a byproduct of playing for longtime offensive line coach Bill Callahan.
Hell, he doesn’t even seem that interested in taking us through this Pratt Pancake blow by blow. He calls it a “splash” play. Nothing more. Nor does he even bring up the times he stalemated the Bengals’ mammoth nose D.J. Reader. (A throwback in his own right.)
Instead, Teller points to one play in which he was trying to give his running back a two-way go.
“I got smoked,” Teller says. “I was like, ‘Damnit! Now, I’m going to look like a weak ass!’ You’re always trying to sharpen that axe. You’re always trying to get better and better and better. Even Joel Bitonio will have a mistake here and there. It’s finding that consistency in your game that is undeniable. Last year, I took a step back. So I’m super focused on, one, showing to my team that I’m ready to go. But also to myself and to the world that it wasn’t a ‘junior-year slump.’ It was something I needed to come back off of.”
Bogged down by a lingering calf injury in 2022, Teller is in zero mood to celebrate anything yet. He points to another bad moment: When he accidentally put his own center, Ethan Pocic, “in a blender.” Bengals end Sam Hubbard rushed inside and Teller knew he should’ve yelled “Over! Over!” Instead, the result was a loss in yardage. He knows he needs to get his stamina up — Teller was sucking wind in the fourth quarter.
For good measure, he adds that this wasn’t his best training camp. Too up and down.
But honestly? This rhetoric is exactly why the Browns’ offensive line is unique. In the aftermath of an objective bludgeoning, the linemen here remain hypercritical of themselves. Mainly because playing on the Cleveland Browns’ offense is fun for a lineman. Most 300-pound men on a football field prefer to move forward. Not backward. Teller references his former team, the Buffalo Bills, as a contrast.
“You watch the Bills and it looks like a fun offense, but you’re going to be passing the ball 60 times a game and that’s not always fun as an offensive lineman,” Teller says. “Especially when run blocking is how you set the tone. The game’s changing. There’s no more fullbacks. Even fronts in the NFL, every team has an odd front to exploit the wideness of the field. … Our coach, he says, ‘We have a great running back. Let’s run it. Let’s make ‘em look this way. Let’s make the run and pass look the same. If you get lucky, you get lucky. It’s going to happen.’ You go against a lot of great defensive coordinators in the league so you’ve got to roll with the punches at times. But we have a great staff that makes it fun.”
Teller credits Stefanski, Callahan and coordinator Alex Van Pelt for creating a running game that’s also complex. Many times, he can get a linebacker to bite by simply moving laterally. One bad step by a ‘backer and Chubb’s off to the races for a 70-yard run. The Browns mix in a healthy amount of RPO and PRO action to freeze defenders a split-second before rolling downhill, before turning a football play into Running of the Bulls. Watson’s athleticism is the wild card. Any play, he’s liable to slingshot wide on a keeper. That was the case on the quarterback’s 13-yard touchdown run against the Bengals.
As Stefanski pointed out this week, the mere threat of Watson keeping the ball can also feed hesitation in linebackers, creating a crevice for Chubb.
Teller’s hope is that the Browns continue to go totally ignored. He’s been here five years now. The only time expectations were nonexistent? In 2020? “We f--king went out and whupped ass,” he says. That Browns team went 11-5 and lost by five points to the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round of the playoffs. The next year, in 2021, Baker Mayfield tore his left labrum in Week 2 before then dislocating it so bad four weeks later that the humerus “forced its way out,” he later detailed. The former No. 1 pick fractured the bone, to the point of having no function in his left shoulder. He couldn’t raise his arm.
The Browns made the controversial trade for Watson and the quarterback was suspended 11 games.
“I know Baker’s one of those guys— he’s a loyal person,” Teller says. “So the way he thinks is, ‘I stuck by the Browns when they weren’t good. They’ll stick by me when I didn’t do as well.’ It’s just a business. At the end of the day, they’re always trying to replace you. Even if you’re Aaron Rodgers. Even if you’re Baker Mayfield. Even if you’re Wyatt Teller. Even if you’re Joel Bitonio. That’s why they get guys every year and try to get good coaches to coach them up. You can’t be too upset about the business side of it. Or at least I try not to.”
Teller never wants to be traded again. After last season, he worried about his future. Coaches told him not to fret because the Browns go as he goes. Their words were appreciated, but Teller doesn’t necessarily agree. He believes the Browns will ultimately go as far was Watson takes them. And he’s right. This is still a quarterback’s league. To win in January, they’ll need Watson to out-gun the best of the best at QB. Against the Bengals, Watson missed opportunities deep, and that might’ve been the result of a heavy, wet football. Not that Stefanski is complaining about the weather. He knows the rain coming down in “weird sheets” favored his team.
This season for the Browns is about getting a return on their $230 million investment. Watson must succeed. But Watson sure has a better shot of succeeding when the rushing attack is setting this tone.
A tone that includes Teller crushing linebackers downfield.
“That’s his brand of football,” Stefanski said of Teller at his press conference, “when he can lock his hands on you. And he’s so big and so strong and to see him finish a player down the field, that’s an offensive lineman’s dream right there. I think it speaks to his mentality which, in turn, speaks to our offensive line’s mentality.”
Adds Teller: “We have guys that care. And leaders. It’s a team I think can win a lot of games.”
There was bad news. Right tackle Jack Conklin was lost for the season due to a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee. Rookie Dawand Jones replaced Conklin against Cincinnati, and the team signed 37-year-old Ty Nsekhe this week. All with T.J. Watt on deck next.
Jones is a mountain of a man at 6 foot 8, 368 pounds. The one human in football who can make Teller look small.
“I look like a little kid trick or treating next to his father,” Teller says.
The name may sound familiar to Go Long readers. Last spring, Ohio State’s Jones was an enigma that our Bob McGinn covered at length in his draft series. To make everything we saw on Sunday the norm in 2023, the Browns will need this fourth-round pick to mature quickly. Teller is obviously impressed with Jones’ size and calls him “deceptively quick,” but also notes that playing offensive line is more mental than anyone thinks. He estimates that 80 percent of the job is above the shoulders. Far more than simply defeating the man in front of you — especially with Callahan. Certain checks and certain zone plays require an extra step of thinking. And against the Watts of the NFL, a split-second of thinking is all it takes for your quarterback to get killed.
The NFL is full of edge rushers with 4.5 speed, barely any body fat, who can throw up 225 pounds 25+ times.
Bring up a looming date with Watt and Teller calls Jones’ self-belief “unbelievable.”
“He knows he can block anybody,” he adds, “if he’s put in the right position.”
The Browns should be able to steer help toward Watt with the Steelers missing defensive tackle Cam Heyward. Calling Callahan a “football god,” Teller says he’s confident the O-Line coach will put Jones in good situations. Translation: We won’t see the rookie exclusively on an island with Watt.
Teller knows he’ll need to communicate openly with the rookie, even if the defense hears him.
“The D-Tackle can hear our call but as long as (Dawand) knows what he’s doing and I know what I’m doing — if we believe in our technique and fundamentals — it doesn’t matter if they know what we’re doing,” Teller says. “That being said, these are the best of the best. I don’t want them to know what we’re doing. I want to keep some secret and nuance. If I have to tell him what’s going on, and they hear it, whatever. It’s part of the game. He has tangible attributes. Good luck getting around him. He’s a large man.”
He’s not stressing this new dynamic. Teller, a player the Bills once gave up on, is now one of the most important coaches on the field for the Browns.
“Dawand is ready to play,” Teller says. “He’s going to get those intangibles up to speed. There’s a lot of playing free. Knowing what to do is playing free.”
The Browns have a veteran in-house now — Nsekhe has kicked around the NFL since 2012 — but they’ll be counting on Jones. As Stefanski said, “There are no redshirts in the NFL.”
It’s also true that the Steelers will have their own hands full with Garrett. One of Watt’s few equals, Garrett is already up to 75.5 sacks and 146 QB hits in 85 career games. Facing him every day in practice, Teller notes, is “scary.” Defensively, the Browns hit Burrow 10 times. On the other side, Za’Darius Smith will benefit. He called his shot as a Viking ahead of the 2022 season, and made the Pro Bowl with 44 tackles, 10 sacks and 37 pressures. Teller was sold on this new-look defense during Cleveland’s joint practices with the defending NFC Champions. From his vantage point, it seemed like the Browns’ defensive players were beating the Philadelphia Eagles’ linemen without exerting too much energy. A quick first step did the trick. The Eagles’ defense, meanwhile, needed to put alllll their effort into trying to drive them back.
Welcome to the Schwartz Show. Echoing all of the defensive players who’ve come before them — in Detroit, Buffalo, Philly, Tennessee — the Browns have been loving the freedom of his scheme. Schwartz doesn’t clutter minds with presnap checks. Which is why the 2015 Bills were so frustrated under Rex Ryan. Schwartz famously wants his guys playing fast, angry, with an attitude. With an assist from the rain, Game No. 1 could not have gone any better. As Stefanski said, this DC wants players “taking their seatbelts off.”
“It calls for that,” Stefanski said. “It calls for you to play with reckless abandon. It calls for you to have 11 hats on the ball. I thought you saw great examples of that. It’s hard to single guys out because the performance was so good.”
Now, the Browns take the primetime stage. They’ll face an unquestionably ornery Steelers bunch on Monday Night Football. In their opener, the Steelers were of course walloped by the San Francisco 49ers.
Teller’s already shutting up anyone looking beyond this game.
After the win over Cincy, he heard one teammate say they’ve got a shot to go to the Super Bowl playing this way.
“I said, ‘Shut the f--k up. What we’re going to do is enjoy this win and get ready for Pittsburgh next week. That’s all we’re going to do,’” Teller recalls.
He’s been around long enough to know a quarter, a game, a Browns season can turn for the worse very, very quickly.
“We need to be a consistent, quality team,” Teller says. “If we can do that — that’s what makes the Bengals so good, they’re consistently good. In 2020, we upset a lot of teams and took the respect that we needed. That was great. But we kind of lost it the past few years. We lost that edge. It was good to see that we still have that edge. It was good to see that I still have that edge. I’m not saying it’s about me. But personally, I have to worry about what I’m doing to help my brothers. But we’ve got a lot of work. It’s Game 1. Talk to me Game 17 — maybe at the Super Bowl — and I’ll say we’ve done a lot of good stuff.
“Right now, it’s one game. And there’s a lot we could’ve improved on.”
He’ll keep playing through the whistle. Linebackers have been warned.
After all? Wyatt Teller doesn’t want his son thinking he’s soft.
Wyatt Teller joined subscribers for a Happy Hour in 2022, and here is our profile on him, icymi:
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