The Cleveland Browns bounced back from their Week 1 trouncing, defeating the New York Jets 23-3 on Monday Night Football.
The box score looks great: Baker Mayfield passed for 325 yards and a touchdown, and the defense gave up only three points. A 20-point victory on the road is impressive, no matter the situation.
But not all is well. Cleveland may have dominated New York, but the gauntlet of their schedule is about to begin. Serious issues must be ironed out if the team hopes to make it through with their playoff hopes alive.
Let’s start with the Browns’ leader, Mayfield. He sets the tone for the game; as he goes, so does the rest of the squad. To put it plainly, Mayfield has not been very good thus far in 2019. He looks indecisive, untrusting, and anxious.
He’s holding onto the ball for far too long, not making the easy throw, and instead waiting for a longer-developing route that never comes open. Case in point: the play when David Njoku was injured.
Njoku ran a crossing route from left to right, and Mayfield had him open for an easy five yards. Instead, he scrambled right, keeping his eyes downfield, when he finally decided to dump the ball off to his tight end. The problem was that Njoku was no longer open and in poor position. Mayfield’s throw was high (a common theme so far), and Njoku was upended and had to leave the game for concussion protocol.
It’s plays such as these that hold the Browns offense back. The unit is one of, if not the most talented group in the entire NFL. Yet they’ve scored 36 points in two games.
Sure, the team needs time to get comfortable with playing with each other, Freddie Kitchens is a first time head coach, and Cleveland has played two (well, one and a half) very good defenses with experienced and craft coordinators. But having a franchise quarterback, elite skill position players, and innovative offensive minds is supposed to transcend those obstacles.
It seems Mayfield doesn’t fully trust his offensive line, and it’s hard to blame him. Even with Eric Kush replacing the traded Kevin Zeitler, the interior is quite solid. But Greg Robinson and Chris Hubbard are the weak links, and subpar play from both tackles is not conducive to winning.
Kitchens was able to scheme over this weakness in 2018, as the Browns gave up just nine QB hits over their final eight games. The Indianapolis Colts gave up the second-fewest during that time, with 27.
The offensive line is not performing especially well, and that position group must be addressed in the 2020 draft, early and often. But nothing can really be done about it now. It’s up to Mayfield and Kitchens to mitigate any issues, and neither one is doing his part.
Per NFL Next Gen Stats, Baker Mayfield is averaging 3.07 seconds to throw, the 3rd highest in NFL. When he throws within 2.5 seconds: 74%, 2 TDs/1 INT; when he throws in over 2.5 seconds: 55%, 0 TDs/3 INTs.
— Jake Trotter (@Jake_Trotter) September 17, 2019
Cleveland had so much offensive success in the second half of 2018 because the scheme was so brilliantly crafted around the strengths of the personnel. The Browns used 12 personnel quite often, bringing in TE Darren Fells as an extra blocker to help out the tackles. RB Nick Chubb was consistently fed the ball, and this allowed play action to be very effective.
Now, the data say that a team does not need to establish a solid running game for play action to work. But even with their great receiving talent, the Browns must run the ball well. If a team can run the ball effectively, controlling the line of scrimmage and the clock, its chances of winning dramatically increase.
When the Browns did pass last season, they used play action well, and Mayfield also got the ball out quickly. Plenty of motion was also part of the game plan.
These things were missing over the first two games, with no good reason. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken comes from Tampa Bay, where he used five- and seven-step drops to engineer a top-tier passing attack. Long-developing routes were a staple in his offense, and he apparently has had a large amount of influence in the scheme so far.
Kitchens comes from the Bruce Arians tree, which includes many of the same concepts. Yet Kitchens was able to adapt to the talent he had in 2018 to great success. The offense needs to get back to what it was doing in 2018, since many of the same strengths and weaknesses remain.
Mayfield doesn’t trust his line. So when he’s holding onto the ball for too long, trying to make something happen and forcing passes, he’s fading away off his back foot since he doesn’t want to get hit. This is causing his passes to sail. He needs to have the confidence to stand in the pocket and step into his throws. But the offensive line must earn that confidence, and they haven’t.
Defensive Domination, Save One Key Member
While the offense is underperforming, the defense has played well for the most part. They kept the Tennessee game close for three quarters before Mayfield fell apart, and they dominated New York from start to finish.
Myles Garrett leads the NFL in sacks. Olivier Vernon has collected just one QB hit, but he’s applying consistent pressure and playing the run well. Joe Schobert is still elite, and Greedy Williams is the highest-graded rookie defender with over 50 snaps played, per Pro Football Focus.
A lot is going right for the defense, but there’s one major trouble area, and it’s extremely worrying. Denzel Ward had a Pro Bowl season as a rookie in 2018, but he’s been atrocious so far this season. He’s missed five tackles so far, and has given up catches on seven of his 12 targets for 123 yards.
And it’s not like he’s struggling because he’s being forced to play only zone coverage. Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks has called a fairly even amount of both man and zone. Ward’s strength is in press man, but as an NFL cornerback and the fourth overall pick, he needs to be able to play zone effectively. If he’s only ever in man, he becomes easy for an offense to expose.
On a more positive note, the special teams unit as a whole looks much improved from last season, a night-and-day difference. Rookies Jamie Gillan and Austin Seibert have both been sensational (aside from their first kicks), and both kickoff and punt coverage has been fantastic. Special teams is winning the Browns the field position battle. Now the offense needs to start taking advantage.
Cleveland will once again be under the national spotlight in prime time, as they take on the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday Night Football next week. That game will be the first true litmus test for this young team.
Will they prove they can compete with the NFL’s elite, or are they not quite ready for the pressure of being a playoff contender?