Play calling, field vision rank high on Browns’ fix-it list

Mayfield and Kitchens
The Browns' two key offensive decision-makers have each made some head-scratchers this season.

Moral victories offer only some comfort in the absence of tangible ones.

There are worse ways to lose than 20-13 to the defending NFC champions. But the Cleveland Browns should have beaten the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday Night Football. The defense, without its starting WILL linebacker and entire secondary, gave up just 20 points to one of the most explosive and well-crafted offenses in the NFL. There are quite a few positives to take away from this game, but the fact remains that the offense put up only 13 points, missed multiple opportunities, and let the team down, again.

Prior to Week 1, Cleveland’s offense was expected to be one of the league’s best. That hasn’t been the case thus far, as even though the Browns have yet to face an elite defense, they’ve put up a total of 49 points in three games. There are too many issues to place the blame on one area, but they all must be addressed.

First is the offensive line

It was perhaps the team’s biggest question mark entering the season, but the O-line has not proven to be the biggest problem thus far. It’s not an elite group by any stretch, but it’s been fine. Through three weeks, the Browns rank third in the league in pass block win rate at 66%. A pass block win is defined as the offensive lineman holding his block for at least 2.5 seconds, a number which will be discussed later on.

Greg Robinson ranks eighth in the NFL among tackles with a 95% PBLKWR, Joel Bitonio is sixth among guards at 96%, and J.C. Tretter fifth among centers at 95%.

Of course, this means that the other two spots on the line (right guard Eric Kush and right tackles Chris Hubbard and Justin McCray) aren’t holding up nearly as well, but ranking third in the league is nothing to scoff at. The offensive line is clearly not to blame here.

Kitchens’ calls

This week, much of the blame is being placed on head coach Freddie Kitchens, specifically his playcalling. His questionable calls to this point include three obvious examples coming against LA:

  • running three streaks with a seven-yard crossing from the tight end on third and 10,
  • calling an RB draw on fourth and nine, and
  • not giving the ball to Nick Chubb once in four plays from the five-yard-line, despite having all three timeouts at his disposal.

There has been speculation stemming from the baffling fourth-and-nine play call and Joel Bitonio‘s confused reaction that perhaps the ball was never intended to be snapped, that Cleveland was attempting to draw the Rams offsides, until Mayfield saw something in the defense and took the snap.

Whatever the case, it’s inarguable that Kitchens’ offense is not as good as it was in 2018, despite having added one of the best receivers in football. The creative playcalling is gone. Motion is rarely used. This could be due to offensive coordinator Todd Monken’s influence, Kitchens simply feeling overwhelmed, last season being a fluke, all of the above, or none of the above. We simply don’t know. But the fact remains that the offense is not playing anywhere close to where it should, and that’s a big problem.

Sophomore slump?

But while Kitchens’ playcalling has not been great, it looks worse than it actually is because of the play of Baker Mayfield. He’s having a very rough stretch and hasn’t shown any signs of coming out of this rut. Mayfield’s pinpoint accuracy and great arm strength have shown themselves at times, but he is far too inconsistent at the moment. He had fewer bad misses against Los Angeles, but they were still there. Mayfield’s larger issues have little to do with actually throwing the ball.

He is simply not seeing the field well right now. He’s confused by defensive looks, isn’t anticipating openings, and is flat-out not seeing open receivers. The third-down incompletion to Demetrius Harris on the final drive of the game is just one example; Jarvis Landry came open right in front of Mayfield as he was releasing the ball. And there have been many more egregious misses over these three games. That would be concerning enough if Mayfield weren’t actively throwing the offense out of rhythm:

It’s clear that Mayfield doesn’t trust his offensive line. He isn’t stepping up into the pocket. He isn’t scrambling vertically for yards like he did as a rookie. He’s fading out of clean pockets and rolling to his right, where he makes a throw on the run that often lands out of bounds. He’s ending his drops past where the tackles end their sets, which gives edge rushers an easy arc to the QB.

When Mayfield gets the ball out quickly, good things happen. When he holds onto it, the offense falls apart. At one point against the Rams, Mayfield was 13-of-15 when getting rid of the ball in 2.5 seconds or less. When holding the ball longer than that, he was 3-of-21. That’s a ridiculous difference and a trend that has been visible since early in the QB’s rookie season. The Browns must scheme to get the ball out of his hands quickly, such as on the run-pass options that the team had success with early, only to inexplicably move away from them.

So the biggest problem with Cleveland’s offense at the moment is Baker Mayfield. Yes he’s still the franchise QB and should be a high-level long-term starter. But he is also not playing well, and that has to be acknowledged. There are concerning trends that must be ended if he’s going to return to his great play of 2018 and lead the Browns back into the playoff race. To have a shot at the postseason, Cleveland must win at least one, preferably at least two, of its next four games, which come against opponents with a combined 10-2 record. If they’re going to do that, Mayfield has to play much, much better.