The Browns’ first drive of the 2019 season was everything fans in Cleveland expected it to be.
Despite some minor setbacks, Baker Mayfield led the offense right down the field, executing a beautifully crafted opening script of plays. Mayfield hit Rashard Higgns after a quick three-step drop to get Cleveland going. The next play was an RPO flare screen to Jarvis Landry that picked up a chunk of yardage. That was followed by another RPO which opened up a running lane for Nick Chubb to run for 10 yards and another first down. Then Odell Beckham checked in with a 16-yard reception after some Mayfield improvisation. Two plays later, the second-year quarterback fired a strike down the seam to Higgins, who was sprung free by a brilliant play design from first-year head coach Freddie Kitchens. A perfectly executed counter play helped Dontrell Hilliard find the end zone.
This is what Browns fans had been waiting for since the franchise’s reincarnation in 1999. The quarterback, the weapons, the coach. Cleveland finally had it all. That drive was just an appetizer for what was to come.
Three sobering weeks later, it’s starting to look like that drive was merely a tease. Mayfield and the Browns offense have yet to recapture that magic. They’re sitting at 1-2 with a daunting schedule ahead, and the offense is a major reason why. Cleveland is averaging 16.3 points and has plummeted to 28th in offensive DVOA. Mayfield’s QBR sits at 40.4, which ranks 21st in the NFL. Forget about living up to the preseason hype, this offense has been straight-up bad.
The blame for the offense’s performance, for the most part, has been put on a maligned offensive line that was considered to be the team’s biggest weakness heading into the season and rookie head coach Freddie Kitchens, who hasn’t been able to replicate what he did after taking over as the team’s offensive coordinator in the second half of last season. Mayfield has drawn some criticism for being hesitant in the pocket, but that has mostly been chalked up to a bad offensive line that is causing him to see ghosts.
But I wanted to take a closer look to figure out exactly how and why the Browns are broken, so I reviewed the film of Cleveland’s three games and found that the public perception of what’s going wrong with the offense isn’t entirely accurate. The pass protection has been OK and the play-calling has been genuinely good. That leaves Mayfield, and one inescapable conclusion: he simply has not been the player the Browns, and the public at large, expected him to be. But here’s the silver lining: It’s fixable.
Mayfield has had two major issues early in the season. The first one is the most glaring and the one that needs to be fixed sooner rather than later. The second-year quarterback just hasn’t seen the field well. And defenses have keyed in on that and will continue to do so until he irons it out. The Titans started this trend in Week 1 with an array of disguised coverages and simulated pressures (or “creepers”). Defensive coordinator Dean Pees would show the Browns one coverage before the snap before rotating into another after it.
Jets defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has always been big on disguised coverages and he hit the Browns with plenty of them during Cleveland’s Week 2 win in New York.
The Browns won that game but the offense looked disjointed throughout and Mayfield never got comfortable.
Rams defensive Wade Phillips called his fair share of disguised coverages in the Sunday nighter, as well.
These rotations have thrown Mayfield for a loop. Even basic coverages have given the sophomore quarterback problems. Here the Rams drop eight into a three-deep zone coverage.
Mayfield sees the boundary-side safety rotate down to the flat and the linebacker stay on the outside of Beckham, so he thinks he has an easy completion on the slant. But there’s another linebacker waiting to jump the throw who nearly intercepts it.
With Mayfield struggling to make sense of what he was looking at, Kitchen’s play designs haven’t been executed as they should be and Mayfield has left several big plays on the field. Here are two (of many) examples from early in the season.
This one comes from the first quarter of the Titans game. It’s second-and-short, so Kitchens dials up a play-action pass. It’s a run situation, so Tennessee isn’t even disguising it’s coverage, which is man-to-man with one safety back deep.
The two routes working to the Mayfield’s left draw the free safety over to that side, leaving the backside post WIDE OPEN.
But Mayfield never looks at it. He’s too busy fidgeting in a good pocket by NFL standards and ends up taking a sack. That’s not on the offensive line.
This next one comes from the Jets game. New York is in a disguised Tampa 2 defense. The Browns counter with a high-low concept featuring two dig routes and an underneath route meant to draw up the linebackers.
Mayfield locks onto the first dig route right away. The Jets linebackers are obstructing the throwing window, but that leaves the second dig wide open. Instead of working to that next read, Mayfield, once again, panics in a clean pocket and runs into trouble before getting David Njoku hurt with a hospital ball.
This has been a recurring theme throughout the month: Mayfield bailing on clean pockets, running into pressure and missing open receivers. The offensive line and coaching staff is doing its job; it’s Mayfield who needs to be better.
Even the most basic reads have given him trouble. Take these two plays from the Rams game. It’s the same play-call on both: An RPO that gives Mayfield the option to throw a quick route to the flat or hand it off to Chubb.
He’s making that decision based on the movement of Clay Matthews. If Matthews runs with the flat, Mayfield should hand it off because the Browns have a numbers advantage in the box. If Matthews leaves the flat route open, Mayfield takes the easy throw.
We’ll look at the second play first, because that’s the one that Mayfield executed correctly. Matthews runs with the tight ends, Chubb gets the ball and turns it into a nice gain.
But here’s what happened before then: Matthews runs with the tight end, Mayfield decides he’s gonna pull the ball anyway, realizes he messed up, panics and ends up throwing the ball. Because the offensive line is run blocking, the Browns are hit with an illegal man downfield flag.
That wasn’t the first time Mayfield struggled with an easy RPO read.
Those plays went down as a penalty on the offensive line and a sack, which adds to the narrative that the offensive line is letting its QB down. But the opposite has been true far too often.
Here’s what’s so frustrating about these issues: When Mayfield is confident in what he’s seeing and calm in the pocket, there are only a few quarterbacks in the league who can match him throw-for-throw.
The dude can sling it when he’s feeling comfortable. And that’s why the Browns offense worked so well late last season: Kitchens made sure Mayfield knew what he was looking at. When asked how the interim offensive coordinator helped turn around his rookie season, Mayfield said this:
“Getting my eyes in the right spot. We talk through the gameplan — what I’m comfortable with. Things, throughout the week, of what I’m really looking at.”
That’s been harder to do with defenses disguising their intentions against the Browns. So the solution to Mayfield’s — and this offense’s — problems could be preventing teams from running those disguises. There’s one simple way to do that: Tempo.
The Browns have been one of the slower-paced teams in the league this season. According to Football Outsiders, Cleveland ranks 23rd in average time between snaps in neutral situations (in other words, when teams are not in desperation mode). Kitchens has adopted a lot of college staples to help make Mayfield’s life easier, but the no-huddle has not been one of them. The Browns have attempted only 11 passes without huddling, and most of those came in the fourth quarter of the Titans game, when Cleveland fell behind by multiple scores. Another snap came on a spike at the end of the half in New York. Here’s a log of all of Mayfield’s no-huddle attempts, via Sports Info Solutions.
With Mayfield struggling to diagnose defenses, it’s time for Kitchens to help him out and increase his no-huddle usage. He’s already done so with pre-snap motion and formations that force the defense to show their hand based on how they align to them, but defenses have still been able to disguise their intentions. That won’t be so easy to do if the Browns speed things up, which makes it far more difficult for a defense to even get lined up properly, let alone execute a choreographed disguise.
Going no-huddle simplifies things for the quarterback and makes his job much easer. The numbers back this up: Since 2015, NFL quarterbacks have averaged 0.02 Expected Points Added on dropbacks following a huddle, per Sports Info Solutions. The number jumps to 0.07 on no-huddle dropbacks. Sack and interception rates are also lower on no-huddle plays, suggesting quarterbacks are seeing the field more clearly and getting the ball out of their hands quicker. Mayfield currently ranks third in average time to throw (3.03 seconds), and only Matt Ryan has thrown more interceptions (5), so he can certainly use the help in both cases.
In addition to speeding things up, Kitchens should also consider taking the same approach Sean McVay has taken with Jared Goff. McVay will get the Rams offense to the line quickly, assess the defense and tell Goff what adjustments to make before the QB communication cuts off with 15 seconds left on the play clock. With pre-snap guidance from his coach, Mayfield can do less thinking and get back to firing passes downfield.
Because Mayfield has been a fixture in the sports world for years now, it’s easy to forget that he’s still very young and has a lot of learning to do as an NFL quarterback. It’s not necessarily the biggest red flag that he needs his coach’s help at this point in his development. Kitchens spoke to that in August after a rough preseason outing for Mayfield.
“When quarterbacks play the game, they have to feel comfortable. They have to feel comfortable from the standpoint of where people are, where they are lined up and where they are going to be … Baker was not the sharpest tool in the shed, but there is so much of it that goes into making him look more sharp.”
Whether it’s by increasing the tempo or holding Baker’s hand a bit more, Kitchens needs to figure out a way to make his quarterback to “look more sharp” out there. If he can’t, this Browns season won’t be too different from all of the others.