It is time to get critical of Kevin Stefanski. No, there is no request to move on from the reigning Coach of the Year. However, there was an expectation that the Browns’ offense would be further along this season. It wasn’t unreasonable based on where they left off last year. With the division still within reach as Cleveland prepares for the Baltimore Ravens in two of the next three weeks, the time to win is now.
Playing against a division rival this weekend amidst all of the distractions off the field, Stefanski shall be held accountable for holding the team together and getting them back to the playoffs. Before examining how the head coach can win his first game against Baltimore, it is time for one last look at some key factors from last week’s victory over the Detroit Lions.
1) Final Drive of Beauty
Last week’s game against the Lions led to more headlines than it should have, and largely due to the fans booing the Browns’ offense. Baker Mayfield took it personally, but the sense was that it was actually directed at the playcalling of passing plays, which weren’t effective.
Like a kid with too many toys, one has to wonder if Stefanski ever forgets that he has the top rushing offense in the league, led by Nick Chubb. Thank goodness he remembered on the final drive, just in time to run out the clock instead of giving Detroit another possession. Chubb ran the ball five times inside the final three minutes. He picked up 36 yards and three first downs to set up victory formation on the final two plays.
2) Ward Is Playing At An Elite Level
Winter is coming, and right on cue, the “Warden of the North” is starting to make his presence felt. In speaking of Denzel Ward, of course, the fourth-year first-round pick grabbed another interception. He has now recorded multiple picks in each of his professional seasons. His talent hasn’t been an issue, but staying healthy and on the field is a major concern surrounding him. When he is available, he usually shows why the Browns took him fourth overall in the 2018 NFL Draft.
A continuing theme throughout this season, Cleveland is a winning team when they win the turnover battle. Ward has played a major part in that department twice now in the last four weeks. Eligible for a contract extension, his growth as a difference-maker instead of just a playmaker is exactly what he needs to continue to show in order to cash in with the Browns.
3) Please Stop Going For It On Fourth Down
As is becoming a trend across the NFL, Cleveland loves to go for it on fourth down. Through 11 weeks, they’ve attempted fourth-down conversions the third-most of any team at 22 times. They have the eighth-worst success rate at 40.9 percent. For whatever reason, there is a belief on the sideline that the Browns are a four-down team. For an analytical team, this surprisingly goes against the numbers.
In 2020, Cleveland converted just 33 percent of their 24 fourth-down attempts. That ranked 30th in the league. Sure, they have already converted more attempts than last season, but at what cost? Cleveland has as many losses at this point as they had all of last season. Currently, they sit outside of the playoff picture, too. What’s more, the hard count is less effective this season than last year. Against the Lions, the Browns attempted a hard count to draw the defense offside. Oddly, they didn’t utilize a hurry-up offense to generate urgency and catch Detroit off guard. They also haven’t established a willingness to go for it off of the hard count this season. This allowed the defense to call their bluff and not jump. Please, just stop trying on fourth down.
4) Stefanski Getting Fancy
Speaking of Stefanski’s decision-making this season, he got more creative in moments against Detroit. Of all of the big plays in 2020, the ones that utilized the special abilities of Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. really stand out. Who can forget the wide receivers completing passes or when Beckham scored on the reverse against the Dallas Cowboys? There have been some attempts with Anthony Schwartz, but poor play and injuries have limited his opportunities.
Early in the season, Landry and Beckham were both nursing injuries as well. As the weeks went by, however, the offense still looked too average and conventional. Finally, against the Lions of all teams, Stefanski got creative. He called plays to get the ball in the hands of his play-makers without a traditional pass and catch. On Cleveland’s third drive of the game with the Browns at their own 16-yard line, Landry lined up at quarterback. In a wildcat formation, Landry looked to pass before taking the ball up the middle for the first points of the game. It was nice to see Stefanski dig in his bag, which he did more in the game. The other ones didn’t make as much sense as this play though.
5) Tight End Usage Was… Interesting
Landry wasn’t the only player used unconventionally last weekend, and Stefanski made it a point against Detroit to get the ball in the hands of tight end David Njoku. A first-round selection in 2017, Njoku was drafted out of the University of Miami in part for his raw athletic ability. It has been an up-and-down career for him in Cleveland, including a request to be traded ahead of the 2020 season after the team drafted Harrison Bryant in the third round and signed Austin Hooper from the Atlanta Falcons that same offseason.
Really finding his footing this season as one of Mayfield’s favorite targets, Njoku ranks third on the team with 35 targets and 24 catches. He is also tied with Hooper for second on the team with a pair of touchdown catches. Not a speedy player, it was interesting to see Stefanski run Njoku on a reverse on the Landry touchdown drive. It was head-scratching again later in the game when Stefanski drew up a tight end screen pass with Njoku. In fairness, the head coach may have taken the opportunity to put some different looks on film to break tendencies. Still, a close game against the winless Lions doesn’t feel like the right time.
6) Is Mayfield Starting to Sour on Cleveland?
To say that the fanbase of the Browns has a bad history with quarterbacks is an understatement. As frustrating as it has been for them to suffer through a total of 31 different starters under center since returning to the league, they also haven’t treated them the best. The stadium is seemingly always chanting for the replacement. Mayfield has brought consistency to the position that hasn’t been present seen since Tim Couch and is approaching Bernie Kosar levels of statistical success. After the fans at FirstEnergy Stadium booed Cleveland’s offense, Mayfield quipped back when talking with the media on Monday morning.
The game against Detroit was a tense one, and Cleveland’s quarterback was trending on Sunday for skipping the postgame presser. If his comments on Monday addressed how he felt after 24 hours to cool off, one can only wonder what his emotions immediately after the game were. Playing injured while trying to take the Browns back to the postseason, Mayfield’s future with the team is uncertain. The front office has yet to extend his contract. Is there any scenario where the most successful quarterback in the franchise’s recent history won’t want to return? The relationship between Mayfield and the fans will be under a more intense microscope until a deal is reached.
7) It Was An Important Win
It wasn’t pretty, but there’s something to be said for winning ugly. For all of the steps that the team continues to combat JuJu Smith-Schuster’s “Brown is the Browns” statement from last season, Sunday was an important one. Can you imagine what the conversation would be right now had they lost to Detroit? Instead, Cleveland has an upcoming date with the Ravens that could land them atop the AFC North.
Just two years ago, the Browns had a large portion of the talent that they have now but again failed to finish above .500. Expectations on Cleveland are greater now than they were then. The world is still waiting for them to win the division. The “winning mentality” is a real thing, especially for teams and players that have been down for so long. It is a learned state of mind. Despite expecting the Browns to reach the playoffs, it seems everyone is also anticipating yet another typical collapse. This isn’t coddling, this is the reality of the psychology of the game. Cleveland is learning to walk as winners before they can run for a championship.
Looking Ahead to Week 12
It’s been nearly one year since the Ravens and Browns battled in a 47-42 thriller on Monday Night Football. With Baltimore on the ropes late in the fourth quarter and Lamar Jackson in the locker room entering the final frame, Cleveland looked to have the win. That’s what made it shocking to see the former NFL MVP return to the field. In the final two minutes, he helped his team to 11 points to snatch the victory.
In the last 10 seasons, the Browns have finished at the bottom of the AFC North seven times. They’ve finished in third place the last three seasons, including last year despite an 11-5 record. Division games make up more than one-third of the regular-season schedule. Cleveland has yet to show they have what it takes to consistently compete against their rivals. Once again in primetime, the Browns will attempt to prove themselves to the Ravens and the nation on Sunday Night Football.
1) Facing The Past (Again)
Few rivalries are as inherent as that shared by the Ravens and Browns, despite the lopsided record favoring Baltimore. This game is always the embodiment of success and the identity of what could have been for Cleveland. The Browns have lost 75 percent of their games against the Ravens since returning to the NFL in 1999. For all of the success that Mayfield had against the Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers last season, Baltimore has proven to be a tougher hurdle. Cleveland has won just two of its last six games against the Ravens, falling short in both matchups in 2020.
Beyond the teams, there’s another battle of an alternate reality that takes place, and that’s between the quarterbacks. Both Mayfield and Jackson won the Heisman Trophy in college. When one won, the other finished third in the standings in each occurrence. The two were also selected in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Mayfield was taken first overall while Jackson was picked last in the first round at No. 32. Jackson has enjoyed more success so far professionally, including the head-to-head contests. Sunday’s showdown is more than just a game. Cleveland is waiting for Mayfield and the Browns to make another statement of their ascendence.
2) How Does Stefanski Play Mayfield?
Speaking of Mayfield, the expectation for a win on Sunday can not be discussed without factoring in his injured status. Listed this week with foot and groin injuries in addition to his left shoulder, he is still far from healthy, yet cleared to start. This decision from the team says that Mayfield still presents the best opportunity to win, which seems quite the indictment on how the staff feels about backup Case Keenum.
Mayfield has made a number of throws the last few weeks that have been right on the mark. He’s also missed badly, including severely overthrowing Landry last week on a pass that was intercepted. Stefanski pulled Mayfield late in Week 10’s loss against the New England Patriots in order to preserve the quarterback, which has rarely seemed to be a concern. There hasn’t appeared to be much adjustment to the game plan this season to help the ailing quarterback, calling play-action on just 30 percent of Mayfield’s passing attempts and allowing him to throw 29 times against Detroit.
3) This Is the Game for JOK
When the Browns drafted linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah out of Notre Dame in the second round, it immediately felt like a steal. Dealing with injuries of his own this season, the speedy yet undersized playmaker has flashed his potential when on the field. He has especially stood out when meeting opposing players at or near the line of scrimmage. His combination of tackling ability and speed projects to be a great response to the run-heavy Ravens and the shifty Jackson.
JOK is once again available for Sunday night, back from his ankle injury. In just eight games of action this season, he has totaled 37 tackles, which ties for sixth on the team. Two of his tackles have been for lost yardage, and he was credited with half of a sack. With instincts that allow him to make plays around the ball, Owusu-Koramoah’s four pass deflections tie him for third-most on the team. When targeted in the passing game, teams are picking up just 2.4 yards, good for 4.6 yards per completion. He’s prevented 48 percent of passing attempts in his direction.
4) Addressing Special Teams
In all of the bad blood between Baltimore and Cleveland, there are a number of historic moments that have helped the Ravens over the years. One of the more gut-wrenching ones was the “Kick-Six” on Monday Night Football in 2015. After defeating the Ravens in overtime in Week 5, Cleveland had a chance to sweep Baltimore for the season in Week 12. With three seconds left on the clock in a game tied at 27 points, the Browns lined up for a 51-yard field goal attempt from Travis Coons to win in walk-off fashion. As fate would have it, Brent Urban blocked the kick for the Ravens, and Will Hill returned the ball 64 yards the other way for a Baltimore touchdown and victory.
This bit of history is relevant because, for the second time this season, a Chase McLaughlin kick attempt was blocked by the defense. It was a minor offense, taking place on the extra point, but in games against Baltimore, the smallest details matter. Against the Denver Broncos in Week 3, McLaughlin had a field goal attempt blocked, ending his streak of 10 consecutive field goals made. The block against the Lions ended his perfect streak on PATs this season. Going toe-to-toe against arguably the best kicker in NFL history, Justin Tucker, McLaughlin and the special teams will need to be on their A-game. McLaughlin has successfully converted 13 of 16 attempts this season, including all four from 50 yards and beyond.
5) Trust in Chubb
Without the dominant rushing of Chubb to close out the Lions, it isn’t hard to imagine things ending differently. The running back will likely be just as vital on Sunday against the Ravens. He should be fed the ball consistently, regardless of the score. On Friday, running-mate Kareem Hunt was activated from the IR, too, meaning Batman once again has his Robin.
For all of his intelligence and experience, Stefanski should take a page out of Freddie Kitchens‘ playbook for the game. Kitchens was the last head coach to defeat Baltimore and did so on the back of Chubb. In that game, the two-time Pro Bowler rushed for 165 yards on 20 attempts and three touchdowns on the ground, averaging eight yards per carry. Baltimore was more prepared to face him later that season, holding him to 45 yards and no scores on 15 carries. His career totals against the Ravens include 74 carries for 378 yards and five rushing touchdowns while averaging five yards per carry. In the second matchup last season, Chubb rushed 17 times for 82 yards and two scores. Enough said.
6) Defending Andrews
Covering tight ends has been an issue for the Browns for the majority of the last two decades. It is surprising to think about when you consider some of the talent the team has had at the position. A recent thorn in their side has been Mark Andrews, one of Jackson’s favorite and most reliable targets.
In his career against the Browns, Andrews has caught 25 of 37 targets for 330 yards and five touchdowns. Averaging 13 yards per catch, he has game-highs of 93 yards and two touchdowns. Anthony Walker Jr. and Malcolm Smith will have their hands full limiting the 6-foot-5, 256-pound pass-catcher while the secondary deals with Marquise Brown, Sammy Watkins, and first-round rookie Rashod Bateman. Defensive coordinator Joe Woods needs to unleash his almost positionless defensive looks everyone has been waiting for. That should help to confuse Jackson enough on coverages to bait him into throwing an interception. In the last three weeks, the Browns have forced five turnovers on defense.
7) Time for John Johnson III to Show Up
On the point of the secondary, Cleveland’s third-level needs to step up its play, starting with Johnson. Whether the defensive pass interference call in the game against the Chicago Bears or blown big plays to Tyreek Hill, the free agent acquisition has stood out for the wrong reasons more often than not. Quarterbacks are finding success picking on the fourth-year safety, completing 58 percent of passes thrown his way. Per completion, Johnson is surrendering 15 yards and has been hit for a pair of touchdowns.
With the defensive front rushing after Jackson, the linebackers will be spying him while covering the second level. The cornerbacks will be manning up with the Ravens’ talented receiver corps as well. The safeties will have to play clean down the field to limit big gains. It is time for Johnson to earn his paycheck.
Follow Jonas Clark on Twitter @jarkclonas
Main Image Credit: