The Los Angeles Rams are on the road in Week 3 to take on the Cleveland Browns on Sunday Night Football. With all the offseason hype, the Browns are perhaps a bit of a disappointment through two games having been blown out by the Tennessee Titans in Week 1 and picking up their first W of the year against the New York Jets.
To get a better sense of the Browns, I linked up with Chris Pokorny from Dawgs By Nature, the SB Nation community for Browns fans.
So the two-game start hasn’t been what Browns fans perhaps were waiting for after the hype-up of the offseason, but this week’s FanPulse results had 81% of Browns fans feeling confident. Did the offseason have any effect on the first chapter of the 2019 season? Is this game maybe the one to decide if it has for better or worse?
I don’t think this game in particular will sway fans drastically to the negative. All offseason, even despite how hyped they were for the season, Browns fans would look at Week 3 and say, “Well, we’ll probably lose that one to the Rams.” The measurement stick for this game will be a disappointment if the team gets blown out of the water, and elation if the team can pull off a win. The confidence the fans have stems from the fact that we still know this is a talented team, but we’ve come to the reality check that everything won’t be hitting on all cylinders to start the season like everyone fantasized about. The biggest issue right now is on offense -- and I’ll hit you with a few bullet points:
- Baker Mayfield’s mechanics are off, with him throwing off his back foot too often and taking very deep dropbacks. He is not a scrambler, but he does not look confident in the pocket despite getting decent protection last week.
- The play calls are coming in late, and Mayfield is getting up to the line of scrimmage and snapping the ball as the clock hits zero almost every snap. It’s not enough time to read the defense, put players in motion, or make adjustments. Head coach Freddie Kitchens is calling the plays, but offensive coordinator Todd Monken (who was with the Buccaneers last year) comes up with the plays during the week. The belief is that there is some type of disconnect there. I’m not talking about dissension; the team just needs to iron out how to make things run smoother.
- This is a different offense than the last eight games of last year, when everyone raved about what Mayfield and Kitchens were doing. It looks like Tampa Bay’s offense (which makes sense, given Monken’s presence), where Mayfield is looking to hit the big play way too often and not checking it down like he did a year ago. The expectation was that Kitchen’s style of offense from last season would remain the primary focus of the offense, but that hasn’t been the case.
- Cleveland has been without slot man Rashard Higgins for 1.5 games due to injury, and now tight end David Njoku will be out for awhile. It may sound silly to talk about a slot receiver being a big loss when a team has Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry to rely on. However, you have to understand that Higgins has been Mayfield’s mental security blanket -- where if things go wrong, he always knows where he is and where he can quickly check the ball down to him at. Take that security blanket away, and I think it adds to the issues of Mayfield holding onto the ball too long when he’s not liking what he’s seeing.
Let’s start on the offensive side. It’s a small sample size to this point, but what has been the biggest issue on offense? Obviously, Baker Mayfield’s three interceptions in the second half in Week 1 stand out, but that could certainly be an anomaly of a performance as we get into the middle of the season. What’s the component of the offense the Browns can rely on or lean into to get things going on offense more?
I would say those three interceptions were more of an anomaly. Don’t get me wrong -- Mayfield will take some chances that defenses can get after. But up until that point, Mayfield was on the money with his throws, and things just kind of fell apart in an unexplainable fashion. In the first question, I covered most of the things that have been going wrong, so let me talk more about how things can improve this week:
- Getting Higgins back from injury (he is scheduled to make his return).
- Throwing quicker and shorter passes with greater frequency, like last year. The team has acknowledged this too, so it’s not just the fans seeing it either. Kitchens has talked about Mayfield’s mechanics being off too, so the expectation is that the team is indeed working on correcting that. How quickly will we see it, and will he be able to translate that to the game? It’s one thing to do it during practice, but it’s another thing when Aaron Donald or Clay Matthews are right up on top of you.
- More pre-snap motions on offense. This ties in to lining up quicker. Someone pointed out that not including playaction passes, the Browns did not do any pre-snap motion on offense for a passing play until the fourth quarter.
Defense. It was the bigger issue coming out of 2018 as you guys finished 30th in yards allowed. Football Outisders’ DVOA formula ranked you guys much higher, but still had the run defense 25th. Again, the Tennessee game is skewing things, and injuries this week might have a similar effect. Let’s get beyond the immediate status. What do you want to see from the defense and what has to happen for that side of the ball to get there? Which younger or more inexperienced Browns have to mature and break out for it to happen?
It’s a little unusual to read the defense right now. Even though Marcus Mariota threw for a lot of yards in Week 1 (trust me, that game was just weird, with all credit going to the Titans), for all intents and purposes, the Browns have faced two teams in a row that don’t exactly feature prolific passing attacks. Therefore, the cornerbacks have not been tested too much. That’ll change this week, of course. The player I’m most perplexed about in the secondary right now is second-year cornerback Denzel Ward. He was aggressive as a rookie and made the Pro Bowl, but in two games this year, he seems to be passive in coverage. Being in zone coverage has something to do with that, but still -- when you watch him on film, he just doesn’t seem to have that “fight” that he had all of last season.
The key to the defense is the play of DE Myles Garrett. He leads the NFL with 5 sacks, and last week also had 2 roughing the passer penalties called against him (for driving his full weight into the quarterback and through to the ground). The Titans were wise in Week 1 to consistently chip Garrett, frustrating him a bit (although he still had two sacks). Last week, in my opinion, the Jets were dumb for letting him go one-on-one with Kelvin Beachum all game; he was destroyed. This week, against Andrew Whitworth, I think that can get away with letting the veteran try to handle his own.
Who are some of the key Browns that Rams fans might not know about?
On offense, I have talked about the importance of Higgins, someone who I think fans would typically overlook when they hear about Beckham and Jarvis Landry. Defense is where the bigger impact comes into play for a lesser-known player, in the form of rookie linebacker Mack Wilson. Cleveland runs a 4-2-5 defense, and their two starting linebackers typically play every snap, with no reps for the backups. Veteran starter Christian Kirksey went down to an injury last week, so the expectation is that Wilson will start. In training camp and then the first preseason game, Mack made an impression by logging two pick sixes in practice, and then having a pick six and another interception in the game. He was a little banged up after that and missed some time, but all of those big plays in a short duration excited fans because the type of interceptions he was making on passes were extremely athletic for a linebacker. If he gets the start against the Rams, he will be the key unknown player to keep an extra eye on.
Everyone focuses on the QB carousel of the last X number of years for you guys, but the coaching turnover since Bill Belichick’s stint is what I think is more illustrative of how hard it has been to break through for you guys. The only two coaches to get through three seasons were Butch Davis and Romeo Crennel. We’re just two games into the Freddie Kitchens era, but you guys came in with huge expectations. What is Browns fans’ satisfaction levels with the job he has done to this point?
Fans are willing to give Kitchens time, but the concerns have been loud and clear for some of the reasons I mentioned earlier. Specifically with the offense, some fans have speculated that the types of plays ran last year was actually a credit to Todd Haley’s former offense, or the suggestions of our former quarterbacks coach, and Kitchens just got the credit for it. Whether that is true, I don’t know -- but it has been frustrating through two games to think, “Kitchens was hired as the head coach because of his offense to end last season, and yet here we are, and Kitchens’ playcalling and the plays themselves just look mediocre at best. Where is all of the creativity that Kitchens would deploy last year? Is the team truly just trying to find themselves first, and things will “click” before we know it? Or is Kitchens a little in over his head with all the responsibilities that come with being a head coach? Time will tell.
Thanks to Chris for the time.