Head coach Kevin Stefanski showed Thursday night how the new offense is supposed to work. On the first offensive play of the game, quarterback Baker Mayfield, after a play-action, rolled to his left and hit wide receiver Jarvis Landry for a nine-yard gain. The play calling on the first offensive series set the tone for the game and allowed QB Baker Mayfield to get into a rhythm. When the Bengals defense made adjustments for the rollouts, Stefanski used a lot of counter plays with pulling guards and fullback Andy Janovich. Because of the success of the running game (215 yards rushing), play-action worked all night. The offensive play calling was excellent all game, except for the decision to go for it on fourth and goal.
The decision to give the ball to running back Nick Chubb on three of the four plays at the goal line showed no imagination. On the Browns only scoring play versus Baltimore, a second and goal, the Browns lined up in a heavy package with three tight ends, a fullback and a running back. The defense was expecting a run and was guarding the goal line. Tight end David Njoku slipped through the defense and caught an easy touchdown. Two runs by Chubb lost yards and a failed pass to WR Odell Beckham forced a fourth-down run by Chubb. The Browns saved the potential of another opposing team driving 99 yards for a score by a great play by defensive end Myles Garrett.
QB Baker Mayfield was near perfect, but I do have a problem with three plays. One minor and two major. On the first drive of the game, on third and seven from the Cincinnati 25 yard line, he was flushed out of the pocket and gained eight yards for the first down.
So what’s the problem?
Had he not panicked, he would have seen WR KhaDarel Hodge streaking across the middle of the field, open at about the 15-yard line. I know it’s nit-picking, but it would have been a bigger gain. The first major mistake was the intentional grounding call. He should have thrown the ball out of bounds. It killed the drive before it even started. Finally, on his 23rd and last pass of the game, an interception. From the Cincinnati 26 yard line, after a play-action to RB Nick Chubb, with the offense moving to the left, Mayfield rolled to his right and was supposed to hit tight end Harrison Bryant streaking to the end zone. What he didn’t see was the backside cornerback, who saw Bryant uncovered heading towards the goal line. I don’t disagree with the play call. A touchdown with 11:30 left in the game would have been a backbreaker for the Bengals and put the Browns up by 19. The wide zone offense is run-heavy and tight end dependent. But it’s also designed to take your shots downfield. Bryant was open.
On defense, it was apparent defensive coordinator Joe Woods was going to rely heavily on the defensive line and keep everything in front of the back seven due to injuries. The DL did their job with three sacks, eight quarterback hits and seven quarterback pressures. The problem is the Browns still don’t have anyone who can cover opposing tight ends. Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard of Drew Sample and C.J. Uzomah. The defense did step up when they had to because of great individual play. By the way, try and convince me DE Olivier Vernon should start over DE Porter Gustin. Gustin was in the backfield all night long. Finally, five for five on fourth down by the Bengals is ridiculous. Two were runs up the middle by Bengals QB Joe Burrow.
As for the special teams, the terrible return coverage can be explained by the lack of pre-season games. Special teams are not a priority during training camp or during practices. They are perfected during pre-season games as the team determines the bottom part of the roster. It also doesn’t help that key special teams players are starting on defense while the Browns await the return of four defensive starters. As the season progresses, it should get better.
As for the four injured starters on defense, it’s telling that none have landed on the short-term injured reserve. Word is that LB Mack Wilson will start practicing on Monday. CB Greedy Williams, CB Kevin Johnson and LB Jacob Phillips might be closer to returning to practice than many thought.
The offensive transition from game one to game two in four days was impressive. Head coach Kevin Stefanski showed a trust in his players to implement his offense and the players reciprocated by following the game plan. There are better days ahead for this offense.