The first few days after the start of the NFL season are always filled with overreaction. Jot down a few hot takes and opinions from this week and come back to them in a few months to see just how ridiculous they are. That being said, there was one team on Sunday who gave you a preview of everything they really are; the Cleveland Browns.
We know the Browns have talent. They have a quarterback who can make any throw and players around him who can wreck the game for the defense at any time. They have pass rushers on defense and speed at each level. But the gap between talent and championship football lies in discipline and football intelligence.
Everything that the Browns could be was encapsulated perfectly against the Titans on Sunday. We saw flashes of brilliance, especially from the offense. But we also saw a scary lack of discipline and attention to detail.
Their outstanding opening drive, which resulted in a touchdown, provided most of the day’s highlights for the Browns Offense. The Titans came out primarily playing zone coverage. Mayfield easily recognized it and attacked.
The 2nd-year QB got the chains moving on Cleveland’s second play from scrimmage with a completion on a simple flat-curl combination out of an empty set against Cover-3.
Cleveland picked up 10 yards on the ground on the next play off of an RPO. Below, you can see that the Browns came out in a 3×1 formation. To the three-receiver side, they ran a bubble screen, and this ate up four Titans defenders.
They complemented this with an outside zone run to the opposite side, which was the option Mayfield chose.
The defense was split in two. Watch how nicely the middle opened up for a cutback.
As Tony Romo mentioned during the broadcast, the Browns simply have too much talent to take any one aspect of their offense away and have it ruin their day.
After the first official OBJ sighting of the year, a 16-yard catch and run, Mayfield fired a laser downfield for 35 yards to Rashard Higgins. This was a great late-in-the-down play. Mayfield was patient in the pocket, and he could be because his offensive line did a tremendous job of not letting any defender near him.
The Titans were playing cover-2 on this snap. That route was not supposed to be open. But Mayfield did a great job of staying calm in the pocket and reacting to the deep safety’s movement to the outside. He then had the quick release and arm strength to drive the ball on a 40-yard line down the field. Here’s another look from the sideline. Keep your eye on the cover-2 safety to the top of the screen.
On the very next play, the Browns were in the end zone and on their way to an easy opening weekend victory.
Except, something happened on the way to the Browns’ perfect season. They started making too many negative plays.
After a running play that lost 3 yards and an incompletion, the Browns faced a 3rd-and-long. Watch right tackle Chris Hubbard (#74) nearly whiff on Cameron Wake, allowing him to get to Mayfield and wreck the play.
The sloppiness and mistakes weren’t just physical. Late in the first half, the Browns were backed up on their own 2-yard line. With his offensive line having difficulty ever since that first drive, this was a time for a quick throw to one of the Browns’ many playmakers to get out from the shadow of their own goalpost. With the talent they have in the passing game, a short throw could easily turn into a big-chunk play.
That didn’t happen, though. It looked like Mayfield killed or changed the play at the line, calling for a play-action 7-step drop with slow developing routes. Given the situation and the trend of the first half, this seemed like a bad call. Whether this was Mayfield’s decision or Freddie Kitchens in his headset, the play-call was ill-advised to say the least.
You’ll notice that the Titans were also playing with soft coverage across the board. This situation was ripe for a quick throw. Why choose a play that requires lots of time to throw when you have a struggling offensive line and are backed up to your own end zone?
The Browns would go on to turn the ball over 3 times, allow 5 sacks, and commit 18 penalties as a team for 182 yards. One of those penalties was due to left tackle Greg Robinson kicking a Titans defender in the head. Sounds reasonable, right? Unfortunately, it’s against the rules, which Robinson should know. He was promptly ejected. That type of mental breakdown is flat-out unacceptable from a team that expects big things this season.
As far as Baker Mayfield is concerned, he had an up-and-down day. He showed plenty of glimpses of the good stuff, as we illustrated from his first drive. Below, he showed more of his ability to do special things when the play breaks down.
Also check out this back-shoulder throw to Jarvis Landry. This was on a slot-fade (or a big-box fade). This is a throw that many quarterbacks in the NFL simply can’t make consistently.
You want the ball thrown about 4 yards from the sidelines on that play. And that’s almost exactly where Mayfield put it. Look where Landry was when he made the reception.
We also saw Mayfield make some critical mistakes on his way to a 3-interception day. Each one was due to either a bad throw or a forced ball/bad decision. Using his first interception as an example, you can see below that it looked like Mayfield tried to force this ball and also threw it a little behind Beckham.
Titans safety Kevin Byard also made a great play to come up with the interception.
Sunday’s game perhaps showed what we can expect form Cleveland this season. We might see more of this Jekyll-and-Hyde act in 2019. That wouldn’t exactly be a surprise given that they are a talented but young team with a new head coach.
The NFL’s history is filled with talented but undisciplined and unintelligent teams that don’t end up going anywhere. If the Browns don’t clean things up around the edges, they will become just another group of great players that never reached their potential as a team.