For the first time since Bill Belichick was their head coach, the Browns enter a season with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. They won’t get there without Baker Mayfield getting better throwing the ball on the money down.
Despite having the best season of his career, Mayfield ranked 25th in Passer Rating on 3rd down last year. There were a couple of reasons for this. The first was that he frequently moved unnecessarily. Too often, he either moved into the pass rush or fled the pocket before he needed to. This led to big plays being left on the field or worse.
On the below example against the Colts, Baker could have worked the high-low read against the flat cornerback to the front side…
Or, he could have come back to the dig on the weak side.
But Baker ended up doing neither. He left the pocket almost immediately after the top of his drop despite no pressure whatsoever.
He didn’t even give himself the opportunity to work the front-side match-up or find the dig (which was open on the back side). Instead he scrambled almost immediately, limited his options, and the result was an incompletion.
Decision making is also an area where Mayfield still needs to improve. While he took a major step in the right direction last season by cutting his interceptions from 21 to 8, Mayfield still ranked toward the bottom of the league in INT % on 3rd down. Sometimes, he can’t help himself, as you could see on this poor decision against the Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round.
Those are the mistakes you just cannot make if you plan on winning 3 or 4 games in the postseason against the best competition the NFL has to offer.
Kevin Stefanski did a great job of calming down Mayfield’s game by focusing on the run (4th in rush pct) and leaning heavily on play-action in 2020. He brought a versatile rushing attack that mixes zone and gap concepts pretty evenly, keeping defenses off guard. On 3rd down, however, that run game and play-action become less of a factor. Coverage becomes less predictable, defensive coordinators provide their most confusing looks, and underneath yards aren’t given away quite as easily. Mayfield has to improve in those situations.
You may be looking at the Browns’ ability to convert on 3rd down and saying, what are you talking about? After all, Cleveland did rank 7th in 3rd-down conversion percentage in 2020. And a significant reason for that was Mayfield.
His ability to make plays with his legs was a saving grace in some respects as many of his 3rd down conversions came via the run (Tied for 5th most among QBs with Patrick Mahomes and Kyler Murray) and completions off of scrambles. But scrambling ability, while nice to have, is not enough on its own to lead to consistent high-level play against the best defenses in the NFL.
Understand that the Browns are in a position they haven’t been in for a long time. They’re close. Taking the next step doesn’t have to come from making massive changes. It can instead come from fine tuning the details.
Mayfield’s ability to throw from the pocket on 3rd down is one of those details. And it could be the difference between being bounced early in the playoffs and hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
Here’s how the Brown finished the 2020 Season:
The defense is obviously a huge question mark and one of the key elements that will define how far the Browns are able to go in 2021. As you can see from their performance above, they were a middle-of-the-road defense at best. Despite getting better as the year went on, it was clear they needed to improve in multiple areas.
This offseason, Cleveland added key pieces that could put this team over the top. The hope is that Jadeveon Clowney can stay healthy, pair up with Myles Garrett, and force defenses to account for impactful pass rushers off of both edges.
The Browns practically overhauled their secondary, adding former Rams John Johnson (S) and Troy Hill (CB), as well as rookie first-rounder Greg Newsome (CB). Each are good fits in Cleveland’s predominant zone coverage schemes.
Will these moves be enough to handle the great offenses that teams like the Chiefs and Bills have? That’s why they play the game. The Browns were fun to watch on film last season, and they enter 2021 as one of the most intriguing teams in the NFL.