What went wrong in New England and where the Browns go from here.
Whew. Alright Browns fans, take another deep breath. It is needed.
Now that a few days have passed to calm down, it’s time to look at what is real, what is an aberration, and what should be expected going forward this season. First off, let’s dive back into the 45-7 drubbing New England gave Cleveland.
A Complete Team Beatdown
Since returning in 1999, the Browns have suffered their fair share of blowout losses. Whether it be the opening 43-0 loss to the Steelers in 1999, the 41-0 Christmas Eve loss to the Steelers in 2005, the 31-0 loss to the Steelers in 2008, the 30-0 loss to the Bengals in 2014, the 38-7 loss to the Steelers last ye…yeah, you probably get it. Anyway, the expansion-Browns have lost big many times. The loss to the Patriots last Sunday has a case for being not just one of, but the worst since the franchise’s rebirth. Cleveland’s DVOA was -114 percent, one of the worst single-game performances by any team this season. They were out-coached, out-played, and out-classed.
Lack of Defense
If the pitchforks weren’t out in Cleveland for Joe Woods job, they are now. The Browns defense was thoroughly manhandled in every aspect. The Patriots offense largely neutralized the Browns front seven. Myles Garrett played well. It just didn’t matter. Every pass play, Garrett was chipped or double-teamed while Jones got the ball out quickly. When the Patriots ran, they simply ran to whatever side #95 wasn’t on. The rest of the defensive line was almost a non-factor. The Patriots offensive line mauled Cleveland opening massive lanes for their backs to run through. Three starters on the offensive line had PFF run-blocking grades over 80. Rhamondre Stevenson finished runs carrying Browns defenders. Tackling was atrocious across the board.
As for coverage, there was no coverage. Patriot receivers were schemed open and ran free. Woods D had no answers and made no adjustments. Greg Newsome looked like a rookie, Denzel Ward was far from his elite self, John Johnson fell back to earth after a good two-game stretch, Ronnie Harrison was his typical liability-in-coverage self, and Troy Hill is likely still on the turf after a piss-poor tackling attempt on the Jacoby Meyers Touchdown. Myles put it best in his post-game comments: “We never had a chance just because we didn’t make any adjustments on the sideline or when we had time to.” Yikes.
Ask anyone on the Cleveland coaching staff and they will all tell you the same thing: the Browns want to run the ball and play-action pass off of it. You wouldn’t guess that if you watched this team for the first time this weekend. Baker Mayfield dropped back 23 times. Only two of those dropbacks were off play-action and both were on the first drive. Nearly every quarterback benefits from play-action and few benefit as much as Mayfield does. Mayfield has a 75 passing grade off play-action and a 67 grade on straight dropbacks this season. Obviously, teams will play-action pass less in obvious passing situations, but that does not excuse an outright abandonment of it. Expect a drastic change next week vs Detroit.
The Browns offensive identity is based around their offensive line. Outside of the first drive, the Patriots defensive line dominated. Wyatt Teller looked like a replacement guard and Jedrick Wills looked dreadful, again. Blake Hance is not a starter in this league and played like it. Jack Conklin cannot return soon enough. On a positive note, Joel Bitonio was the only Browns offensive player who graded higher than a 73 (80.0). The Browns cannot be a dominant run team if they cannot block.
Speaking of the run game, D’ernest Johnson ran efficiently. As the blocking wilted with each quarter and holes closed up, Johnson finished runs well and showed patience. There just wasn’t anything to be had in yardage production.
This game was one of the worst, if not the worst, games of Mayfield’s career. A sizeable portion of the blame lies squarely at Baker’s feet. Mayfield consistently missed receivers and made poor decisions. Browns receivers did him few favors. The preseason glean of Donovan Peoples-Jones has completely worn off. DPJ struggles to get any separation from corners. His biggest plays are coverage busts (ex. at Titans 2020, last week at Bengals). That isn’t sustainable. The clock is quickly running out on his chances to be a starting receiver. David Njoku dropped a sure touchdown that nearly cost the Browns their only points of the day.
The Turning Point
Mayfield’s interception early in the second quarter was a dreadful decision. Mayfield cannot throw that ball. However, the decision isn’t entirely Mayfield’s fault. Stefanski called a flood passing concept. This concept attacks cover-3. Njoku is the slot receiver running a deep out while Peoples-Jones is out wide running a go route.
The idea is that the outside receiver clears out the corner dropping to the deep zone, allowing for the slot receiver, the primary read, to find a hole in the zone 7-10 yards downfield near the sideline. Jalen Mills jams DPJ off the line, causing him to be too shallow when the ball is supposed to come out. Njoku runs a terrible route, rounding his break and allowing Kyle Duggar to jump the route. Njoku is taken out of the play by Mills, the corner who was supposed to have been cleared from the zone by DPJ. Duggar easily intercepts the pass and returns it from a touchdown.
The Browns passing offense lives off timing. On that play, the Patriots defense throws off the timing immediately. Mayfield has to know better than to throw that ball while Njoku and Peoples-Jones need to run better routes. That play was the epitome of the Browns entire game.
The Sky Isn’t Falling
Browns fans may need the Aaron Rodgers treatment after this game.
in 2020, everything bounced right for Cleveland. They won close games and stayed mostly healthy, overachieving relative to their 11-5 record. The variance that went their way last season isn’t this season. This is to be expected, to a degree. They have dropped a few close games this year and are suffering from injuries, especially on the offensive line. Because of this, their offense has been less efficient in the run game. All signs pointed towards this being a 9-10 win (of 17 games) this season. at 5-5, they remain on pace for that. The Patriots loss can be chalked up to a combination of a bad matchup and poor play.
While the Browns maintain the status quo, pencil them in for a couple of blowouts per year. Last year was Pittsburgh and Baltimore. This year is Arizona and New England. The blueprint is the same. Build a quick lead, put Cleveland in a pass-first situation, and wait for Mayfield and Co to struggle. They cannot play from behind. This doesn’t mean this team cannot win. building a quick lead on them is not easy. Every team has a weakness. The Browns are no exception.