Cleveland Browns: The Offensive Line isn't the Problem, Baker Mayfield is
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Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns

Cleveland Browns: The Offensive Line isn’t the Problem, Baker Mayfield is

The Cleveland Browns were getting Super Bowl hype prior to the 2019 NFL season. Three weeks in, the team is 1-2, and the offense is a disaster. 49 points have been scored in three games, 23 of those against the New York Jets sans Quinnen Williams and C.J. Mosley. The offensive line and head coach Freddie Kitchens are being blamed at the moment, and while both are part of the problem, neither is the biggest issue for the team right now; that would be quarterback Baker Mayfield.

After a great rookie season, Mayfield was expected to take a step forward in year two. After all, the Browns retained Kitchens, who engineered a brilliant offensive gameplan over the final eight games of 2018, hired offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who led a prolific passing attack in Tampa Bay, and added Odell Beckham Jr., one of the NFL’s premier wide receivers.

Things got off to a great start, as the Browns marched down the field and scored with ease on the starters’ lone drive in the first preseason game. But in the third preseason match, the offense struggled mightily.

That game ended up being indicative of regular season performance. Cleveland scored a touchdown on its first possession of 2019 against Tennessee, but did nothing else that afternoon, losing 43-13. Monday Night Football went much better, as the Browns pounded New York 23-3, although the offense was still out of rhythm. And despite a valiant effort from a banged up defense, Cleveland fell to the Los Angeles Rams, 20-13 in Week 3.

There are a number of disturbing trends with Mayfield that must be fixed if the Browns hope to come out of this gauntlet of games against good opponents with their playoff hopes still alive. But even though it’s clear Mayfield is not playing well, there are still many who would first blame the OL and Kitchens.

The line was considered to be an area of weakness heading into the season, and for good reason. First-round bust Greg Robinson was starting at left tackle, journeyman Eric Kush was replacing Kevin Zeitler, and Chris Hubbard was on the right side. But through three games, the OL is the least of Cleveland’s offensive issues. Keep in mind that these numbers are including last week’s game, where the line had to deal with the best player in football for 60 minutes.

The Browns rank third in the NFL in pass block win rate at 66%. A pass block win is defined as the offensive lineman holding his block for 2.5 seconds. Robinson, Joel Bitonio, and J.C. Tretter all rank within the top 10 at their respective positions with a 96% PBLKWR. That’s quite impressive, and means that for the most part, Mayfield should have enough time to throw the ball. The unit isn’t elite, but it also doesn’t have to be.

Kitchens was one of the NFL’s most creative playcallers in 2018, and that creativity seems to have disappeared so far this season. The Browns aren’t using motion, and long-developing vertical routes have become a staple, but Mayfield has been unable to get the ball to his targets on those plays. RPOs were very effective against Los Angeles, but the team moved away from them.

Some of Kitchens’ playcalling decisions have been questionable at best; RB draw on fourth and nine, not handing off to Nick Chubb on four straight plays at the five-yard-line, etc. But while Kitchens’ scheme may not be as electrifying as it was last year, it’s still getting guys open and giving Mayfield good opportunities to move the ball; he just isn’t taking advantage of them.

In 16.5 games (16 starts), Mayfield has completed 372 of 595 passes for 4,530 yards, 30 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions. Solid numbers, especially considering the situation he stepped into. But this season, he’s completed just 57% of his passes for 805 yards, three scores, and five picks. Skewed by the terrible fourth quarter against the Titans, but nonetheless poor. Mayfield has shown his pinpoint accuracy at times, but he’s not nearly as consistent as he should be. Basic stats don’t tell the whole story, however.

According to Pro Football Focus, Mayfield is responsible for four sacks, six hurries and 10 pressures so far this season. In all of 2018, he was charged with five sacks, three hits, seven hurries, and 15 pressures. His pocket awareness is extremely low right now. He doesn’t trust his line and scrambles out of the pocket to his right at the first sign of pressure, even if the pocket is still clean and he could have just stepped up into it. In Madden, he would have the paranoid QB sense pressure trait.

For reference, Baker finished last season with 18 marks in this advanced category. Bailing from the pocket throws off the receivers from their routes and forces them to work back across the field toward Mayfield, all in the amount of time that it takes a defender to close in on the QB.

Plenty of unnecessary incompletions have occurred because of this. When Mayfield actually goes through his full drop without scrambling, he often plants his back foot beyond where the tackles are ending their pass sets, meaning edge rushers have an easy arc to Mayfield, causing him to either be sacked, or step up and then scramble right again.

Even when Mayfield isn’t running around or taking sacks, he’s been ineffective from within the pocket. He’s missing open receivers, like Jarvis Landry on third-and-goal from the five against LAR. Or plays like these:

Mayfield is not seeing the field well right now. He isn’t anticipating his receivers getting open. And he isn’t reading the defense well. He’s getting confused by disguised coverage. Defenses are blitzing him less and dropping seven men into coverage, forcing Mayfield to pick them apart until he inevitably decides to roll right. This is one area where Kitchens can help out his young QB; by using more motion, the Browns can force the defense to reveal at least a bit of what they’re intending to do on a given play. This is a perfect example of motion working to Mayfield’s advantage:

As the tight end moves from right to left, the linebackers shift to the right; Mayfield can now infer that the TE will be matched up in man coverage. Jarvis Landry clears out the safety, and, as the play action clears the pocket for Mayfield, he is able to deliver a perfect throw right on time to Ricky Seals-Jones. This needs to happen much more often, whether it’s a TE, WR, or RB moving around.

Mayfield also must get the ball out quicker, and that’s another spot that can be helped by scheme. At one point against the Rams, Mayfield was 13 of 15 when throwing under 2.5 seconds, and 3/21 when throwing after 2.5 seconds. That’s a stark contrast, and a trend that has followed him since last season. Running more RPOs like the team did in the first half of Sunday night’s game will help with this.

But Mayfield also has to be able to sit in the pocket, diagnose a defense, and deliver the ball downfield. Otherwise, he won’t last long as a starter. But we’ve seen him do that time and time again; he just has to get back to doing that.

This is in no way meant to be a hit piece on Mayfield. He’s absolutely still the Browns franchise QB and an above average NFL QB. He’s just not playing like it right now for a number of reasons. And he’ll be the first person to admit that he isn’t playing up to par and needs to improve in order for his team to win. Mayfield’s fantastic rookie season wasn’t a fluke, but it’s up to him to prove it.