Cleveland Browns: What in the world just happened?
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Cleveland Browns, 2019 NFL season

Cleveland Browns: What in the world just happened?






There are many words to describe the Cleveland Browns’ season-opening performance against the Tennessee Titans, and none of them are positive.

After an offseason full of national hype that included Super Bowl talk, the Browns came out and orchestrated a nearly-perfect touchdown drive on their first possession. After that, Cleveland fell flat on its face. The offense couldn’t get anything going, and although Baker Mayfield pulled his team to within two points with under five minutes to go in the third quarter, Derrick Henry took a screen pass 75 yards for a touchdown on the next play from scrimmage, and the Browns rolled over in the fourth quarter in a 43-13 trouncing. Cleveland hasn’t won its season-opener since 2004, but yesterday was the most disappointing loss in a long time.

As a whole, the Browns committed a ridiculous 18 penalties, their most in a game since 1951, and two more were declined. It’s almost impossible to win when you’re constantly putting yourself in first-and-20 and second-and-20, and giving the opposing offense free first downs. The entire team looked undisciplined and unprepared.

Mayfield finished the day 25/38 for 285 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions. All three picks came in the fourth quarter (although the Titans dropped one on the opening drive), and one was returned for a touchdown. He was accurate for most of the game, but was indecisive, holding onto the ball for too long, which only compounded the offensive line issue. Mayfield took one of his five sacks in his own endzone for a safety. He appeared to injure his arm on the play, and left the stadium with a soft wrap on his throwing hand before undergoing an x-ray, which fortunately came back negative.

Speaking of the offensive line, many fans assumed the unit would be fine, as even though Kevin Zeitler was traded, Cleveland gave up only nine QB hits over the final eight games of 2018. But things are very different now, and changes must be made quickly. Left tackle Greg Robinson was ejected for kicking Tennessee safety Kenny Vaccaro in the head during the second quarter. Robinson was having a bad game at that point, but things bottomed out for the Browns offense shortly after. Kendall Lamm took over at LT, and after spending three plays on the field, went down with a knee injury that could be serious.

Right tackle Chris Hubbard (who had an absolutely disastrous performance, including two sacks allowed and three penalties) was forced to move to the left side, and former Green Bay Packer Justin McCray, whom Cleveland traded for just eight days prior, replaced him at RT. At this point, the Browns had no more offensive lineman on the bench.

According to NextGenStats, Mayfield had the 9th-highest time to throw in Week 1, which would indicate that the line was doing its job, and that the sacks and pressures were the fault of the QB. But a ranking by itself without numbers is misleading, and anyone who actually watched the game could clearly see the line getting beaten again and again. The issues were a combination of poor OL play, Mayfield being indecisive and holding onto the ball for too long, and poor playcalling.

Head coach Freddie Kitchens ran a brilliant offensive system for eight games last season that protected Mayfield while streamlining reads, used Cleveland’s weapons to their full potential, and covered up the weaknesses of the offensive line. New offensive coordinator Todd Monken led a prolific passing offense with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2018, and brings plenty of vertical scheming to the Browns. But it’s still Kitchens’ call when the team runs a long-developing deep pass from 11 personnel on third-and-one. The entire gameplan looked nothing like Kitchens from 2018, and that’s a problem.

Odell Beckham Jr. had a solid first game with the Browns, catching seven of his 11 targets for 71 yards. But he wasn’t able to break a long play, with his biggest grab being a 24-yarder. His presence didn’t open up the offense as much as expected.

The defense did its job for most of the game, allowing 13 points through 40 minutes. But the wheels came off after Henry’s 75-yard score, and the Titans ended up scoring 34 points on offense. Cleveland managed four sacks, but the supposedly terrifying defensive front had a disappointing outing, considering the Titans were without their starting left tackle and guard. Pro Bowl cornerback Denzel Ward had an abysmal game, getting consistently beaten by rookie A.J. Brown and providing no help in the run game.

Too much zone coverage was played by defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, who has two excellent man corners in Ward and rookie Greedy Williams. A good coach will adapt his system to the players he has, instead of forcing a square peg into a round hole. The defensive rotation was also a big issue; the defense looked gassed multiple times throughout the game, even in the first half.

That’s because they were on the field for a long time due to a stagnant offense, and nine starters played more than 80% of the snaps. If the team is going to have guys like Chad Thomas and Devaroe Lawrence active, they need to play more than five and 11 plays respectively, especially if starters Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson aren’t making much of an impact.

Rookie kicker Austin Seibert missed an extra point. Beckham Jr. ran out the clock for an extra two yards at the end of the half instead of going down to set up a hail mary attempt. Tight end David Njoku dropped two passes. “Blocking” tight end Demetrius Harris was flagged for holding twice. There are few, if any positives to take away from this game for the Browns.

This team is now facing adversity, and it’s a chance to see just what they’re made of. Will they succumb to the outside pressure and implode? Or will they respond by improving their discipline and come out with a win on Monday Night Football? It’s time to see who these coaches and players are. Adversity was going to arrive at some point, it just got here faster than anyone expected.