The play that sealed a win for the Browns on Monday Night Football against the Jets this week was advantageous from the start.
On first-and-10, with the ball on Cleveland’s 11-yard line, Baker Mayfield lined up under center and saw the Jets in a Cover 2 shell. Odell Beckham was uncovered in the slot, with only one defender, Brian Poole, playing in between Beckham and Jarvis Landry (thus, guaranteeing Beckham a free release). Deep safety Marcus Maye was a comical 23 yards off the ball by the time the snap took place and the other safety, Jamal Adams, was at the line, rushing from the outside.
Once Mayfield snapped the ball, his run action fake to Nick Chubb away from Beckham caused linebacker Neville Hewitt to stand flat footed for only a millisecond, thus creating about three yards of space between Beckham and the nearest defender to each side. It was obvious to nearly everyone that the second Beckham touched the ball, he was gone. Landry stood on the 20-yard line and simply raised his fist as he watched his friend and teammate whip down the field at more than 20 miles per hour.
“Really just a token fake, and then get the ball in [Odell’s] hands,” Mayfield said after the game. “The rest is all on him. That’s why you get him the ball.”
In this moment, the Browns’ offense looked effortless—from the solid play call and the smart pre-snap adjustment (Mayfield moved Chubb from the right side of the formation to the left, which would force Hewitt to hesitate just a bit more since the run action was away from him) to the advantageous defense. With its battery of elite playmakers, a solid 10-yard gain for most teams can be a touchdown in Cleveland.
Still, Mayfield acknowledged after the game that it doesn’t always look that way. Obviously, an NFL game is far more calamitous than the way we draw it up in our own heads, but through two weeks, the Browns are not quite the laser show we were promised upon the completion of this roster. With one win and one loss so far, the team is averaging about two yards per play fewer than the league-leading Cowboys, has racked up 67 more penalty yards than the next closest team and is getting first downs at about the same rate as the just-benched-our-longtime-quarterback Giants. Yet, in the same vein, they are one of the top teams in football with 11 explosive (20-plus yard) passing plays.
This is what may happen when offensive line trouble meets a still-developing play caller meets two straight defensive coordinators notorious for their amorphic defenses meets the desire of a dynamic young quarterback hell-bent on maximizing the world-class talent at his disposal.
A scary thought: That 89-yard touchdown, and other explosive-type plays, could be a more common occurrence with a little discipline and some help on the offensive line. And Mayfield seems intent on doing his part. Another scary thought: Based on a second look at the Browns from Monday, they’re not far off.
“I think it’s a learning curve,” Mayfield said Monday. “Needing to know when I can take my shots and check the ball down to get completions. It’s a little difficult at times but, like I keep harping on, I just need to get completions.”
He added: “I need to be better at checking the ball down and getting completions. I said it last week after watching the tape. Completions. Getting the ball in our guys’ hands, putting them in a good position, keeping the chains moving.”
A deeper look at Mayfield’s 35 dropbacks from Monday show the razor-thin margin between good and potentially excellent on which this offense is walking. A few notes to support that thought:
• I took a stab at pinpointing the plays that Mayfield is describing generally when he says “needing to know when I can take my shots and check the ball down.” Granted, only the very obvious is going to stand out to me, but I saw four, or 11% of his drop backs. One was a first-quarter pass to David Njokou, where he had open routes developing on his left side but opted to take a deeper shot down the sideline in tighter coverage. One was a completion to Odell Beckham that he dropped perfectly into bracketed coverage (you may remember the play as the one where Beckham was sandwiched by two defenders), but Jarvis Landry was open underneath with some room to run. One was a deep shot to Taywan Taylor when he had Landry on a post route over the middle in the third quarter and one came in the fourth, when Mayfield took a sack and missed a chance to float the ball to Nick Chubb before pressure arrived.
• Two of Mayfield’s incompletions looked like smart attempts to draw defensive pass interference that were simply not called but would have netted the Browns more yards than a common check down.
• Two of his passes were batted down.
• I counted seven plays were the pressure was significant enough to impact the outcome.
• I counted one play that should have been an easy completion, but it seemed a non-traditional receiver placed out wide was just slow coming out of his route, thus causing an incompletion.
• Despite the comical misalignment on Beckham’s long touchdown, Gregg Williams’s defense did do a good job of blowing up a lot of at-the-line routes, forcing the Browns to go more vertical at a time when their offensive line isn’t exactly a strength. There were at least two routine completions for most quarterbacks that ended up looking like complete chaos after the snap because of the way the Jets were playing.
So, what does this all mean? Mayfield is grading himself as a graduate student right now despite being in Year Two. There are roughly a handful of drive-sustaining plays he’s passing up on in order to take deep shots down field, but if you have a developing quarterback, wouldn’t you rather that then a quarterback who refuses to acknowledge that the deep third of the field exists? He’s already good enough to resurrect a play from near death (but with more sturdiness, and not in the kind of jesus-take-the-wheel rollouts we used to see from other gamblers like Johnny Manziel). Now, imagine how good the Browns offense will be when, just a few more times a game, Mayfield takes the easy way out and takes what the defense gives him—something to keep an eye on Sunday when the Browns take on the Rams, and Aaron Donald doesn’t give him much of a choice.
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