For Cleveland’s offense, there were two very positive things about the victory over Atlanta. 1) It was Baker Mayfield’s soundest, and first mistake-free, performance. 2) The Browns didn’t need him to do a whole lot.
New offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens is trying to turn the Browns into a smashmouth offense. In the first two quarters last week against Kansas City (i.e. before the Browns were playing from behind) and for all four quarters against Atlanta, Kitchens predominantly pounded the rock out of two tight ends or heavy personnel. The results were so-so against Kansas City and marvelous against Atlanta (in part because rookie tailback Nick Chubb has a keen sense for setting up his blocks between the tackles).
Typically, this sort of approach would be indicative of a team hiding its young QB, but you don’t get the sense that’s the case here. Mayfield has shown a respectable football IQ thus far, not repeating mistakes and, aside from a few mini slumps, playing on schedule. Under Kitchens, “on schedule” mostly means throwing flat routes or slant routes.
That’s what Mayfield primarily threw against Atlanta, but in the half-dozen situations where he had to answer lofty orders through the air, he did. Mayfield completed a few far-hash throws outside, including on third downs. He was also decisive and precise on play-action, fully trusting the designs against Atlanta’s zone and matchup-zone coverages. He used his legs effectively—some were skeptical about that part of his game after his 4.84 forty time at the combine.
We saw all of this on the 28-yard touchdown to Rashard Higgins. The play was designed to be a deep throwback to wing receiver Jarvis Landry, but free safety Damontae Kazee chased Landry’s route, taking it away. It was a questionable decision by Kazee because it meant abandoning his free safety post. Mayfield recognized that and hit Higgins, who had leverage against cornerback Robert Alford. (Alford was assuming he had middle-field help from Kazee.) To make the throw, Mayfield had to unexpectedly work into his progressions and then elude star defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. It was great playmaking both in and out of structure.
Mayfield must continue to trust Cleveland’s designs and use his legs because the only significant concern with him on film is his lack of height—as expected, it sometimes hinders his field vision. He must offset this through pocket manipulation, which is done by striking that delicate balance between executing sharp progression reads and making second-reaction plays. He’s off to a good start.
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