Baker Mayfield is helping to lead the Cleveland Browns to playoff contention, but his performances against the Titans, Ravens and Steelers will determine if the team is truly a contender. Currently boasting an impressive 8-3 record, the Browns are in the driver's seat for punching their playoff ticket. If the team is able to reach the post season it will be the franchise’s first time since 2002. The final five games on the schedule will ultimately determine if the Browns will make the playoffs and which seed they will play in the Wildcard round.
Of the five remaining games their opponents will be the Tennessee Titans, Baltimore Ravens, New York Giants, New York Jets and concluding the season against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Reviewing the remainder of the schedule the Browns are likely to only be favorites in New York against the Giants and winless Jets. Those are contest the Browns should absolutely win to continually increase their playoff chances. The three other opponents are more causes for concern and could potentially be determining factors in the organizations playoff hopes.
The first big test will be this Sunday against the Tennessee Titans, who are coming off a dominating performance against the Indianapolis Colts. Tennessee is a physical team that runs their offense through Derrick Henry and focuses on controlling time of possession. This playstyle is awfully similar to the Browns offensive approach which utilizes the dynamic running back tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. An x-factor for both teams on a weekly basis is the performance of their quarterback and Baker Mayfield is the player under the most pressure to perform.
Mayfield entered his third season on his fourth head coach and third offensive system and numerous questions about his ability to be a franchise quarterback. The young gunslinger has performed as needed and done enough to help the team reach its first winning season since 2007. There have been moments of brilliance like his five touchdown performance against the Cincinnati Bengals. Yet the one thing Mayfield has not proven this season is that he can win against top-tier competition. The last three performances for Baker Mayfield against the Titans, Ravens, and Steelers were not encouraging.
Tennessee Titans (week one, 2019)
25-for-38, 285 yards, 1 TD – 3 INT
Baltimore Ravens (week one, 2020)
21-for-39, 189 yards, 1 TD – 1 INT
Pittsburgh Steelers (week six, 2020)
10-for-18, 119 yards, 1 TD – 2 INT
Last season was the not the greatest experience for the Browns organization or the fan base. The franchise took a step backwards under former head coach Freddie Kitchens. Baker Mayfield endured a sophomore slump that definitely impacted his development and created deficiencies in his mechanics that have shown up this season. The season opener against the Titans was a preview into disaster because of the lack of discipline and poor coaching. But on the same token Mayfield's performance was not just strictly a reflection on coaching.
Down nine points at the start of the fourth quarter, Mayfield threw his first interception while targeting Odell Beckham with three defenders around him. This mistake basically destroyed the Browns chances of a comeback but was also the start of Mayfield’s meltdown. On the following series he threw another interception on 3rd & 4 on an out route towards Jarvis Landry. His final interception was the toughest to watch as the throw was far behind Landry and turned into a pick six the other direction.
The overall matchup was tough on Mayfield as he was constantly pressured and had to escape the pocket numerous times throughout the game. Porous offensive line play was his biggest detriment last season and general manager Andrew Berry did a great job improving the offensive line this season. All three starting interior offensive linemen are in the top four highest graded players according to Pro Football Focus. Also, Browns offensive tackle Jack Conklin is the eleventh highest rated tackle in the league and rookie Jedrick Willls has the lowest pressure rate (1.9%) of all tackles in his draft class.
Improved play along the offensive line should give Baker Mayfield more time in the pocket compared to the matchup last year. Pressure on the interior creates all sorts of problems for Mayfield because of his height and that showed the last time the two teams met. Currently the Browns have the second highest (70%) pass block win rate in the league and will likely hold up against the Titans fourteenth ranked pass rush win rate. Now boasting a dominant run game that forces teams to stack the box it will help further open throwing windows for Mayfield to find success.
Facing off against the Titans 28th ranked pass defense this becomes an opportunity Mayfield can take advantage of. Last week against Jacksonville, Mayfield missed throws he should have made but he also made throws that other quarterbacks cannot make. The Titans allow over 268 passing yards per game and Mayfield only has two games this season over 250 passing yards. Mayfield must take advantage of this matchup to build momentum heading into a tumbling Baltimore Ravens team.
After losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Wednesday afternoon, the Ravens (6-5) are falling quickly out of the playoff picture. They definitely have failed to recapture the offensive magic from last season but they still have the Browns number this season after a blowout in the opener. Baker Mayfield had a forgettable game scoring only six points and throwing an interception on the opening series. That loss was not solely on Mayfield as drops and turnovers plagued the offense throughout the game. But one facet of the game that impacted Mayfield’s performance was passes being batted down at the line of scrimmage.
The first batted pass actually resulted in his only interception of the game. This has popped up in Mayfield’s young career as a slight issue but has improved when he finds throwing lanes in the pocket. Delivering the ball to receivers from the pocket is something Mayfield must do with success as the Ravens have the highest blitz rate (44.8%) in the NFL. Proper chemistry and timing with his skill players will help negate some of the Ravens blitz packages to get after the quarterback. This will also be essential versus the Pittsburgh Steelers who have the second highest blitz rate at 41.9%.
In matchups the Browns have beat the Ravens, it has been mostly due to their vulnerability against the run. Head coach Kevin Stefanski will figure out a gameplan to create mismatches running the ball. Baker Mayfield’s impact must come from completing tight window throws against the likes of Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters. Mayfield throws the ball very well off playaction and with the run game excelling shot plays will be available down the field. This will be a tough matchup for Mayfield but he has enough arm talent to make those throws and he will need enough time to find his target.
Lastly, to finish the season is the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers. This game could be a win or go home opportunity depending on what happens with the rest of the playoff picture but either way it is seemingly the most important game on the schedule. The Browns franchise as a whole has not shown much in their ability to compete on the road against Pittsburgh but they play extremely hard at home. No other matchup provides such opportunity and tension for Baker Mayfield to succeed than the Steelers.
Mayfield struggled beyond measure in the first matchup this season and defensive coordinator Keith Butler made him very uncomfortable. Pre-snap alignment to post-snap movement was Mayfield’s biggest vice and the Steelers defense made him pay. His first pass attempt was a pick-six by Minkah Fitzpatrick who perfectly read and undercut the throw. It was a rough start for Baker and the game only got rougher from that moment on.
Mayfield was constantly under pressure against the Steelers third ranked defense. The relentless unit has the highest pressure rate (34.3%) in the league and by a decent margin. They also have the highest sack total (38) and quarterback hurry percentage (14.5) in the NFL. The group has gotten after Baker Mayfield and it all starts with T.J. Watt off the edge. Watt’s impact is undeniable having the highest pass rush win rate in the league and he quickly forces Mayfield into some questionable throws. In fact Mayfield’s second interception in the first matchup was influenced by Watt’s quick pressure after the snap.
If the Browns are to have any success throwing the ball, slowing the Steelers pass rush will be vital. Mayfield already took responsibility for his performance in their first game and we all agree he must be better. One of the biggest improvements that will help him play better is effectively using his eyes to survey the defense post-snap. Kevin Stefanski has done well simplifying Mayfield’s throwing options so he can get the ball out on time. The gameplan should improve and allow Mayfield to be more comfortable both in and out of the pocket.
Baker Mayfield has the skillset and coaching staff to be successful in the remaining matchups. The run game will be the obvious foundation of the offensive gameplan and Mayfield will have multiple opportunities to step up in big games. Solid performances against the Titans, Ravens, and Steelers are what this team needs to take the next step. As stated earlier the Browns goes as far as Mayfield can take them being the leader of the football team. If Mayfield is able to win two of the three key matchups, that will encourage GM Andrew Berry to pick up his fifth year option. More time in the system and big time plays in big time moments will help Mayfield prove himself worthy of the new contract he seeks.