The Browns had a breakthrough 2020 season, earning an AFC wild-card berth with an 11-5 record and getting to the divisional playoffs. The 2021 sequel in the second year under coach Kevin Stefanski has yet to build on that.
Cleveland, at 3-3 with a third of the season complete, is tied for third in the AFC North with Pittsburgh. Based on current tiebreakers, the team is really last in the division and outside of the playoff picture, No. 10 in the conference.
The Browns have respectable losses to the Chiefs (3-3), Chargers (4-2) and Cardinals (6-0). But they also don’t have any statement wins through beating the Texans (1-5), Bears (3-3) and Vikings (3-3).
That early schedule means six games — or more than half of what’s remaining — will be played intradivision against the Ravens (5-1), Bengals (4-2) and Steelers (3-3). The Browns also need to play the Raiders (4-2) and Packers (5-1) in December. Cleveland needs to raise its level of play soon to secure the double-digit wins it needs to ensure another playoff berth.
So what’s up with the Browns’ slow start and the sophomore slump for Stefanski, last year’s consensus coach of the year? Here’s breaking down their early breakdown:
The Browns have seen Baker Mayfield struggle trying to do too much
Mayfield, by some measures, before missing Week 7, was having a better season than he did in 2020, when his red-hot play in the second half powered the Browns to surge into the playoffs with a 6-2 finish. His completion percentage (67.1), yards per attempt (8.5) and passer rating (97.8) are career-high marks. But he already has committed 5 turnovers (3 INTs, 2 lost fumbles) when that number was 12 all of last season.
Mayfield has been wild and inconsistent with his volume, missing a lot of short-to-intermediate throws he should have made, compensating by flashing on a few big ones — see the first half Hail Mary TD in Week 6. He also hasn’t been helped by drops or missed connections from his receivers, topped by his often forcing the ball into Odell Beckham Jr.
It probably didn’t help that Mayfield was playing with a completely torn labrum in his left non-throwing shoulder since Week 2. Unfortunately, he aggravated the injury when taking a hard fall against Arizona on Sunday, to the point Case Keenum will need to start for Cleveland in Thursday’s night home game vs. Denver.
Maybe some rest and a mini-bye will help get Mayfield right for a critical stretch coming up, starting with consecutive games against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Unfortunately, there have been other fundamental issues hurting the offense, too.
The Browns can’t keep all their key components healthy
Beckham started on the shelf with a knee injury and is now battling a shoulder injury. More important at wide receiver, Mayfield’s old inside-outside reliable Jarvis Landry has been out since early in Week 2 with a knee injury. At running back, Nick Chubb is back to missing time with a calf injury, and Kareem Hunt might be out a lot longer with a similar ailment.
The Browns’ top-flight offensive line hasn’t been immune to the injury bug. Left tackle Jedrick Willis Jr. didn’t play well through the ankle injury he suffered in Week 1 and it got tough enough to make him miss the past two games, going on three. Right tackle Jack Conklin joined him out of action in Week 6 with his knee injury.
The entire starting front four of the defense has been banged up, with durability a concern for Jadeveon Clowney again. There’s been constant reshuffling in the linebacker corps with the latest blow being impact rookie Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah’s high ankle sprain. The cornerback corps hasn’t been near total health, either,
The Browns have been fine when they can run all over teams and limit their reliance on passing and pass defense. But it doesn’t work when that formula is thrown off and it just got harder without their top two backs and top two tackles. Neither Mayfield nor Keenum was meant to operate in a forced high-volume passing game, vs. one that plays effectively off the running game.
When the Browns have shorter drives without the ball control, it puts strain on the defense as a whole. Opponents can’t run well on Cleveland, but they are finding downfield passing success to further pull the team away from its run-heavy game script.
The Browns’ passing offense can’t find a rhythm
Without Landry on the field and Beckham struggling to connect with Mayfield in key situations, there’s been a matchup-by-matchup committee approach with who produces most from the Browns’ receiving corps. Sometimes it’s supporting wideouts Donovan Peoples-Jones and Rashard Higgins. Sometimes it’s tight ends Austin Hooper and David Njoku. Sometimes it’s rookie speedster Anthony Schwartz.
The Browns are still using 11 personnel (three wide receivers) 44 percent of the time, like last season. But they have used 13 personnel (one wide receiver) 21 percent of the time, more than last year and much more than anyone else in the league this year. That’s now even a higher frequency than their usage of 12 personnel (often two tight ends).
Mayfield is a streaky passer because he’s a rhythm passer. There’s been some choppiness as the team has tried to incorporate targeting many players with varied skill sets. With Mayfield or Keenum, there needs to be some streamlining with particular personnel, such as more of DPJ (Peoples-Jones) and less of OBJ. It’s evident that Landry has been the glue to the passing game as the real go-to guy and nothing sticks as well when he’s not the focal point.
The Browns’ pass defense has been disappointing
There’s Myles Garrett flanked by Clowney on the edge. The Browns still have plenty of active linebackers in coverage. They worked to upgrade safety with former Ram John Johnson III. Rookie Greg Newsome has looked like a good outside complement to top corner Denzel Ward, with Greedy Williams and former Ram Troy Hill providing good depth.
The Browns were strong against the pass early but that’s come unraveling with Justin Herbert and Kyler Murray lighting them up with high efficiency and big plays the past two weeks. Johnson has underwhelmed cleaning things up inside along with Ronnie Harrison. Ward and Newsome are solid, but they are still giving up plenty, with Williams playing the best overall in coverage. The pass rush has been one of the league’s best, but the pressure from Garrett, Clowney and others hasn’t converted into takeaways.
Cleveland would like to jump on teams with an aggressive play-action passing game to build leads and get to work in a prolific running game. The Browns’ defense is built to tee off on teams when playing with a lead, not be involved in shootouts (see vs. Herbert in Week 5) or watch the opponent jump far ahead (see vs. Murray in Week 6).
The Browns won a lot of games last season because they stayed healthy and put out their best complementary football for Stefanski’s overall winning game plan. Even while shorthanded and waiting for more players to heal every week this season, they need to get back to their ideal identity with the talent that’s still out there and the next men up. If no one can step up fast to make up for everyone who’s missing, Cleveland can get further derailed from the playoff return track by the time the second half happens in 2021.