The Cleveland Browns entered the 2019 season with considerable hype on their side, in large parts because of the projected development of their offense behind former first-round draft pick Baker Mayfield at quarterback and offseason trade acquisition Odell Beckham Jr. at the number one wide receiver position. Together, the two were expected to help lift a team that ended 2018 with a 7-8-1 record into the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
Seven weeks into the season, however, the team has had its fair share of miscues on the offensive side of the ball: Cleveland, which enters the game against the New England Patriots with a 2-4 record, ranks just 23rd in scoring offense after averaging only 20 points per game. Furthermore, the unit has suffered with ball security and has already given possessions away 14 times in six games — the second most in all of football.
As they often do, the team’s problems start at the quarterback position. Mayfield has not taken the expected second-year jump, and has been erratic at times: the 24-year-old leads the NFL in interceptions at this point in the season with 11, and has also completed just 56.6% of his pass attempts (112 of 198) while throwing a mere five touchdowns. His passer rating of 66.0 currently ranks just 30th out of 32 qualifying quarterbacks.
“There have been several contributing factors to it, and Mayfield is one of those factors,” Chris Pokorny, managing editor at Dawgs By Nature, told Pats Pulpit earlier this week. “He has 11 interceptions through six games, which is an unacceptable turnover rate. About half of those interceptions are passes that hit his receivers in the hands, but instead of them ‘just being dropped passes,’ the receivers are tipping them in the air for the defense to grab.”
“The counter argument to that would be that Mayfield needs to throw a better ball. Yes, NFL-level receivers should still be making any catches in their catch radius, but Mayfield can also make their lives a lot easier with improved ball placement,” Chris continued when talking about the first-overall pick of the 2018 draft, and the struggles that have followed him so far in his second year in the NFL.
As Chris also pointed out, however, the Browns’ offensive play-calling from head coach Freddie Kitchens and coordinator Todd Monken has not exactly helped him during the early portions of the season. Furthermore, Mayfield himself has often relied too much on his own athletic abilities to make plays. Both issues have been somewhat resolved as the season went along, but the offense is still struggling to get going.
“The issues since then have been poor execution, with the aforementioned untimely drops-leading-to-interceptions playing a big role,” said Chris. “Against the 49ers in Week 5, the Browns were about to make it a 14-10 deficit heading into the half, but wide receiver Antonio Callaway tipped a touchdown pass up into the air for an interception, which instead made it a 21-3 deficit.”
“In Week 6 against the Seahawks, the Browns were in prime position to go up 27-12 just before halftime, but Cleveland inexplicably rushed to the line of scrimmage, tried forcing a pass to WR Jarvis Landry, and it was deflected into the air for an interception,” he continued. “The Browns then only led 20-18 at the half. Both situations are perfect examples of the frustration with this Cleveland team so far.”
“They have been their own worst enemy, and after facing those adverse turning points in game that don’t go their way, the team is unable to rebound,” added Chris. Entering the game against the Patriots, ball security therefore needs to be on the top of the list of things to work on for the Browns: New England’s defense, after all, is the best in the NFL at forcing turnovers and has registered a whooping 18 interceptions in just seven games this year.
While Cleveland has had its fair share of issues in the passing game, not all has been bad for the team offensively. After all, the Browns have gotten some impressive production out of second-year running back Nick Chubb: the 23-year-old has carried the football 114 times this year for 607 yards and six scores, while also catching 20 passes for an additional 128 yards — accounting for one third of the team’s offensive production.
“The one consistent element the Browns have had in all six games is the running ability of Nick Chubb,” said Chris about the former second-round draft pick. “Even when the Browns have faced top-ranked run defenses, Chubb still comes out of the game averaging five yards per carry and close to a 100-yard performance. The Patriots have been so good in every facet defensively, so I’m curious how things will go especially since Cleveland is expected to make at least one change in the starting lineup of the offensive line.”
The Patriots, of course, use a similar strategy each week when it comes to playing defense: make the opponent play left-handed by taking away what it does best. In Cleveland’s case, the running game seems like a logical choice as Chubb has been one of the league’s most productive backs seven weeks into the season, and the motor behind the little success the Browns have had on offense — all while the team’s aerial attack has struggled to find its rhythm.
However, the Patriots could also opt to look elsewhere to find matchups to focus on as Chris pointed out: “Perhaps the Browns’ talented receiving tandem of Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry will continue to be the focal point of the Patriots’ game plan to eliminate — in other words, they might prefer to let Chubb have a decent day on the ground, as long as it means never letting Beckham and Landry beat them.”
The two wide receivers, who have caught a combined 54 passes for 875 yards and a touchdown so far, are among the most talented one-two punches in the NFL. Patriots fans should also have another name on their radar, however, as Chris said: slot receiver Rashard Higgins. He has only two catches for 46 yards on his 2019 résumé after missing the previous five games, but might have the best chemistry among the Browns’ weapons with the team’s quarterback.
“His return to action has been frustrating because the belief was that he was ready to go for the past two to three games, only to be scratched,” said Chris about the fourth-year man, who has not played since the season opener. “Higgins was vocal about his frustration too, but head coach Freddie Kitchens excused it by insinuating that they wanted Higgins to be 100% back instead of just 90% back (my words, not his).”
“The best way to describe Higgins is that he’s just a solid player,” he continued when talking about a player that will likely go against Patriots slot cornerback Jonathan Jones. “He runs good routes, knows how to move with his quarterback, doesn’t drop passes, etc. He won’t light up the stat sheet, but if he finally returns to action, he will do a lot of the little things to be the security blanket that Mayfield has lacked much of the season.”