J.D. Bagley, @jdbagley5
The defending NFC Champion Los Angeles Rams took care of business Sunday night in Cleveland to improve their record to 3-0, while the Browns drop to a worrisome 1-2 with a frightening slate of games ahead. Head Coach Freddie Kitchens took the brunt of the blame following the loss, stating, “If you’re going to blame someone, blame me… cause I can take it.” He was also asked on Monday if giving up play calling duties was a possibility, Kitchens responded, “Not gonna happen.” It’s only Week 4, but time is ticking for this Browns offense to find its groove before it’s too late.
The biggest concern with the offensive side of the ball through 3 weeks is without question the O-Line play. Mayfield rarely has any time to get beyond his first read before being swarmed in the pocket. The root of the problem is the tackles. Aaron Donald made some key plays on Sunday from the inside, but that’s almost a guarantee any time he’s on the field. Overall the interior starters Bitonio and Tretter did a pretty decent job at protecting Mayfield. Tackles Greg Robinson and Justin McCray, along with injured Chris Hubbard, have been liabilities to this point and Baker knows it. Numerous times he rushed himself out of the pocket too early because he assumes pressure is coming (which it usually does). This hinders the Browns downfield play development, resulting in few, if any big plays. The offense is relying too much on short to intermediate throws, affecting their chances of sustaining long drives down the field. When you have big play threat like Odell Beckham Jr. in your arsenal, it would be ludicrous not to get him the ball downfield where he can make superstar type plays. But, that isn’t as effective when your quarterback only has 2.5 seconds to throw the ball and is throwing on the run more often than not. I truly believe General Manager John Dorsey needs to look into acquiring an offensive tackle via trade. The offense as currently constructed has a low ceiling and the offensive line problems aren’t going to solve themselves.
Offensive play calling is the other main concern that is impeding the Browns chances of success. Freddie Kitchens takes full responsibility and vows that he needs to put his players in a better position to succeed. He was asked during his post game presser how he thinks he performed, “We didn’t win the game so I don’t think I did very good.” In a crucial 4th and 9 from the Rams 40 with 9 minutes left in the game down by 4, Kitchens called a draw play to Nick Chubb that resulted in 2 yards and a turnover on downs, which led to a Rams field goal. FirstEnergy Stadium erupted in boo’s and Kitchens knew he had made a mistake. “It just didn’t work, it was a bad call.” With less than a minute left in the game, the Browns were driving down the field looking to knot things up at 20. First and goal from the 4 yard line with all 3 timeouts, Kitchens called 4 consecutive passing plays, none of which were intended for Beckham. Mayfield’s first 3 attempts were incomplete, with the 4th and goal pass being intercepted by John Johnson III, ending the game. Calling a draw on 4th and 9 weighed heavily on Kitchens, resulting in him not calling a single run play inside the 5. After the game he said “I should’ve ran it one time… that’s what I’m kicking myself in the ass for right now.” Hindsight play calling analysis is a lot easier than the real time play calling on the field, but Freddie will have to improve in order for this team to have a legitimate shot at the postseason.
While the Browns were without 5 starters on defense, including the entire secondary, they held one of the most lethal offenses in the NFL to just 20 points. That should be considered a big win for Steve Wilks and the rest of the group as they gave the Browns plenty of chances to come away with a win. The brightest spot once again was Myles Garrett, tallying a strip sack late in the 2nd quarter. The ball was recovered by Joe Schobert, leading to an Austin Seibert field goal before halftime. As a whole unit, the defense did their job keeping the Browns in the game until the very end. There weren't many 3 and outs for the Rams, but when they began to move the football, the Browns defense made some key stops to end promising drives. With all 4 starting secondary players unavailable to play, backups Terrance Mitchell, T.J. Carrie, Eric Murray, Jermaine Whitehead and Juston Burris were relied on to hold down the back end. Burris was picked up off the streets last week to return to Cleveland where he spent training camp and the preseason. In one of the biggest plays of the night with less than 3 minutes to go, Jared Goff rifled a throw across the middle of the field on 3rd and 3 where it was tipped by Schobert and into the hands of Burris for his first interception since Week 1 of 2017. T.J. Carrie also picked off Goff where he jumped Brandin Cooks’ route to the sideline, making a diving interception to put the Browns at midfield. Although the Rams had two receivers top 100 yards, I was thoroughly impressed with the secondary on Sunday night. Even on plays where they didn’t force a turnover it felt like they were around the ball at all times, and more often than not, that will lead to positive outcomes. Todd Gurley was held in check by the front 7 with just 43 yards on 14 carries as the Rams really couldn’t get anything going in the run game all night. Watching Gurley this year has been much different than in years past. After vanishing from the Rams offense late last year during their Super Bowl run, he hasn’t looked like the same explosive playmaker that he once was. Still a solid runner of the football but he’s not a guy the Rams are going to use as a focal point of the offense going forward. Missing C Austin Blythe for this game, the glaring weakness of the Rams offensive line was the interior. Facing a fierce Browns front 4, they held up pretty well over the course of the game, allowing just one sack to Larry Ogunjobi, on a miscommunication between the center and guard. One more important note from Sunday was the Browns kicking game. Since missing his first PAT of the season back in Week 1, Austin Seibert has since been 4/4 on extra points, and 5/5 on field goal attempts. Although none of those field goal attempts exceeded 50 yards, consistent Browns field goal kicking has been hard to come by since the departure of Phil Dawson back in 2012. And as many Browns fans know, a few made field goals here and there could’ve put Cleveland in the playoffs last year.
An important matchup on the road against the division leading Baltimore Ravens looms ahead for the Browns in Week 4. Cleveland will have their hands full with Lamar Jackson who looks like a completely new player this year in terms of throwing the ball, making his play style that much more difficult to defend. Starting 1-3 with another prime time game on the road coming in Week 5 is not the situation the Browns want to be in, next week. After all, a win in Baltimore will put Cleveland atop the AFC North.