Article by Shaun Blundell – @Shaun_F10Y
A fine effort from the Browns on Sunday Night Primetime was undone by one of the league’s most reliable duos.“Jared Goff complete to Cooper Kupp”, rinse and repeat. It was an all too familiar tale as arguably the league’s best slot receiver had a field day against the depleted Browns secondary, missing all 4 of its assumed starters. The Rams have a fabulous trio of weapons with Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods to compliment the aforementioned Kupp and the Rams have been consistently good on offense since the dawning of the Sean McVay era. Watching the game with my orange and brown tinted lenses I couldn’t help but think to myself “wasn’t this supposed to be what we looked like this season?”
Three weeks in and the Browns have simply stuttered on offense. Short of the opening drive drive of the season against the Titans that provided so much hope and optimism it’s been tough going for Baker and co. Through 3 games the combined stat line for Baker reads 62/109, 805 yards, 3 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. It’s a full 7% drop in terms of his completion percentage from last season and essentially a flip on TD to INT ratio. Whichever way you dress it up, it hasn’t been great. So just what has gone wrong since that season opening drive?
That leads me back to the Goff and Kupp connection. Most quarterbacks develop a favourite target, think Phillip Rivers to Antonio Gates, Peyton Manning to Marvin Harrison, Tom Brady to anyone! That security blanket that is always there when all else fails, the connection to bail the quarterback out when a play breaks down. When it comes to Baker Mayfield the sample size is small, but without doubt his go to guy is Rashard Higgins. When was the last time we saw Higgins effectively on the field? The opening drive of the season.
Higgins was targeted 3 times on that opening drive and caught 2 balls including the big catch of 35 yards to set the Browns up for Dontrel Hilliards rushing score. He has built up a rapport with Baker stretching all the way back to last training camp when he worked exclusively with the number 2 offense. Think back to camp this year, OBJ and Jarvis Landry were effectively wrapped in cotton wool and didn’t play a snap in preseason. Antonio Callaway turned up out of shape and is still serving his 4 game suspension. Damion Ratley spent most of camp injured. The other receivers, Jalen Strong, Ish Hyman, DJ Montgomery, Derrick Willies all either cut, placed on IR or the practice squad.
Baker is having to build chemistry on the fly in a real game environment. I was frustrated at the lack of preseason game time the “starters” received and the early results have vindicated that frustration. There is no denying the obvious talent that OBJ and Jarvis posses but it doesn’t just work overnight and they need complementary pieces to garner some defensive attention away from them as well. The 2 receivers the Browns did add at the end of camp Tawan Taylor and KhaDarel Hodge have been almost exclusively used on special teams.
There are obviously other legitimate questions for the Browns to answer. The offensive line, particularly at the tackle position has been poor. The poor play appears to have left Baker with zero trust or confidence in the guys up front and he is now bailing out of clean pockets as he is feeling footsteps that aren’t even there. The tight end position could do with an upgrade, and in my opinion that is regardless of the status of David Njoku. It may be an unpopular opinion but I haven’t seen enough from him into his now 3rd season to convince me he will turn into anything other than an extremely physically gifted athlete.
The playcalling question probably deserves an article all on its own but I will keep it simple. Freddie Kitchens may or may not be the problem, but it is on him to provide the solution. If that means handing duties over to Todd Monken then so be it. His offense in Tampa was certainly not the issue in Florida last year so he shouldn’t be afraid to hand over the reigns. Whoever is calling the plays, I would expect things to get better as the season progresses as everyone adjusts into a new system.
Despite all of this the Browns enter Sunday Night against the Ravens with an opportunity to take the divisional lead, so it certainly isn’t all doom and gloom. This is the last game without the legitimate deep threat that Callaway will provide to the offense (expect Taylor to be cut then) and Higgins has a shot to be back as early as this week, being called at the time of writing this article “day to day”. I’m still holding out hope that Dorsey swings a trade to bring Trent Williams over from the Redskins to sure up the line and who knows maybe talk Gronk out of retirement to come and play tight end?
The last point was obviously in jest but I don’t think the Browns are a million miles away. If Baker can be reunited with his comfort blanket I’m sure we will all feel much better about things. A precise route runner, Higgins has become an extremely valuable part of the wide receiver core, and as the saying goes “you don’t know what you have got until it has gone”.