Blogging The Boys: You guys have a new coach in Kevin Stefanski. Tell us everything we need to know about him.
Dawgs By Nature: Finally, we have a head coach who knows how to call an offense that matches his personnel. Hue Jackson and Freddie Kitchens failed miserably at the basic concept of taking advantage of Cleveland’s strength as a run-dominant team, while mixing in the playaction pass to get Baker Mayfield into a rhythm.
We’ll get a better sample of Kevin Stefanski’s head coaching style as the season goes on, but he does not seem in over his head, and the team isn’t making dumb decisions. Those may seem like low bars, but they were clear problems with the team’s previous two head coaches — Jackson for his ego, and then Kitchens’ jump from running backs coach to head coach being too overwhelming of a step for him. Stefanski actually comes as advertised, and it’s impressive that the offense has been as smooth as it’s been for this being a shortened offseason with new systems. As I said earlier, you’ll see a lot of the zone blocking scheme in the running game, and playaction passes with Mayfield.
BTB: Where are you on Baker Mayfield as a quarterback? He’s certainly been up and down, talk about his game.
DBN: We’ve seen a lot of ups-and-downs with Baker Mayfield: from his promise as a rookie, to his slump as a sophomore, to now his first three games of 2020. The biggest issues for Mayfield, mostly stemming from his 2019 performance, have been his bad footwork, bailing from the pocket too quickly, the low trajectory on his passes, and inaccuracy. I think the most disappointing thing is that he wasn’t a good enough quarterback to overcome those types of things by himself — but it is understandable, because in the three years he’s been in the league, he’s had a different head coach each season. Learning a new offense every year is not a trend you want a young quarterback to have to adapt to.
The good thing is that Kevin Stefanski has been a much better fit to set up Mayfield (and the Browns’ offense) to succeed. As soon as Stefanski was brought in, one of the first things we heard from his staff was that they were going to work on Mayfield’s footwork and mechanics, which was so refreshing to hear. Anyone could tell last year that Mayfield’s footwork and mechanics were out of whack, and yet the coaching staff seemed oblivious to it. Another frustrating point is that last year, there was not a single play call I remember that had Mayfield rolling to his left by design. We’ve seen it a handful of times in 2020 already, and it has paid dividends.
I’m still high on Mayfield. He has that gunslinger moxy to him, but it only works when the rest of the team is clicking. Stefanski is going to design more plays for Mayfield to bootleg and throw outside the pocket, both for efficiency purposes and to allow him to use his arm to find those big plays downfield. I feel confident it’ll work this year, thanks to the Browns’ two-back system of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt behind a strong offensive line, and I think that’ll let Mayfield grow to being an above average quarterback by the end of the year.
BTB: It seems like the Browns have a lot of nagging injuries. What’s your feeling about who plays this week and how the injuries could affect the team?
DBN: Much of the injury news for Cleveland is still up-in-the-air until Friday’s practice, but I’ll share what I know so far. Kick and punt returner JoJo Natson suffered a torn ACL in last week’s game, so Cleveland is looking to a few running back and wide receiver candidates to take on that job now. Returns aren’t a huge part of NFL games typically, but we knew Natson was good at fielding punts without fumbling them, so that’s always something to be nervous about when another player takes on the role.
WR Jarvis Landry had hip surgery this offseason. Although he’s never missed a game and hasn’t this season, he said that he’s still not 100 percent but is working his way toward it. The biggest injury I’m watching this week is starting left guard Joel Bitonio. He tweaked his back during last week’s game against Washington. He didn’t practice on Wednesday, but was going to test his back out on Thursday to see how he felt afterward. The other big injury to look out for is RB Kareem Hunt. Chubb and Hunt have been a great duo, but Hunt has missed the first two practices this week with a groin injury, something that is especially tough on running backs. Considering Chubb’s caliber of play, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Hunt sit this week.
On defense, CB Denzel Ward played half of the game last week through a groin injury. He is testing out the injury again this week, and should be labeled a game-time decision again. CB Kevin Johnson and LB Mack Wilson made their season debuts last week, returning from injury, but had limited reps as they knock off their rust. According to defensive coordinator Joe Woods, their reps are expected to increase this week. Lastly, CB Greedy Williams and DE Olivier Vernon returned to practice in limited capacity this week. It’s tough to tell when players are just coming back from injury and are limited as to whether or not they’ll be able to give-it-a-go. The moving parts on defense can’t make things worse, which is a good thing.
BTB: The Browns have looked good that past couple of weeks, but the competition was suspect. What’s your sense about how good the Browns are right now?
DBN: The offense is legitimate because of the offensive line play and how good Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are at running back. The passing game has potential, but still has a way to go to prove that the chemistry and consistency is there. The bigger issue is the play of the defense, which has been an issue no matter who they’ve faced. The Browns’ run defense is stout, and they can generate pressure at a fair rate. When the Browns generate pressure, it’s not the kind where an opposing quarterback will be under siege every single snap; but they will have their “moments.”
The biggest issue on defense has been coverage in the middle of the field and against the tight ends. Due to lack of personnel and injuries, the linebacker and safety positions are both below average. Teams have been able to run crossing routes at will for good yards after the catch, and tight ends and receivers get lost by the safeties up the seam. I watched Dak Prescott and the Cowboys’ offense last week, and seeing their passing game, the first thing I thought was, “no doubt, they’re going to attack us every play with these routes, because our weaknesses are evident.”
The combination of a good offense and bad defense leads to exciting football, though, so I expect Cleveland to be a team that can out-shoot the bad teams, and pull off a few upsets against the contenders — but they’re not at the point yet where they should be favored against the top-tier teams in the NFL.
BTB: Who are a couple of players that are playing really well right now that Cowboys fans might not be aware of?
DBN: The top player to be aware of is starting right guard Wyatt Teller. He was a 5th round pick by the Buffalo Bills in 2018. Seeing that Cleveland had issues at right guard in 2019, former general manager John Dorsey traded a 5th and 6th round pick to the Bills for him. Teller became the team’s starter in Week 9, and while he showed some potential, the assumption was that there would be a three-way competition for the starting right guard job in camp this year.
To everyone’s surprise, Teller showed up to camp having gained 15 pounds of lean muscle. Through three games, he has looked like an All-Pro player, and I’m not just saying that because I’m a Browns fan — through three weeks, Pro Football Focus has Teller ranked as the No. 3 guard in the NFL (and left guard Joel Bitonio is ranked as the No. 5 guard in the NFL). You can see a nice highlight reel of Teller’s effectiveness in blocking here.
The other player I’ll give an honorable mention to is rookie defensive tackle Jordan Elliott. While he hasn’t made any plays that will make him a household name on gameday, he has graded well by PFF as a good rotational player.
Thanks for the knowledge, Dawgs By Nature.