It would appear that the Cleveland Browns are bad — again.
When the Browns got their record to 2-2-1 after a tough overtime win against the Baltimore Ravens, it looked like they might finally be turning the corner. After so many years of incompetency, they looked like they could compete with some of the best teams in the league.
Two weeks later, that feeling has all but disappeared. The Chargers dusted the Browns 38-14, and the spiraling Buccaneers beat the Browns 26-23 in overtime after the Browns had to rally back from a 23-9 deficit.
While there have been some bright spots for Cleveland this season, the team still has a lot of work to do be a serious playoff contender. The defense has mostly been good this year, but the offense hasn’t seen much improvement since Baker Mayfield took over for Tyrod Taylor in Week 3 against the New York Jets to lead the Browns to their first win in over 600 days.
The offense is having problems moving the ball, creating big plays, and converting the long third downs that they’re giving themselves.
What’s frustrating about the Browns offense is that they did seem to get some life right after Mayfield was inserted into the lineup. They scored 21 points in the second half against the Jets and followed that up with 42 points the week after against the Raiders. Since then, they’ve scored just 49 points, averaging 16.3 points per game.
So, what the hell has happened to them?
Their receivers can’t catch the ball
Even with the change to Mayfield, the Browns haven’t seen any noticeable jump in their passing game. In particular, their down-to-down efficiency is absolutely atrocious.
According to Bill Connelly’s numbers, the Browns rank 30th in passing marginal efficiency and 32nd in passing downs marginal efficiency.
Cleveland’s blowout loss to the Chargers showcased some of the biggest problems the Browns have with their passing attack: they really, really struggle to catch the ball.
This drop by rookie Antonio Callaway is a prime example. Callaway beats the double coverage deep down the field in the end zone and then ... just drops it.
Here’s a drop by another rookie, third-string receiver Damion Ratley, later on in the same game.
There have been opportunities for the Browns receivers to make plays in the passing game and so far, they just aren’t up to snuff (maybe someone like Josh Gordon would help right now). According to ESPN’s NFL Matchup, the Browns are dropping passes at the highest rate in the league.
Mayfield has had the highest number of drops on third down this year as well.
Most dropped passes on third downs:— John Kosko (@JohnKosko3) October 25, 2018
Baker Mayfield 7
Mariota, Dak, Flacco 6
Brady, Rodgers, Luck 5
Moving Gordon for a fifth-round pick has to be depressing for Browns fans, especially as he starts to find his groove with the Patriots. Last week against the Bears, Gordon had his first 100-yard game with the Patriots on just four catches.
The Browns do have at least an option already on the roster with running back Duke Johnson serving as a dangerous weapon out of the backfield. The issue with Johnson doesn’t revolve around his ability to play. The coaching staff just doesn’t get him involved very much, even after the Browns gave Johnson a three-year contract extension just a few months before the season started.
Johnson has played 43.9 percent of the snaps this year, but has just 38 touches. Johnson is averaging 5.4 yards per carry and 10.4 yards per catch — so yeah, might want to get that guy the ball a little more.
Even with the receiver drops and lack of Johnson touches, the Browns need some better play at the quarterback position.
Baker Mayfield has a lot of room to improve as well
It’s not all on the Browns receivers. Mayfield has been inconsistent over the past few weeks. Mayfield has aggressive mindset, which generally has been a positive, but it can lead to some boneheaded plays. That’s about what you would expect from a rookie who didn’t many first-team reps before he was thrust into the starting lineup.
Take this play against the Chargers. Mayfield is running from pressure here and tries to make a big play down the field on first down. His receiver was open for a bit, but the ball was late and sailed on him — right into the hands of Desmond King.
The second interception that Mayfield threw to King wasn’t much better. It was a short route intended for tight end David Njoku, and Mayfield didn’t see King reading his eyes. Mayfield threw it to where Njoku was and King easily stepped in front of the pass.
Arguably the biggest rookie mistake that Mayfield has made this season came right before halftime in their game against the Buccaneers. Cleveland wasn’t moving the ball during the entire first half, but the offense was able to pick up some yards and get into scoring position. So Hue Jackson rolled the dice on a fourth-and-1.
Baker scrambled, looked like he had the first down, and then the curse of the Browns hit. Lavonte David slapped the ball out of his hands and it bounced back just far enough for the ball to miss the first-down marker.
baker's got some brownsing in him pic.twitter.com/PDY0tFxit4— calvin grisly (lakers 1-3) (@FourVerts) October 25, 2018
They ended up going into halftime down 16-2 in a game they lost in overtime.
When you combine the rookie mistakes from Mayfield and the erratic play from their receivers, it’s easy to see why they’re not putting many points on the board right now.
Yet, their biggest issue on offense might be their pass blocking.
Replacing Joe Thomas with an undrafted rookie was a bad idea
Undrafted rookie left tackle Desmond Harrison didn’t ask to replace the best left tackle of the 21st century, but that’s where he’s found himself. Harrison has played every single snap for the Browns offense this year. It hasn’t all been bad for Harrison, but there have definitely been some growing pains for him.
How not to pass set, by Browns LT Desmond Harrison. Getting walked into your QB is one thing. Voluntary walking into him is another. pic.twitter.com/28Fbs7Kucw— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) September 12, 2018
Harrison is a tremendous athlete (he ran an unofficial 4.75 at the NFL Combine), but some of the technique involved with playing offensive tackle has yet to reach his game. The Browns are 30th in sack percentage, getting sacked an insane 10.3 percent of their dropbacks. Only the 49ers (10.5 percent) and the Bills (11.5 percent) have higher percentages.
Chris Hubbard, the right tackle Cleveland gave a five-year, $36 million contract to this offseason, has struggled as well. He gave up three sacks to T.J. Watt in the first game of the season and was beat repeatedly by former Brown Carl Nassib against Tampa Bay.
At this point in the season, the improvement in the Browns’ passing game is going to have to come from within. There aren’t any quick fixes out there outside of a blockbuster trade. Cleveland can still win a couple more games this season, but this team is not ready for the playoffs yet — even a .500 record is a long shot. It’s going to take the 2019 offseason — and perhaps finally moving on from Jackson — to get this thing back on track.
The Browns do have legitimate hope at the quarterback position for the first time since they moved back to Cleveland. But for now, they’re still the Browns.