Photo by: Dave Spano
That might not be a popular take by social media critics of Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, but the numbers point directly to a defensive collapse as the primary cause of a disappointing 47-42 loss to the San Diego Chargers last Sunday.
Mayfield rebounded from a poor performance a week earlier in a win over the Minnesota Vikings to pass for 305 yards and two touchdowns on a 23-of-32 showing. Along with a pounding ground game that powered for 230 yards (161 by Nick Chubb and 61 by Kareem Hunt), Mayfield put the Browns in position for what should have been an easy win.
Instead, a defense that had been stingy in three straight wins harkened memories of recent seasons, when it would yield massive yardage totals in failing to hold comfortable leads – look back at the games against Tennessee and Dallas last year. The Browns won both of those games but the defense made it far too close.
The issue couldn’t be more clear concerning what the Browns need to do to take the next step. On paper, the team looks like a Super Bowl contender, but reality has shown that more consistency is needed on the defensive side if a long playoff run is to happen.
Granted, some of the worst officiating in a NFL filled with aging, incompetent officials cost the Browns, but great teams usually overcome such problems. On a Chargers drive after the Browns had opened a 14-point lead, the defense twice allowed fourth-down conversions. A stop on either of those plays likely would have led to a win.
If blame should be directed at another area, a good place to start is with coach Kevin Stefanski, who was honest in accepting criticism. Stefanksi has been outstanding in leading the charge through the Covid issues of last season and generally has the team prepared for the challenge presented each week, but he occasionally makes poor game-day decisions.
In particular, the continual decision to pass up easy field goals by red-hot kicker Chase McLaughin for what have been feeble attempts at converting on fourth down makes no sense. When a team is on the road facing a quality opponent like the Chargers, you rarely turn down sure points.
That strategy likely won’t change when considering the front office is led by analytic believers Andrew Berry, the general manager, and Paul DePodesta. Then again, Stefanski has the final authority from his view on the field.
As the Brown prepare to host the undefeated Arizona Cardinals, the concern is with injuries to offensive tackle Jack Conklin and defensive backs Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams. The offense is currently missing tackle Jedrick Wills, which would mean the long-term loss of Conklin would be a major blow. As for the secondary, not having Williams and Ward would further complicate a cornerback group that is without Greg Newsome.
The talented Cardinals and quarterback Kyler Murray will be an interesting test for the up-and-down defense next Sunday.