Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski's seat is warming, and deservedly so

Browns coach Kevin Stefanski’s seat is getting warmer.

His play-calling decisions that have invited second-guessing cost the Browns (2-2) in both of their losses, including Sunday’s 23-20 setback at Atlanta.

Continuing problems with blown coverages on defense and blunders on special teams, the latter kept to a relative minimum against the Falcons save for Ronnie Harrison downing a punt one bounce too soon, are ultimately Stefanski’s responsibility. He hired coordinators Joe Woods and Mike Priefer and their bond runs deep, Stefanski spending eight years with both during his 14 seasons with the Minnesota Vikings.

Against a team they should have beaten in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Browns’ units were the more undisciplined, committing seven penalties for 51 yards to the Falcons’ one for 15 yards.

Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski works on the sidelines against the Atlanta Falcons during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)
Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski works on the sidelines against the Atlanta Falcons during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)

The Browns' gauntlet begins when the Los Angeles Chargers visit Sunday. The Browns have played the fourth-easiest schedule in the league, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, but now face the second-toughest stretch of games before December, with five opponents in the FPI’s top eight.

A season that hinged on a 3-1 start seems destined for a rocky road. The question is whether it will be beyond saving by the time starting quarterback Deshaun Watson is scheduled to return from NFL suspension on Dec. 4 following allegations of sexual misconduct in 24 civil lawsuits.

Considering the unpredictable hirings and firings of co-owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam, some elements of doubt about the 2020 NFL Coach of the Year could be creeping into their minds.

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It is hard to gauge the Haslams’ frustration. What should temper any panic is that three teams in the AFC North are 2-2 and the Pittsburgh Steelers are 1-3.

Going into Monday night, the Browns boast the league’s second-best rushing attack (187.3 yards per game), fourth-best offense (384.8) and were tied for sixth in scoring (26.3). That's laudable considering backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett has thrived in Stefanski’s offense without a proven receiver behind four-time Pro Bowler Amari Cooper.

But there were troubling signs against the Falcons.

On three first-half possessions inside Atlanta’s 4-yard line, the Browns managed only 10 points. In the first two quarters, 11 plays from the Falcons’ 11 or inside gained 17 yards, offset by a 10-yard holding penalty on right guard Wyatt Teller.

The Browns running game was rolling in Nick Chubb’s homecoming game. But with the score tied at 20 with 7:19 remaining, four of the seven plays Stefanski called on the next series were passes, the last two incomplete, as the drive stalled at the Atlanta 44.

Playing without three starting defensive linemen, including Pro Bowlers Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney, Stefanski eschewed a field goal on fourth-and-3 from the Atlanta 4 on the opening series. With no one open, Brissett’s high pass to tight end David Njoku was incomplete.

Settling for a field goal after facing first-and-goal at the 1 with 55 seconds left in the first half was more costly, but the tone could have been set by going ahead 3-0 on the opening drive.

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The Browns are heavily committed to analytics, but Stefanski shot down the notion that he’s following the recommendations of a such an expert in the press box.

“We have a lot of coaches upstairs. For me in all of those decisions, it is 100 percent me making the decision,” Stefanski said Monday. “I take in information from our coaches and from our staff up in the booth and on the sideline, and then ultimately, you have to own them. When they don’t work, you are frustrated, but it is my decision.”

On the encouraging side, the Browns are 6 for 9 on fourth down (tied for sixth in the league). Stefanski may get a little too cute with his calls at times, but the points the Browns are putting up is surprising in the absence of Watson. Players are open, but the targets aren't always connecting with Brissett.

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“We’re an aggressive offense. I’m going to be honest, stuff like that excites me,” Njoku said Monday of the fourth-and-3 call. “It shows that we’re not afraid to put it all on the line.

“We’re doing great things on offense; we’ve just got to finish and fix the mistakes and great things will happen. We’re very close to putting a full game together.”

More unsettling was the Browns giving up a 42-yard reception by Olamide Zaccheaus in the fourth quarter that set up Younghoe Koo’s 45-yard game-winning field goal. Stefanski deemed that a technique error.

Miscommunication on that side of the ball plagued the Browns in the opener at Carolina and in a home-opening collapse against the New York Jets in which the Browns blew a 13-point lead in the final 115 seconds.

Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski looks to the scoreboard during the second half against the Steelers, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022, in Cleveland.
Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski looks to the scoreboard during the second half against the Steelers, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022, in Cleveland.

Stefanski contributed more to the Jets loss than the latest one. He called a Kareem Hunt sweep to the left sideline that went out of bounds and could have enabled the Browns to kill the clock had Hunt stayed in or tried the other side. With the Jets out of timeouts, Stefanski had two opportunities – on the sideline and via the helmet radio – to instruct Chubb not to score a touchdown with 1:55 remaining that would have set up three kneel downs to end it.

The special teams also had a major hand – or lack of a hand – in that defeat when Cooper failed to bat the onside kick out of bounds.

The coaches deserve blame for both the Jets’ and Falcons’ losses. When the season ends, those defeats, especially to the AFC’s Jets, may prove even more costly in terms of a postseason berth.

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Linebacker Sione Takitaki knows the fans are restless.

“I get it. We’ve got really great fans and I know they want to see us winning out there and they have their opinions,” Takitaki said Monday on Zoom. “But we’ve got to tighten up for ourselves, for our team because we want to do better, we want to win … and also do better for the fans.”

Stefanski and Woods are taking heat on social media, but Takitaki isn’t paying attention.

“We don’t listen to all that,” he said. “We let all them talk and we just do our thing.”

With better communication, better execution and better focus, the Browns can tamp down the embers surrounding Stefanski. But as the same issues surface week after week, that doesn't obscure the fact that his seat is warming, and deservedly so.

Marla Ridenour can be reached at mridenour@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Browns Kevin Stefanski may soon be on hotseat after 2-2 start