Amid a lopsided road loss to a respected AFC North rival on Sunday, the Cleveland Browns subjected their fans to a pair of brutal interceptions, a complete inability to get a defensive stop when needed and, yes, another Odell Beckham Jr. end-game tantrum.
In other words, the Browns’ 38-7 loss to Pittsburgh felt a whole heck of a lot like any number of defeats from 2019.
And so on.
Browns fans are used to melting down by now, given the horrific football they’ve been subjected to for decades. But there are plenty of reasons to believe that this blowout loss to one of the best teams in football is not a cause for alarm, nor reason to panic, starting with the fact that Cleveland (4-2) was off to its best start since 1994.
Here’s the second one, and it’s an important one: The best is likely still ahead for the passing game and starting quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Steelers’ pass rush, rib injury hinder Baker Mayfield
Don’t get me wrong: Mayfield, 25, struggled Sunday, completing only 10 of 18 passes for 119 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. He has also been hurt, and up and down this season, enough that coach Kevin Stefanski felt compelled to say he’ll be Cleveland’s starter next week in Cincinnati, albeit with one caveat.
“As long as he’s healthy — and I think he will be,” Stefanski said after the game.
That’s the rub. Mayfield had to contend with the Steelers’ awesome pass rush Sunday and a lingering rib injury he suffered in last week’s win over Indianapolis. He shrugged it off when asked directly if it affected him.
“It didn’t,” Mayfield said.
Now, I’m going to go ahead and chalk that up to good, old-fashioned macho football talk — never surrender, never admit weakness — yada, yada, yada. Which I appreciate, of course.
But the injury almost certainly affected him or, at the very least, posed a risk of further injury, because otherwise Stefanski wouldn’t have pulled him before the end of the third quarter.
“I didn’t want to see him get hit one more time,” Stefanski said. “I know he wants to fight, but it’s a long season, we’ve got a game next week, and I didn’t feel like it was the right thing to put him back there.”
Especially against the league’s best defense. Yep, I’m giving Pittsburgh’s group that title. Teams can’t run on the Steelers, and when they pass — even if they’re lucky enough that they don’t blitz — Pittsburgh can still generate pressure with four.
The Steelers (5-0) are physical, athletic and well-coached, and that will continue to serve them well. Though, they won’t be the same without off-ball linebacker Devin Bush Jr., who reportedly suffered a significant knee injury on Sunday and could be lost for the season.
When Pittsburgh jumped out to a 24-0 second-quarter lead with its full cast Sunday, this thing was basically over, especially given the way the Steelers did it, by dominating up front on both sides of the ball.
The Browns’ run game, which had been so good all season long, got throttled, rushing for a mere 75 yards on 22 carries. This, plus the early lead, allowed the Steelers’ collection of pass rushers to start hunting Mayfield, who was sacked four times and hit seven but didn’t make any excuses.
“I think I’ve got to do a better job of getting the ball out and protecting those guys,” Mayfield said. “We knew the strength was in their pass rush. It was very apparent.”
Stefanski, to his credit, also took the blame for the ineffective offensive showing.
“I put that on myself,” Stefanski said. “I went into this game knowing we had to keep him clean, and we didn’t do a good job. So that starts with me.”
I like that accountability because the Browns actually had some excuses. Mayfield wasn’t 100 percent, and Beckham was ill throughout the week. They played, but starting right guard Wyatt Teller, a revelation this season, and stud running back Nick Chubb did not due to injuries.
The presence of the latter two will help significantly the next time these two teams play. I bet Mayfield will be better by then, too. He is, after all, a great fit for Stefanski’s system. He’s mobile enough to run the boot game action it’s reliant upon, and he has the arm strength to stretch the field and the moxie to rise to the occasion in big moments. The more reps he gets, the more effective he’ll be just like Jared Goff, Jimmy Garoppolo and Ryan Tannehill have in similar systems.
How Browns can build toward top of AFC North
Both of Mayfield’s ghastly interceptions Sunday looked more like future lessons than proof the third-year pro can’t play. Mayfield acknowledged as much, noting that the first interception — a pick six — came with Pittsburgh appearing to play Cover 1, with safety Minkah Fitzpatrick dropping underneath to undercut a short pass as a “rat” defender.
“I’ve gotta see Minkah coming down on the robber coverage,” Mayfield said. “I’ve gotta see Minkah, knowing they’re trying to get him around the ball and involved, especially on third downs.”
As for the second interception, Mayfield was under pressure and uncorked a long pass into traffic that was intended for Rashard Higgins.
“I just didn’t get enough on the second interception down the sideline,” Mayfield said. “That’s got to be one of those where it’s him or nobody.”
While the smart money is on Mayfield bouncing back this season, the bigger concern with the Browns is actually on defense, where they lack depth and couldn’t hang Sunday with Pittsburgh’s offensive line, which paved the way for 129 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
That’s the kind of thing that typically gets solved in the offseason, when I expect general manager Andrew Berry to fortify the front seven, secondary and a handful of spots on offense to help Cleveland better compete with the AFC North rivals in 2021.
Given where the Browns are coming from, this year is more about building to the Steelers’ or Ravens’ level than actually being there. Sunday’s loss — and their 38-6 loss to Baltimore in Week 1 — was proof of that, but given how downtrodden the franchise has been for years, that’s an OK spot to be in … for now.
“It’s not discouraging, no matter the score, it only counts for one [loss],” Mayfield said. “So the good thing is we play both those teams again so we can learn and get better.”
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