Unless the Browns' offense improves dramatically in Cincinnati, Kevin Stefanski may have to give up play-calling and my have to consider a quarterback change. (TheLandOnDemand)
Second thoughts: Kevin Stefanski may soon be confronting two tough decisions to correct the Browns’ offense
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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland.
Second thoughts on Browns’ 15-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers …
1. A year ago at this time, the Browns were 5-3 and entering their bye week. They used it to make some pivotal adjustments on offense, which paved the way to a 6-2 finish. Their only losses the second half of the schedule were the result of heroic performances by Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson and Justin Tucker, and the hot tub COVID-19 outbreak that wiped out the receiving corps prior to the Jets’ game. It’s too bad this season’s bye doesn’t come for four more weeks because the offense needs another “come to Jesus” meeting in the worst way. If the downward trend of the offense isn’t stopped soon – like Sunday in Cincinnati – Kevin Stefanski will have to consider two tough decisions that he doesn’t want to make.
2. I counted 12 times in Stefanski’s 19-minute, 12-second Zoom call on Monday when he used the phrase, “I need to do a better job" when responding to questions about the floundering offense. He said it about the inability to stretch the field in the passing game, about the inability to get Odell Beckham Jr. involved, about the inability to get the running game going, about the inability to take advantage of David Njoku and D’Ernest Johnson, yada yada yada. Halfway through his serial mea culpas, Stefanski sighed, “I think you’re not going to like to hear it, but I need to do a better job.” OK. We get it. Agreed. Stefanski is venturing in Hue Jackson territory, which is not a good place to be. If he doesn’t make good on his word to do a better job of fixing this star-studded offense – like Sunday in Cincinnati -- he should hand over play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt. Remember, Van Pelt called the plays in the wild-card romp over Pittsburgh a year ago when Stefanski was quarantined in his basement. The offense has not looked nearly as good since.
3. The other decision Stefanski may have to confront is a change at quarterback. It is not something anyone wants to see, but it is seemingly inevitable. But first, hear this defense of Baker Mayfield. On the deciding sequence on the Browns’ last offensive series, Jarvis Landry dropped a catchable pass at the Steelers’ 25; Beckham short-armed and one-handed a difficult-to-catch high pass inside the 15 because he didn’t want to be hit while at the same time Mayfield was being crunched by T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith after the throw; Rashard Higgins committed a costly false start; and Landry dropped a high-but-catchable bullet throw at the Steelers’ 10. Throughout the game, Mayfield’s ball placement was not favorable -- his throws sailed, as usual. But he was let down by three receivers at the end. Now, Mayfield’s left shoulder condition assuredly affected the way Stefanski called the game, even though the coach denied it. Two of the fourth-and-1 situations called for a quarterback sneak, but Mayfield couldn’t – and shouldn’t – have executed it because of his tenuous shoulder. Further, rollouts and bootlegs were scrapped, partly because Pittsburgh’s wide alignment discourages them but also because Mayfield can’t be exposed to further injury on naked boots. Thus, Stefanski is restricted to keeping Mayfield in the pocket, which reduces his sight lines and throwing lanes because of his stature. When you consider that Mayfield’s totally torn left labrum is not going to heal without surgery and he will always have the risk of the shoulder slipping out of joint without surgery, it’s likely that Mayfield will never be right the rest of the season. Can he play with the injury? Yes. Can he win with it? Through two games – Arizona and Pittsburgh – that answer is no.
4. The Browns have not played a full game with their starting offensive line intact and Jack Conklin’s dislocated elbow injury assures it won’t happen any time soon. Conklin’s injury might not be season-ending, but it certainly will land him on injured reserve. Which will require GM Andrew Berry to add an offensive tackle because after Blake Hance moves into right tackle, the only backup is unreliable rookie James Hudson. And there are nine games left – at least. What might Berry do? The Eagles reportedly are shopping tackle Andre Dillard, their first-round pick in 2019. Dillard was a player of interest of former Browns GM John Dorsey – until he included the Browns’ first-round pick that year, No. 17, in the trade with the Giants for Beckham. Berry was Philadelphia GM Howie Roseman’s apprentice when the Eagles drafted Dillard at No. 22. Dillard was the No. 2-ranked offensive tackle behind Jonah Williams in the 2019 draft by Dane Brugler of The Athletic, who wrote, “Dillard is a better pass protector than run blocker right now, but he is a quick-minded player with the light feet and core power to play multiple positions in the NFL, including left tackle.” Berry needs to supplement the tackle position because Chris Hubbard is not likely to return in 2022. Reported price-tag for Dillard is a third-round pick. The NFL trade deadline is 4 o’clock Eastern on Tuesday.
5. The Browns’ under-performing defense didn’t have a takeaway in the Steelers’ game, but cornerback Greg Newsome’s third-down stop of receiver Diontae Johnson after a catch with 4:45 to go did lead to turning over possession to the Browns’ offense after a punt one down later. Newsome made up about three yards after Johnson’s catch and wrestled him down two yards short of a first down. Newsome is really good.
6. Safety Ronnie Harrison’s rookie contract expires after this season and it’s appearing less likely that the Browns will re-sign him. Harrison’s late, unnecessary roughness hit on running back Najee Harris two yards out of bounds in the second quarter did not hurt the Browns because it was offset by a Pittsburgh holding penalty. But it added to Harrison’s rough year in his first full season in Joe Woods’ defense. He has been at the center of a few defensive breakdowns in the secondary caused by miscommunication and also was ejected in the Kansas City game for shoving an assistant coach in a sideline skirmish. Harrison’s faux pas in the Pittsburgh game prompted CBS analyst Tony Romo to observe of the Browns, “They hurt themselves a lot.” In fact, the Browns’ 518 penalty yards are fourth-most behind Tampa Bay (580), Tennessee (551) and San Francisco (540).