Brown-Out: How New England Shut Down Cleveland
NFL Week 10 - Cleveland's fate against New England was sealed after their fourth possession of the game. That's oversimplifying a 45-7 blowout, but the Browns exhausted all of their offensive arsenal early on to little avail, while their defense only helped dig them further and further in a hole.
Oddly enough, the Browns opened the game with a promising scoring drive. Running back D'Ernest Johnson took four carries for 58 yards, including two 15-plus-yard runs, and set up quarterback Baker Mayfield to finish the drive with a touchdown pass to tight end Austin Hooper. The drive was clinical, relying on the run game to take advantage of the Patriots coming out in some lighter personnel and a handful of rollouts to get Mayfield out of the pocket. Unfortunately for Cleveland, the following three possessions were a horror show with no one culprit to blame.
Let's fast-forward to the third play of the second drive, the first of a nine-play series that doomed the Browns from keeping up on the scoreboard.
The situation is third-and-7. To this point in the game, the Browns had not really shown any dropback passes because they did not need to. It was tough to tell what coverage the Patriots would want to be in for those situations. The Patriots made sure to hone in on that uncertainty and present Mayfield with what he expects to see from a Bill Belichick defense: Cover-1.
The deep middle safety, the other safety rolled down to the intermediate area, and tight coverage alignments almost across the board led Mayfield to believe this was going to be Cover-1. At the snap, Mayfield peeked at Jalen Mills (2, at the bottom of the screen), who looked like he was eyeing the receiver to play man. If all of that did indeed lead to the Patriots playing man, Mayfield would have been right to try throwing the sail route to David Njoku (85), leaving it outside. However, Mills falls off his man the moment the receiver commits to getting vertical and zone-turns inside to get eyes on Mayfield. By the time Mayfield realized it, the ball was already starting to come forward and his only potential answer was to try to leave the ball inside of Mills. All that did was allow Kyle Dugger (23) to keep squeezing the route and pick the ball off. Truthfully, Mills could have still had it himself if Dugger did not steal it from him.
The Patriots went up 14-7 shortly after this. That is not an ideal position for a Browns offense built to play from ahead, but it is not an insurmountable lead, either. At least it should not be.
Cleveland's following drive started off well. For their first two plays, they got into spread formations, stretched the second level of New England's defense thin, and hit a couple of nice throws to convert for a fresh set of downs.
In both examples, the No. 3 (innermost in trips) receiver gets to work in space against a linebacker. The Patriots linebackers are good at many things (see last week's Film Room), but covering in space without being able to get hands on receivers is not their strength. The Patriots were sort of OK with taking these losses in the short middle area, though, because they knew their game plan was fine so long as they could start shutting down the run game and continue to take away deeper passing options. And that they did.
The fresh set of downs got the ball rolling on the troubling downfall of the Browns' rushing attack. After a hot start on the first drive, Johnson's last 15 carries of the day went for a putrid 41 yards (2.7 per carry). The Patriots defense tightened up after the first drive, particularly with respect to the pulling concepts the Browns have used so well under head coach Kevin Stefanski. The Patriots' linebackers were mashing the Browns' pullers in the backfield on seemingly every run from this point on. As this clip highlights, the defensive line did their job as well, but Cleveland's pullers could just never get a full head of steam going into the designed gap because the Patriots' linebackers got their first and hit them harder.
Getting stuffed in the run game hurts beyond just not being able to generate yards in a general sense. If an offense cannot get yards on first-down runs, then getting into play-action on the same series is tougher. Part of the threat of play-action is being able to convert a fresh set of downs on a second-and-medium or second-and-short, for instance. But if the offense is in second-and-long, there is not as strong of a threat that a run call should net a first down. Of course, a run stop on first down is not a "get out of play-action free" card, but it does help a defense out.
Now in second-and-9, the Browns went back to an empty formation. The Patriots responded differently on this drive, instead loading up bodies on the line of scrimmage. This accomplishes a couple of things for the Patriots. For one, Mayfield is going to feel the heat. It is hard to tell who is blitzing and who isn't. Additionally, putting bodies on the line allows defenders in the middle to get hands on receivers, which is what the Patriots' defenders want and need to do.
Mayfield gets through his drop and immediately rips the go ball against one-on-one coverage, which is a good decision in this case, but Donovan Peoples-Jones just cannot separate from cornerback J.C. Jackson (27). A perfect throw from Mayfield could have saved this play, but that's a tough ask in this spot. The main issue here is that the Browns no longer have a receiver who can reliably win one-on-one situations with speed on the outside against the best cornerbacks.
The Browns netted themselves an offsides penalty on the following snap. Mayfield did not take a shot the way some of the best quarterbacks might in that scenario, but he did complete a short pass, which was ultimately negated since the penalty gave them more yardage. Regardless, the Browns went into their next real play with a third-and-4 rather than third-and-9. Manageable, right?
Mayfield strings together an impressive run of errors on this one play. The first problem is the way he drifts far to his left, likely as a means to close the distance between himself and the throw to the flat. Whether or not he should have thrown the flat is up for debate, but if he is not going to, then drifting that far over ruins the integrity of the pocket. Mayfield puts himself in a position where he has to throw the flat or dramatically reset in the pocket afterwards in a timely manner to still throw the corner route. Unfortunately, Mayfield does not regain enough space in the pocket, allows himself to get hit while throwing, and leaves the ball where the receiver has zero shot at it. Granted, the receiver (Anthony Schwartz, 10) got bullied on this route, but Mayfield could have at least given him a chance by leaving it high and to the sideline, rather than throwing a beach ball for the cornerback to easily settle under.
New England scored on their ensuing possession, putting the ballgame at 21-7. The Browns' following drive was an emotional journey that ultimately ended in despair. On first down, the Browns tried a dropback pass to no avail.
This one is on Mayfield. Cleveland has a simple mirrored hitch-seam concept with a short route over the middle to occupy the linebackers. The Browns get the perfect defensive look out of the Patriots for this: Cover-3. Mayfield can hold the safety one way and throw the seam ball the other way. Double seam routes are designed to beat Cover-3 in that exact fashion. Alas, Mayfield lumbers in his pump fake to the left seam and does not reset his feet well enough to come back the other way. Mayfield moved his feet to be nearly perpendicular with the line of scrimmage to fake the initial seam, which means his feet have too much ground to make up when coming back the other way to throw the seam on the right side. As such, Mayfield ends up late and in no position to throw, forcing himself to scramble and throw the ball away.
On second down, Stefanski called a power run that was stuffed for a minimal gain.
The Patriots' linebackers hammered the Browns' pullers again, as they did for the remainder of the contest. Cleveland built their offense to be physical, but New England thoroughly out-physicalled them. Johnson was only able to squeeze 2 yards out of this run, setting up the Browns for a third-and-8.
By this point, it felt a bit as though the Browns had given up on their game plan in passing situations, leading them to call a third-and-long screen that was easily handled by the Patriots.
Here is where the Browns accepted their fate. Third-and-8 should be a down where a playcaller can give their team chance to convert, but Mayfield clearly did not have it that day and the Browns resigned themselves to that. The Patriots' linebackers were all over the screen, as they had been against most everything else that day, and shut things down before the Browns had any chance of converting on it.
After the Patriots got the ball back, they marched down the field again to kick a field goal and extend their lead to 24-7 heading into the half. That was it for the Browns. The offense was able to move the ball little by little in the second half, even when Case Keenum had to enter the game, but they never found any explosive plays. All their drives still ended in punts or turnovers on downs.
The fact is that the Patriots forced the Browns to win through dropback passing, and Cleveland could not do it. The linebackers fired off against the run game, while Belichick deployed a number of two-high coverages to limit any deep shots. Perhaps some of the issue can be chalked up to Mayfield's labrum injury, but he seemed healthy enough to throw for 10 yards a pop against the Bengals the week before, so it cannot just be the injury that brought him down in this game—at least not until he was knocked out of the game with a new knee issue.
Getting the running back room healthier over the coming weeks should help the offense avoid getting into deficits like this. There is no denying that Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are more effective than Johnson. Still, the Browns just got blown out in a game because they were outmuscled on both sides of the ball and did not have an explosive enough passing offense to make up for it. The Browns are not the only team who have shown problems like this in 2021, but as January approaches, something has to change or the season could fizzle out.