After two years of being the potential darlings of the league (last year more so than the season before), people were, for the most part, done with betting on the Cleveland Browns for 2020. But after a 4-1 start, that train was starting to fill up again. It seemed like the Browns were the habit football fans couldn’t quit.
Now we’re sitting here with the Browns at 4-2 following a crushing 38-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and many are wondering what in the world we’re supposed to think of this team now.
During the blowout loss, quarterback Baker Mayfield was benched. After the game, Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski said the decision to do that was more to protect his quarterback, as Mayfield was taking a beating and was on the injury list with a rib injury the week leading up to the game. But if that game were closer, there’s certainly room to believe he wouldn’t have been pulled, even with the four sacks he took, and that his performance did have something to do with it.
Mayfield finished the game 10-for-18 with just 119 passing yards, one passing touchdown, and two interceptions. The first interception of the day for Mayfield was on his very first pass of the game—an ugly pick-six to Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick that defined the day and put the Browns behind the 8-ball in a way in which they were not able to recover.
The big storyline going into the game was the Steelers' near unstoppable defensive line against the Browns’ top tier offensive line. In a game that was supposed to be a meeting of an unstoppable force and an immovable object, the unstoppable force was the only thing worth writing about.
Mayfield didn’t get much help from his offensive line, which is paramount for good offensive play, but he didn’t exactly pick up any of the pieces for them, either. The Browns were facing one of the top defenses in the NFL, no doubt. But Sunday’s tale was simply another page in Mayfield’s book where he could not rise to the occasion when pressured and against a better team.
The Steelers brought it right to Mayfield on Sunday. At halftime, nine different Steelers had registered a pressure on the day. When it was all said and done, Pittsburgh pressured Mayfield on more than 47% of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. You know why? Because Mayfield is a completely different quarterback when he’s pressured. Before the game, Mayfield’s passing under pressure rate via Pro Football Focus was a 30.9 (31st in the league). Sunday’s result means that number is now likely lower.
Even for as dominant as Cleveland’s win was over the Dallas Cowboys the week prior, Mayfield’s stats have not been overwhelmingly impressive at any point this season. He has yet to throw for more than 250 passing yards in a single game. Against teams with winning records, Mayfield has a completion percentage of just 55.4%, has thrown four touchdowns and five interceptions, and has a quarterback rating of 63.6. Going into the week, Mayfield was ranked 32nd in the league among qualifying passers with just a 6.4 yards-per-attempt average. That’s below passers like Jeff Driskel, Brett Rypien, and Mitchell Trubisky.
Mayfield has the passing weapons—he has Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Austin Hooper, and others. He has the offensive line, who went into the week with three starters with season grades in the 80s, according to Pro Football Focus. And even without Nick Chubb, he has the running game with Kareem Hunt. Pittsburgh is a strong team and once again has one of the best defenses in the NFL. Going into the contest they led the league in sacks, QB hurries, and overall pressures. But at some point, Mayfield needs to put it together against a quality team, or at the very least, look better under pressure. The blueprint right now is too easy to neutralize the Browns on offense.
Cleveland’s schedule is easy. They still have yet to play the Bengals, the Jaguars, the Eagles, the Texans, and both New York teams. To put it in different terms: more than half of their remaining schedule is against teams that currently have one win or less and are currently slotted to pick in the top 10 of next year’s draft. But around those teams, they have the Titans, the Ravens, and the Steelers again. Those should be the only games that really matter.
As of right now, Mayfield is the projected starter for next week’s game against the Bengals, even with him being taken out of this game due to caution with his rib injury. It’s an important “get right” game, but the more we do this, the more we’re seeing Mayfield is closing in on the sink-or-swim point.
Throw the records out. Can he beat the good teams? Or better yet—since QB wins isn’t a heavy weighing stat—can he look like a franchise quarterback against them? Can he improve against pressure when the better teams bring it? Those are the only questions that matter for the rest of the season.