How the Browns Can Get Baker Mayfield Going in Season's 2nd Half
The Browns are off to a 6-3 start on the strength of a good offensive line and the best one-two punch at running back in the league. The defense has been showing signs of improvement too.
Considering the debacle that was the team's 2019 campaign, things are looking up on Lake Erie. But the question of how far Mayfield can take the team remains.
Under Stefanski, his stats through nine games are approaching the numbers we saw from his impressive rookie season in 2018. His interception rate is back to where it was (2.9 percent) and his touchdown rate is up (6.2 percent from 5.6), but his completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating are still slightly behind his rookie numbers.
It hasn't mattered too much to this point. The Browns have improved in the area it matters most. The six wins they have this season ties the total from last season and is one shy of their win total from their quarterback's rookie season.
But at some point, they'll need Mayfield playing at another level to get into the playoffs and win once they are there.
Keep the Faith
The production from Mayfield hasn't been great over the Browns' last two games, but context matters.
With heavy, swirling winds at First Energy Stadium in each of the last two games, it was a tough environment to put up passing numbers. Both Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (13-of-23, 165 yards) and Houston Texans counterpart Deshaun Watson (20-of-30, 163 yards) struggled to post big numbers in the same conditions that Mayfield played in.
Regardless of what Mayfield does, the Browns have one of the best run games in the league when healthy. The results when running back Nick Chubb and guard Wyatt Teller returned to the lineup in Week 10 are proof of that.
The Browns offense is at its best when running the ball well and putting Mayfield in favorable situations to throw. His best passing numbers have been on second down, when he has a 107.4 passer rating with eight touchdowns and four interceptions.
We're still just two games removed from Mayfield's most prolific performance to date. He picked apart the woeful Cincinnati Bengals defense to the tune of 297 yards and five touchdowns on 22-of-28 passing. It was a game that Mayfield told reporters gave him "a tremendous amount of confidence."
With the last two games presenting bad conditions to continue that confidence, the coaches need to do what they can to show they still trust their quarterback.
Feed Rashard Higgins
Rashard Higgins has had an up-and-down run in five years with the Browns organization. After a near-breakout season in 2018 with 572 yards and four touchdowns, he fell out of favor and logged just 11 targets under the Browns' former regime last season.
This season, he's once again demonstrated chemistry with Mayfield that has resulted in big plays. The catch and throw to convert 3rd-and-18 on the Browns' lone touchdown drive against the Texans was arguably the game's most important play.
Mayfield showed confidence in Higgins to drop it in between two zone defenders, and he was rewarded with a toe-tapping catch on the sideline and an extended drive.
Higgins has become the most dependable wide receiver on the roster. With Odell Beckham Jr. out and Jarvis Landry catching just seven of his 16 targets over the last two weeks, it's time to make Higgins the de facto WR1 in the offense.
Higgins has the highest catch rate on the team of anyone with more than seven targets on the season.
Test the Deep Middle
There isn't much that Stefanski should glean from Freddie Kitchens' days of calling the Browns offense. The hiring of Stefanski has led to improvement on the offensive side of the ball in every way. However, there's one thing Mayfield did well under Kitchens' tutelage that we aren't seeing much this season.
Under the former head coach, Mayfield was adept at throwing the ball to the deep middle. According to Next Gen Stats, Mayfield was well above league average when throwing to the deep middle against opposing defenses last season, with a passer rating of 106.3.
In Stefanski's play-action, rollout-heavy offense, the middle of the field has been somewhat eliminated from the passing game. According to Sharp Football Stats, the Browns have only thrown seven passes all season to the deep middle. Mayfield has completed four of those seven attempts for a touchdown and two interceptions.
According to Weather.com, Week 11's game against Philadelphia brings the possibility of rain, but the wind is only projected to reach speeds of 10-20 mph rather than the 50 mph winds he saw against Houston.