Hue Jackson was committed to delaying Baker Mayfield’s debut as the Cleveland Browns’ starter, but the kid gloves have been off since the No. 1 overall pick took the field.
Whether this was always the plan, or Mayfield simply proved himself worthy, Jackson and coordinator Todd Haley haven’t hesitated to load the rookie’s plate.
Most coaches shelter rookie QBs — rightfully, in many cases — with run-heavy game plans and a limited collection of pass plays, especially designs featuring extra protection and simple, either-or reads. The Browns have worked hard to maintain run-pass balance, but they’ve mostly turned their top pick loose as a passer, sending four or five targets into routes and trusting Mayfield to read the field and deliver.
The rookie has the quick eyes and decisiveness — which stands starkly in contrast to Tyrod Taylor’s hesitance — to handle such responsibility, even against a Ravens defense known for its disguises and complexity. When he’s a beat late to diagnose, or if protection fails early, Mayfield’s snappy arm can deliver quickly and from various platforms to help compensate.
Jackson’s trust didn’t waver Sunday against Baltimore. Not only did he let Mayfield attack downfield on third-and-long, but he went for the win in the final 52 seconds of regulation and again on fourth-and-5 in overtime.
Greg Joseph spoiled a 38-yard drive by missing from 55 at the end of regulation. And Mayfield might have gotten them closer if Jarvis Landry hadn’t voluntarily burned 16 seconds by staying inbounds. In overtime, Mayfield led Cleveland 47 yards before failing on a controversial no-call for illegal contact on fourth down. He finally marched the Browns 65 yards to set up the game-winning 37-yarder, which Joseph gutted through the uprights.
Known for his scrambling, Mayfield is certainly a gifted off-schedule playmaker, but more striking is his ability to extend plays within the pocket without compromising the design and timing of the routes. He employed both tactics to rescue the Browns from second-and-21 at their own 5 and kick-start the winning drive.
Unable to find a target on second down, Mayfield escaped and ran for 13, setting up for a more manageable third down. On the ensuing third-and-8, he squirted backward from converging Ravens Terrell Suggs and Matthew Judon, reset his feet atop the pocket and fired a dart to Derrick Willies, whose dig route had taken time to come open over the middle. Perfect ball placement allowed Willies to catch it in stride, avoid Brandon Carr’s tackle and rumble for 31 more yards.
Earlier in the contest, Mayfield converted third downs of 16 and 10 yards on corner routes to Rashard Higgins, first with a shot between a cornerback and safety in zone, and then against tight man coverage from Tavon Young. He also had two would-be third-and-9 conversions dropped by David Njoku and Antonio Callaway, the latter thrown precisely despite Mayfield taking a hit from Za’Darius Smith.
All four of these throws came outside the numbers, an area in which the Heisman Trophy winner was less consistent at Oklahoma. If Mayfield develops the same precision outside that he shows in spades between the numbers — like three consecutive BBs for 62 yards and a TD right before halftime — look out.
Scoring twelve points (and just nine in regulation) doesn’t earn a parade, but Mayfield shouldered the load extremely well against a defense that usually eats rookie signal-callers alive — Sunday’s win was just the sixth by a rookie QB in 21 tries against John Harbaugh’s Ravens and the first by a Browns rookie in eight tries.
Through two-plus games, we know Mayfield is no ordinary Browns rookie.
You can fault Jackson for keeping him under wraps for too long, but the training wheels have been discarded.
Gang Green’s ground game erupts
The New York Jets’ first two carries on Sunday went for a total of three yards, and Bilal Powell fumbled away the second to help Denver to an early 7-0 lead. Their last five went for a combined minus-2 yards, while bleeding clock in a dominant victory. In between, Powell and Isaiah Crowell toted the rock a combined 28 times for 317 yards.
This from a rushing attack that entered ranked 28th in yards per carry (3.6) and 25th in yards per game (88.0), against a defense that ranked eighth in both categories (3.9 and 93.8, respectively).
A product of the outside-zone-heavy Shanahan tree, coordinator Jeremy Bates kept Denver off balance with a few wrinkles. He mixed in power, tosses and counter plays (a bugaboo for Denver in recent years) and relied heavily on three-tight-end sets, often with Eric Tomlinson lined up at fullback and the stout Quincy Enunwa as the lone wideout. He also used condensed formations to create favorable angles for those tight ends and Enunwa against linebackers and safeties, and mixed in arc releases (where a tight end runs a dummy route outside to draw his man-coverage mark away from the formation).
But the biggest plays weren’t complex. Crowell’s runs of 77 and 54 yards came on inside zone, which features straight-ahead blocking and a pair of basic double-teams. Likewise, an incredible amount of the production came despite eight- and even nine-man boxes, as Denver showed little respect to rookie third overall pick Sam Darnold.
An unsung Jets offensive line simply mauled the Broncos’ normally stout front.
Right tackle Brandon Shell and right guard Brian Winters mashed end Derek Wolfe — typically a bully against single blocks and a rock against doubles — inside on down blocks and upfield on double-teams. Left tackle Kelvin Beachum took a turn on Wolfe too, walling him inside on Crowell’s 54-yard romp to open the second half.
Left guard James Carpenter repeatedly moved 325-pound nose tackle Domata Peko on double-teams and velcroed himself to linebackers, including on a few nice pull blocks. Center Spencer Long, known more for his mobility, also showed the power and leverage to handle Peko in a phone booth on several occasions.
A surprisingly effective cog in Gang Green’s machine was rookie tight end Chris Herndon. An athletic and well-rounded player at Miami, Herndon slipped to the fourth round in April’s draft after tearing his MCL, but he leads Jets tight ends in snaps (189) so far. He impressed against top pick Bradley Chubb, locking on and guiding him inside on Crowell’s 77-yard touchdown, and even handled Von Miller for a nice gain on a toss play (called back for an Enunwa hold).
Of course, the star of the show was Crowell (15 carries, franchise-record 219 yards, one TD), who became the fourth player in NFL history to top 200 yards on 15 or fewer carries. It’s practically sacrilegious to compare anyone to Marshawn Lynch, but Crowell’s combination of agility, violence and destructive lower-body power is NFL’s the next-closest thing to Beast Mode.
On his second carry, Crowell made four players miss in the backfield and another beyond it for a 5-yard gain.
He literally tossed Peko off him on third-and-1 shortly before half, turning a 2-yard loss into a 2-yard gain. Crowell also juked Chubb (and himself) out of his shoes before getting up and running over Chubb — all on the same play. As his monster numbers suggest, Crowell was a demon in the open field, embarrassing Darian Stewart and forcing Justin Simmons to tackle him by his dreadlocks.
Great rushing offenses don’t always produce wins. Opponents can commit heavily to taking the run away (as Denver tried, but failed, to do), run-heavy teams will eventually be forced to throw and passing is far more valuable anyway.
But Darnold’s development is as important as wins for the Jets right now, and Sunday’s approach provided the ideal environment for the rookie.
Darnold failed to complete more than half of his passes (10 of 22) for the third consecutive game, but he was largely hidden from the pass rush (one sack, three hits) and was free to take shots downfield. When forced to throw, he looked extremely comfortable, firing touchdowns of 76 yards and 20 yards on third-and-8 and third-and-14, respectively.
The question is whether the Jets can remain efficient enough up front to limit the burden on Darnold each week. They averaged just 2.9 yards per carry from Weeks 2-4 a far cry from 4.7 in Week 1 and 8.5 on Sunday.
The enigma of T.J. Watt
After his second three-sack outing of the season on Sunday, Watt is tied with his brother — three-time defensive player of the year J.J. — and Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins for the NFL lead with six.
That distinction would suggests little brother T.J. is blossoming into one of the league’s best pass rushers. But while the Steelers’ outside linebacker looks like a future star — if he’s not one already — his sack totals belie a player who is more jack-of-all trades than unstoppable edge rusher.
Watt is fascinating to watch on film.
He moves like a taut spring, coiling himself before unleashing athleticism in explosive bursts, both straight ahead and laterally. He has the speed and bendability to scare offensive tackles, as he did with a juke, dip and rip around Falcons right tackle Ryan Schraeder for a strip-sack of Matt Ryan on Sunday, which was recovered for a Steelers touchdown.
But oddly enough, that sort of play is an outlier for Watt, whose sacks have come in myriad unorthodox ways. His first against the Falcons came off play-action, after he beat guard Brandon Fusco and Ryan was flushed right to him by slot blitzer Mike Hilton and end Cameron Heyward. The second came essentially unblocked after Watt abandoned his run assignment and corralled Ryan immediately after a play fake.
Week 1 against the Browns was a similar story. Watt had to beat only tight end Darren Fells for one sack, and then collected two of the clean-up variety. On one, he eventually beat right tackle Chris Hubbard and a chip from running back Duke Johnson, but only got to Tyrod Taylor because the QB held the ball for five seconds. On the other, Watt was actually in coverage and simply escorted Taylor out of bounds after a long scramble.
Such plays littered Watt’s tape at Wisconsin too. He managed an inordinate number of sacks when unblocked or facing a fullback or tight end. This isn’t to take anything away from the 2017 first-round pick. He can only beat the blocker(s) in front of him, and elite hustle — which runs in the family — helps him make plays few others do.
It’s also OK that he’s not an elite, down-after-down edge rusher yet, because he already affects offenses in so many other ways. The Steelers are well aware of this: They deploy Watt on the edge, off the ball, over the slot, in man coverage on tight ends and as a QB spy. He regularly disrupts runs by penetrating with slippery agility or chasing down ball carriers from the backside. He also thrives as a more traditional inline run defender, employing an unusually low two-point stance (like a skier’s tuck) to fire into blockers and gain leverage so he can steer and shed with ease.
Polish as a pass rusher should come with time, and Watt certainly has the tools to become a dominant edge burner. For now though, he’s simply one of the NFL’s more unorthodox standouts.
–David DeChant (@DavidDeChant), Field Level Media