Dr Stefanski and Mr Woods

Kevin Stefanski was in his Gladstone bag on Sunday, keeping the Browns offense ticking despite increasing obstacles. Joe Woods’ unit however spent the first half struggling to contain a quarterback on his fourth team in five years. It is only two games into the season, but despite significant investment, the Browns look as lop-sided a team as they were last year.

The Browns have continued this year as they spent large parts of the last; steamrollering teams with the run game. They also now have a quarterback comfortable in the offensive system and who fully understands his role. Through two games, Baker Mayfield leads the NFL in completion percentage and the team is third in the league in yards per play.

Already missing Odell Beckham, they lost Jarvis Landry after a couple of snaps on Sunday and eventually had to sit Jed Wills as well. Despite this they put up 31 points on a surprisingly frisky Texans defense.

It is hard to believe this franchise is the same one that lost ten games in 2019. The work that Stefanski and his offensive staff have done have raised the floor and the ceiling of the team. They are transformed. The field is rarely bigger than when Kevin Stefanski is calling plays on it. His offense stretches the field horizontally and vertically, rag dolling opposing defenses.

It would be easy to label Stefanski an automaton. It is rare to see him show a surfeit of emotion. That even-keeled personality have spread through the team, enabling them to absorb setbacks and keep their eyes focussed forwards. His play calling belies this exterior though. He may be standing unmoved on the sideline, but the playsheet is his arcade and he’s playing everything. A flea-flicker screen? The audacity.

This is a team that players want to play for not only because they’re winning games, but because they’re having a good time doing it.

The transformation in Cleveland is seen no clearer than in the play of Baker Mayfield. The player used to pushing for more is taking what he’s given, and liking it too. He has refined his game from the feet up. His footwork is unrecognisable from 2019. He always had a strong arm, but with significantly refined mechanics the ball is flying off his hand. His hard count has defenders reliably jumping, and his ball fake has them chasing ghosts.

He has mirrored the team in becoming unrecognisable when compared to his pre-Stefanski self. The NFL pocket is a bar fight and Mayfield looks like he’s in a ballroom.

The longer that Kevin Stefanski is Head Coach of the Cleveland Browns, the more it confuses me that he wasn’t already hired by somebody. It’s probably crazier that he was in the NFL for over a decade before somebody let him call plays. Crazier still that John Dorsey has a job in the NFL after hiring Freddie Kitchens ahead of him.

Joe Woods is living a much less charmed existence. Through two games the defense is 18th in yards allowed per play, and holds the same mark in points per play.

Qualifications have to be added. This is a significantly different defensive roster. Six of the top ten in defensive snaps on Sunday played their football elsewhere in 2020. It’s harder for a defense to gel in the offseason with the limits on padded practices now. They also had as tough as test as you can get in the opening game. There isn’t a quarterback in the league that stresses a team defensively like Pat Mahomes. He’s Dhalsim, he can hit anybody from anywhere.

Still, there were some things worth critique after Week 1. The defense lost contain on Mahomes and allowed him to extend plays a number of times, including a circuitous five yard rushing TD where he covered probably four times that. Too many times Mahomes escaped the pocket and there was nobody accounting for him as a runner once he passed the line of scrimmage. Failing to do this in the red zone is an especially bitter pill.

The Texans offered a lighter test. They had beaten Jacksonville pretty handily, but the Jags are not a functional team. The Browns went into the game as the heaviest favourites I ever remember them being. The first half however was anything but routine. A touchdown inside the the final two minutes of the half rescued them being down seven at the half. They caught a break when Tyrod Taylor didn’t come out for the second half and they got to face third-round rookie Davis Mills for thirty minutes instead.

Genuinely I was a bit disappointed that Tyrod couldn’t finish this game. It had looked like this was going to be a more difficult afternoon than planned, and it would have been interesting to see how Joe Woods reacted. To me, he has been slow to react in-game, and Garrett’s comment that they were caught off guard by how pass heavy the Texans were didn’t really quell this thought.

It’s not that there’s even just one problem with the defense right now. Texans receivers were running free all day and they again struggled with keeping contain. It took firing Grant Delpit out of a cannon to lay a finger on the quarterback. Through two games they have one sack total from Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney. The lack of pressure is adding to their struggles getting off the field. The team is dead last in third down defense, having given up a first down on over 60% of the third downs they’ve faced. This mark wasn’t improved by facing Mills, who was 5 of 9 on third down.

None of this is to say the Browns should be making a change now. Woods’ three safety ‘Big Nickel’ defense is something that there hasn’t really been a chance to see yet, which hopefully will bolster their athleticism in the middle of the field. Great players like Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward will play better. If they don’t, then that’s a problem.

The Browns will give Joe Woods and this defense as much time as they deserve. I’m not concerned about them being slow off the mark. This group are smart enough to know that non-Brady Super Bowl windows can close fast, especially when your quarterback is currently playing on a rookie deal. Until then, it’s up to Joe Woods to turn his unit around.

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unusual but not exceptional

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