Browns takeaways: Baker Mayfield takes beating, laments plan vs. Steelers star T.J. Watt
PITTSBURGH — Dominate and demoralize.
That's what the Browns allowed Pittsburgh Steelers edge rusher T.J. Watt to do to them in a 26-14 loss on “Monday Night Football” at Heinz Field.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield took nine sacks, four of which were credited to Watt.
Now Mayfield is considering sitting out the regular-season finale Jan. 9 against the AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals because he's “pretty damn beat up,” will undergo surgery on the left, non-throwing shoulder he injured in Week 2 and the Browns were eliminated from playoff contention Sunday.
Watt excelling against the Browns (7-9) is one thing. He's a four-time Pro Bowl and two-time All-Pro selection. He's going to make plays for the Steelers (8-7-1).
But coach Kevin Stefanski and his assistants not giving rookie right tackle James Hudson III adequate assistance against Watt is another thing.
Mayfield was frustrated enough after the game to criticize the game plan and thereby the coaches who devised it.
“Obviously their front’s pretty good. It has been for years,” Mayfield said on Zoom. “But when you’ve got T.J. Watt over there and we’re not giving our rookie tackle a whole lot of help, it’s not going to be good.”
Cleveland Browns quick hits:Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger beats Cleveland one last time as Baker Mayfield struggles again
Hudson is a fourth-round draft pick who started for just the third time in the NFL. Mayfield made it clear his intent was not to rip Hudson. Mayfield's point is the coaches should have known they needed to slide the protection toward Hudson and assign tight ends and running backs to double-team or chip Watt more often.
Mayfield's future with the Browns isn't certain largely because of his poor play during the 2021 season and his unresolved long-term contractual situation. Yet his relationship with Stefanski and the coaching staff doesn't seem to be great, either. After the Browns defeated the Baltimore Ravens 24-22 on Dec. 12, Mayfield lamented the Cleveland offense becoming too conservative. And in his postgame media availability Monday night, Mayfield didn't shy completely shy away from a question about whether he feels the offense has been put in positions to succeed this season.
“I’m not going to get into too many details about that as a full-season evaluation,” Mayfield said. “We’ve obviously been pretty banged up. I believe in James. I pray to God that you guys [in the media] don’t spin this into something where I’m criticizing James Hudson. That’s not what I’m doing. We’re talking about an All Pro that he’s going up against, and he hasn’t had very many starts. So I’m proud of James. He kept swinging. He kept fighting.
“Now when it comes to what we’ve had to deal with all season, there’s been a lot of ups and downs. Do I believe I could play better? Absolutely. Do I believe there’s positions that we as an offense could’ve been put in that are better? Absolutely. There’s so many critiques throughout the year. If there wasn’t, we wouldn’t be sitting here at 7-9. So it is what it is.”
Part of the Browns being banged up is All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin being out of the season with a ruptured patellar tendon he suffered in his right knee Nov. 28 in a 16-10 loss to the Ravens.
The Browns have started Blake Hance in place of Conklin six times this season, but offensive line coach Bill Callahan has said Hance's natural position in the NFL is guard, and the organization obviously wants to accelerate Hudson's development because it keeps turning to him despite other options.
“James had good moments for us this season,” Stefanski said. “Felt like he was getting better. Obviously, I know what the stat line looks like, but I'm not going to put all that on him. He's a young player that we expect to continue to get better.”
Hance had started the previous two games after Hudson went on the reserve/COVID-19 list, but the coaches went back to Hudson on Monday. Four-time Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio had moved to left tackle for the previous two games because the team's COVID-19 outbreak last month also forced Jedrick Wills Jr. to miss two games.
Cleveland Browns QB injury update:Baker Mayfield says he'll have shoulder surgery, has yet to decide whether he'll play in finale
Last week, Stefanski immediately shot down the notion of continuing to start Bitonio at left tackle, where he had been playing well, and moving Wills to right tackle, where he played his entire life until the Browns drafted him 10th overall out of the University of Alabama in 2020.
“You don't want to give up nine sacks,” Bitonio said. “We didn't perform well enough as an O-line, as an offense.
“[Watt is] a great player. He had a bunch of sacks and was making plays for their team. It's something that you try and red dot him during the week and eliminate him, but he made plays for them today.”
Remember how poorly the Chicago Bears game planned for Browns All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett in Week 3? Rookie quarterback Justin Fields took nine sacks, led by Garrett's single-game franchise record 4½.
Well, the Browns looked like the Bears in Week 17.
"That many sacks, that's on me," Stefanski said.
Watt isn't complaining about setting a new career high in sacks — both for a single game and a season. He did it in prime time, too, strengthening his case for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, an award Garrett has been chasing since Cleveland drafted him first overall in 2017. Watt leads the league with 21½ sacks. Garrett is tied for third with 15 sacks.
"He was a great player out there," Garrett said. "He’s been balling all year, and he continued his success."
The Steelers were credited with 11 quarterback hits, led by Watt's five.
“You have to be able to adapt mid-game,” Mayfield said, “and we didn’t do a good enough job, as you could tell.”
Mayfield is under contract through next season because the Browns exercised the fifth-year option on his rookie deal for $18.858 million.
Still, whether his partnership with the Browns can survive what has become a mess of a season is a legitimate question.
Cleveland Browns Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb suffers rib injury
A reliable solution to keep an elite pass rusher like Watt at bay is the run the ball.
But the Browns rushed 20 times for 93 yards (4.7 average), and three-time Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb finished with just 12 carries for 58 yards (4.8 average), including a long of 32. In the first half, Chubb had just four carries for 35 yards. The usage was especially puzzling because the Steelers entered the game with the NFL's last-ranked run defense (142.7 yards allowed per game).
'It's crazy. Not smart':Jadeveon Clowney's shoe toss stuns Browns coach Kevin Stefanski
Asked why Chubb wasn't involved more, Stefanski said, “Early on, he got a little banged up with a rib injury. He was able to play through it, but he needed some rest.”
Stefanski said Chubb getting hurt affected the game plan.
“It was a factor in some of those things,” Stefanski said. “I don't want to overstate that either, though. We just could not sustain drives.”
Bitonio said he wasn't aware Chubb had been banged up.
Cornerbacks Denzel Ward (groin) and Greedy Williams (shoulder) and linebacker Sione Takitaki (shoulder) suffered injuries, too. Unlike Chubb, Ward, Williams and Takitaki didn't return to the game.
With Chubb ailing and star running back Kareem Hunt inactive for the third consecutive game due to an ankle injury, D'Ernest Johnson had five carries for 13 yards (2.6 average) and one catch on three targets for 1 yard.
Garrett continued to push through a groin injury he suffered Dec. 20 in a 16-14 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders.
“It wasn’t too bad,” he said. “I felt it — little tweaks here and there — but going out there I was pretty loose and just gave my all. That’s all I can do.”
Garrett hasn't had a sack in the past three games. The good news is he believes the injury is improving.
“Moving forward I don’t think it will be an issue,” he said.
Browns QB Baker Mayfield has five passes batted
The nine sacks were far from the only rough aspect of Mayfield's night.
He went 16-of-38 passing (42.1%) for 185 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions for a rating of 53.1, with five of his passes batted or deflected near the line of scrimmage.
“Sometimes when I can see them blatantly just waiting for a pass to put their hands up, I can kind of change my arm angle,” Mayfield said. “There’s a few times that I had to put the ball a little bit behind these guys just to get it around them. Some of them, these are timing throws. I have to be on time. I have to put the ball in the right place and let it fly. So a lot of those [batted balls] were due to that.”
Former Pro Bowl selection weighs in:Browns QB Baker Mayfield has been indecisive, uncomfortable, 'Monday Night Football' analyst Brian Griese says
Watt and defensive tackle Cameron Heyward each had two deflections. Rookie defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk had one.
“As a quarterback, you've got to always be thinking about your eyes and those type of things,” Stefanski said. “If the guys jump, offensive line-wise, we've got to make sure that we keep their hands down and hit them when they jump up.”
Browns react to missing the playoffs
The Browns had Super Bowl expectations entering the 2021 season, which seems laughable in hindsight because their playoff hopes were dashed Sunday with two regular-season games left.
The Bengals won the AFC North by upsetting the Kansas City Chiefs 34-31, closing what had been Cleveland's likeliest path to the postseason by far. Later, the Denver Broncos fell 34-13 to the Los Angeles Chargers, eliminating the Browns' slim chances for a wild-card berth.
“It sucked getting eliminated, but that was on us for not winning enough games earlier in the season,” Bitonio said. “But we're professionals. … You have to be a prideful, prideful person to go out there and play when the games don't matter towards the playoffs. But you're trying to build a team here. You're trying to build a culture.”
“It’s always tough not making the playoffs, not being able to achieve the ultimate goal, which is winning a championship,” linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. said. “And the first part of is getting into the tournament, being able to get in there. It’s tough. But it’s part of the game. You still got to go out there and compete and fight. We’re here to win. No matter how the season goes, you trust the process to win football games. Yeah, it sucks.”
Marla Ridenour:Even coaches must share the blame as Cleveland Browns revert to horrific lapses of the past
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com.