Mystifying Play-Calling, Penalties Haunt Browns in Prime-Time Loss

Credit: @cooperkupp Instagram

Kitchens seen berating staff on sideline, takes blame for questionable plays

It is officially Halloween Season, and, once again, the Cleveland Browns penchant for self-destruction haunts them like a clichéd 1980s slasher movie villain. Just when they seem to be free and clear, they stumble over a tree root or rock and fall haplessly to the ground, only to be hacked to bits by defeat.

Playing the part of the machete-wielding maniac was the Los Angeles Rams. The defending National Football Conference Champions came to town a bit sluggish and slow, yet, by the end of the game, they found a way to methodically carve the Browns up to eke out a 20-13 road victory on Sunday Night Football. The Rams did not just simply roll the ball out onto the field, but they were not exactly the most crisp on offense either. There were many opportunities to put the Browns away, and they were not able to establish much of a running game against the Browns despite having All-Pro Running Back Todd Gurley. To their credit, the Dawgs Defense held Gurley to 43 yards rushing, the second week in a row the Browns’ defense held a superstar running back under 100 yards.

Conversely, the Browns’ offense, for the third week in a row, seemed to ghost the team when the team needed it the most. Quarterback Baker Mayfield, who is dangerously close to sliding into a sophomore slump, played the role of teenaged blonde, running for his life from the masked killer.  The frustrating piece to this is most of the calls were designed plays to get Mayfield out of the pocket.

Play-calling has been a thorn in the side of the Browns so far this young season.  However, time is running out for excuses.  If Browns fans criticized the “we-got-this” attitude of not gelling during the pre-season then, the fans will surely intensify their criticisms exponentially now, especially over a game that would have definitely made a statement to the rest of the National Football League that the Browns are back.

While Head Coach Freddie Kitchens clearly made a concerted effort to include Running Back Nick Chubb again, it still seemed like not enough.  Chubb had some big gains and punishing runs against one of the best run defenses in the NFL. He ended his day with 23 carries for 96 yards and four catches for 35 yards. Even All-Universe Defensive Tackle Aaron Donald was relatively ineffective until late in the third and into the fourth quarters.

NBC Football Analyst Chris Collinsworth even remarked during the fourth quarter, “I’m actually kind of surprised we aren’t seeing any traps, doubles, or whams on [Donald] on running plays.” (“Wham” blocks occur when the center releases to block a linebacker while another back hits the defensive lineman.)

The offensive line did not play any better, but they did not play any worse, either.  If anything, there were flashes of decent pockets to protect Mayfield where he could have possibly completed passes if he was not sprinting out to his right. They were beset by their fair share of penalties, but, this game, there just as many procedural penalties from the specialists as from the linemen.  David Njoku’s wrist injury kept him out of the game, and that had a bigger negative effect on the offense that anyone realized.  The tight ends, as a whole, appeared lost and confused as to where they needed to line up in formation.  Even though some of them are brand new to the team, one would correctly assume that a professional tight end would have a general idea on what to do.  The frustration boiled over onto the sidelines where Cleveland Browns Radio Network Play-By-Play Announcer Jim Donovan noted that Kitchens seemed to be “laying into” his staff.

The tight ends were not alone.  There were at least three multiple shift and illegal formation penalties called on receivers and backs, including one on Odell Beckham Jr.  Even basic football fundamentals like covering the tight end were broken. 

For a coaching staff who preached discipline and focus, this team is lacking in both.

Kitchens, the biggest advocate of smart, disciplined football, himself called plays that puzzled and enraged fans enough that audible booing and “Fire Kitchens” chants could be heard by the end of the game.  Kitchens displayed more innovation and success as the offensive coordinator last year as the head coach this year.  At some point last year, the offense clicked as if it were on Simulation Mode.  This year, the offense cannot get out of its own way.  Kitchens called for two straight passing plays deep in the Browns’ own end zone in the second quarter, giving the Rams –a team that does not need great field position—great field position.  At the end of the second quarter, there was an opportunity to score a touchdown that would have cemented the victory for the Browns.  Poor execution and play-calling forced the Browns to kick a field goal.  Down inside the Rams’ five-yard line, instead of handing it off to the workhorse Chubb or even attempting a QB Draw, Kitchens decided on three straight passing plays.  None of these passes, by the way, targeted OBJ at all.  Either Kitchens knew the tight ends were unreliable, or he felt his players could make plays, but, for some reason, he was determined to throw for a score. 

The most ire-inducing play was calling a draw to Chubb on fourth and six at midfield.  If using a quicker back like D’Ernest Johnson in this situation would have been too obvious, at least Johnson may have been better able to elude All-Pro Safety Eric Weddle than Chubb was. 

Kitchens took full responsibility with this call during the post-game press conference.

“Just blame me because I can take it,” Kitchens said at the post-game press conference. “Just blame me. Go write your article and say that I messed the game up. Go write your article and say that it is my fault that things are not looking like it did last year because it is.”

Accountability and self-awareness are fine and greatly appreciated amongst Browns fans, yet they are wearing rather thin.

Browns fans’ patience is also wearing thin.  It is embedded in the psyche of a Browns fan to attempt mental gymnastics to mitigate whatever outcome may be.  In a private moment, most Browns fans will admit they were not expecting to win this game.  Many, assuredly, chalked this game up in the loss column in their season predictions.  At some point, the perfect storm of the Rams playing down to their competition and the Browns playing up to it (on defense, mostly) plus the feeling the Browns players had going into this game set the scene perfectly for a win.  This game was the Browns’ to lose. 

As predictable as campers in a slasher movie, they did.