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Browns' lackluster offensive start begins with Baker Mayfield

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BEREA, Ohio -- When Cleveland traded for receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to pair with budding star quarterback Baker Mayfield, the expectations for the Browns exploded.

And yet so far, Cleveland’s offense has yet to follow suit.

Sure, the flashes have been there, highlighted by Mayfield’s 89-yard touchdown strike to Beckham that finally put the overmatched New York Jets away on Monday night. But the consistency has not, leaving Mayfield, OBJ and playcalling head coach Freddie Kitchens searching for answers heading into the teeth of the schedule. That begins with a litmus matchup Sunday night against the defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams.

"We are not where we want to be," Beckham said. "We did not get off to the best start. But the good thing is, we have more games, more opportunities and more practices to come together and prove ourselves.

"Just like anything else, it’s really not where you start, it’s where you finish."

The start, especially given Cleveland’s firepower, has not been good, across the board.

Through two games, the Browns rank 28th in offensive expected points added, 29th in third-down conversion rate and 26th in points per drive. Mayfield is No. 21 in QBR, just behind Gardner Minshew and former Oklahoma teammate Kyler Murray. Wide receiver Jarvis Landry ranks 144th in receptions per target. And running back Nick Chubb is 32nd in yards before first contact per rush.

Those are hardly the numbers of a playoff-caliber offense.

"I have to do a better job of putting our guys in better situations," said Kitchens, who will likely have to do it without tight end David Njoku, Cleveland’s second-leading receiver last year, who could be out weeks because of a wrist injury he suffered against New York.

As Mayfield is first to point out, the Cleveland offense -- and any of its issues -- begin with him. And that starts with how long he’s been holding onto the ball.

According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Mayfield is averaging 3.07 seconds to throw, which is third-highest in the league and up from the 2.9 seconds he averaged as a rookie last year.

Holding onto the ball has seemingly robbed Mayfield of rhythm, and it’s opened him up to taking too many hits. Mayfield has been sacked eight times, compared with being sacked five times total in 2018 once Kitchens took over as offensive coordinator in Week 9.

Mayfield’s offensive line looked discombobulated at times in the opener against the Tennessee Titans, especially after left tackle Greg Robinson was ejected. But yet, the much-and-maybe-unfairly-maligned offensive line actually still leads the NFL in pass block win rate (holding pass blocks for at least 2.5 seconds) at 74.1 percent.

In other words, the line is giving Mayfield enough time.

"(I need to be) getting the ball out quicker, getting it into the playmakers’ hands," Mayfield said. "Just taking care of our guys, not putting our O-line in a bind."

The analytics suggest Mayfield finding ways to simply unload the ball quicker could be the key to unlocking the rest of the offense.

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According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Mayfield is completing 74 percent of his passes when he throws the ball within 2.5 seconds. When Mayfield holds on to it for longer, his completion rate plummets to 55 percent.

"I have to do a better job of getting the ball out of Baker’s hands quicker," Kitchens said.

That might be easier said than done for Mayfield, who's been hindered at times by both zone and man defensive looks. According to ESPN Pass Coverage metrics powered by NFL Next Gen Stats, Mayfield faced zone a league-high 81 percent of the time in Week 1, but majority man coverage in Week 2 against the Jets.

Leaning more on run-pass-option plays, like the one that led to Mayfield’s touchdown toss to Beckham, could be one solution. On that play, Mayfield released the ball in 1.87 seconds after the snap, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, well within the 2.5-second threshold the line has been providing. RPO was a big part of Cleveland’s offensive surge down the stretch last season, and Kitchens hinted this week that more of it could be on the way.

Utilizing tempo, the way the Browns did in a scintillating opening touchdown drive in the first preseason game against Washington, could be another way to jump-start Mayfield, who operated a tempo attack throughout his college career at Oklahoma.

More check-down throws to Chubb and the other backs could help, as well. So could a more consistently effective running game, which would set up Mayfield off play-action to find Beckham and Landry for big chances downfield.

"Everything's just going to come with time," Beckham said. "Adding new pieces and still trying to figure everything out with this team. It's very early in the season, so I don't know if he's necessarily holding the ball too long. We could be smoother in and out of our routes, be where we need to be and just trust that he's going to make the plays that he's fully capable of making."

Despite the slow start, the Browns are surely capable, as Mayfield’s quick strike to Beckham underscored.

But if Cleveland is to snap the NFL’s longest playoff drought, flashes alone won’t be enough for an offense that has the talent to be among the league's best.

"We’re going to figure it out," Mayfield said. "Everybody is acting like the world is falling down. ... but we can play better."