Baker Mayfield and Josh Allen have gone in opposite directions in the red zone this season.
Mayfield was brilliant as a rookie when he got the Cleveland Browns’ offense inside the 20-yard line. He threw an amazing 20 touchdown passes with no interceptions and completed 64.8% of his passes in the red zone.
This year, Mayfield and the Browns are struggling in the scoring zone. He has four TD passes and three interceptions and is completing a mere 35.9% of his passes. His red-zone passer rating (35.9) is second worst in the league among starters, ahead of only the Jets’ Sam Darnold.
Cleveland ranks 25th in red-zone scoring, converting TDs on only 46% of its trips.
It’s a big element in what is shaping up as a sophomore slump for the Browns’ franchise QB.
Allen, meanwhile, has seven TD passes with no INTs in the red zone, and he has completed 14 of 20 passes (70%). Allen’s red zone rating (115.4) is second best in the NFL.
The Bills rank No. 1 in the NFL in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on 71% of trips. Allen is key to that, since he also has four rushing TDs. However, there’s a caveat to that ranking: The Bills are tied for the fourth fewest trips inside the red zone. They’re not giving themselves enough scoring chances.
Mayfield’s struggles are a bit of a mystery, given how good he was last year.
One problem he needs to overcome on all areas of the field: Teams have had better success defending him by keeping him in the pocket and playing zone coverage. The Jets had success bracketing him in the pocket in Week 2 (even though they lost), and the Patriots did it well two weeks ago.
Another problem: The Browns’ offensive line has struggled and hasn’t opened enough holes in the run game. Good running is the first key to success in the red zone, because it keeps the quarterback out of third-and-bad situations with less area of the field to use.
“Anytime you go 1-for-5 in the red zone, it’s about execution,” Browns coach Freddie Kitchens said after his team’s loss in Denver on Sunday. “You have to first be able to run the ball down there, and then when you decide to throw the ball, you have to execute. That means you’ve got to block who you’re supposed to block, you’re supposed to run the right route and you’re supposed to throw the ball in the right place.”
Kitchens says Mayfield’s stunning drop in completion percentage has a lot more to do with team-wide circumstances than the QB’s ability to put the ball on target.
“You can’t just look at stats and tell the whole story,” he said. "I know that is a lot of times all anybody has to look at. I understand that and recognize that fact, but that does not tell the whole story.”
Mayfield isn’t a “running” quarterback. But he’s elusive, he extends plays and he has a track record of good accuracy. Struggles for a QB in his second year should not be overblown.
“I think I am still playing the way I need to mentally, having my eyes in the right spots,” Mayfield said Wednesday. “I just think the details of certain routes and me being on time with it and the execution has been the thing getting us beat. I think the past three weeks, I have steadily improved where my eyes need to be.”
The 30,000-foot view: The Browns are an NFL-worst 97-230-1 (.296) since rejoining the NFL in 1999. They have two winning seasons in the past 20 years. The Browns drafted nine players in the first round from 2011 to 2016, and none of them had their fifth-year contract options picked up or received a contract extension. That’s the mess that current general manager John Dorsey inherited. As a result, only 19 of their own draft choices are on the roster, which was tied for second fewest in the NFL to open the season. (Buffalo and the Jets had an NFL-low 17.) Cleveland had the fourth youngest roster in the NFL on opening day and it has an NFL-low three players age 30 or older. Just one is a starter. The Browns are headed in the right direction, despite underachieving this year.
Too pass heavy? The Browns are heavily reliant on their three-receiver sets, especially since promising tight end David Njoku went out with a wrist injury in Week Two. Cleveland is running 11 personnel (three wides) on 75% of its snaps, third most in the NFL, according to Sharp Football. It makes perfect sense, because that’s the Browns’ most talented group. The Browns play two tight ends 19% of the time.
Are the Browns putting too much on Mayfield’s shoulders? Kitchens likes to throw. On first down with the game within one score, the Browns pass 71% of the time, third most in the NFL, according to Sharp Football. This might be the week for Kitchens to look for a little better balance, given the question marks over the Bills’ run defense. Plus, former NFL rushing champ Kareem Hunt is back in the lineup after serving an eight-game suspension. Look for Kitchens to put Nick Chubb and Hunt in the backfield at the same time on a few plays. Remember, the Eagles gashed the Bills for a 65-yard run with two-backs and three-wides on the field.
Odell Beckham Jr. vs. Tre’Davious White. Look for the Bills’ top cornerback to follow the great Beckham in this game, but don’t expect the Bills to leave White on an island much of the time. A safety likely will be over the top of Beckham’s side of the field a bunch. The Bills have allowed 17 passes of 20-plus yards, tied for second fewest in the NFL. They’ve yielded just one 40-plus pass, tied for fewest in the NFL.
Bills D-line vs. Browns O-line. This is a must-win matchup for the Bills, especially on the edges. The O-line is the weakness for the Browns’ attack, which is loaded with skill-position talent. Left tackle Greg Robinson has ideal size but lacks quickness. Right tackle Chris Hubbard is average at best. Right guard is the next question-mark spot, with ex-Bill Wyatt Teller starting. Jordan Phillips and Ed Oliver need to outplay Teller.
Myles Garrett vs. Bills OTs. Garrett, the No. 1 overall pick in 2017, has 10 sacks. He has lined up almost evenly split between the right side and the left side and has five sacks from each side, although he has more pressures from right defensive end. Dion Dawkins and Ty Nsekhe both are on the spot, because the other edge rusher (Olivier Vernon) is pretty good, too. Garrett is a long strider with a good first step and strong hands.
Stats for the road: Which QB can avoid big mistakes? Baker Mayfield has thrown an INT in seven of eight games this year. Over the past nine games, Mayfield has produced 11 TDs and 15 INTs (counting rushing TDs). Over the last nine games, Josh Allen has produced 19 TDs with eight INTs. Allen has thrown an INT in four of eight games this season. The Browns are minus-8 in turnover ratio, the Bills are minus-1.