Browns fourth quarter play calls vs Chargers baffling, cost them game

Oct 3, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski looks on during the fourth quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 3, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski looks on during the fourth quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports /

Late in the fourth quarter, the Browns kept Nick Chubb off the field, and then tried to convert a third and nine on the ground with the game on the line. 

Cleveland Browns fans were baffled by the play sequence late in the game when the team was nursing a 42-41 lead and got the ball back, first down and 10 yards to go at the Cleveland 14-yard line with 3:08 left in the game.

If the Browns could have scored or run out the clock, it would have guaranteed victory. However, since they did neither, they wound up blowing this game, 47-42.

What happened at this point almost defies description. It doesn’t quite rank with the decision by the Seattle Seahawks to not give the ball to Marshawn Lynch in the last play against the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX, but it’s close.

Without further ado, the sequence was as follows

3:08 remaining, first & 10 at Cleveland 14. Kareem Hunt takes the handoff over right tackle for one yard and is tackled by Joey Bosa and Kyzir White.

3:01 remaining, timeout by Los Angeles. second & nine at the Cleveland 15. Mayfield throws the ball deep to Rashard Higgins, the slowest of Browns wide receivers and least likely to get open for a deep route. Incomplete.

2:55 remaining, third and nine at the Cleveland 15. Kareem Hunt takes the handoff over left tackle for 3 yards to the Cleveland 18-yard line. Tackle by Joey Bosa and Jerry Tillery.

2:11 remaining, fourth and six at the Cleveland 18. Jamie Gillan punts 42 yards to the Los Angeles 40-yard line. After this, Los Angeles mounts a drive and scores the winning touchdown.

Nick Chubb was standing on the sidelines for the entire sequence, standing straight and tall, looking not one bit fatigued. Kareem Hunt was doing just fine that game, with 12 carries for 61 yards and 5.08 yards per carry. That’s very good. But Chubb was unstoppable on 21 carries for 161 yards and 7.67 yards per carry.

Why not use your best running back, particularly if your plan was to run the ball between the tackles, where Chubb excels? Did Chubb take himself out of the game? If not, it’s incomprehensible what he was doing on the sidelines at crunch time.

In any case, Kareem Hunt was held up after a one-yard gain. The next play was a deep ball to Rashard Higgins, who is not the fastest Browns wide receiver and not the best jumper either. He excels at getting open for the short pass, so they sent him out for the long pass with the game on the line. Why not throw the ball to Odell Beckham, Jr?

This is just speculation, but in last week’s game versus Minnesota, Mayfield threw deep ball after deep ball to OBJ, probably trying too hard to make a big play. Perhaps – and this is just a guess – the game plan for the Chargers asked Mayfield to not look deep for OBJ so often, particularly depending upon the matchup.

The Chargers have some awesome cover corners, and maybe the matchup with Higgins was better. Okay, so maybe even though Higgins is not the best long ball receiver, maybe he wasn’t covered as well, either. In any case, the pass to Hollywood fell incomplete.

Okay, so what do we have for third and nine? Kareem Hunt up the middle? Really? That was good for three yards. How many times is the halfback good for nine yards? About 10 percent of the time?

Meanwhile, what is OBJ on the team for? If ever there was a spot for an All-Pro wide receiver, that was it. Otherwise, this play call was totally incomprehensible to an amateur like this fan.

Now, who knows? Maybe coach Stefanski anticipated that an all-out pass rush would leave them susceptible to this particular play call. It may not be as screwy as it appeared on the surface. There are a lot of play calls that make no sense to average fans that may actually be reasonable if we knew the whole story.

Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that, from the information we have in front of us, that fourth-quarter play sequence made zero sense.

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Overall, Stefanski has done a great job in bringing the Browns from perennial losers to playoff contenders. So definitely he deserves the benefit of the doubt, and if he did just screw up, well, learn from it and do better next time.