The warning signs were flashing even as the yards piled up in the first half.
Baker Mayfield threw repeatedly into tight coverage, only to be bailed out by difficult, contested catches. He missed high often, a recurring issue when he struggles with accuracy. A would-be interception was dropped. The Browns had to settle for field goals twice after reaching the red zone.
But the mistakes were obscured by the results Sunday in the 32-23 win over the Colts. He was 19-for-28 for 228 yards, two touchdowns and a 116.4 passer rating in the first half.
Mayfield, and the passing game that made up for a surprisingly mundane rushing attack, ran into a brick wall in the second half. He was 2-for-9 for 19 yards, two interceptions and a 0.0 rating. He was hurt by two rare Jarvis Landry drops and never found a rhythm.
“That was the worst game I have played out of the five so far,” Mayfield said Sunday night. “A lot to learn from this film, especially on my part. Have to continue to get better and put us in positions to win.
“There were two turnovers today. Not good enough. A lot of missed completions out there and a lot of guys that were open, so have to continue to get better.”
Much of the focus in the run-up to the showdown Sunday in Pittsburgh will be on Mayfield’s ribs. He took a huge shot from Colts defensive end Justin Houston on the second interception and remained sore Monday, although X-rays were negative.
“We will see how he works through it this week,” coach Kevin Stefanski said Monday. “I know Baker, I know he is tough and I know he is going to fight through this, but we will be smart.”
Mayfield guaranteed Sunday night he’ll play, as he looks for his first win in his third trip to Heinz Field. He beat the Steelers at FirstEnergy Stadium last year.
“His ass better get his ribs going,” receiver Rashard Higgins said. “We have the Steelers this week.
“I know he will bounce back. That is just the type of guy he is — resilient, battle-tested. There is nothing he has not been through. Every week we expect him to play.”
The complex, physical, playmaking Steelers defense presents a challenge for Mayfield, but he must look inward before shifting his attention down the turnpike. The offense was carried by the run game during the first three wins of the four-game streak, allowing Mayfield to come along slowly in Stefanski’s new scheme. He had three straight games with a rating above 100, but they felt incomplete because he averaged only 17 completions with a high of 219 yards against the Bengals.
Then when asked to carry a larger load against the Colts, he couldn’t sustain the success for 60 minutes. The 247 yards were a season high, as were the two interceptions. For the year, Mayfield has completed 61.2 percent (26th in the NFL) for 976 yards (23rd), nine touchdowns (tied for ninth), four interceptions (tied for eight most) and an 88.6 rating (23rd).
Analytics site Pro Football Focus raised concerns over Mayfield’s start despite the Browns being 4-1 for the first time since 1994. Through his first five games of his three seasons, PFF gave him a 78.5 passing grade as a rookie, 67.7 in 2019 and 65.1 this year. His big-time throws went from 14 to five to eight, while his turnover-worthy plays increased from six to seven to eight.
Mayfield has played much better in the first half of games, especially against the Cowboys and Colts the last two weeks.
“First of all, I think I can do a much better job as a play caller in these moments where we need to get into a rhythm and get the offense into a rhythm,” Stefanski said. “There are some calls that I really want back. I know I can do a better job.
“As it pertains to Baker in the second half, I think he is doing what it takes to win. We are going to be in some games where you are playing four-minute offense, so to speak, and you are playing conservatively and you are chewing up the clock, and then we know we are going to be in some games where we are going to have to open it up. I think you saw in that first half, did a nice job. We were able to move the ball, and then for a bunch of reasons we were not in the second half, but I would put a lot of that on me.”
Mayfield conceded the first half wasn’t as good as the numbers would indicate. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes dropped what should’ve been an interception on an overthrow, Landry thought there were six or seven contested catches and Odell Beckham Jr. was open on a fade route in the end zone but the throw sailed. Mayfield again was high for tight end Austin Hooper down the seam when he also had Landry open running down the sideline on the final possession of the half.
“The drive right before halftime, definitely should have had a touchdown instead of just three points,” Mayfield said. “There were missed completions and some high balls. There is a lot of room for improvement, but that is a good thing after a win.
“It is important for us to be able to find answers on how teams are going to defend us. If they stop the run game, we have to be able to respond in the pass game. It is important for us to find ways to be efficient and move the ball and put us in position to win.”
Mayfield deserves some of the credit for four wins in five tries, and all the reviews aren’t bad.
“The growth this season that @bakermayfield has shown with his pocket feel/presence has been freaking remarkable,” ESPN analyst and former quarterback Dan Orlovsky tweeted during the first half. “Shoot since week 1. It’s like watching Brees-great ownership of that space-when to move and where-without panic but poise!”
Mayfield was quick to point out it wasn’t nearly good enough.
“I like that he is hard on himself. He wants to be great,” Stefanski said. “I think he is doing some really nice things.
“For us, it always comes back to the turnover margin. Nobody is more disappointed at the two interceptions than he is. I think we can learn from them.”