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Mayfield struggles with backups; defense shines

By MARY KAY CABOT • Updated Aug 24, 2019 at 12:06 AM

TAMPA, Fla. — Be careful what you wish for.

Baker Mayfield wanted to play the entire first half of the ‘dress rehearsal’ game against the Bucs, and Freddie Kitchens granted his wish, all the way to the bitter end of the half.

Mayfield trotted out for one last play of the half with eight seconds left, but he should’ve quit while he was ahead in Friday night’s 13-12 loss to the Bucs in the third preseason game.

Former Browns defensive lineman Carl Nassib, always eager for revenge on the team that cut him, blew past Chris Hubbard and hit Mayfield, causing an errant deep throw down the left side for Jaelen Strong that was picked off by Jordan Whitehead.

The starters went to the locker room ahead 9-0 at the half on three Austin Seibert field goals. The interception left Mayfield with a stat line he’ll want to forget: 10-of-26 for 72 yards, no touchdowns for a 30.6 rating in seven possessions.

He was done for the game, and done for the preseason, on to the Titans 16 days from now. The Tampa Bay backups rallied in the second half, dropping the Browns to 2-1 on the preseason.

The next time Mayfield decides he wants extended playing time in preseason, he might want to ask for a few of his starting skill players to join him. With the Browns resting Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Nick Chubb and David Njoku, Mayfield failed to connect with his backup receivers and looked off much of the night. He completed only 38.4 percent of his attempts and converted only 1-of-9 third downs for 11 percent.

Even his trusted target Rashard Higgins struggled to come up big, dropping a third-down pass in the right corner of the end zone and corralling only three of his seven first-half targets for 18 yards. Higgins had several passes broken up and made only one highlight-reel catch, a one-handed six-yarder on fourth down that led to Seibert’s third field goal for a 9-0 halftime lead.

At halftime, Freddie Kitchens lamented on the News 5 broadcast the lack of help by Mayfield’s receivers and shaky protection at times. His three starting receivers -- Higgins, Jaelen Strong and Derrick Willies -- combined for seven catches out of 19 targets for 45 yards. Strong caught only two of seven targets and Willies was 2-of-5.

All of them had passes broken up or knocked out of their hands that they’ll want back, including a short third-down incompletion to Willies on a slant that brought Seibert out for his second field goal.

The normally accurate Mayfield appeared to overthrow some passes, as his timing was just off with this backup crew. Even more disappointing for the Browns was the fact they wasted great field position, starting first-half drives at their 46 and the Bucs’ 49, and settling for field goals both times.

All told, Mayfield played only eight series in preseason, and none with Beckham. Almost none of the starters will play next week against the Lions, so what you’ve seen is what you’ll get.

But there’s certainly no reason to panic, even if the Browns’ offensive line allowed considerable pressure and one sack of Mayfield. The team finished with just 141 yards of offense, converting just two of 14 third downs. Mayfield was done at halftime, but Kitchens left the starting line on the field to start the third quarter, with little improvement.

In his only other drive of this preseason, Mayfield took it to the Redskins in the preseason opener, zooming downfield in the no-huddle and completing 5-of-6 attempts for 77 yards and a 24-yard touchdown pass to Higgins.

With former Browns’ secondary coach and former Jets head coach Todd Bowles running the Bucs defense, the defensive backs hit hard, broke up passes and were all over the Browns’ receivers.

In the second quarter, Ndamukong Suh shoved Mayfield to the ground, drawing a roughing the passer penalty.

It’s a good thing Kitchens wasn’t buying into the “dress rehearsal” mentality. It wasn’t a memorable performance.

On the other hand, the first-team defense, together for the first time, was as dominant as advertised in the first 30 minutes. The defensive line shredded the Bucs, sacking Jameis Winston five times. On the Bucs’ first drive, they knocked them back three straight times, once on a run play and then back-to-back sacks of Winston, one by Olivier Vernon for five yards after Myles Garrett stormed in first, and one by Sheldon Richardson.

By the end of the half, Vernon had collected two and Christian Kirksey one to blow up a drive on third down. Denzel Ward also joined the sack party with one.

Garrett, who missed a day during the week with an illness, played only the first series before giving way to Chris Smith, but exploded off the edge and made his presence felt from the start, stopping Peyton Barber after a 3-yard gain on the opening play.

The Browns used a mix of defensive linemen throughout the half, and kept the Bucs’ reeling. Winston was 9-of-19 passing for 88 yards for a 60.9 rating. He converted only two of nine third-down chances. The run game barely dented the Browns, gaining 19 yards on 10 attempts.

In the second half, defensive end Devaroe Lawrence recorded two sacks, demonstrating just how deep — and scary — this defensive line is.

Denzel Ward, who sat out the first two preseason games with a minor injury, played into the second quarter opposite Terrance Mitchell, recording a sack. Greedy Williams replaced Ward in the second quarter, and went to the medical tent in the second half after an apparent shoulder injury, but returned.

The Browns gave rookie Austin Seibert the whole game to prove himself, and he went 4-for-4 with Britton Colquitt holding. He converted kicks of 54, 36, 30 and 35 yards to produce all the Browns’ points. He also handled the kickoff chores.

Meanwhile, Bucs rookie kicker Matt Gay, selected 35 spots ahead of Seibert at No. 145 in the fifth round, missed a 37-yarder in the first half, but hit the 21-yard gamewinner with 15 seconds remaining.

Jamie Gillan handled all the punting chores, averaging 47.8 yards over his six punts — with three downed inside the Tampa Bay 20 and a long of 54. The Browns will likely give incumbents Greg Joseph and Colquitt all the kicking and punting duties next week.

 

Extra points

Former Browns receiver Breshad Perriman started in place of two-time Pro Bowler Mike Evans, catching two passes for 15 yards. ... Mayfield was replaced in the second half by Drew Stanton, and David Blough relieved Stanton in the fourth quarter.

 

Up next

The Browns close out the preseason Thursday night agains the Detroit Lions in Cleveland.

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