CLEVELAND, Ohio — Is Kevin Stefanski too old to be considered a “boy wonder?”
Perhaps at 38 years young, his new nickname should be “Smooth Operator,” as Baker Mayfield referred to him earlier this week.
Stefanski isn’t interested in any title other than head coach. He doesn’t seek praise because he doesn’t need it. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t worthy of a slick alter ego.
After calling his best game yet as a Brown against the Colts’ No. 1 ranked defense, he’s earned it.
Behind a complete and calculated game plan, Cleveland won its fourth straight game, beating the Colts 32-23 at FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday.
Let’s unpack why Stefanski called his best game yet.
The Browns avoided third and long against a fierce Colts defense
Coming into the game, the Colts led the league in third-down defense. Teams were only converting 31% of their third-down tries. On Sunday, Cleveland went 10 of 17 on third down and averaged only 4.6 yards to go on third downs.
That’s the game.
Yes, of course nine points from the Browns defense helps, but Stefanski made a deliberate effort to avoid third-and-long against a Colts defense that was forcing opposing quarterbacks into a 17.0 passer rating.
As Pro Football Focus pointed out this week, spiking the ball was a “better” play than throwing on Indy’s secondary.
There are a few reasons for that.
First, the Colts’ pass rush features two All-Pro talents in Justin Houston and DeForest Buckner. By getting into third down and more than 6 yards (passing situation), Houston and Buckner can pin their ears back and get after the quarterback.
Neither had a sack on Sunday.
Stefanski knew he couldn’t put Baker Mayfield in such situations, which is why Cleveland instead generated positive plays on early downs, focused on power runs and play-action passes: To make life on third and fourth downs much easier.
Cleveland’s average distance to go on second down was 8 yards — meaning, Cleveland averaged about 4 yards per play on second down, including four passes of 7 or more yards to either Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham Jr. and Rashard Higgins.
Higgins’ second-quarter touchdown came via a verticals concept. Mayfield found Higgins inside the hole of the Colts’ press-man-to-man, two-high-safety look.
Then to end the game, Stefanski once again remained disciplined. Instead of throwing on third and 9 with 2:27 to play, he stuck with his go-to play: power left.
Even without right guard Wyatt Teller, Stefanski trusted his unit to make a play, and backup guard Chris Hubbard didn’t disappoint. Notice Hubbard pull across the formation and fill a hole, allowing backup running back D’Ernest Johnson to probe downfield before bouncing it outside for 18 yards and the win.
Stefanski trusted two backups (Hubbard and Johnson) at the game’s most critical moment. That’s fine coaching, teaching and ultimately, execution.
What we learned
Of course, every team wants to avoid third and long. But many coaches cannot resist calling aggressive vertical passing plays on early downs. Before they know it, it’s third-and-10 after two incompletions.
Stefanski didn’t let that happen to Mayfield on Sunday. He’s protecting his team and his quarterback by fully understanding the opponent and practicing the discipline to honor his game plan.
It’s so impressive. Cleveland landed a real one. I doubt “Smooth Operator” sticks, but it should because that’s exactly what Stefanski is.
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