The Donatell Diary: Stefanski Schemes His Way to Offensive Success

Nov 28, 2021; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski looks down the field during the first half against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Following three-straight losses, the Broncos found themselves in an uninspiring position heading into Week 7: their once-promising season was now a mediocre 3-3.

It’s within this context that the Broncos travelled to play the Browns. Both teams entered the season with playoff aspirations. Both had put forth uninspiring 3-3 starts. In other words, snagging a win was seen as being supremely important to each side. While there were some good moments, the Ed Donatell defense again had plenty of lapses.

Readers who haven’t been following along or who’d like a refresher can feel free to read the reports on the Broncos’ defensive performance in Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, Week 4, Week 5, and Week 6. It’s now time to take on Week 7.

The Positives

Patrick Surtain II continues to show up. His length and speed allow him to hang with receivers. As a result, he can often get his mitts on a pass or rally for a quick tackle when a receiver catches a pass underneath. On a day when Cleveland had the Denver defense off balance, no receiver went for more than 37 yards.

At different points, Denver was able to generate pressure on the QB. Baker Mayfield was out, so Case Keenum was under center. The veteran backup certainly made some plays, but the Broncos were able to get after him on a few different occasions. Shelby Harris had one such moment, taking down Keenum in the second quarter. Harris then blocked a field goal:

Given that the team was without both their starting iLBs and Bradley Chubb, it’s notable that the front still generated some pressure. Plus, Von Miller left due to injury, further decimating Vic Fangio’s and Ed Donatell’s group. Life wasn’t easy out there, and yet they did their best to keep their team in it.

The Negatives

Similar to past weeks, there are more negatives than positives.

As previously mentioned, the Browns were without Mayfield. They also didn’t have their two starting RBs: Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. 3rd-string back D’Ernest Johnson had a monstrous day, accumulating 146 yards rushing and a TD on 22 carries. He also had 2 catches for 22 yards.

With a little more than 5 minutes left in the game, Teddy Bridgewater got his side within 3 points of the Browns. Unfortunately, the defense was unable to get off the field so that Bridgewater could have another chance.

Cleveland’s strategy was simply to work the clock, draining as much time as possible. Denver knew that Cleveland would simply hand the ball off to Johnson and yet they couldn’t stop the RB. Cleveland ran their way to 0:00 on the clock, thus sealing the win for the Browns.

Kevin Stefanski did a really nice job with screens, crossing routes, and play action. Johnson’s success made life exceedingly difficult, a reminder that strong defense often still begins with shutting down the run. With Cleveland’s run game being so ferocious, Denver struggled to keep up with these types of passing plays.

Like in past games, Denver was susceptible to passes to the flats. Since the corners are so commonly tasked with carrying a receiver downfield, the flats are often unoccupied. Denver relies on its linebackers and safeties to get over for the tackle, but that’s an issue when there are so many injuries. Plus, Cleveland did a nice job of not only getting the ball to the flats, but also bringing blockers. In other words, they’d get numbers over there, making life really challenging for the Broncos since the ball carrier commonly had a blocker(s) leading the charge.

A notable detail from this game was that Keenum converted a fourth down near the goal line. It stood out because it was yet another instance when a QB was able to use his legs to convert on fourth down. Again, one wonders about a QB spy since there have been multiple weeks where a QB has converted a fourth down with his legs.

After converting the fourth down, Keenum fired a pass to Cleveland’s fullback for an easy TD:

The Broncos did a nice job of bending but not breaking in several instances, but it was far from a strong effort.

The Send Off

Giving up 17 points on the road isn’t awful, but there’s context that the score misses.

Without their starting QB and stud pair of RBs, Cleveland still ran all over Denver. True, the Broncos were dealing with a lot on injuries in their front seven, but it’s always embarrassing when everyone knows an offense wants to run and the defense simply has no answer. That’s the kind of thing that will really shake the confidence of a defense.

Of course, the Denver offense didn’t help matters. For most of the night, they weren’t very good, which has become a trend at this stage. The combination of lacklustre offense, an injury-depleted front seven, and then underwhelming performances in the secondary added up to Denver dropping to 3-4.

In Week 8, the Broncos take on the Commanders.

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