Kitchens Most Important Test To Date
Ross The Rugger, Cleveland Browns Analyst
While the players have went their separate ways to heal up and spend time with their families, Freddie Kitchens and his staff face their most important test to date. They may not face an opponent this week but make no mistake, the decisions and adjustments made this week will be the biggest factor in how the last 10 games shake out. If they are going to make a playoff push the foundation will be laid between now and the Patriots game and here are the most important decisions facing them. I'll only focus on the coaching staff and current roster as we can never know what Dorsey might have up his sleeve.
Discipline and Fundamentals
The most important obstacle the coaching staff will face is also the most basic. While I could go into length about all the small details that are tripping them up, I want to keep this short and sweet so I will just touch on the major factors involved. Before any of the other adjustments can have a positive impact they have to get back to the basics and hopefully that was the main focus of their practices before breaking for their bye. Penalties are by far their biggest problem and now that they've cut down on the post snap penalties, hopefully they focused heavily on fundamental blocking to eliminate all the drive killing penalties that have kept them from ever finding a rhythm. On defense it's about fundamentals as well, they must stop surrendering free first downs penalties and focus on tackling technique so they can quit allowing short yardage plays to become chunk plays. This is all simple and straight forward but it absolutely must be a priority or the rest won't matter.
As a young team with a lot of new faces on both the roster and staff they are still working to figure out who their best options are at a handful of positions while also having dealt with a myriad of injuries. They should finally be healthy for week 7, so now is the time to reevaluate who fits what role and which personnel grouping give them the best chance to succeed. It will be interesting to see who the starting five offensive lineman are when they play next, change seems to be on the horizon and they already used the practices last week to start evaluating their options at both offensive tackle positions and right guard. They won't likely risk too many changes to the unit all at once but they will try to identify the best five to move forward with. On the other side of the ball they finally have their defensive backfield back, now its just a matter of reintegrating them and deciding how to divide the snaps back there while focusing heavily on their tackling.
The biggest surprise for most fans and analysts alike has been the lack of consistency or flow on offense by the star studded roster. Many expected Kitchens and Baker to just pick up were they left off in 2018 but so far that has not been the case. They have implemented a new offense scheme and there have been a multitude of small problems that have made the offense a complete roller coaster ride. They have shown what they can do when they are all on the same page both in the Ravens game and early against Seattle but inconsistent execution has kept them from showcasing it on a regular basis. Now it falls directly on Kitchens shoulders to prove that Dorsey was right for believing he was the man to steer the team as they try to transition from a collection of promising young talent into a real team and contender. The easiest way to do that and what Kitchens must do to give them the best chance at a playoff push is to simplify the offense. The talent is there but the execution hasn't matched it yet. It's time to take a long look at his offense and widdle it down to a sharp point by relying on what they are most comfortable and effective running and tossing aside what they aren't. He can always add new wrinkles each week as the season goes on for specific game plans but first he needs to establish an identity they can lean on all seaon. Nick Chubb seems to be the engine of the offense when it's at it's best, they need to truly embrace that and allow him to make it easier on everyone else. If Chubb is the focus of that identity it will only open up the field and create room to take advantage of their pass catchers. They have the speed to go over the top but they also have multiple targets who excel after the catch, it would be wise to help both Baker and the offensive line by getting the ball in their hands as quickly as possible and allow them to make the plays. If they do that, they can build on it and choose when to take their shots in a much more efficient manner. The biggest test of Kitchens' ability as a play caller will come in the red zone moving forward, they have to become efficient when it matters and start scoring touchdowns when they get there or no other adjustment will mean much. Even though its the hardest place to call plays with such limited space, they were one of the best redzone offenses last year and with better weapons at their disposal they should be able to be again.
Defensively there is a lot less to adjust but they must decide who gives them the best overall unit now that they have their full defensive backfield to deploy. In theory having their main cover corners back should eliminate a lot of the big plays and give the defensive line more time to effect the quarterback leading to more turnovers. Making sure the young corners understand their assignments in zone is crucial while at the same time Steve Wilks as the new Defensive Coordinator needs to play to their strengths and allow them to press and play man when necessary. Beyond that it all comes back to the basics again, the defense simply needs to focus on proper tackling and get the man to the ground by whatever means necessary. If they do that the defense should start really effecting games and giving the offense more opportunities.
Kitchens is taking a lot of heat in the media and from fans at the moment, this is his chance to silence them all. A more focused and fundamentally sound team must be visible after the bye week, its the only way this gets turned around in time. Kitchens was handed a very talented roster and that is why he takes so much heat despite being a first time head coach, but it is also why he can still lead this team to the playoffs in a weakened AFC North and ensure that he's the long-term leader of young team that that has all the makings of a perennial playoff team and a contender to win the AFC in the near future. The opportunity is still there, Kitchens just needs to simplify the process and put his players in the best possession to take advantage of that opportunity. How they look after the bye will decide the results on the season and likely define Freddie's career as a head coach. If he can adapt to fit his roster Freddie could have a bright future as a head coach, he just has to show he knows how to tailor his plan to his talent.
Ross The Rugger, Cleveland Browns Analyst