Boy Wonder Returns to Gotham…Err Twin Cities

David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday, the Vikings will welcome the Cleveland Browns and head coach Kevin Stefanski. Stefanski coached on the Vikings staff for 14 years in varying roles before accepting the big job from the Browns – a well-deserved offer, indeed. Stefanski and the Browns have experienced some early-season success and enter the contest on Sunday with a 2-1 record. With a narrow season-opening loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, they followed it up with wins against the Texans and Bears. Those teams are not good right now, but Cleveland took care of business.

What is missing in the season for Cleveland is a signature win against a team with playoff potential or a comeback victory. Toppling the Vikings would be feat debatable on its merits. Would a win against Minnesota on Sunday check those boxes for Cleveland? Possibly, but this isn’t the same Vikings team Stefanski left a little over a year ago.

Stefanski, an offensive-minded coach, held nearly all offensive coaching roles during his tenure. In 2017, he took over for departed quarterbacks coach Scott Turner and helped transform the offense into a top-10 scoring offense. In 2018, after taking over the offensive reins in week 15 from ousted John DeFilippo, the unit finished 19th overall. When he left after the 2019 season, Minnesota ranked 8th on offense. He did so with an offensive line ranking 19th overall according to Pro Football Focus

But as Rick says below, it’s time to get to business.

 

An Uppercut and Jab Offense

Since landing in Cleveland, Stefanski took an offense that ranked 22nd in 2019 to 14th last season. Much like he learned in Minnesota, the offensive engine is predicated on the run game. Both Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt offer unique skill sets, making opposing strategy against them difficult. Jarvis Landry (on IR and out this game with a knee injury) and Odell Beckham Jr. help to spread out defenses and allow for the run game to do its damage. 

Like most NFL teams, the long-term success of the offense and the team rests on the shoulders of fourth-year quarterback Baker Mayfield. Under Stefanski’s tutelage, Mayfield saw a significant jump in quarterback rating from 78.8 in 2019 to 95.9 in 2020. So far this year, Mayfield has accumulated a rating of 102.1. The Stefanski-Mayfield combo is working. Period.

Mike Zimmer needs his A-game, showing this combo new looks if they plan on staying undefeated at home.

A Defensive Dawg

Things don’t get any easier when looking at the defensive side of the ball. The centerpiece of the defense is defensive end Myles Garrett. As he goes, often does the defense. On the year, he’s already accumulated 5.5 sacks and nine quarterback hits. Jadeveon Clowney bookends the other side and can wreak havoc when he gets humming. This is the sorcery Brian O’Neill and Co. will encounter.

 

Clevelands’ defensive tackles and linebacker corps are serviceable but don’t induce much fear from a scheming standpoint. Cleveland’s secondary, on the other hand, is a phenomenal group, ranking as PFF’s 3rd best secondary group through three weeks. Featuring safety John Johnson III and cornerback Denzel Ward, the secondary is young, fast, and deep. Cousins and the receivers cannot afford errant throws or tipped passes around this group — the Browns will take full advantage.

(Another) One That Got Away

Stefanski will probably go down as yet another Vikings assistant coach to “get away” from the franchise and experience success. Whether it’s Tony Dungy, Brian Billick, or Mike Tomlin — serving as a Vikings assistant coach benefits men when taking over as head coach. The one thing that would quash this type of chatter would be for Zimmer to bring home the championship, something Denny Green and Brad Childress could not accomplish. 

In any event, make sure Stefanski and his Browns offense hear your admiration routinely throughout the game Sunday. Especially when they have the ball.