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2020 Opponent Scouting Report: Browns Offense, if you like good play in the trenches this is your game

Cincinnati Bengals v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Overview

On October 11th, 2020 the Indianapolis Colts will travel east to take on the Cleveland Browns In this Week 5 match-up, I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our Colts.

Being a fan of the Browns is about the most difficult thing someone could willingly put themselves through. Their list of draft busts is prolific. Their list of fired coaches, amazing. Their list of starting quarterbacks, unparalleled. The only thing Browns fans really understand is a disappointment. They hope that they’re on the right track with yet another first year head coach at the helm. If a Browns fan “burns” the Colts with a Trent Richardson joke, let them. That trade was their Super Bowl.

Let’s see what we can expect in week five.


Offensive System:

It seems like just yesterday Freddie Kitchens was the toast of Cleveland but that was before his Browns went 6-10 and Freddie got fired. This season the Browns found their 8th coach in the last decade by bringing in Kevin Stefanski from the Minnesota Vikings.

If you remember my week two scouting report of the Vikings then you’ll have a pretty good idea of what this Cleveland Browns passing offense will look like. You might notice that in that article I incorrectly said that Gary Kubiak was entering his second season as offensive coordinator. I should have said it was his second season with the organization and first as OC as the position was held by Stefanski in 2019.

Stefanski likes to use a Shanahan-esque West Coast offense. The $0.10 explanation of the system is that it looks to use short quick throws in addition to a heavy dose of the quarterback lining up under center before giving a traditional, back-turned-to-the-line-of-scrimmage play action fake before often rolling outside of the pocket to find multiple receiving options with quick, easy reads.

Are we sure that’s what they’ll do?

Yes.

Well, at least in the passing game. The Shanahan system famously used zone running concepts, almost exclusively. These Browns don’t do that. They mix zone and gap schemes (good link if you want to learn more about the difference between the two) and they do it as well as anyone I’ve seen, but we’ll get into that a little later.

Outside of the running game one big thing these Browns have improved this season with Stefanski, is their ability to succeed on third down. In their three wins this season they’re converting 45% of their third down chances, which is firmly in the middle of the pack, but a season ago these Browns were converting just 36%. So how have they improved this year?

Play design

Here the Browns bring a tight end in motion, lining him up outside of the in-line tight end. At the snap, the in-line TE releases on a vertical route which creates a huge roadblock for the Bengals defenders. The TE who came in motion uses the legally set pick to run wide open underneath to the middle of the field that was completely vacant.

For good measure, the running back runs a vertical route directly at the mess of defenders to further confuse things, but the first down had already been decided.

This conversion was the perfect mix of good play design and calling it at the right time.

More quick passing

This is Peyton Manning’s favorite play, levels. The concept is simple. Two or three receivers on the same side of the field run the same route a different depths or levels. More often than not someone comes open regardless of the defense called. It gives the QB multiple reads in the same part of the field and like you see above, the ball should come out quickly.

I’m realizing now that I didn’t pull a clip of a Browns play action pass for this section of the scouting report. That’s on me. I’ll take a look at those plays when we look at Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, below.

I mentioned that the Browns run game differs from those classic Shanahan offenses that made the Broncos successful with countless running backs in the years that followed Terrell Davis’ reign of terror was over.

So what do the Browns do?

Whatever they want. They’re really good running the football, if you want to be surprised later just skip this next nugget of information; the Browns offensive line might be the best in the NFL this season and their running backs have been really, really good too. So while they do whatever they want they do have a favorite play.

It’s a good play

Hands down the Browns most effective, consistent play this year has been this counter run concept that pulls right guard Wyatt Teller and one other player, be it a tight end, a full back or another lineman, the Browns have been effective with this concept from multiple looks, with multiple backs, in multiple games.

Why not do it again?

This happened a little later in this game. The offensive line’s blocking angles are different, the running back is different but everything else is basically the same. It keeps working, maybe they’ll do it again?

The very next play:

It’s the same concept just the other direction and this time they’re using a fullback. The Browns run this play so well, there’s no reason not to run it multiple times a game.

A few hours after I pulled these clips of the Browns favorite run concept ESPN graciously tweeted out this video so I get to do less work this week:

In a turn of evens that’s surprising to no one, I don’t have access to all of the same footage and software that the folks at ESPN have so that video sure is neat. I also took out two or three additional clips of these counter runs, so depending on how you feel about that, that video caused it.

Stefanski gets creative

At times, Kevin Stefanski will show off some pretty entertaining passing concepts. Here they use the motion tight end to pull the Washington Football Team’s defenders deep to create space underneath for either the backside tight end or the fullback in the flat. Mayfield takes the easy throw to the open back who turns the ball upfield for a nice gain and a first down. It isn’t often in 2020 you see a coach scheme open a fullback, but Kevin Stefanski did it.

The most interesting part of the 2020 Browns:

Before week four, if you weren’t up on the Browns by more than two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, their run game was going to absolutely murder you.

Dwayne Haskins did gift the Browns two interceptions that resulted in a short field. Regardless, the talented Football Team front seven simply couldn’t hold up to the constant physical play from the Browns and their talented, rotating running backs.

Even with big names like Baker Mayfield, Odel Beckham Jr., and Jarvis Landry, the Browns offense is dependent upon their ability to run the ball. The Colts just so happen to have been pretty good at stopping the run. Unstoppable force... immovable object... we’ll see what happens.


Quarterback:

Baker Mayfield won a Heisman Trophy while at Oklahoma. He then parlayed that into becoming the number one overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft. In his first two seasons, he threw 49 touchdowns to 35 interceptions and seemed to regress, majorly from his first to second seasons.

Despite those struggles, this season Mayfield hasn’t had to do much to help the Browns get to 3-1 this season. Mayfield is averaging just 182.3 yards per game (for comparison Philip Rivers is averaging 249.0 yards per game), he’s thrown seven touchdowns (several near the goal line) but the most important stat of all for Mayfield and this offense are his two interceptions.

Mayfield has been little more than a game manager in 2020, that’s not to say he can’t be more than that, we’ll look at what he can do below, but he hasn’t had to do more than that and he isn’t hurting his team by forcing things that aren’t there. Mayfield is playing mundane but smart football. We’ll start by taking a look at what Baker hasn’t done well (if you’re a Browns fan, relax, I’ll get to the “good” stuff)

Pressure

Baker Mayfield has largely played good ball, unless he’s been under pressure. To be fair to Mayfield, no QB plays better with pressure in their face. That said, Baker tends to panic and throw up balls just like this one.

I’m not exaggerating

When Baker doesn’t have pressure in his face, he rarely does anything like this. Defensively, the Colts first priority in this game has to be stopping the run, their second priority is hitting Baker Mayfield.

Good Baker

Mayfield makes this read on 3rd and 12. He knows his receiver is going to sit down in the zone, Baker does a good job moving the linebacker with his eyes before looking back to his receiver and throwing a fastball to Odell Beckham Jr. for the first down grab.

Mayfield is only 6’1” at 215 pounds but he has a big arm.

Where Baker is dangerous

When Mayfield feels pressure and stays in the pocket, he does silly things. When he escapes the pocket, he does exciting (for the Browns) things. Here he rolls to his right and finds his tight end who has come open for the easy TD throw and catch.

Here’s the play action I promised

So this isn’t the only play action look the Browns will give. They aren’t just going to go max protect with two deep routes over and over again. They’ll work in these concepts but you’ll likely see some rollouts and some quicker hitting, short and intermediate routes off of play action too.

Once again Mayfield rolls to his right and trusts his very talented receiver to beat a linebacker to the ball, which pays dividends.

I haven’t said a ton of great things about Baker Mayfield here but make no mistake, I don’t think he’s a “bust”, or bad, or incapable of being a very good quarterback who can potentially carry his team. It’s just that his supporting cast has meant that he hasn’t had to with Stefanski calling the shots.


Running Back:

Remember that supporting cast I talked about? Here it was.

When I turned on the tape last week I really wasn’t sure what I would see from the Browns. They were blown out by the Ravens in week one and then they beat the Cincinnati Bengals and the Washington Football Team, even though they had no control over it, they really hadn’t beaten a quality opponent.

But then I watched the tape and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a backfield this talented in the NFL. In the first three weeks of the season, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt were the best running back duo in the NFL and it wasn’t close. Chubb excelled on north and south gap plays and Hunt seemed better suited to the various zone concepts the Browns would trot out during the course of the game. Even though they excelled in those different kinds of plays, Chubb had success in zone and Hunt on gap plays. Hunt is absolutely better on third down and was used most often in that role.

Through three weeks, the Browns legitimately had two borderline top 5 running backs.

Unfortunately, week four brought with it bad news for Nick Chubb’s injury status. Chubb suffered an injury to his MCL and it’s thought he will be out for more than a month.

You hate to see it

How did they do in his absence?

D’Ernest Johnson rushed 13 times for 95 times, Hunt carried 11 times for 71 yards and two touchdowns. As a team, the Browns ran for 307 yards and three touchdowns against a terrible Dallas Cowboys defense, though they are still a NFL defense for the most part.

I pulled most of these clips last week before guys like D’Ernest Johnson were relevant so as you’re watching clips of Nick Chubb pay attention to the offensive line. It would be beautiful if they weren’t playing the Colts this week.

Zone concept

The Browns call a zone run to the right. The offensive line all step in unison and Chubb sees an opportunity on the back side of the run, so he takes his shot, makes the first guy miss, and then he proved just how difficult he is to tackle. Between his power, agility and balance Nick Chubb is a tank.

I told you Hunt is good on 3rd down

Kareem Hunt has clearly been working with Beckham Jr. on his highlight catches because this one is just silly.

Another zone cutback

Here the Ravens did maintain the back side edge, they were just a couple steps too deep. Normally you see a major failure of the backside of the defense when a cutback run goes for a big gain, this was a letdown but most backs probably wouldn’t feel great cutting this one back. Instead Nick Chubb decided to cut it back believing he could beat the defender on the edge. He was right. Then Chubb went on to make the next two defenders miss before trotting out of bounds for another big gain.

Hunt can carry the load

Kareem Hunt is more than capable of carrying the load. Yes the line blocked this perfectly, but Hunt is a very talented back.

Proof

See? Told you.

I snagged a D’Ernest Johnson clip for you

If you listen to the announcers on that clip they mention that Johnson was working on a fishing boat before getting a call from the Browns. In the clip, I mention that the Browns line made a “random fisherman” look good, and to some extent that’s true. The offensive line is really good, but D’Ernest Johnson shouldn’t have ever not had a pro football contract, either.

There’s no way you can lose someone like Nick Chubb and just not miss his impact. Johnson had a nice week against the Cowboys but he’s not Chubb. The Browns were doing such a good job late in games grinding out long drives switching out Chubb and Hunt, keeping both talented men fresh and the defense desperately trying to catch their breath.

The Cowboys game is a poor example of what to expect against our Colts, the Cowboys might have the worst defense in the league. So it remains to be seen how much and in what ways Chubb’s absence will have.


Pass Catchers:

I’ve already mentioned Jarvis Landry and OBJ but the Browns have even more weapons for Baker Mayfield than just those two. In the offseason the Browns signed tight end Austin Hooper to add him to former first-round pick TE David Njoku and fourth-round rookie TE Harrison Bryant. Njoku is out with a sprained MCL but Bryant and Hooper will likely see targets this weekend.

Outside of those tight ends, the only players I’m absolutely confident will see targets are Landry and Beckham Jr., KhaDarel Hodge has the third-most targets with six and catches with three among wide receivers for the Browns this year.

They love this look

More than one Mayfield touchdown has come on a TE running an out route in the endzone. Here the offense sells the run and Njoku leaks out for the very easy TD play.

Landry

Jarvis Landry isn’t a deep threat. What he is, is good at getting open and making catches. For his career, he averages just 11 yards per reception to Beckham Jr’s 14 yards per.

Landry can throw too, apparently

First, this play is absolutely ridiculous. Second, it shouldn’t be surprising to see the Browns pull out all the stops and try to get something going against a number one ranked Colts defense, with multiple trick plays this Sunday.

He’s just been in Cleveland, he didn’t forget how to play

What a route from OBJ. Matt Bowen had some thoughts about how to prevent this play, Rock Ya-Sin should take notes:

Even more evidence of the effectiveness of the Browns play action.

The Browns really haven’t had to lean on their receivers and tight ends to make plays on offense. They are a talented group, the receivers may be a bit thin, but their tight end usage helps mitigate that limitation.

Now that we’ve covered all of the boring positions we get to the best unit of the Cleveland Browns.


Offensive Line:

From left to right:

Jedrick Wills Jr., Joel Bitonio, J.C. Tretter, Wyatt Teller, Jack Conklin

Wills Jr. is a rookie out of Alabama that the Browns took with the 10th overall pick. When I watched his college tape I saw a strong, athletic tackle who played with a mean streak and was never outmatched regardless of who lined up opposite of him. So far, four games into his rookie season, Wills hasn’t disappointed. That said he is still a rookie and he hasn’t reached his potential, Justin Houston could prove to be a difficult challenge for the young man.

Teller came over to the Browns via a trade from the Bills. Back in 2018 here’s what I had to say about Teller in the 2018 Stampede Blue Draft Guide:

Teller has all the physical tools to be a dominant player but has yet to put it all together. His technique is solid but his unique build is limiting. He is an excellent athlete and has great strength as shown by his 30 bench press reps at the combine, but his power isn’t often found on tape. His effort is inconsistent. If he can be motivated, Teller could end up being a late-round steal, if not he will struggle to keep a roster spot.

I remember watching Teller move in space and move people off the ball on one play and then do almost nothing for huge stretches of games. His tape didn’t make sense but I believed he was a very physically gifted player who, if things went well, could become a very good player.

As it turns out, things have gone well for Teller. The Browns have found ways to get Teller into space to demolish defensive ends, linebackers, and the occasional defensive back who accidentally gets in his way. Teller isn’t as gifted as someone like Quenton Nelson but he is the Browns version of “Q” and he has developed into an excellent run-blocking guard. If there is an area that Teller struggles in, it’s pass protection. There were times on tape he was beaten with a variety of rush moves, but on most downs, he was still solid protecting the quarterback. If the Colts want to get DeForrest Buckner one on one with any player along the Browns offensive line on a passing down, I do expect it to be against Teller, to see what the third-year man can do against an elite pass rushing defensive tackle.

The Browns also added Jack Conklin, signing him away from the Tennessee Titans in the offseason. Conklin has struggled with injury issues but is a very good right tackle when healthy. Conklin is currently healthy and he’s playing at a high level.

J.C. Tretter is in his fourth season with the Browns, having started every game for Cleveland since his arrival. Tretter is quietly playing like a top 2-3 center in the NFL. Though that’s probably easier to do with Teller on your right and Joel Bitonio on your left. Bitonio has played his entire seven-year career with the Browns starting every game he’s played in, 83 in total. He’s made the pro bowl in each of the last two seasons and while the pro bowl isn’t a great indicator of talent, Bitonio is a solid player who will give the Colts defensive front seven a battle on Sunday.

Together these five men have been playing some of the best football of anyone in the league. Mayfield hasn’t been pressured on very many plays when he gets the ball out in a reasonable time and there have been even fewer sacks that were the fault of this offensive line. As of right now most of us believe that the Indianapolis Colts have a very good defense, especially in the front seven. This game is either going to prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt or it will make us all question just how good they are.

Not their fault

There needs to be some other easy, widely accepted, way to denote plays like this instead of just scoring them as a sack. That needs to happen but it hasn’t happened yet so a sack is what we’re left with. Baker Mayfield is good at extending plays and escaping the pocket but at times he may do things like this that will skew the sack stats that many people use to judge offensive line play.

You know it’s coming

Even when Browns opponents have known the run was coming, they still haven’t been able to stop it. Once again you see Wyatt Teller pull around the left side where he blocks a defender which helps to open the crease that Kareem Hunt works through to get the touchdown.

“But Chris, they didn’t exactly blow them off the ball”

No, they didn’t blow them off the ball on that particular play but you don’t average 9.5 yards per carry for an entire half of NFL football if you aren’t blowing them off the ball most of the time, can you?


Final Thoughts:

The Cleveland Browns will be our biggest challenge of the 2020 season, so far. Looking at our schedule before the season there’s absolutely no chance I would have guessed that would be the case, but it is. These Browns have a legitimate NFL offense that is putting up points and yards like few other teams are.

The Colts defense is limiting points and yards like few other teams are. This game will be strength versus strength and the availability of players like Darius Leonard and Bobby Okereke could easily be what decides who leaves this game with a 4-1 record.