The Pittsburgh Steelers are preparing to face a Cleveland Browns team that is more efficient than any they have seen in some time. The offense in particular has at times been running—with a strong emphasis on running—like a well-oiled machine, and are averaging more than 30 points per game.
And they’re fitting the mold of some of the more successful offenses of the day, according to defensive coordinator Keith Butler, based on the trends that we have seen emerging from the past several years. Teams with a strong running game who are able to use that to accentuate and elevate the passing game have med with a good deal of success. Even the Browns now are 4-1 to start the season.
“You think about the whole league, the guys who have been successful in the league are the guys who run the football and then run play-action off of it because play action is much more effective if you can run the ball”, Butler told reporters earlier in the week, via transcript.
“They’ve been doing a good job of that and then getting some play action to move the ball down the field a little bit, trying to keep them out of third and long situations where we have to keep him in the pocket and all that stuff. They haven’t done a lot of that, but I think they have done a good job of controlling the ball”.
The Browns’ average length to go on third down this season has been 6.7 yards, which ranks just outside the top 10. In comparison, the Steelers’ average length to go on third down has been 7.4 yards. The two teams have been converting at a nearly identical rate.
But the Browns have been getting into fewer third-down situations altogether. The Steelers have already faced third down 60 times this season, or 15 times per game. The Browns, having played on more game, have faced 62 third-down situations, or 12.4 times per game.
It helps that the Browns have been averaging nearly six yards per carry on first down, and over five yards per carry on second down. And they have been able to build a play-action passing attack off of the threat of that run game for Baker Mayfield.
Mayfield is throwing off play action more than 34 percent of the time, fifth-most in the league. He has completed 30 of 52 pass attempts from play action for 371 yards with four touchdowns and one interception.
The Steelers have to be prepared for this. They haven’t yet faced a team this season that makes heavy use of the play-action pass, but they will be doing so against three of the team who use it most over the next three games, including Ryan Tannehill and the Tennessee Titans next week, followed by Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens—all three strong running teams.