As we’ve been doing for several years now, we’ll break down the Pittsburgh Steelers’ opponent each week, telling you what to expect from a scheme and individual standpoint. Like last year, Josh Carney and I will cover the opposing team’s offense. I will focus on scheme, Josh on the players.
Today, breaking down the Cleveland Browns’ offense.
ALEX’S SCHEME REPORT
Browns’ Run Game
The bread and butter of the team. Statistically, the best run game in football. First in rushing attempts (227), first in rushing yards per game (170.4), yards per carry (5.3), and tied first in rushing TDs (13). I don’t have success rate but I’m guessing they’re at or near the top too. Looking at rush attempts more specifically, they are also first in football regarding first half rushing attempts with 115 of them. So they’re as committed to the ground game as any team. And with good reason.
Nick Chubb missed the last two games with a calf injury but is expected to play against the Steelers. He’s averaging 5.8 yards per carry and breaking a tackle on 10% of his carries. Even if he’s limited, D’Ernest Johnson broke out in a big way in the team’s Week 7 win over the Denver Broncos, rushing for nearly 150 yards. He’s averaging over six yards per carry this year. Their top three backs, Chubb, Johnson, and the IR’d Kareem Hunt, are all over five yards a pop. Six different Browns have a rushing touchdown this season while their WRs – Anthony Schwartz, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry – have combined for seven rushing attempts so watch out for WRs, especially the speedy Schwartz, on the perimeter.
Some other numbers that probably won’t surprise you. They are first in runs of 10+ yards with 36 of them. The next closest team has 30. Their nine runs of 20+ yards is also first in football.
Under great o-line coach Bill Callahan, the Browns run a zone scheme. Like the Gibbs/Shanahan scheme, it allows its RB to find the hole as opposed to a designed one to hit pre-snap. Simply put, the RB cuts based on how the defense flows. Chubb and Johnson show great vision to find the hole. Some examples of that.
They are a tight end heavy offense with three of them playing 39% of the snaps: Austin Hooper (68.5%), David Njoku (59.8%), and Harrison Bryant (39%). They also sprinkle in a FB. Andy Janovich is on IR but #40 Johnny Stanton picked up 11 offensive snaps last week. He’s even carried the ball twice on 3rd and 1 on FB belly calls.
For Pittsburgh, being gap sound and being able to flow against zone schemes when gaps invariably change will be absolutely critical to win this weekend.
Some other offensive tidbits. They’re 12th in points per game at 24.7 PPG. Decent on third down (13h – 42%), though their red zone offense is poor (24th – 56%).
Browns’ Pass Game
Starting…we’re not sure at QB. Writing this on Thursday, it sounds like Baker Mayfield will start. If not, veteran Case Keenum will get the nod.
Mayfield has battled a shoulder injuries, including a torn labrum that will need surgery after the season. Though he hasn’t played well enough this year, but some of his baseline numbers don’t look poor. His completion percentage is up five points from a year ago, 62 to 67%, and his YPA has also risen to a career-high 8.5 YPA. That’s up from 7.3 last year. The big number that’s up that shouldn’t be is his sack rate. Sitting at 9.4% of his dropbacks this year. It was 5.1% a year ago. That’s not helping out his shoulder injury.
Interestingly, their leader in receptions is Kareem Hunt with 20 of them and he’s on IR right now. There’s been a lot of injuries with this unit. Jarvis Landry spent time on IR while Odell Beckham Jr. has played through injury. Njoku is second on the team with 17 grabs while Beckham Jr. is the leading wide receiver with 16 of them. Eight Browns have 10+ receptions this year so the ball is being spread around quite a bit.
Interestingly, while the pass game is tied for 22nd in receptions of 20+ yards, they are tied fourth in completions of 40+ yards. So when they hit the big play, it’s the big play. Rookie Anthony Schwartz has track speed and is someone to watch out for. He wears #10.
During his Tuesday press conference, Mike Tomlin said the Browns’ offense operated the same under Keenum as it did Mayfield. Broadly, I think that’s true, it’s an offense that’s built through the run-game, but I have seen differences.
To open up Week 6 against Arizona, the Browns came out heavy but in empty. Something they’ve done to the Steelers time and time again. 12 personnel but spreading the field horizontally with underneath spacing concepts for Mayfield to hit.
With Keenum, it was all playaction, screen game, and the run. Here was their opening script.
Cleveland has caught the wave of 4×0 formations usually with the RB orbiting around and releasing into the flat. Not much of an orbit in the below example but the back drives into the flat with Mayfield throwing the backside slant.
And watch out for their Dagger concept (seam + dig) in their own territory. Just ignore the bad throw and INT.
Josh’s Individual Report
Finally, after much anticipation…It’s Browns week, Steelers fans!
Yes, after many months of talk and consistently seeing the same video highlights from the last time these two teams met at Heinz Field in the AFC Wild Card matchup, the two AFC North foes meet for the first time in 2021, this time at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Unlike that last meeting, the Browns will be very banged up coming into the matchup with starting quarterback Baker Mayfield fighting through a shoulder fracture and a torn labrum, while running back Nick Chubb is battling back from injury and Kareem Hunt is on injured reserve.
While the Steelers are finally getting healthy at the right time, the Browns seem to be trending in the wrong direction. That said, these two teams find themselves in similar situations record-wise and standings-wise.
Good news is not much has changed for the Browns. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…or so the saying goes.
Under head coach and play caller Kevin Stefanski, this still remains a run-heavy offense that leans on Chubb, Hunt and third-string running back D’Ernest Johnson to get after the front seven of the opponents, allowing Cleveland to wear defenses town and hit them through the air off of play-action fakes.
I’ve called Chubb the best pure runner in football the last few years, and that remains true. He has excellent vision, tremendous power and has insane contact balance. He’s sneaky fast too and is the perfect back for Cleveland’s system.
Chubb can handle a heavy workload and can really change a game for the Browns with one run, but Stefanski does a nice job keeping him fresh throughout games, working in Hunt when healthy and Johnson.
Johnson had a phenomenal game in Week 7 against the Denver Broncos at home, rushing for a career-high 146 yards on simple zone runs, weaving his way throughout the Broncos’ front seven.
He’ll be a nice compliment to Chubb on Sunday.
The Browns are struggling at bit at receiver with Odell Beckham Jr. banged up, and Jarvis Landry just coming back from injury. However, Donovan Peoples-Jones has emerged as a true No. 2 wideout in Cleveland in recent weeks, developing a strong rapport with Mayfield.
He’s a big, physical receiver that wins contested catches and has some real power to his game after the catch. He’s one to look out for.
Rashad Higgins is also a receiver that has strong chemistry with Mayfield, though he’s a bit underutilized. He can win consistently on the outside and a good No. 3 or 4 option to have at the position.
Make no mistake though: the passing attack goes through the tight ends in Cleveland with Austin Hooper, David Njoku and Harrison Bryant.
Njoku, a former first-round draft pick, has really emerged this season, becoming the type of athletic specimen the Browns were looking for. His performance against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 5 was impressive, and showed that the Browns are insanely deep at tight end.
Hooper doesn’t have the numbers that a true No. 1 tight end should have, but he’s still a fantastic weapon to have. He’s a killer against linebackers and can really run after the catch, which is why the Browns love to call tight end screens for the veteran tight end.
Look out for that against the Steelers’ fearsome pass rush on Sunday.
Up front, the strength of the Browns’ offense continues to be the offensive line. Here’s how I expect them to line up left to right on Sunday:
LT — Jedrick Wills
LG — Joel Bitonio
C — JC Tretter
RG — Wyatt Teller
RT — Jack Conklin
That’s a formidable starting five on paper and on tape when fully healthy. These guys really get after it on the ground and have done a decent job protecting Mayfield and backup Case Keenum the last two years.
When these guys get rolling up front, look out.
On special teams, kicker Chase McLaughlin has been rather good this season, providing the Browns with some consistency at the position, while big-legged punter Jamie Gillan remains. Rookie jitterbug Demetric Felton handles the punts and kicks for the Browns. He hasn’t had much success this season, but he’s getting close to breaking one.