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, our second look at the Cleveland Browns’ offense for this game.
ALEX’S SCHEME REPORT
BROWNS’ RUN GAME
Just as it was in Week 8, the run game is vital to the health of the Browns’ offense. They could be healthier this time around too with Kareem Hunt, who missed the first meeting, potentially returning this weekend. He missed the last two weeks with an ankle injury.
Nick Chubb is still the #1 back, one of the best and most explosive runners in the game. He’s Derrick Henry-light and enjoying a strong season. Despite playing in just 12 games today, he’s up over 1100 yards and a whopping 5.5 yards per carry. The latter is tied for second in the league only behind Dallas’ Tony Pollard at 5.6. The Browns boast three talented backs in Chubb, Hunt, and D’Ernest Johnson, all of which are averaging at or above 4.9 yards per carry. Overall, they are averaging 144.9 yards per game, third in the league, while their combined 5.1 YPC is first and their 19 rushing scores sixth in the league (entering Week 17). They do have a FB in Andy Janovich who is averaging around ten snaps per game recently, though a lot of that is dependent on game flow.
They have 73 runs gaining 10+ yards, most in the league. Their 16 runs of 20+ yards are 2nd most in the NFL. The Steelers’ run defense ranks dead last in this category.
From a run game standpoint, it is a varied scheme. Cleveland is able to run pretty much everything. There’s plenty of gap runs with the backside guard pulling, which they false key and run playaction off quite a bit. In Week 16 against the Green Bay Packers, they ran a lot of pin and pull sweeps both to the field and boundary side, pulling two linemen out into space. Examples.
And check out this pull with the frontside tackle, a fold block between him and the tight end. It’s an athletic group and one that will be healthier too, as Josh will touch on before. They had kicked out LG Joel Bitonio to LT, a very Alan Faneca 2003 type of move, to replace Jedrick Wills. Wills should return for Sunday’s game.
Their receivers have gotten involved in the run game this year too. They will run jet sweeps and windback runs with those guys, the latter a popular concept teams like the Steelers have adopted since last season. It’s faking a counter run to one side while “winding back” a puller and running the opposite way. Here’s what I mean.
Some other offensive stats. They’re averaging just 20.9 points per game, 19th in football. Some of that can be blamed on injury, starting three different QBs this year in Baker Mayfield, Case Keenum, and Nick Mullens in a recent loss to the Las Vegas Raiders. They’ve been held at or under 24 points in six straight games, scoring 30+ just three times this season. Of course, the Steelers are in a similar boat without the QB issues. Cleveland is a slightly below average third down offense, converting 39.3% of the time. That’s 18th in the league. Their red zone offense is much better, ninth at 61.4%. They’ve turned the ball over eighteen times this year, tied eighth fewest in the league, with ten in their last six games.
BROWNS’ PASS GAME
Baker Mayfield has battled through injury all year long but he’ll start this one. His numbers still look relatively similar to last season with two key metrics rising from last year. His INT rate has gone from 1.6% in 2020 to 2.9% this year, throwing 15 TDs with 11 INTs this year. His sack rate has also shot up, 8.2%, nearly three points higher than a year ago. That’s despite his snap to throw times dropping considerably from 3.05 in 2020 to 2.83 this year. Some of that blame, perhaps, should fall on an injured offensive line with multiple tackles seeing action this year.
Jarvis Landry is this team’s top receiver, especially now that Odell Beckham Jr. has been shipped out of town. But he has just 42 receptions this season, speaking to again, injuries and inconsistent lineups. Landry has played just ten games this season. Still, he’s a trusted option on third down and in gotta-have-it type of situations.
The Browns are a tight end heavy team with three guys involved in their passing game this season: Austin Hooper, David Njoku, and Harrison Bryant. Combined, they have caught 85 passes for 976 yards, a strong 11.5 yard average (Njoku is over 14 yards per catch) with eight touchdowns.
While the receivers and passing game overall has underwhelmed, Donovan Peoples-Jones included, he is a big-play threat. DPJ is averaging 17.3 yards per catch on 28 receptions. The only player with 25+ receptions who boasts a higher average is the 49ers’ Deebo Samuel. He is their vertical shot guy off playaction.
As I mentioned in the run game section, the Browns are a heavy playaction team and more importantly, they sell it well. A lot of window dressing to make runs and play-pass look the same with things like false keys, like pulling a guard to sell run but max protecting and throwing deep. Examples. In the third example, we see Mayfield boot off their pin/pull run and hit TE Austin Hooper in the flat.
Cleveland has always been good about coming out heavy and then going empty in 12/21/22 personnel, forcing Pittsburgh to play in base, use zone coverage, or lose man-to-man. I won’t spend much more time on the topic because I have written plenty of words on it before but it’s always something to keep in mind. The Browns, however, went heavy/empty just twice in the first meeting, completing one pass for twelve yards.
One other third and long note. They ran a good Dagger concept against the Packers last week. Seam + deep dig on 3rd and 15 to convert to Rashard Higgins. Would love to see more of this from the Steelers.
JOSH’S INDIVIDUAL REPORT
It’s Browns week, Steelers fans!
A Happy New Year to all. I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season.
Ahead of the Monday Night Football matchup between the Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers, it may be a new year, but it’s the same old Browns’ offense under head coach and play caller Kevin Stefanski.
While Baker Mayfield has regressed heavily in his third season at the helm, the Browns remain a terrific rushing offense with star running back Nick Chubb and talented backups in Kareem Hunt and D’Earnest Johnson, not to mention an elite-level offensive line.
Chubb is the straw that stirs the drink for the Browns. He’s somehow gotten better in his third season, becoming one of the top 3-5 running backs in football. Not only does he have elite vision, his speed and ability to run through tackles is something to behold.
He is so good at the outside zone stretch run, staying patient to let his blockers get onto their defenders, and then has the vision to pick his way through the defensive front, plant his foot into the turf and explode forward for big gains.
In back-to-back weeks Chubb ripped off 20+ yard runs on outside zones — one from single back, and one from shotgun.
Against a weakened front in Pittsburgh on Monday night, Chubb could have an absolute field day, especially if linebackers Joe Schobert and Devin Bush can’t go.
It’s not just Chubb either, Johnson had some success against the Packers on Christmas Day as well, running well on a power out of shotgun. Just like Chubb, Johnson is adept at breaking tackles and staying on his feet, making it a long day for defenders.
When the Browns aren’t running the football, they don’t ask Mayfield to do much through the air. Cleveland is a great screen team to tight ends and running backs, and they sell it well in the backfield, setting up defenses very well.
The screen to Chubb on the second play from scrimmage against the Packers on Christmas Day was a thing of beauty and showed just how good Chubb is in space with the football.
It helps to have a trio of athletic linemen out in front to clear a lane for Chubb.
After releasing Odell Beckham Jr. in the middle of the season, the Browns’ passing attack has regressed heavily at the wide receiver position as Jarvis Landry has been in and out of the lineup and isn’t much of a difference maker anymore, while Rashard Higgins is a solid No. 3-4 option.
Donovan Peoples-Jones has really emerged though, even if he has struggled with consistency at times.
He’s a receiver that can thrive in a possession-style role, can get vertical and stack corners, can separate on crossing routes.
He doesn’t have a diverse route tree and is still very much in a developmental phase this early in his career, but it’s very clear the Browns hit on him with a sixth-round pick, which is massive for that franchise.
At tight end, the Browns easily have the best trio in the league, led by Pro Bowl caliber tight end Austin Hooper.
Hooper should be more dangerous in the passing game, but he’s held back by Mayfield’s struggles, as is Harrison Bryant and David Njoku. Their lack of overall production, in terms of raw numbers, has nothing to do with their talent level.
Earlier in the year Njoku and Hooper were thriving. Bryant has scored in back-to-back weeks and should be targeted heavily in the red zone on Monday night.
Make no mistake though: just like Chubb is the straw that stirs the drink, the Browns’ offensive line is a major key to success for Cleveland week to week.
When healthy, this is arguably the best unit in football. Unfortunately for Cleveland, they just aren’t healthy at the moment.
Here’s how I expect them to line up left to right on Monday night:
LT — Jedrick Wills
LG — Joel Bitonio
C – JC Tretter
RG — Wyatt Teller
RT — James Hudson III
Tretter makes his return after missing last week against the Packers while on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. Second-year pro Nick Harris started in place of him and held his own, giving the Browns a more athletic center, albiet and undersized one.
Harris could pair with Blake Hance to serve as an extra lineman this week, should Cleveland choose to do so. Hance has played both tackle and guard spots and has played well in limited action.
This starting five though, while missing right tackle Jack Conklin, is so darn good. Wills is quietly one of the best left tackles in football, while you’d be so hard pressed to find a better guard combination than Bitonio and Teller.
They are maulers in the run game and really thrive on the move, especially in Cleveland’s zone concept.
On special teams, the Browns have had some struggles overall.
Kicker Chase McLaughin has really struggled, hitting just 15-of-21 field goal attempts on the year, adding another miss on an extra point attempt. He does have a 57-yard made field goal to his credit, but he’s just so hit or miss that it’s cost the Browns in big spots.
At punter, the Browns turned to former Steeler and veteran punter Dustin Colquitt this season after waiving Jamie Gillan days before Christmas. Colquitt was punting for the Atlanta Falcons earlier in the year before being cut. In two games with the Browns, Colquitt has struggled, averaging just over 42 yards per punt.
Rookies Anthony Schwartz and Demetric Felton are expected to handle the kick return and punt return duties on Monday night. Schwartz has elite homerun speed, so the Steelers’ kick coverage unit will have to be on top of its game against the Browns.
Felton was a terrific returner in college at UCLA, but he has yet to truly find his footing in the NFL as a punt returner. He has struggled to field punts cleanly and could be pressured into a muffed punt, especially in cold conditions.