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Scouting Report: Browns’ Run Game Varied And Effective

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 defense. I will focus on scheme, Josh on the players.

Today, scouting the Cleveland Browns’ offense.

ALEX’S SCHEME REPORT

BROWNS’ RUN GAME

Potent, as it always is so long as they have Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, and a solid offensive line. Though the two-week sample size is small, they lead the NFL in rushing yards and are averaging just over 200 yards per game. They had 217 in the opener and 184 last week as one of the most run-minded teams in the league. They’re second in the league in rush attempts, only trailing the San Francisco 49ers, first in rush yards, second in touchdowns, and fourth in yards per carry. They lead the league with 15 runs of 10+ yards. Chubb is tied for the individual lead with seven of them.

Chubb is second in the league in rushing yards, only behind Saquon Barkley, with 228 and a very healthy 5.8 per carry. Kareem Hunt is also over the century mark with 104. Chubb has the advantage in carries 39 to 24 but the two are on the field quite a bit in Pony/2 RB sets. Speedy WR Anthony Schwartz has run the ball twice, both of them have come on 1st and 10 either at midfield or in the opponent’s territory.

It’s a strong and varied run game scheme. They have their tried and true inside zone that allows the back to pick the hole but they run a ton of gap schemes, too, lots of pins and pulls to use angles and leverage, get their talented guards moving, and get the backs out on the edge. Here’s a quick cut-up of the gap runs, the counters and pin/pulls, that gets lost in the conversation about their zone runs. They’re far from exclusive to one scheme.

They will go heavy with multiple tight ends on the field and also use a 6th offensive lineman in Michael Dunn, who has played exactly 11 offensive snaps in each of the first two weeks.

It’s worth noting RB/WR Demetric Felton has 23 offensive snaps this year. Just one offensive touch and he’s categorized more of a receiver than back but he was a runner at UCLA and has been playing a one-man game of tag this year, used on a ton of motion to make the defense move on the snap. He’s been used as a lead blocker or to pull defenders out of the box. His only touch came on a sort of tunnel screen last week against Carolina. Quick look at some of the motion he’s doing. Expect to see it tonight.

Through two weeks, they’re the 7th ranked offense putting up 26 and 30 points in their first two games. They’re 10th in turnover differential at +1 and have just one giveaway this season so they’re doing a nice job securing the football, important with a backup quarterback in. Their third down offense is among the best in football, #4 and 53.3% of the time, though they’ve struggled to finish off drives with the 18th-ranked red zone offense at just 55.6% of the time.

They do have a new and talented rookie kicker in Cade York, who is a perfect 5/5 on field goals this year, a stark contrast to their league-worst conversion rate in 2021. York hit a 58-yarder to beat the Panthers in Week One, though he missed an extra-point in a one-point loss to the Jets last week.

BROWNS PASS GAME

It’s the Jacoby Brissett show, replacing Deshaun Watson until late in the season. Watson will be available for the Steelers’ second meeting. So far, Brissett has held his own, completing 65.6% of his passes for two touchdowns and one interception. It was sort of a tale of two games, barely completing more than half his passes in Week One but going 22/27 last Sunday versus the Panthers, with a couple of those incompletions well-thrown passes, all while increasing his YPA. Schematically, the system is pretty similar to what the team did with Baker Mayfield last year.

There’s fewer boots but a lot of playaction shots here with their run game forcing teams to bite and come downhill. As Dave Bryan showed, linebackers tend to have a quick trigger when they think Chubb or Hunt are getting the football.

The concept showed there is known as their “sail” concept, a three-level route combination of a go route, a corner route, and a flat route. Tries to stress all three levels of the defense while the quarterback can read one side of the field. Here’s another look at it from Week One against Carolina.

While the offense can look to expand off playaction, they do run a lot of short concepts. Hank concepts (curl/flat + over the ball route) and slants, too, especially in third down and low red zone.

We don’t talk much about pass sets and offensive line technique in these reports, at least, not on my end, but I do want to note how they play wider alignments. Like Pat Meyer teaches his guys to have the option to do (depending on circumstances), the tackles will execute “chasedown” blocks against wide techniques. Being ultra-aggressive and coming forward to turn that wide 9 into a tight five, meaning they’re going to be aggressive and reduce the space so the end doesn’t have a runway to build up speed and attack. Watch the LT and RT here.

I should note ROLB Alex Highsmith has had a lot of success against LT Jedrick Willis in the past, especially on inside spin counters. We’ll see if he can use it again tonight.

JOSH’S INDIVUDUAL REPORT

It’s Browns week, Steelers fans!

For the second time in 11 days, the Steelers find themselves set for a tough AFC North matchup on the road, this time in Cleveland against the Browns, who are coming off of a rather disastrous 31-30 loss to the New York Jets, in which the Browns blew a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter with under two minutes to go.

Now, they’ll host the Steelers on a short week in primetime on Amazon Prime.

While the Steelers have undergone significant changes offensively, it’s much of the same for the Cleveland Browns ahead of the Week 3 matchup, regardless of who is under center.

Granted, the Browns traded three first round picks and handed out $230 million in guaranteed money to Deshaun Watson in hopes he fixes the QB carousel in Cleveland. Of course, he was suspended for 11 games, turning the show over to Jacoby Brissett.

While Brissett is not Baker Mayfield or Case Keenum, it’s the same offense under head coach Kevin Stefanski that the Browns have deployed for the last few years and that the Steelers are used to.

With Brissett, he brings some mobility to the offense and isn’t going to turn the football over. He throws a good deep ball, processes quicky pre-snap and has solid accuracy, but he’s not a quarterback that is going to win many games on his own.

That’s not a knock on him, that’s just who he is. He’s had a long career to this point and will continue to have a long career moving forward.

Brissett is a good game manager and has played well under Stefanski to this point, but the Browns’ offense runs — literally — through Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.

I’ve said before and I still believe it to this day, that Chubb is the best pure running back in the NFL, bar none. He has terrific vision, is light on his feet and really runs well behind his pads. He’s at his best between the tackles working downhill against defenses, but the Browns have done a really good job of getting him on the move outside the tackles this season out of shotgun, allowing him to run behind blockers with a full head of steam on the perimeter.

It’s a massive challenge for defenses to try and stop.

 

The Browns do a phenomenal job blocking it up, whether it’s a power to the left or the right. With guards Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller, it’s going to be a win more often than not for the Browns on the play.

 

With Hunt, he brings another physical element to the Browns’ rushing attack, though he has home run speed as well. Having Chubb and Hunt in the backfield is an absolute cheat code for the Browns, which is why they’re so run-heavy under Stefanski.

They have the horses to do it, scheme it up well and execute at a high level.

 

It’s not just in the run game either. Stefanski does a fantastic job scheming up touches for the duo out of multiple formations, forcing defenses to spread themselves thin in an effort to deal with both running backs, especially when they’re on the field at the same time.

I loved this wrinkle in the goal line package against Carolina to open the season from Stefanski, resulting in an easy touchdown from Brissett to Hunt.

 

The passing game is lacking just a bit with Brissett. It’s still decent overall, but with the talent the Browns have in pass catchers it could be a bit better.

After acquiring Amari Cooper in an offseason trade with the Dallas Cowboys, the Browns quietly added a true No. 1 wide receiver to the offense, one that doesn’t say much, goes about his business and remains an elite-level route runner.

The guy that has really emerged in the last year or so though is Donovan Peoples-Jones, a guy I really like overall. He’s a big, fast receiver who excels in contested-catch situations. He has strong hands, is physical at the catch point and does a great job using his body and overall frame to shield defenders and make difficult catches through contact.

 

He didn’t get much work in Week 2 against the New York Jets, but he’s a dependable target for Brissett to lean on, especially on a short week.

The Browns are also able to deploy second-year speedster Anthony Schwartz, rookies David Bell and Michael Woods II and running back/wide receiver hybrid Demetric Felton Jr. in the mix. Schwartz hasn’t quite made the impact the Browns were hoping for when they drafted him out of Auburn, but Stefanski likes to get him the football on jet sweeps to utilize his speed.

Bell has just one catch on the year, but he’s very much like JuJu Smith-Schuster, a guy that doesn’t create a ton of separation, but is very tough with the football in his hands and moves the chains consistently.

At tight end, the Browns remain loaded with the duo of David Njoku and Harrison Bryant. Though neither would profile as a legitimate blocking tight end, they both hold their own in that regard and provide serious field-stretching abilities in the passing game.

Njoku hasn’t quite gotten on the same page with Brissett through the air just yet, but he remains an explosive weapon for Cleveland.

Much like the offense runs through the running backs in Cleveland, it also runs through a dominant offensive line. Here’s how I expect them to line up Thursday night, left to right:

LT — Jedrick Wills
LG — Wyatt Teller
C — Ethan Pocic
RG — Joel Bitonio
RT — Jack Conklin

Granted, both Bitonio and Conklin have been limited in practice this week with bicep and knee injuries hampering the two. That said, Bitonio returned to practice in a limited fashion Wednesday and is expected to play, while Conklin was limited all week and is also expected to play.

How impactful the two will be remains to be seen, but when healthy and on the field, the two are part of a dominant offensive line.

Wills is one of the best athletes in football at the left tackle position and is really coming into his own at the position after having played right tackle in college at Alabama. Teller remains a revelation for the Browns after they found him on the scrap heap in Buffalo.

Since he’s been in Cleveland he’s been an All-Pro caliber guard.

Pocic is the weak link for the Browns at the moment. He was the third option at center coming into the year before Nick Harris and Dawson Deaton went down with torn ACLs, forcing Cleveland to turn to the veteran Pocic.

Do not be surprised if the Browns roll out the likes of James Hudson III, Chris Hubbard or Joel Haeg in some capacity Thursday night as extra linemen to get after the Steelers in heavy personnel.

On special teams, the Browns appear to have finally fixed the kicker position with rookie Cade York, whom they selected in the fourth round of the 2022 NFL Draft. York already has a game-winner to his credit from 58 yards against the Panthers and has one of the biggest legs in the NFL.

He’s a real weapon.

Punter Corey Bojorquez has a massive leg, but he struggles with consistency and overall ball placement on punts. So far, he’s had a nice start to the season for Cleveland, but he tends to outkick his coverage far too often. We’ll see if he has some trouble Thursday night.

In the return game, Felton Jr. works as the punt returner. He was dynamic in college at UCLA in that role, but hasn’t quite made an impact just yet in the NFL. He’s slippery with the football though, the Steelers will have to be sound in coverage.

Rookie running back Jerome Ford is the kick returner for Cleveland. He’s a powerful player with legitimate home run speed. Kicking it out of the end zone is the safe move for the Steelers Thursday night.

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