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 the scheme, Josh on the players.
Today, scouting the Cleveland Browns’ offense.
ALEX’S SCHEME REPORT
BROWNS RUN GAME
Even with Deshaun Watson under center, the Browns are still a run-first team. Since Watson was the starter in Week 13, the Browns are tied for the third-most rushing attempts in football with 160. For the record, the Steelers are first with 170. Nick Chubb remains the Browns’ lead back and if anything, his focus in this run game is larger than ever. Cleveland is still smart about his snaps and he’s been under 60% the last two games but he dominates the carries. On the year, he leads the team with 1,448 yards rushing and a healthy five yards per carry. Josh will talk more about individuals but for my money, Chubb remains the league’s most talented runner. Big, strong, explosive. He has it all.
Kareem Hunt, a free agent after the year, has had a down year. Averaging just 3.8 YPC, down from 4.9 in 2021. His role in the run game has shrunk. He’s been held under double-digit rushes in every game since Week 10. Compare that to the start of the year when he had five straight games of 10+ rushes.
QB Jacoby Brissett is an occasional sneak-specialist but only has two attempts since Watson started. So on 3rd/4th and 1, don’t be surprised if he’s in the game to sneak or playfake. Watson of course is mobile and can be used in the designed run game and scrambles.
As a team, the Browns have 72 runs of 10+ yards, third-most in the league. Chubb leads the league with 43 of them, the only player over 40. The Browns have 20 runs of 20+ yards, tied-most in football. Again, Chubb leads the NFL with 13 of them.
The run game is inside zone paired with their gap scheme. Gap mostly to the field, though they run both sides, and they’re leaning on that more than their zone scheme in past years. They will bring in big bodies with an extra offensive lineman in #74, ex-Steeler, Chris Hubbard, and #66 James Hudson, who will play FB.
With Watson in the fold, they’re getting the designed run game going. Similar to the Baltimore Ravens with Tyler Huntley, they don’t lean on it a lot but use it in critical situations. Watch Watson on this QB sweep on 3rd and 3 in the red zone for a touchdown here.
Being gap sound is key against zone and power runs. Against the latter, the backside defenders have to crash down and make plays like they did last week. Against zone, defenders can’t get reached and cutoff.
Some other offensive stats. On the year, they’re averaging 21.7 PPG, 16th in football. Interestingly, that number is lower under Watson at just 16.8 PPG but they did register 24 points last Sunday against the Commanders.
They’ve been poor situationally this year, 38% on third down (20th) and 51.9% in the red zone (23rd). Things haven’t been better with Watson either. Over their last three games, their third down rate is almost identical at 38.1% while their red zone offense has tanked to just 30%, far worse than the number pre-Watson. On the year they’ve turned the ball over 19 times but only four in the last five games so they’re a bit better there. They’re perfectly even in the turnover differential ratio.
Browns Pass Game
Watson back in the NFL. On the year, the numbers look poor with a 56.7% completion rate with five touchdowns to three interceptions. He did throw three touchdowns and no picks against the Commanders last weekend so he’s trying to fix his numbers. However, he’s already been sacked 13 times this season including five in Week 17.
On the receiving end, WR Amari Cooper has been a steal and the team’s top receiver who posted a 7/101/1 line against Pittsburgh back in Week 3. On the season, Cooper has 76 receptions for 1,109 yards and nine touchdowns. He’s their top target with 108 of them. He’s had seven games with 10+ targets, so he’s a consistent focal point of this offense. He’s also responsible for nine of the team’s 17 passing touchdowns and nine of the twelve by wide receivers.
Donovan Peoples-Jones is the #2 option in the receiver room, a pleasant surprise with a 59/797 line, averaging a healthy 13.5 yards per catch. TE David Njoku has 54 receptions for 586 yards and three scores and is a consistent player in this offense.
The TDs have been concentrated across just five players with Cooper dominating the numbers. As a team, they have 42 receptions of 20+ yards. That’s tied for only 21st in football but Cooper has 17 of them, tied for 10th-most by any player this year. He’s the #1 threat who must be minimized.
Conceptually, there’s still plenty of empty looks from this offense. Do it from heavy personnel, always effective against Pittsburgh, but they’ve expanded some of the looks, too. Create a lot of matchups and positive scheme with their looks. Things like 3×1 with Njoku as the “nub” backside. Here, you have Njoku backside with a stacked bunch to the field side with Cooper off-ball to create the free release and Peoples-Jones the “point man” to free up Cooper.
Another interesting red zone wrinkle has Cooper in the backfield. Out of a two-back look, he runs an angle route like a RB. Watson wanted to hit him here but was sacked before he could get rid of the ball.
They stretch the field vertically with seam routes. Two concepts. Dagger routes (dig + seam) and smash/seam concepts. Examples below. Looking to throw the ball down the seam and stress the safeties here.
Josh’s Individual Report
It’s Browns week, Steelers fans!
With it comes the end of the regular season for 2022. Hard to believe this is the final game on the schedule for the regular season. Feels like training camp just ended and the real games were upon us.
Time sure does fly.
While Sunday’s Week 18 matchup between the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers is the regular season finale and is meaningless for the Browns, it’s an important one for the Steelers, who are still alive in the AFC playoff picture and are looking to avoid the first losing season in head coach Mike Tomlin’s career.
They’ll get a look at the Browns’ new toy at quarterback for the first time, that being the much-maligned Deshaun Watson, whom the Browns traded three first-round picks for in the summer and gave a $230 million fully-guaranteed contract too before he even played a snap.
Watson was suspended the first 11 games of the season due to nearly 30 sexual assault allegations, most of which he has since settled financially. Back on the field in Week 12, Watson has struggled to get up to speed and reach the high level he once had while in Houston.
That high level of play showed flashes of returning in Week 17 on the road against the Washington Commanders. Last week, Watson threw three touchdown passes on the day and used his legs to his advantage, having great success against a tough Commanders defense.
When he’s targeting standout receiver Amari Cooper as of late, he’s had a bunch of success.
That’s the combination the Browns are hoping can become an elite one in 2023. They’ve closed out the season strong the last few weeks, especially against Washington last week.
The more and more comfortable Watson gets in head coach Kevin Stefanski’s scheme, the more and more his physical attributes shine. He’s very good in the pocket and is able to buy time and make plays out of structure, and when he’s on time and in rhythm in the pocket, he has great touch, anticipation and accuracy as a passer.
The Browns haven’t been afraid to use him in the run game the last few weeks, which has added a dynamic weapon to Cleveland’s multi-faceted rushing attack.
The read-option between Watson and star running back Nick Chubb can be a serious problem for defenses to deal with. Pittsburgh will have to be prepared to see it multiple times. Don’t be surprised if Pittsburgh deploys the mesh/charge tactic in this one on read-options.
While he’s turned some heads with his running ability in recent weeks, Watson really is starting to find a groove as a passer entering his sixth game back from a nearly two-year hiatus from the field.
This tight-window throw to Cooper against the Saints was really impressive, hitting Cooper in stride to maximize YAC.
With Watson starting to get going, it’s really balancing out the Browns’ offense again, back to the consistent level they were at early in the season with backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett.
Nothing has changed schematically with the Browns overall, but they have just a bit more of a dynamic element under center with Watson as a passer and runner.
Make no mistake though: this offense runs through (pun intended) the running game with Chubb.
He is the best pure runner in football, at least in this writer’s mind, and is just as consistent as they come at the position. He genuinely makes it look so easy.
Behind Chubb, the Browns have a great RB room in Kareem Hunt and rookie Jerome Ford, but Hunt appears to be the odd man out at this point with Ford having usurped him in recent weeks as Cleveland gears up for Ford to be the No. 2 behind Chubb moving forward as Hunt enters free agency.
In the passing game, Cooper is the focal point. He’s an elite-level route runner with great hands and consistently finds himself creating separation and getting open.
Donovan Peoples-Jones has emerged as a solid No. 2 option for Cleveland. He’s a big-play threat down the field and has really developed into a sound possession receiver over the middle as well.
Rookies David Bell and Michael Woods II have gotten increased usage in recent weeks and have shown sound rapport with Watson, which makes the Browns a bit deeper in the passing game.
At tight end, David Njoku remains one of the better tight ends in football. He can stretch the field and is a good contested-catch guy at the position. He killed the Steelers in Week 3, so extra attention will likely be paid to him.
No. 2 tight end Harrison Bryant is a durable, reliable option in the passing game. He’s not going to put up huge numbers, but he makes tough catches in traffic and consistently moves the chains.
Up front, the Browns remain really good in the trenches. Here’s how they’ll line up left to right on Sunday:
LT — Jedrick Wills
LG — Wyatt Teller
C — Ethan Pocic
RG — Joel Bitonio
RT — Jack Conklin
Same starting five as the Browns rolled out in Week 3. When healthy, this is arguably the best starting offensive line in football, especially in the run game.
Teller and Bitonio are maulers and two of the better players at left and right guard overall. While Wills has his struggles against the Steelers in his career, he remains a great athlete at the position that has shown flashes of being that linchpin up front for Cleveland.
Conklin just received a massive extension and is a foundational piece on the right side — when healthy. That said, Conklin hasn’t practiced the last two days, which could push James Hudson into the starting lineup.
Keep an eye on that.
On special teams, the Browns are rather solid, at least in the kicking game.
Rookie Cade York has a massive leg and is 24-for-32 on the season with a long of 58. He missed two kicks against Baltimore in Week 15, but he’s six for his last eight on the year.
Punter Corey Bojorquez has really surprised this season. After bouncing around in recent seasons with the Buffalo Bills and Green Bay Packers, Bojorquez seems to have found a home in Cleveland.
On the year, Bojorquez is averaging 48.51 yards per punt on 57 punts, downing 23 inside the 20-yard line with a long of 76 on the season. Against Washington last week, Bojorquez unleashed a 64-yard punt and has 10 punts of 60+ yards on the season.
In the return game, the Browns lean on Ford as the kick returner and have inserted new addition Jaelon Darden, a former Tampa Bay Buccaneer, as the punt returner. Ford is averaging 25.2 yards per kick return and has a long of 48 on the season.
Last week against Washington, Darden had one punt return for 10 yards.