The Cleveland Browns established what was almost a “dream team”, a squad made up of top players on many different positions. Despite loading up with exceptional talent, the Browns never actually lived up to the expectations. They missed the postseason in both of the last two years, finishing near a .500 record. Until this year, that is.
Cleveland might be in for its best season in recent memory. Holding a 3-1 record after four weeks of football, they’re just three wins shy of tying the 6-10 record of 2019 and need a mere 7-5 for double-digit wins. This would be their first 10-win season since 2007 and would likely solidify a first playoff berth in 18 years.
The Browns have won three games in a row and seem like a huge threat, even in a stacked AFC North division, where the Ravens and the Steelers are top AFC contenders this year. Even though they made some solid signings this offseason, the offensive core that now seems like an unstoppable force has been the same for almost three years. This poses a very important question – what has changed and will the success continue?
The right offensive game plan
The first notable difference is the work of new head coach Kevin Stefanski, whose play-calling has been perfect thus far. The Browns have made a living running the ball for a few years now, which is a no-brainer with one of the best backfield assets, Nick Chubb. However, Stefanski has further split the run/pass ratio and has put a more significant workload on the team’s running unit. Baker Mayfield has made 115 passing attempts, while Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt have combined for 107 carries. This is nearly a 50/50 split.
The game plan provided by Stefanski and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt has proved to be the most suitable for the team’s roster. Cleveland ranks 4th and 13th in points and yards offensively, respectively. The Browns’ running group has by far been the most efficient, gaining 5.9 yards per rushing attempts, with running the ball more than every team, except for the Patriots. Chubb and Hunt have been efficient with their workload being limited, reminding of the dominance displayed by San Francisco and Baltimore’s units last year. And yet, even a not-so-great passer like Baker Mayfield has made improvements after a slow start. The run-heavy offensive style clearly still has its place in the NFL, as displayed by many teams in recent memory.
The Browns’ running game seemingly hit its peak during its latest win, beating the Cowboys in Arlington. Hunt had a great day with 71 yards from 11 attempts, while Chubb was at a similar pace before exiting with an injury. However, neither was their leading rusher. D’Ernest Johnson, after recording just a single rushing attempt previously, posted a 95-yard performance on 13 carries. On Monday, Chubb was placed on the IR, preventing him from playing in at least three games.
It’s difficult to envision Johnson taking on a workload similar to Chubb’s. This would force Stefanski to give Hunt a bigger role in the running game and move to a pass-heavy offensive balance. Hunt’s numbers would experience a notable regression to the mean with 25-30 carries a game, meaning it’s Baker’s offense again. Mayfield had a great game against a sloppy Dallas defense with 19-30, 165 yards, and two touchdowns. That equals a passer rating of 100.0. It’s obvious just how more productive the Browns offense is when fuelled through the running game.
However, the Dallas game also put on notice that the offensive depth has made for an improvement in his performance. Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, and tight end Austin Hooper were all targeted more than five times. This versatility, after contributing to the consistent movement of the ball, will hopefully help the offense maintain its pre-Chubb injury numbers. On the other hand, removing a big component of their game might slow them down to a certain extent.
Still, the offense promises to be prolific rather than inconsistent. In addition to the aforementioned points, Jack Conklin‘s signing has also paid dividends. The Browns offensive line is now one of the best, allowing just six sacks over four games.
The defense has an area of need
In contrast with the level of the offensive unit, the defense could pose problems to the Chubb-less Cleveland Browns. Even while winning three straight, their defense has taken a hit statistically. Last season, the team allowed the 20th-fewest total points. Thus far, they’re down to 27th. The same trend applies to their figures for total yards surrendered.
Upon a deeper look, there are actually many dividends. In fact, there are more upsides than problems with the Browns defense. Instead, they have been ripped apart through the air, not by just good air raids. Even bad or unproven passing units, as is the case with the Bengals, have put up 300-plus. Against the Browns, a big chunk of Dak Prescott‘s 566 passing yards was with the Cowboys behind by multiple touchdowns. Yet, this should be viewed as a problem that could slow down the Browns defense. It did during their visit to the Dallas-Fort Worth area – these mistakes are unaffordable with the high-scoring offense potentially slowing down.
The group’s top corner – Terrance Mitchell – has enjoyed a fairly poor start to the campaign. He has conceded 25 of 40 passes with him in coverage. In addition, he has allowed a passer rating of 104.0. The same goes for safety Andrew Sendejo. Denzel Ward and Karl Joseph, in the meantime, have got off to a great start. There are no more than a few holes in the Browns secondary but their ceiling isn’t much higher than the bottom part of the top 16 in passing defense rankings.
The other two major categories – pass-rush and defense against the run – have enjoyed some major success. Cleveland’s 11 sacks rank them ninth league-wide, alongside Arizona. The front line’s 3.9 allowed yards per rush attempt establish them as the league’s eighth-best defense against the run.
Where are the Browns headed to?
The Browns, finally, look like they are ready to provide a result-wise turnout that matches the talent in the roster.
However, their recent offensive success might not be sustainable without the dominance of their running faction. Instead, Baker Mayfield has to prove himself with a deep core of pass-catchers.
The defense has also impressed in some areas, with the exception of a mildly disappointing secondary. This department is unlikely to make major improvements. Cleveland has one of the easiest schedules remaining so all eyes are on the team’s quarterback until Nick Chubb is healthy, and on the defense to at least maintain its mild success.