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NFL Draft

Stefanski Has Browns’ Run Game Humming, Will Pass Game Follow?

  • The Draft Network
  • October 6, 2020
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Last year, the Cleveland Browns were supposed to be good. A season-opening blowout loss to the Tennessee Titans quickly foretold the disappointing season that was to come, and the subsequent implosion of the Browns’ offense led to the firing of head coach Freddie Kitchens and general manager John Dorsey as Cleveland once again went hunting for the right combination to return to NFL relevance. The pairing they landed on was homegrown talent Andrew Berry at general manager and Minnesota-bred offensive designer Kevin Stefanski at head coach.

This year, the Browns still had an outside shot to be good—we had learned our lesson of overzealous expectations from last year. A season-opening blowout loss to the Baltimore Ravens immediately had skeptics champing at the bit to bury the Browns once again.

But these Browns didn’t fold as quickly as those did. Following their embarrassment at the hands of their divisional rivals, the Browns faced a get-right slate of soft defenses: Cincinnati, Washington, and Dallas. In each of those three games, the Stefanski offense has scored at least 34 points, coming in third in the league in EPA/play behind only the Green Bay Packers and Buffalo Bills. 

The genesis of the Browns’ offensive explosion is not a clear MVP candidate (Aaron Rodgers) or a dark horse MVP riser (Josh Allen)—in fact, even as the offense improves, third-year quarterback Baker Mayfield is still struggling to find a snug fit in Stefanski’s system. Mayfield’s performance in the play-action heavy approach has delivered uncomfortable and panicky progressions, early throwaways, and frozen feet on first reads with only modest accuracy in return.

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But that’s okay: Mayfield isn’t being asked to power the ship. Much like the successful Sean McVay offense of 2017 and Kyle Shanahan offense of 2019, Stefanski’s 2020 approach is predicated on dominating in the running game—and the Browns are doing just that.

No team has been more run-heavy than the Browns this year, delivering both the heaviest run:pass ratio at 59% run, as well as the second-most running play calls over expectation when adjusting for game script and down and distance. To that end, no team has been in 11 personnel less frequently than the Browns, as Stefanski is regularly bringing on a second blocker in the form of a tight end (rookie Harrison Bryant) or fullback (free agent acquisition Andy Janovich) to increase his blocking surfaces and add potential pullers to the defense’s checklist.

Stefanski’s 2019 Vikings offense doled out heavy doses of wide zone flow, with athleticism prioritized on the offensive line and a devastating multi-gear back in Dalvin Cook dominating the touches. On the 2020 Browns, which boasts a less mobile but more physical offensive line and a running back comfortable on downhill, power-blocking concepts like Nick Chubb, Stefanski has opened the Browns’ rushing game to any and all themes or philosophies. With a veteran and variegated offensive line coach in Bill Callahan masterfully turning a shaky unit into a consummate strength, the Browns are winning on zone flow, power and counter, iso leads, H-back inserts, and especially against the Cowboys last week, on reverses and counters to their base plays.

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The machinations of Stefanski and Callahan are all well and good on the chalkboard—it’s the execution that’s stunning. On one week, like against the Bengals in Week 2, the offensive line and tight end will pave highways for Chubb and running mate Kareem Hunt, physically dominating a smaller defensive line and linebacking corps. On the next week, the backs will deliver on their billing as a top duo in the league with tremendous vision, pacing, and tackle-breaking through the second level, as was the case against the Cowboys in Week 4. Even when Chubb went down with injury in Dallas, Hunt and the combined efforts of D’Ernest Johnson and Dontrell Hilliard worked seamlessly with the offensive line on Cleveland’s base zone concepts to set up blocks and angles. In a shortened offseason and with only one month of live play, this running game is suddenly as well-coached as any in the league.

The other shoe is coming, however, and its drop is made all the more thunderous by the expected six-week absence of Chubb, on IR for an MCL injury. The Browns are first in explosive running plays with 30 (10 more than the next closest team) but are 30th in explosive passing plays through four weeks of the season, ahead of only the New York Giants and the Bengals—two teams with a combined 1-7 record. The soft schedule of passing defenses has allowed the aerial attack in Cleveland to skate by on the running game’s coattails. That’s likely to stop when the Browns meet the Indianapolis Colts in Week 5: Indianapolis brings the league’s best DVOA on defense into the matchup. (It’s worth noting, of course, that the Colts have faced the Jaguars, Vikings, Jets, and Bears. The Browns will be the best offense they’ve faced.)

For now, the 3-1 Browns should take solace in getting that which they ordered when they hired Stefanski: a steady hand. There was no panic in Cleveland following the opening Baltimore embarrassment, as Stefanski and his baby, the running game, have taken leaps in the last few weeks. There is innovation, boldness, synergy, and a healthy dose of butt-whoopin’ built into the Cleveland rushing attack, and for all that Chubb brings as perhaps the most talented true “runner” in the league, that facet of the Browns passing game will continue to hum.

It is that Stefanskian calmness and steady improvement that Browns now must turn onto Mayfield, who is certainly better than he was in Week 1, but still not near his 2018 form. Without an explosive passing attack off of the running game, the Browns are a one-dimensional offense that can neither score points in a hurry, nor withstand a penalty or blown play putting them behind the sticks. The issue is not urgent—not if you’re okay with missing the playoffs this year—but the air is always ripe for frustration in Cleveland as the losing seasons pile up. It’s okay if it takes time, but the longer it takes, the harder it gets to justify. 

The Browns are better now that they have Stefanski and are buying into his process; keep this up, and we might have to get excited about the Browns again.

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