So, as I’m sitting down to write this article, there’s 10:11 in the 2nd quarter, and the Browns are up 28-0. Big Ben just threw another interception, and the Browns are absolutely dominating. Of all the things I expected on Wild Card weekend, the one thing I was emphatic about was that the Browns weren’t going to win. I couldn’t see a scenario where they had a bunch of players on the Covid-19/Reserve List, and without their head coach, going into Pittsburgh and beating the Steelers. Yet, here we are. The Chiefs somehow are going to play the Browns, and honestly, if you made me pick a matchup for the Chiefs, this is the matchup. We’ll get a bigger preview out later this week, but for now, here’s some initial thoughts on the Browns.
The Browns Are Going to Run
The Browns are going to run the football. It’s their ethos. They’re 3rd in the NFL in 1st down run rate at 61% (behind Baltimore and Tennessee), and 14th in 2nd down run rate at 40%. The Browns run the highest 13 personnel rate in the league (1 RB, 3 TEs) at 13%, and run two RBs 9% of the time (T-3rd). The Browns operate out of 11 personnel (3 WRs) only 42% of the time, 3rd lowest in the league.
It makes sense as to why the Browns run the football primarily. The Browns have potentially two of the top 10 running backs in the league in Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb. Nick Chubb had nearly 11 yards in 11 games, and he averages 5.6 yards per carry. Kareem Hunt’s stats are slightly worse at 4.2 YPC, but he nearly had 850 yards of his own. The offensive line is led by Bill Callahan, super OL coach, and they have elite personnel. Jedrick Wills (LT) has penalty issues, but the interior is really good. Joel Bitonio (LG) will be back from COVID-19 presumable, and Wyatt Teller has been a top 5 guard this season (RG). J.C. Tretter is still very good as center, leading the front. Jack Conklin did get hurt in the Steelers game, but he’s generally the right tackle. Frank Clark had a ton of success against him last year. If he’s not good to go, Kendall Lamm will step in. Like all Callahan teams, they run a bevy of run concepts. Power, zone, everything is there. From my eyes, it’s a lot of outside zone, so the Chiefs are going to have to stretch the field a lot.
The Chiefs are likely to counter with a lot of Mike Pennel/Derrick Nnadi interiors, and a ton of base defense. If Willie Gay is good to go this week, he should receive a lot of snaps in neutral game situations. Maybe even some Chris Jones at defensive end this week. The Chiefs will have to prepared for a ton of different formations and run concepts this week. Luckily, the Chiefs run defense was exceptional the last 8 weeks of the season, so you should feel pretty confident.
Getting Pressure on Baker Mayfield
The key to beating Baker Mayfield is getting pressure. Unfortunately, that’s no easy task. The Browns are the 8th best team in the league in pass protection, giving up a 18% pressure rate (hurries/hits/sacks). Baker Mayfield has only been hit 24, tied for the 2nd least amount in the league. Mayfield has only been sacked 26 times this year. Only 49 hurries. This offensive line is very good in pass protection, but Mayfield’s issue in the NFL is dealing with pressure. Mayfield holds the ball at the 2nd highest rate in the league at 3.05 seconds, but he’s had issues throwing under pressure. He’s not a great scrambler, and his arm isn’t overly talented. He’s fixed some of the issues with Stefanski, but the key is still getting to Mayfield. He’s going to hold the ball, so Chris Jones and Frank Clark should have shots to get pressure.
Beating Cover 3
The Browns operate a lot out of Cover 3. I unfortunately couldn’t find stats to back this up, but Joe Woods comes from San Francisco, and the Pete Carroll tree. They play a lot of Cloud coverages out of Cover 3, and play deep zone concepts. The Browns reverted to a lot of Cover 2 in the Steelers game to operate underneath, but I expect the Browns to play a lot like the 49ers and the Chargers did against us. Luckily, the Browns don’t have the same horses on the backend. Their linebackers, namely Mack Wilson, Jacob Phillips, B.J. Goodson, and Sione Takitaki, aren’t good coverage linebackers. Andrew Sendejo, Karl Joseph, and Ronnie Harrison mainly operate the backend as safeties, but they’re not good deep. They’re solid in the box, but none have the flexibility or range to operate as the deep high safety. Denzel Ward, Pro Bowl CB, had COVID-19 and could potentially be back, but he was eligible this week and couldn’t return, so we don’t know his status. Terrence Mitchell, former Chief, runs the other side off of Ward, with Kevin Johnson in the slot.
The Browns operate a lot out of spot-drop coverages because they’re personnel isn’t super athletic. They rely a lot on teams holding the ball for their front 4 to win, but without Olivier Vernon, who was playing super well before an Achilles tear, their pass rush is just okay. Myles Garrett is superb, but besides that? Adrian Clayborn is meh, Larry Ogunjobi isn’t a pass rusher, and Sheldon Richardson is just fine. The Chiefs should be able to hold up in pass protection this week if they’re healthy, and give Mahomes enough time to kill this bad secondary. There’s familiarity on how to beat Cover 3 from the Chargers and Super Bowl, so with Andy Reid making the gameplan, we should fare well.
I’ll get into the film later this week. There’s a lot to breakdown with all the running concepts and play action, but here’s the basic way I’m thinking about this game currently.
The Chiefs are simply better than the Browns. I know fans are worried about the Chiefs run defense vs this exceptional rushing attack, but the Chiefs run defense has quietly been exceptional since week 7. The run defense has only allowed 4.03 yards per carry since week 7, which is tied for 7th in the league. They haven’t faced an offensive line or rushing attack then, with the Chiefs only facing one top 10 unit in that time (Saints). That being said, this isn’t your old Chiefs run defense. This run defense is actually good, and won’t get gashed all day.
Offensively, I can’t see the Browns possibly stopping a focused Chiefs. Emphasis on focused. If the Chiefs come out with an attacking mentality and take this game seriously, they should score over 40. The secondary isn’t good for Cleveland, the middle of the field should be open every play. Travis Kelce should have over 150 yards next week. This a bottom 10 passing defense, and I even think that doesn’t represent how creaky this secondary is.
If the Chiefs force Mayfield to hold the ball and pass, he’s not the same. This is similar to the AFC Championship last year, but I don’t think the Browns are anywhere as good on defense, or maybe even offense. This is a good team, a very quality playoff team, but they can’t beat the Chiefs, even if the Chiefs aren’t perfect. The tape could change my mind some, but watching this team for a while now, I just can’t see the Chiefs losing this game.