Last week’s defensive performance left a lot to be desired. While the defense turned the ball over and got some timely stops at the end of the game, execution errors and poor tackling reared their ugly heads again.
Meanwhile, the Browns are going through quite a bit of turmoil, having fired head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley this week. Former running backs coach Freddie Kitchens has been promoted to OC and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is now running the show. Quite simply, it’s hard to say what exactly the Chiefs are going to see this weekend.
Nevertheless, I’m here this week to take a look at some of the things we can probably expect to see out of the Cleveland offense, along with what the Chiefs defense can do to stop it.
The Browns offense
2018 first overall pick Baker Mayfield has the reins at quarterback for the Browns. He’s a dynamic athlete who is great at extending plays with his legs and throwing on the run. A bit of a gunslinger, Mayfield has averaged an interception per game in the six games he’s started. He’s one of the league’s up-and-coming exciting players.
The Cleveland running backs are led by rookie Nick Chubb, who is averaging 6.1 yards per carry. He’s not the fastest back, but he’s a strong runner between the tackles. Duke Johnson Jr. is Cleveland’s pass-catching back but has gotten a fair amount of run since they traded Carlos Hyde earlier this season.
At wide receiver, the Browns have target-monster Jarvis Landry leading the way. He’s been fantastic already this year with 528 yards on 49 targets. The Chiefs will have to watch out for him in the short passing game while keeping an eye on rookie burner Antonio Callaway, who can take the top off of a defense. Damion Ratley and Rashard Higgins round out the Cleveland receiving corps.
Second-year tight end David Njoku is the primary player to watch at this spot. He’s a big, quick player who is dangerous across the middle. He does have inconsistent hands and is just an okay blocker. The Browns utilize a significant amount of 11 personnel, so Seth Devalve doesn’t see the field very often.
The interior of the Browns offensive line is a real strength for this team. Joel Bitonio and Kevin Zeitler are stud guards against the run and the pass and center JC Tretter is an underrated blocker as well. Where the Browns struggle to protect is on the edges of the line, with right tackle Chris Hubbard allowing 8.5 sacks so far this season and left tackle Desmond Harrison...well, we’ll get to him in a bit.
How to defend
CLE has spent 85%+ recently in 11 personnel, most of it in the gun. This means that the browns run the ball a lot out of the spread, something that doesn't necessarily favor CLE. Without the requisite RB speed to attack edges, KC can defend the run this wk w/ good gap discipline. pic.twitter.com/PPybo0buzU— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) November 2, 2018
This year, the Browns have leaned heavily on their 11 personnel, especially in the last couple of weeks. With the Browns operating heavily in the shotgun, that means a fair bit of the Browns run game is out of the spread.
Typically, spread-run offenses attack defenses on the edges or interior gaps with speed/explosive running backs. Due to light boxes against 11 personnel, these slower developing runs are typically more successful with backs that can get up to speed quickly and into the second level of the defense before the linebackers have a chance to react. Cleveland doesn’t exactly have that kind of speed or explosion at the running back position.
Teams have success defending these spread runs simply by maintaining good gap discipline. Even though the Chiefs have been hesitant at the inside linebacker position this year, the slower developing runs play into their hands, allowing the linebackers to read and process their keys and then react slower than against some other teams.
The numbers align with this for the Chiefs defense this season. Against 11 personnel, the Chiefs are allowing 4.5 yards per carry — down from their league-worst season average of 5.4 yards per carry. The Browns are a volume rushing team, bearing the fourth-most rushing attempts in the league. If they plan to continue to implement their spread running game, that bodes better for the Chiefs than if they utilize 21 personnel — 5.625 yards per carry allowed by KC — or 12 personnel — a staggering 6.3 yards per carry.
Desmond Harrison and the bull rush
Desmond Harrison is a very light left tackle that does not handle strength well. Breeland Speaks may find more success with his bull rush this week than normal. pic.twitter.com/z4SJHHEJar— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) November 2, 2018
Browns left tackle Desmond Harrison is not the prototypical size for an NFL offensive tackle. Weighing in at 285-290, Harrison is more of an athletic player that blocks well in space. Where he struggles is against power.
Shown above, the Pittsburgh Steelers pit one of their interior defensive linemen against Harrison. He immediately lets the interior defensive lineman into his chest while bending at the hips, balance over his head. This allows the defender to bull rush Harrison directly back to Mayfield, as he’s not able to anchor and re-set against the rush.
Harrison shows poor strength often when in pass protection. Chiefs pass rusher Breeland Speaks may not have a great pass rush plan or a lot of moves in his arsenal, but he does lean heavily on the bull rush. With that being a weakness in Harrison’s game, Speaks — and Chris Jones lining up in a wide position — should have some success getting to the quarterback this week.
Which leads us to...
Seven-step drops and pocket awareness
Mayfield has been sacked a LOT this year. Some of that has been due to long, seven step drops and later-developing routes, but some of it has come from a propensity to climb into the pass rush when the first read is taken away, particularly to the right side. pic.twitter.com/CyIsd2MqrJ— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) November 2, 2018
Mayfield has been sacked 20 times in six games. That is a ridiculous rate, and unfortunately for Cleveland, it’s largely due to its own design.
The Browns implement lots of seven-step drops and longer developing route concepts in their passing game. With poor offensive tackles, there are lots of occasions where the opposition’s pass rushers are meeting Mayfield at the top of his drop. As this has occurred, we start seeing Mayfield revert to some pocket navigation tendencies that get him in trouble.
As shown above, Mayfield gets to the top of a seven-step drop and scans the field. When his first read is taken away, Mayfield tends to climb the pocket and move to his right. In both instances, he climbs directly into pressure and into a sack. These plays are in the same drive, with only one snap in between them, showing that the tendency occurs repeatedly.
If the Chiefs can get some early hits on Mayfield, look for Dee Ford to attack these tendencies with his excellent counter moves to catch the quarterback climbing the pocket.
The bottom line
With all the changes in the coaching staff for the Browns, it’s hard to say exactly what the Chiefs defense will see this week.
From a personnel standpoint, the Browns have good wide receivers, bigger running backs to go with their stout interior offensive line, and terrible offensive tackles. Schematics aside, this plays into the Chiefs strengths with their pass rush and better-than-average cornerback play this season.
If the Browns do stick with their spread running game, I think the Chiefs defense has the schematic advantage this week. The Cincinnati Bengals came into the Sunday Night Football matchup 11th in the league in yards per carry and ran 94 percent of their snaps out of 11 personnel. They rushed for 3.4 yards per carry. The Pittsburgh Steelers ran their spread offense 90 percent of the game and averaged 2.5 yards per carry. Quite simply, the Chiefs defense has been better stopping the spread run game.
If the Browns line up in heavier formations — something they could do with a new offensive coordinator — that’s where things get interesting. They can successfully take the air out of the ball and run the clock while moving the chains against the Chiefs poor base defense.
In the passing game, the Chiefs should be able to tee off on the edges against bad tackles. Believe it or not, I expect multiple sacks out of both Ford and Speaks this week in advantageous matchups. This is a great game for Sutton to press with his corners and mix in some match looks to try to confuse a rookie quarterback. Zone blitzes focused on the tackles having to make a read should find success, as well as showing A-gap pressure, then dropping eight to flood the secondary and force Mayfield to miss an underneath defender for an interception.
I expect this game to be closer to the Bengals matchup than last week’s Broncos matchup, with the Chiefs jumping out early by stopping the spread rushing attack, then pinning their ears back as the Browns have to throw to keep up.
The Chiefs defense could use another good performance this week to work out some of the kinks, and they’ve got the right opponent to do so.