Win or go home.
That’s what’s at stake for the Kansas City Chiefs heading into a Divisional round playoff game against the Cleveland Browns. While the Browns may not match up particularly well on defense, they do have some key advantages on the offensive side of the ball. That will make this week’s task for the Chiefs defense an even bigger one, given the stakes.
With that in mind, let’s dig into the Browns’ personnel — and a concept we may see on Sunday. Then we’ll discuss how the Chiefs defense can try to slow them down — and advance to their third straight AFC championship Game.
The Browns are led at quarterback by Baker Mayfield in his third year with the club. Mayfield thrives in the play-action passing game and is comfortable with a heavy dose of bootleg action to help improve his field of vision. That means that Mayfield was second in the league in time to throw in the regular season, holding the ball on these longer drops. However, he did have the quickest time to throw of any quarterback in last weekend’s Wild Card games while missing a key offensive lineman.
Any major discussion of the Browns' offense revolves around their two terrific running backs. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are both top-shelf runners with good explosion, vision, and contact balance to extend plays on the ground. Both are excellent at catching the ball as well, leading Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to state that neither guy “tips off what the offense wants to do.” These two players are the lifeblood that sustains the Browns offense and are the major keys for any team trying to slow down Cleveland.
The Browns wide receiver group took a massive hit with the loss of Odell Beckham Jr. earlier this year. That’s left Jarvis Landry to shoulder the load in the passing game. Landry is mostly an underneath, possession-type receiver with good run-after-the-catch ability. Opposite Landry will be Rashard Higgins, a big-bodied receiver that is capable of winning at the catch point. Rookie Donovan Peoples-Jones is the Browns’ best active deep threat, and the Chiefs will have to make sure to keep tabs on him in the play-action passing game.
The Browns utilize heavy two and three-tight end sets often, and that means this group is very important to their success. Austin Hooper, Harrison Bryant, and David Njoku are the primary threats when they kick into these heavy personnel sets. All three are good in-line blockers, and all three are capable route runners to get free against linebackers in the middle of the field. Njoku may miss this week’s contest with a hamstring injury, and backup Stephen Carlson also popped up on the injury report with a groin injury. If neither player can play this weekend, that may limit some of the Browns’ preferred personnel against the Chiefs.
If the Browns running backs are the key to this offense, the offensive line is the engine. Cleveland has a terrific offensive line full of power, technique and movement ability. This is one of the best offensive lines in the league when healthy — which may be an issue on Sunday. Left guard Joel Bitonio has been activated from the Browns’ COVID/reserve list in time for the game, but right tackle Jack Conklin may not be able to play with a hamstring injury. If Conklin can’t go, Kendall Lamm will likely be his replacement. Center JC Tretter and right guard Wyatt Teller are both nursing injuries and have been limited in practice as well. Left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. is the only player not in some kind of flux right now, and he’s a first-year player. The offensive line will likely still come together on Sunday, but they may be a little more hampered than the Browns would prefer.
The offensive concept: Condensed formation Power
CLE runs a little bit of everything, but their trust in their OL on power runs gets these RB into the third level easily.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) January 15, 2021
Both DE's unblocked initially, pulling G takes frontside DE. Trust in OC to reach shade NT. Condensed WR and in-line TE fire up to LB's. LT into 3rd level. pic.twitter.com/bH6OzHokxf
The running backs get the accolades in Cleveland, but the trust put in their offensive line is impressive — especially when they get their tight ends and bigger receivers in the mix from condensed formations.
The Browns trust their offensive linemen to make some difficult reach blocks — like the one from the center shown above — which affords them the capability to pull their terrific linemen into space. Teams will typically get these players to the second level to bury linebackers and safeties, but the Browns will mess with those rules and use them to pull across the formation to kick out the defensive ends. This speaks to the trust that they have in their receivers to climb to the second level and block the linebackers like they’re asked to do on the above play.
Cleveland’s blocking scheme makes it difficult to quickly identify where the play is going, which makes it even more important to stay gap sound up front. The defense has the opportunity to shut Chubb’s front-side rushing lanes if the defensive tackle stays in his gap, instead of trying to loop underneath the right guard to make a play.
The bottom line
This is a Browns offense that is capable of pounding the rock and keeping the defense off-balance with play action. It’s been their identity all year long, and I don’t expect a major shift in philosophy against a Chiefs defense that can find itself susceptible to both.
With that said, this Chiefs defense prides itself on staying gap-sound and “building a wall” up front against the run. Spagnuolo and run-game coordinator Brendan Daly prioritize filling the gap first, then trying to make a play — the “do your job plus” mentality discussed during last year’s Super Bowl run. It is paramount that the defensive line and linebackers work in harmony to set the edge, squeeze cutback lanes and play with proper leverage in the gap to avoid some of the explosive runs the Browns had in the Wild cCrd round.
The return of Anthony Hitchens will surely help with the run fits and making sure everybody is on the same page. The Chiefs defense saw a bit of a resurgence in its base and nickel run defense to close out the year — despite playing some terrific rushing teams down the stretch — and a fair bit of credit goes to Hitchens for that turnaround. The Browns will likely force the Chiefs into heavier personnel early in the game with their tight end usage, and that could play into a surging strength for the Chiefs defense this week.
Spagnuolo referenced “eye-discipline” for the Chiefs linebackers and safeties this week when discussing the Browns’ play-action passing game. When teams have sold out to stop the run with safeties in the box and run blitzes, Kevin Stefanski and the Browns offense have racked up yards and points through the air through play action. Mayfield, in particular, likes to target the middle of the field off of play-action to take advantage of the linebacker’s over-committal to the run game. If Hitchens, Damien Wilson and Ben Niemann — all high IQ football players — can diagnose some of the misdirection and fakes early, the Browns’ bread-and-butter in the passing game may fall apart.
This game is similar to the New Orleans Saints matchup earlier in the season. A terrific offensive line, an elite running back and a passing game that relies on play-action to get its offensive weapons in space. The Chiefs defense needed to stop the run in that affair to stay ahead of the Saints and force Drew Brees to throw. The Chiefs defense proceeded to do that for most of the first half and didn’t allow a first down until the second quarter.
If the Chiefs defense can start similarly to that Saints matchup — building the wall and staying ahead of the sticks — the Browns could find themselves behind early in this game. Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs offense have a terrific matchup on that side of the ball that should put up points if they are executing. If the Browns can’t hang with the Chiefs early scoring, their two best offensive attributes — the run game and play-action passing — become significantly lessened in their effectiveness. Stefanski might try to throw the ball to get into a shootout, and that’s where the Chiefs' strengths will shine.
It’s about a fast start on both sides of the ball this week, but the defensive side could help this game snowball quickly in the Chiefs' favor.