This is the first installment of my weekly opponent scout series, where I’ll break down the Kansas City Chiefs’ upcoming opponent by examining their strengths and weaknesses, their tendencies and how those things affect the matchup with the Chiefs.
To open the season, the Cleveland Browns are coming into Arrowhead Stadium. I have everything you need to know about one of the rising contenders in the AFC.
The Browns are entering the season as one of the top challengers to the Chiefs’ throne in the AFC. In 2020, the team finished the regular season 11-5 — earning a Wild Card playoff seed and a postseason victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Their season ended in the Divisional round, losing to the Chiefs by a score of 22-17.
Cleveland’s rushing attack drove its offensive success: the Browns finished fourth in the NFL in rushing attempts and fifth in yards per attempt. They had the seventh-highest rush DVOA in the NFL, per Football Outsiders. The passing offense became very efficient down the stretch: over the last eight weeks of the regular season, quarterback Baker Mayfield ranked eighth in yards per attempt, ninth in passer rating, and threw the fewest interceptions among starting quarterbacks: one.
On defense, the Browns were in the league's bottom half in points and total yards allowed. They were 23rd among teams in third-down conversion percentage allowed and ranked 25th in total defensive DVOA. Defensive end Myles Garrett’s 12-sack season was the highlight. The unit’s shortcomings prompted the team to rebuild most of the starting lineup with free-agent signings and draft picks.
The Browns have no problem running the ball in obvious rushing situations. On first downs in 2020, they ran the ball on 61% of plays — while the NFL average is 50%. They earned 5.4 yards per carry on first down, which is a full yard better than league average. This points to how much they trust their offensive line to create run lanes for running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, no matter how much the defense expects it.
Browns' run O was very efficient last year. Combo of dominant OL + really good RBs#Chiefs DL needs to hold their ground on Sunday to help a depleted LB group from getting exposed trying to tackle guys like Chubb and Hunt. They won't be easy to bring down pic.twitter.com/jGSgPcepKx— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 9, 2021
The passing offense really benefitted from the rushing attack’s success. In personnel packages that suggest a run play — sets with multiple tight ends or multiple running backs, the Browns’ passing offense was at its most efficient. Those formations force defenses into their heavier, base formations — but also, play-action passes also become even more effective at drawing linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage. This results in bigger passing windows for Mayfield to throw into.
Sunday will be a big test for #Chiefs LBs. Their reaction time will be tested by Browns play-action passing out of heavier sets that may suggest run— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 9, 2021
Being able to quickly recover from run-fakes and get back in their hook zones is likely where Willie Gay will be missed the most pic.twitter.com/C1TsbOBoCt
Mayfield’s passer rating of 121.9 on play-action passes was the fifth-best mark of full-time starting quarterbacks in 2020.
The Browns’ late-season passing success came in the absence of their number-one wide receiver: Odell Beckham Jr. Reports indicate that he has looked like his old self in training camp, and that could be trouble for the Chiefs’ outside cornerbacks.
Reports out of CLE are that OBJ looks like his old self.— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 9, 2021
With Sneed primarily covering Landry in the slot, Beckham should see Ward or Hughes plenty. If he really is as quick and explosive as ever, that's a game-changing mismatch on the outside #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/LKwJJYRn7J
The Browns’ primary slot receiver is Jarvis Landry. He’ll do battle with Chiefs’ slot cornerback L’Jarius Sneed for much of the game. That means cornerbacks Charvarius Ward and Mike Hughes will likely see Beckham the most, and neither are well-equipped to deal with the quick cuts and explosive route breaks that a fully-healthy Beckham excels at.
The Cleveland offense has ways to challenge every level of the Chiefs’ defense, especially with the unit missing linebacker Wille Gay Jr. and potentially having less-than-100% starters in defensive end Frank Clark, defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi and safety Tyrann Mathieu.
The defense that the Chiefs faced in last year’s Divisional round will not be the unit they see in Week 1. Six of the unit’s top seven players in terms of snap count from that game are no longer with the team.
Myles Garrett can rush from both sides, but CLE knows the #Chiefs right side of the line is two rookies— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 9, 2021
Niang's gonna get maybe his biggest test of the year in Week 1. Expect a lot of help for him in the form of TE's chipping and PA ran at him so RB can disrupt rush path pic.twitter.com/fwtTRjLPod
There are many new faces on the defensive line — such as veterans Jadeveon Clowney and Malik Jackson — but it’s the one incumbent that will give the Chiefs the most trouble: edge rusher Myles Garrett. He will primarily align on the offense’s right side, meaning he’ll be rookie right tackle Lucas Niang’s first NFL test. To help contain him on passing plays, you can expect to see tight ends chipping and disrupting Garrett’s pass-rush path. Another method is to run play-action towards him, setting up the running back to get in his way.
Cleveland trusts its front four to get pressure on passing downs; they had the fourth-highest percentage of snaps in the league, with only four players rushing in 2020. This allows all seven of their off-ball players to primarily focus on clogging passing lanes.
The biggest improvement the Browns D made this offszn was signing John Johnson III. Andrew Sendejo and Karl Joseph saw the most S snaps last yr for them— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 9, 2021
Johnson can play all over, but his ability to make plays against intermediate/deep passes will be most important vs Chiefs pic.twitter.com/Z9oyX9vMrE
The safety position felt like the biggest hole in Cleveland’s secondary last season. So they signed former Los Angeles Rams safety John Johnson III, who was a big reason why the Rams’ defense was considered the best in the league in 2020.
The simple fact that Johnson can play in more positions than Cleveland’s previous starting safeties can naturally improve the defense. He can be a deep safety, a box safety playing the robber role in coverage or a slot player that can disrupt quick-hitting screen passes or outside runs. That variance itself can give the defense an advantage over the offense by better disguising each defender’s responsibility on a given play.
Cleveland struggled to defend passes to running backs, mainly because of lackluster linebacker play in 2020. While a few key players from that position group are still starting, they took Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in the second round of this year’s draft. He wasn’t listed as a starter on the team’s unofficial depth chart, but his incredible athletic profile should be utilized to improve the coverage of tight ends and running backs.
The bottom line
The Browns are one of the most talented and well-coached teams in the NFL right now. I believe they will be the second-best team in the AFC behind the Chiefs in 2021.
They have many ingredients to pull off an upset in Kansas City, but some of the most important parts are either new to the team or returning from an injury or COVID opt-out.
A matchup later in the season would have given Cleveland a much better chance to win.