As we’ve been doing for several years now, we’ll break down the Pittsburgh Steelers’ opponent each week, telling you what to expect from a scheme and individual standpoint. Like last year, Josh Carney and I will cover the opposing team’s offense. I will focus on the scheme, Josh on the players.
Today, our scouting report on the Cleveland Browns’ offense.
ALEX’S SCHEME REPORT
Browns Run Game
No RB Nick Chubb in this one, injured in the teams’ Week Two meeting and out for the rest of the season. Instead, the backfield is made up of three men: Jerome Ford, Kareem Hunt, and Pierre Strong. On the season, Cleveland is averaging 4.2 yards per carry, tied for 12th in football. But since Week Three, post-Chubb, the Browns are averaging only 3.7 YPC, tied for a much worse 23rd.
Despite its reduced success, Cleveland still ranks second in the NFL with 314 rushing attempts. That’s only behind the Baltimore Ravens.
Ford is their lead runner with 124 attempts and a 4.3 average. But it’s still been a slog. He has just a 37.9 percent run-success rate. Of qualifiers, that’s 39th out of 40 players this season, only ahead of Tampa Bay’s Rachaad White. Hunt was re-signed after Chubb’s injury. While he’s only playing about one-third of the time, Hunt has double-digit carries in each of his last five games. If anything, he’s more of a runner than he used to be with just a couple receptions this season after working in a third-down role earlier in his Browns’ career. Strong has gotten a handful of carries but only played five offensive snaps the last two games, including a goose egg in the Browns’ Week Ten win over the Baltimore Ravens.
As a team, the Browns have 36 runs of 10-plus yards. That’s fifth-most in football. But again, adjust to look at things since Week Three and they have only 23, 13th overall.
In Week Two, we noted the risk of the team’s wide receivers getting involved in the running game. That’s less of a concern now. WR Elijah Moore has zero rushes since Week Six. If a receiver is going to run with the ball, it’s speedster Marquise Goodwin. He has a rush in two of the last four weeks, one going for 17 yards, the other for 20. Those two runs each came in the first quarter on second and medium (2nd and 5, 2nd and 6).
With Chubb, the Browns were a staple zone-running team. For my money, Chubb was the best zone runner in football. Without him, Cleveland still runs zone schemes, but I see more power/gap on tape. They did it before, too, but it feels further emphasized. They are getting creative with personnel. OT James Hudson, No. 66, has been used as a tackle-eligible/sixth offensive lineman, though with injuries to LT Jedrick Wills and RT Dawand Jones, that may not be an option. Still, we’ll see if someone else fills that role.
If you want a flashback to training camp, the Browns have a No. 53 who plays quasi-fullback like Kendrick Green. It’s center Nick Harris, who will align in split back looks, as Y-off, and a true fullback in short-yardage. Also, Wildcat with Ford and Hunt, which I think we’ll see some of in this game. Examples (I know I wrote above that Moore, No. 8, wasn’t involved in the running game – the clip is from Week Four and given the outcome, you can see why they’ve moved away from that idea).
If Strong, No. 20, does see the field, alert the toss game. He has speed and the Browns like to use it on the edge. Ford and Hunt are more interior/zone runners. Two of Strong’s three runs against Arizona in Week Nine came on tosses.
Some other offensive stats. Cleveland ranks 11th in points per game (23.8). They have 27 or more in three of their last four games and at least 20 in six of their nine games this year. Of course, Dorian Thompson-Robinson is now starting, and Cleveland scored just three points in his lone Week Four start.
Beyond that, the Browns are a poor 27th on third-down conversion rate at 33.8 percent. They have been an excellent red-zone team, eighth in the league at 59.3 percent. Turnovers are a big problem. Cleveland leads the NFL with 19 giveaways and are minus-four in turnover ratio, tied for 24th. In seven games this season, they’ve turned the ball over at least twice, including four times in their loss to the Steelers. Now, they turn to their rookie…
Browns Pass Game
Surprise! It’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson time. The team’s starter now that Deshaun Watson is done for the season, there’s obviously not a lot of film on DTR. He had a stellar training camp and preseason, leading the team to trade Josh Dobbs to Arizona, but has just one regular-season start. That came in emergency fashion in Week Four when Watson made a last-minute decision to sit out the Ravens game. Thompson-Robinson was pressed into action, threw three picks, and the Browns were blown out at home. He served as the third-stringer behind P.J. Walker until this week. At least he has a full week to prepare.
The Browns enter the week with the NFL’s worst completion rate at 56.5 percent. As a team, that would be the worst seasonal mark since the 2020 Philadelphia Eagles. Watson’s completion rate was improving, 68 percent over his last three full games, but it’s now a moot point. Thompson-Robinson went 19-for-36 in his lone start for 112 yards, no touchdowns, and three picks. He was also sacked four times.
As a team, the Browns have eight passing touchdowns and 12 interceptions, bottom-five numbers leaguewide. They also have just 22 completions of 20-plus yards, tied 24th in football, with WR Amari Cooper responsible for 13 of them.
There are some weapons for Thompson-Robinson to target. Cooper is a great route runner and still a very good receiver. He has 41 receptions on 72 targets for 715 yards and two scores. He also has gone for at least 89 yards in his last three games. But TE David Njoku might be DTR’s go-to player. He has at least six targets in each of the Browns’ last four games and caught a team-high six passes in Thompson-Robinson’s lone start. Cooper, by comparison, had just one. The passing game is concentrated to a handful of players with just four having at least 10 receptions (by comparison, Pittsburgh has seven). Even after trading WR Donovan Peoples-Jones to Detroit, rookie third-rounder Cedric Tillman has logged over 110 snaps the last two games but has just one catch on four targets.
Evaluating the Browns’ passing game is tricky without Watson. Will they keep the same playbook as they had been running? Will they lean on their Week Four game plan with DTR starting? Because he was a last-second sub, it’s not like the week’s game plan was built around him. So there is an element of unknown in evaluating him. It’s worth pointing out he’s a mobile quarterback who ran 4.56 at the Combine and young guys like him like to use their legs. Could see more zone, and rush lane integrity/contain will be important. DTR rushed four times for 24 yards in his lone start.
This was with Watson in the lineup but conceptually, I noticed a bunch of 3×1 reduced split sets with TE David Njoku the backside X player. Three receivers to one side, Njoku opposite. And they targeted him in these sets. How will Pittsburgh match up? A linebacker, a corner, or a safety? Njoku will stay in to block, too, which could help minimize T.J. Watt.
They’ll also hit Njoku on shallow screens on third and long like Pittsburgh used to do with Antonio Brown. Not a true screen with linemen working into space but Njoku runs underneath in 3×1 while the three receivers block downfield.
With DTR, I noticed that the Browns ran a couple of sail concepts, a three-man combination of a go/corner/flat route. Examples.
They’ll use play-action and get DTR on the move. They’ll almost use these “dash” concepts that might not be the true interpretation of the concept but drop backs/fakes with a delayed rollout.
And I would expect lots of empty in this game. Against the Ravens, the Browns used it frequently, especially past their opening script. Spread the field, run mirrored concepts to each side, and space out the defense to make for easier throws. Expect the ball to come out quick, at the top of the quarterbacks’ drop. Getting your hands up as a rusher may be the key to making an impact.
Josh’s Individual Report
It’s Browns week, Steelers fans!
What a week it is, too.
Just two days ago, news broke that Cleveland quarterback Deshaun Watson was lost for the year due to a shoulder injury suffered in the come-from-behind win over the Baltimore Ravens, deflating all of Cleveland after a monumental win.
To make matters worse, the Browns are now going to start fifth-round rookie QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson against a defense that is tied for the league lead in takeaways rather than veteran P.J. Walker.
It’s just another blow the Browns have had to deal with offensively this season, including losing Nick Chubb in Week Two against the Steelers, and now missing both offensive tackles in Jedrick Wills and Jack Conklin.
What a mess.
Yet, the Browns are 6-3 and will be a tough out on Sunday.
Coming out of UCLA, Dorian Thompson-Robinson had some intriguing traits with his mobility, smarts and accuracy. He doesn’t have the strongest arm, but generally he knows where to go with the football and is accurate with it.
That said, his first NFL start in Week Four against the Baltimore Ravens was a disaster. He was just 19-for-36 for 121 yards and three interceptions in a 28-3 loss. Granted, he found out the morning of the game he was starting but still, bad, bad performance. He gets a full week to prepare for his start against the Steelers though.
The Steelers reportedly had plenty of interest in Thompson-Robinson in the pre-draft process, meeting with him at the Shrine Bowl in Las Vegas and keeping tabs on him.
Now, they’ll see him in Week 11.
While much of the attention will focus on Thompson-Robinson, this Browns offense remains run-heavy, even without Chubb.
A trio of backs in Jerome Ford, Kareem Hunt and Pierre Strong Jr. will see snaps against Pittsburgh. All are familiar foes.
Ford had a 69-yard run against the Steelers in Week Two, setting up a 1-yard Strong touchdown, while Hunt has played against the Steelers a bunch.
Ford is the lead guy, which might be a bit surprising. He’s playing extremely well and is a big-play threat almost every time he touches the football. Ford has home run speed.
All he needs is a sliver of space and he can turn on the jets and run away from everyone.
I also really like Ford’s vision and feel. He’s not just going to slam the ball up into the line of scrimmage and try to fall forward. He’s constantly searching for openings, keeping his eyes up, and has a good sense of where space is.
Like he does here on this run against the Ravens last week.
Just a really good spatial awareness, spinning out of the lane to open grass. After that he has the speed to turn the corner and run away from angles.
Dangerous running back.
Hunt remains the goal-line back for the Browns and a short-yardage piece that the Browns utilize well. He’s a hammer between the tackles and does well to wear down defenses in the second half.
Strong has taken advantage of his opportunities and has made some plays in the passing game, while also adding a long run this season. With Thompson-Robinson under center and the Browns missing both starting tackles and potentially their top backup, Cleveland will likely utilize a screen-heavy game, much like it did in Seattle a few weeks ago.
Strong was a big part of that.
The Browns have broken big plays in the screen game in recent weeks, especially by tight end David Njoku.
After coming on strong as a receiver weapon last season, Njoku has continued to perform, even with Cleveland’s issues at quarterback. The Browns have used him a bunch in the screen game and to great success.
Njoku is a good weapon after the catch. He runs hard and makes plays in space in the passing game.
The play in the first clip above is borrowed from San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan, which he utilized with George Kittle. Beautifully executed by the Browns.
Outside of Njoku in the passing game, wide receiver Amari Cooper remains a star, though his production might be limited moving forward without Watson under center.
Still, he’s an elite-level route runner who separates with the best of them.
Along with Cooper, Elijah Moore is coming on strong since the trade of Donovan Peoples-Jones. Moore is another high-end route runner and has become a bit of a big-play guy.
Here in Week Seven against the Indianapolis Colts, Moore does a good job of getting vertical and running into the hole shot, making a big play to get the Browns out from deep in their own end.
Great throw from P.J. Walker, who will be the backup quarterback Sunday.
Wide receivers Marquise Goodwin, David Bell, and rookie Cedric Tillman are getting more snaps in recent weeks. Tillman is the big, physical receiver that the Browns drafted in the third round out of Tennessee. He had a huge block last week against Baltimore and is starting to get more involved in the offense.
The key question for the Browns, outside of quarterback, is the offensive line.
Here’s how I expect them to line up Sunday, left to right:
LT — James Hudson III
LG — Joel Bitonio
C — Ethan Pocic
RG — Wyatt Teller
RT — Dawand Jones
The interior remains outstanding for the Browns. There should be no concerns there. Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller are the best guard tandem in the NFL, while Pocic is playing very well between the two at center.
Dawand Jones is banged up and might miss this week, which puts the Browns in a bind. Veteran Geron Christian could see time or Leroy Watson. The Browns are completely decimated at the tackle position.
James Hudson III has a bad history against the Steelers and now gets Alex Highsmith. Good luck.
Special teams are relatively solid for the Browns. Though kicker Dustin Hopkins is coming off a game-winning kick against the Ravens in Week 10, Cleveland was only in that position because he missed the extra point after a pick-six, keeping it a 31-30 game, forcing the Browns to need the field goal.
Other than that, he’s been good, missing just three field goals on the year.
Punter Corey Bojorquez is averaging an absurd 50.3 yards per punt on the season. Massive leg. Guy is a major weapon. He can flip the field in a hurry, and he’s perfect for the Browns’ defense, too.
In the return game, Strong will serve as the kick return man, while Moore and wide receiver James Proche will handle punt return duties. Proche has a long of 17 yards this season.