No team runs more effectively than the Cleveland Browns. In an era when flashy passing offenses are praised and rushing is looked down upon, the Browns have sustained a consistently efficient offense under coach Kevin Stefanski by establishing the run. The Browns have an old-school offense that can march through opposing defenses. The question—especially after close losses to the Chiefs and Chargers—is: How far will that get them in today’s league?
First, some numbers: This season, the Browns rank no. 1 in rushing yards, no. 1 in yards per carry, no. 1 in rushing expected points added (EPA) per play, and no. 1 in rushing DVOA. Running back Nick Chubb is the NFL’s second-leading rusher with 523 yards (5.8 yards per carry) and four touchdowns, while Kareem Hunt is 16th with 295 yards (5.4 YPC) and five scores. According to Warren Sharp’s database, the Browns have generated the most explosive runs (27) an is tied for first in highest frequency (16 percent).
There are plenty of people to credit for Cleveland’s success on the ground. Chubb is in the conversation for the league’s best running back. Hunt is a starting-caliber tailback who has also excelled as a pass catcher. Stefanski’s zone-blocking offense—which bears influence from former NFL head coach Gary Kubiak—has propelled the Browns to more 200-yard rushing games (six, which includes two this season) than games with less than 100 (three, which all occurred last season) since he became head coach in 2020. Then, and perhaps most importantly, is the talented offensive line that general manager Andrew Berry has assembled and is overseen by offensive line coach Bill Callahan. When healthy, the Browns’ starting five of Jedrick Wills Jr., Joel Bitonio, JC Tretter, Wyatt Teller, and Jack Conklin is arguably the NFL’s most impressive offensive line. This season, despite injuries to Conklin, Wills, and key depth players, the group ranks ninth in ESPN’s run-block win rate.
The collaboration among these parts has been spectacular. Per Next Gen Stats, Chubb and Hunt rank first and fourth, respectively, in rush yards over expected (a metric that calculates how many rushing yards a ballcarrier will earn when they receive the ball). Hunt also leads the league in the percentage of his runs in which he’s gained more yards than expected (51.9 percent). Chubb ranks eighth (44.4 percent) in that category.
The 2021 #Browns offense has produced the fourth-most total EPA on designed rushes in the first five weeks of the season since 2005:— Anthony Reinhard (@reinhurdler) October 13, 2021
1) SF '12 (+34.7)
2) MIA '09 (+24.7)
3) NE '20 (+18.4)
4) CLE '21 (+17.0)
5) ATL '08 (+16.2)
6) BAL '19 (+16.1)
7) IND '07 (+16.1)
Still, the Browns have learned this season just how difficult it can be to rely on the ground game against the league’s best teams. And those losses to Kansas City and Los Angeles put the spotlight on Baker Mayfield, and whether or not the franchise can rely on him the same way that other top teams can trust in elite passers.
In Week 1, the Browns led Kansas City 29-27 early in the fourth quarter when they went three-and-out—on three straight passes—and then had a punt blocked at their own 10-yard line. It set up the Chiefs’ go-ahead score, which was followed by another three-and-out. Cleveland got the ball one more time after its defense made a stop, but Mayfield was intercepted by cornerback Mike Hughes to clinch the loss.
Something similar happened against the Chargers in Week 5, when the Browns went three-and-out with three minutes left while holding a one-point lead. Cleveland had a legitimate argument that L.A. defensive back Derwin James Jr. committed pass interference on receiver Rashard Higgins, but Stefanski elected to call a draw to Hunt on the ensuing third-and-9 play. It went for 3 yards, prompting a Cleveland punt, and the Chargers subsequently went 48 yards in five plays for the go-ahead score. Stefanski admitted after the game that his decision to run the ball on that play was an error, noting he was too hung up on the missed call on the previous play. Still, the play call speaks to the level of confidence the Browns have in their passing game—a coach who believes their quarterback can convert in that situation wouldn’t think twice about passing.
“I can only think about this week,” Stefanski told reporters Wednesday. “Our team, our players are pouring every effort they have into this game, and really what’s in front of us or what’s behind us doesn’t matter.”
In fairness, Mayfield is playing through a partially torn labrum in his left shoulder. The fourth-year pro completed 23 of 32 passes for 305 yards and two touchdowns against the Chargers. He hasn’t thrown an interception since Week 2 and is averaging 8.6 yards per attempt (which would be a career high), and ranks ninth in completion percentage over expected (plus–3.5 percent), per Next Gen Stats. His average depth of target through five games is 9.6, more than a full yard over his average the previous two seasons. However, his completed air yards per attempt of 5.8 is on pace to mark a new career low—he’s just not completing many of his downfield attempts. The Browns are tied for 10th in explosive pass rate, and Mayfield is middle-of-the-pack in terms of EPA per play (0.138), according to Ben Baldwin’s database.
Stefanski is one of the most forward-thinking play-callers, and is the league’s most aggressive fourth-down decision-maker this season. Yet the difference between him and similarly aggressive coaches is that he is restrained by a good but limited quarterback. No amount of success on the ground can mask that. A third of the way through the season, concern over whether or not the Browns will extend Mayfield, who has one season left on his rookie deal, isn’t at the forefront of national discussion. But it’s fair to wonder, even as Cleveland’s running game continues to dominate, what that conversation will look like after the season.
“Our rushing attack, week in and week out, is one of the best in the league,” Mayfield said after Sunday’s loss. “We leaned on that. We passed the ball when we needed to, and we just didn’t make the plays we needed to win.”
This likely won’t be the week that Mayfield’s play becomes a heavy talking point, even as a head-to-head matchup with fellow former Oklahoma Sooner and no. 1 pick Kyler Murray, a leader in the MVP race, makes for easy story lines. The Cardinals are the NFL’s last remaining unbeaten team and boast a high-scoring offense. Their rushing defense, however, is suspect. Just as Stefanski managed to call an excellent game against a high-powered Chargers passing attack while leaning on Cleveland’s rushing attack, his offense should be able to replicate similar production this weekend. According to Pro Football Focus, Arizona is giving up the fourth-most rushing yards before contact this season and is giving up 5.4 yards per carry to opposing ballcarriers, the NFL’s second-worst mark. The Browns have had some close losses this season, but they’re well positioned to topple the league’s last perfect squad.
“I think we have room to go as an offense, for sure,” Stefanski said Wednesday. “We wanna be explosive [in] both run and pass [game]. I don’t think we have to do it ‘this way’ and it has to come through the run. We’ve never talked about that. That’s not what we believe. We believe in being explosive any which way we can. Now, opportunities will arise off of the run game, off of the run actions, off of the keeper game, and when they do, we’ve gotta make sure we make it count.”