Powered by excellent offensive line play, Cleveland’s 4th-ranked offense played at a very high level throughout most of the season. In my opinion Nick Chubb is the best pure runner in the NFL, with a unique combination of speed, vision, instinct, and strength. I truly enjoy watching him play. And Kareem Hunt is the best back-up running back in the league. Meanwhile, Baker Mayfield returned to form in 2020 in a scheme well designed for his strengths. With good protection and a formidable run game, Mayfield was able to find open receivers and hit them consistently for key first downs without feeling the pressure of having to carry the team on his back.
The result was an efficient, effective, and methodical offense that succeeded against most opponents. They were clearly better when Chubb was healthy, thanks to his stellar 5.6 yards per carry (compared to Hunt’s 4.2 yards per carry), but Hunt’s pass game proficiency and Baker’s elevated play meant that they did not fall flat when Chubb was hurt. Nevertheless, their offensive archetype relied on winning the battle in the trenches on the offensive side of the ball.
*Omitted Weeks 8 & 9 due to severe weather impact (40 mph winds), Week 15 v. NYJ (no WRs due to Covid), and Week 16 v. PIT (benched starters)
This chart tracks the Browns’ offensive Adjusted Rating ranking each opponent by the success of its defensive front (average rank of sacks and opposing YPC allowed). Teams with strong defensive lines caused Cleveland some problems because when they lost the offensive line battle their offense really struggled. Their worst games came against Pittsburgh at full strength (-0.94), Philadelphia (-0.42), and Washington (+0.40), who all boasted strong defensive lines. But they had no issues with Cincinnati (+2.18 and +1.18), Dallas (+1.44), and Tennessee (+1.18), who failed to exert pressure with their line and stop the run.
As a result, the Browns were a prototypical “when it rains, it pours” type of team. When they played well, they played really well. But when they played poorly (typically when their offensive line lost the battle), they played really poorly. In Week 1 they lost 38-6 to the Ravens and in Week 6 they lost 38-7 to the Steelers. These games exposed what can happen to this team when they fail to control the offensive line.
This obviously is not a huge concern if they stay healthy and don’t get overwhelmed by any elite defensive lines. But it points to a potential weakness if they suffer some offensive line injuries or show decline. Every offense plays better with good offensive line play, but the Browns are particularly susceptible to a major drop off without it.
Because of this dynamic, the winner of every Browns game in 2020 was the team who established the early lead. In all 16 of their games in which either team had a double-digit lead, that team won. I couldn’t find the exact numbers, but there were roughly 40 or 50 double-digit comebacks in the NFL. Zero of these happened in Browns games. When they moved the ball, they scored. And when they scored, they won. But when they didn’t move the ball, they struggled, and typically did not recover.
Thanks to excellent protection and effective play-calling, Cleveland’s receivers were consistently schemed open despite not being a particularly elite group. With Odell Beckham Jr. sidelined most the year, Mayfield arguably played better without him, distributing to the likes of Landry, Higgins, and Peoples-Jones. The team was less reliant on good wide receiver play than most teams in today’s NFL.
*Omitted Week 17 v. PIT (rested starters).
With less reliance on good receiver play, the Browns took less of a hit offensively against teams with an elite secondary. The above chart tracks the Browns’ offensive Adjusted Rating by each opponent’s difference between net yards per pass allowed and yards per carry allowed (an indication of relative rushing defense v. pass defense). The Browns played well against teams with good secondaries who were weaker at stopping the run. This explains the Browns’ struggles against the Jets (-1.12) when their receivers were all out due to Covid. They failed to establish the run against the strength of the Jets’ defense, which is what they typically did well. Granted, they almost certainly would have won that game with healthy receivers, but it was already a terrible matchup for them before the bad news came out.
The Browns did not get enough credit for how well they played offensively in 2020. They had several bad weather games that brought down their statistics and they just weren’t as flashy as some of the other top offenses. But they also played a fairly easy schedule and rode their offensive line to success. They absolutely have the talent and scheme to remain a top offense, but are susceptible to a major drop-off if things do not fall their way.
The Browns defense was a major liability in 2020, ranking 22nd in the league despite several bad weather games. But it’s hard to ascertain key takeaways because they were not consistently healthy. Several players did not play the entire season, due to injury or opting out for Covid. Other significant pieces missed a game or two here and there. They certainly had major vulnerabilities in the secondary and poor tackling, but it’s tough to assign blame with precision.
The Browns had some talent on defense despite the injuries. Their failure to stop opposing offenses revealed some combination of poor coaching and poor play. I haven’t studied their defense closely enough on a play-by-play basis to tell you whether the scheme was poorly designed or poorly executed. But it seemed far too easy for opposing teams to make big plays against the Browns, particularly in the passing game.
But they also had a fairly strange season in terms of game script. In several games they built a massive early lead and played prevent for the rest of the game. They were up 41-14 against Dallas and allowed three 80-yard touchdown drives in the fourth quarter but held on to win the game. They established an insurmountable 38-7 lead against the Titans before allowing a few meaningless touchdowns in the second half as well. The game was never in doubt despite the 41-35 final score. And in their Wild Card game against Pittsburgh they shot out to a 35-7 lead before letting the Steelers score a slew of meaningless touchdowns, again never truly threatening to lose the game.
It’s fair to point out that they softened up on defense in these games, but credit should also be given to the defense for helping establish those leads in the first place. The Browns were inconsistent defensively, but when they avoided mistakes they were decent.
They were particularly strong against opposing running backs, at least when Miles Garrett was active. They held several top running backs (with the exception of Josh Jacobs) to subpar games.
1,000-Yard RBs v. CLE
|RB(s)||Yds v. CLE||YPC v. CLE||Yds/Game||YPC on Season|
The only 1,000-yard running back not included in this chart (James Robinson) ran well against Cleveland for 128 yards on 22 rushes. But Miles Garrett missed that game on the Covid list. The defensive line was a different animal with Garrett healthy and active. It should also be noted that, although they played well against the Ravens’ running backs, Lamar Jackson ran all over them in their second matchup, finishing with 9 rushes for 124 yards.
They were much less effective against the pass, allowing several huge games by opposing receivers. Marquise Brown (5 for 101), Amari Cooper (12 for 134), Corey Davis (11 for 182), JuJu Smith-Schuster (13 for 157), and Diontae Johnson (11 for 117) all had massive games against the Browns, although several of those coincided with the big, meaningless comeback attempts outlined above.
I won’t be drawing too much from the Browns’ defensive performance in 2020, but they definitely have a lot to prove in 2021. They will need to show leadership and discipline on the field, an improved scheme, and the ability to put opponents away when they have the lead. Although they didn’t blow any big leads in 2020, they failed to assert dominance and press the advantage defensively when they were ahead.
Putting it All Together
- Cleveland is fairly rated heading into the offseason. When healthy, they are one of the better teams in the AFC. But they are getting the credit they deserve, and I remain skeptical that this team can overcome a couple of key injuries, particularly to the offense line or defense.
- As a team that plays to its strengths when winning, the Browns are likely to outperform when they can win the offense line battle and establish the run and play action. When they win the offensive line battle they are difficult to stop.
- Fade the Browns if they suffer offensive line injuries or otherwise face an elite defensive line that can overcome their offensive strength.
- Be wary betting on the Browns as big favorites until they establish that they can press the advantage on defense with the lead and keep opponents from scoring meaningless late touchdowns.
- Have an open mind about the Browns defense, which may look totally different in 2021 than it did in 2020.
Fantasy and Player Prop Takeaways
- Nick Chubb is the best pure runner in the NFL and runs behind one of the best offensive lines. His relatively low catch total reduces his fantasy upside, but that also means you can get him for cheaper than other top running back options. I believe in following the talent, and will draft him with confidence.
- Once again, Kareem Hunt makes for the league’s best handcuff and should be a priority bench add who gets enough touches to serve as a low-end option even with Chubb healthy.
- Mayfield established himself in 2020 as a reliable real-life and fantasy quarterback. He may have some low-touchdown games when they face elite defenses or play in the bad weather they often face in Cleveland, but should be started with confidence in most matchups.
- I’m honestly not sure what to make of Odell Beckham Jr. at this point. He’s got elite talent and I like Mayfield, so I should be excited about his return. But Mayfield played so well without him and I wonder how much he will lean on his star receiver in 2021.
- Although it’s unclear how Cleveland’s defense will look in 2021, anticipate bigger performances from wide receivers than running backs against the Browns for now.
Application: SharpClarke Bet of the Year
In Week 13, I made my biggest bet of the year. The Browns were 5.5-point underdogs against the Titans, and my drive charts indicated that the Browns were clearly the stronger team. Their offense routinely took advantage of bad defenses, and the Titans had a bad defense. So I anticipated they would have no trouble scoring. On the other side of the ball, the Titans’ strength (running) matched up poorly with the Browns’ defensive weakness (broken coverage). I wasn’t convinced the Browns could completely stop the Titans, but with a 5.5-point spread they didn’t need to. As it turned out, the Browns dominated the Titans, taking a 38-7 half time lead and coasting to the outright victory.