Cleveland Browns 2021 Team Study

Part 11 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 10 here: Baltimore Ravens. Part 12 now available: Pittsburgh Steelers.


Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
Offensive Eff. Rating (orange and black) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPAAdj. Pass Rate

The Browns had high hopes coming into 2021, building off a thoroughly impressive offensive performance in 2020 that saw them on the verge of making the AFC Championship game. They built their offense behind one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, two excellent running backs, and a quarterback who could make enough plays when the conditions were right to give them a chance to win when everything else was clicking.

But this offense was fragile. It relied on holding leads because of its over-reliance on the ground game. In 2020, every time the Browns built a double-digit lead they won the game. Every time they gave up a double-digit lead, they lost. This trend continued in 2021 as they never once erased a second-half deficit (of any amount) in any of their eight wins. They were not built to succeed in difficult situations but thrived when they could pound the rock behind that offensive line and protect Baker Mayfield. I warned a year ago when I studied the Browns’ 2020 season that this was not a recipe for reliable, repeatable success:

This fragility hit them in 2021. Stud tackle Jack Conklin missed over half the season while J.C. Tretter and Jedrick Wills battled injuries and Covid as well. When a team relies on elite offensive line play, it is more vulnerable to injury impact because line play relies on chemistry and rhythm. On top of that, Mayfield, Landry, Chubb, Hunt, and Donavon Peoples-Jones all missed multiple games. OBJ left halfway through the season. This team had no continuity. No chemistry. No rhythm. And they were all rhythm in 2020.  

This disruption of rhythm had multiple negative effects. The Browns accrued the 3rd-most pre-snap penalties on offense. Mayfield took more sacks per pressure than any full-time starting quarterback. Their pressure rate allowed wasn’t awful (19th), but Mayfield’s inability to get rid of the ball on time led to the 6th-most sacks allowed. These sacks and penalties crippled an offense that needed to stay ahead of the chains to avoid obvious passing downs and remain comfortable.

Of the Browns’ 177 offensive drives on the season, Mayfield took a sack on 39 of them. They scored a total of 22 points on those 39 drives, for an average of 0.56 points per drive. They scored 5 field goals on drives where they were already in field goal range when Mayfield took the sack. Out of those 39 drives on which Mayfield took a sack, the Browns recovered to score a touchdown only once. By comparison, they averaged 2.27 points on every drive where Mayfield did not take sack. As a result, their performance predictably trended down against teams with a high rate of converting pressures to sacks, as shown in Chart A. Teams on the left were good at converting pressures into sacks whereas teams in the right were not. The Browns trended better relative to opponent strength against these teams.

Chart A

Chart A: Adjusted Eff. Rating by opponent rate of converting pressures into sacks on the season.

They actually ran the ball even better in 2021. They were 2nd in yards per carry, 5th in rushing EPA/play, and 1st in rushing DVOA. These numbers improved on their 2020 numbers. But all of these are per-play stats. They weren’t in position to run as often because they didn’t have the lead as much and played too frequently behind the chains. And when they did not threaten the run, it was all on Mayfield.

Mayfield ultimately did not deliver. Some will blame his shoulder injury but his passing numbers didn’t actually drop off significantly from the year before. He had some nice throws at times. But he took a sack on 43 of the 113 plays on which he was pressured, for a 38% sack per pressure rate. That was up from 26 sacks on 101 plays the year before. He lacked confidence, did not have go-to receivers winning routes, and did not make quick decisions. This was a critical year to showcase his development into a franchise quarterback and he came up short.

Someone in Cleveland’s front office recognized the limitations of this offense with Mayfield at quarterback. It doesn’t take much to recognize that you likely cannot win a Super Bowl in today’s NFL without an elite quarterback who can put the team on his back at times. In terms of on-field play only, Watson was an important signing for this offense. Significantly improving the receiving corps with Amari Cooper just puts the icing on the cake. There are risks associated with Watson, of course. But when he is on the field they will have a quarterback who excels at escaping pressure and has proven to be successful even without elite receiving weapons. They’ll need to transition to a new identity with a quarterback who hasn’t played in nearly two years. But they have the pieces to emerge from being a fragile offense into something much more successful even in adversity.

The biggest lesson from studying the Browns’ 2021 season is a reminder that teams are systems. Different triggers cause different systems to succeed or fail. The Browns were set up for a decline on offense if just one or two things went against them. Those things happened rapidly. Being aware of this going into the season can help you respond quicker than the betting markets and catch value.


Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
Defensive Eff. Rating (orange and black) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPABlitz RatePressure Rate

While the offense took a step back, the Browns defense rebounded in a big way in 2021 after a disappointing and injury-plagued 2022. But they were a bit of an enigma. On one hand, they put up some dominant performances, like when they held the Bears to a total of 1 net yard passing in week 3. Their pass rushers were like a group of sharks that smelled blood, constantly getting to Fields. They had really strong performances when they could beat up the offensive line and get to the quarterback.

But when they could not beat the offensive line, they put up almost no resistance. The Chiefs, Chargers, and Patriots in particular did pretty much whatever they wanted to against this defense. These teams have either (1) an excellent offensive line that could frustrate Miles Garrett & Co. and/or (2) a quarterback who can escape pressure and make plays on the run. It was a little surprising to see such a difference in performance based on their ability to get pressure, because their secondary was ostensibly a good unit. They did deal with some minor injuries but not enough to render them a walkover in those games.

This divergence of performance led to them getting over half their season total of sacks in just four games, against the Bears, Ravens, and Bengals twice. Note that the Ravens had Tyler Huntley in his second ever start (not Lamar Jackson), and one of the Bengals matchups was in Week 18 when Cincinnati rested starters, including Joe Burrow. So they basically capitalized against quarterbacks who had no experience (Fields and Huntley) or held the ball too long behind a bad offensive line (Burrow and Brandon Allen). Outside of that, the defense lacked teeth.

Chart B demonstrates this trend, showing the Browns’ Adj. Effectiveness Rating (which measures performance relative to opponent offense, where 0.0 is an average performance) ranking each opponent by its pressure rate allowed on the season. Some of the Browns’ worst defensive performances came against the Patriots, who protected Mac Jones, and the Chargers, who protected Herbert. Their best performances came against offenses that struggled to protect their quarterback, like the Bears, Bengals, Vikings, and Broncos.

Chart B: Adjusted Eff. Rating by opponent pressure rate allowed on the season.

This led to some interesting statistics. Despite being the #5 defense in Adjusted Effectiveness, they weren’t particularly strong on a per-play basis against either the pass (15th) or the run (28th). DVOA, which factors in situation and quality of opponent, comes closer to the mark, ranking them 11th overall, which indicates they faced a tough schedule of opposing offenses in general. But it should be concerning for Browns fans that they had such a wide divergence in performance based on the quality of each team’s offensive line, and took advantage of rookies and backups.

Despite taking a massive step forward in 2021, there is cause for concern heading into 2022. Defensive performance varies widely year to year due to injuries and schedule. Their performance heavily weighted strong performances against bad teams when they were fully healthy, which is a sign that they could revert closer to average moving forward. Anchored by one defensive stud (Miles Garrett), they are also susceptible to a big injury drop-off if something happens to him. They do have talent, and there is something to say for the issues this team had with the offensive continuity and failed expectations. But I expect the defense will be somewhere between what we saw in 2020 and what we saw in 2021 moving forward.

Key Takeaways

When to bet on the Browns: As a great running team with strong defense against bad QBs, the Browns make a good bet for alternate line spreads when favored to win. They can really dominate, especially now with a competent quarterback. They also have a strong roster outside the quarterback position, so there could be some value if Watson gets suspended and Brissett catches some favorable spreads.

When to fade the Browns: I’m not looking to fade this team right off the bat. I could argue that there is uncertainty regarding how quickly the new pieces will gel and that their defense is vulnerable, but they also have upside. If anything, they’ll need to prove something before I trust them against a contender with a good offensive line and a smart, mobile quarterback.

What to look for in the offseason: Obviously the Deshaun Watson situation is something to monitor. I have no idea what will happen. Also keep an eye on the offensive line, which really changed the dynamic of this team when they had 1 or 2 players out last year. We saw Watson struggle in the past when on a bad team, so the Browns will want to maintain a good situation on offense.

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