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. Stay tuned for part 12 on the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Offense

Eff. Rating Adj. Rating Rank
5.03 -0.04 18th

Offensive Eff. Rating (orange and black) v. opponent average allowed (grey).

Pass EPA Rush EPA Adj. Pass Rate
21st 5th 23rd

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:

*From my 2020 Cleveland Browns Team Study.

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.

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