The first three weeks of the 2019 season were less than ideal for the Browns’ offense.
The lowest point came in Week 3, when the Browns did enough to stay in the game but finished with 270 total yards and failed on four downs from the opponent’s 4 to score a game-tying touchdown in the final minute. Questions swirled around the team for the following 96 hours about the viability of Cleveland’s offense, a unit that was expected to produce awe-inspiring statistics and points by the truckload.
Instead, it had put up just 49 points in three games.
Then, Week 4 arrived, and with it came the 530-yard explosion that produced 40 points and an emphatic 40-25 win over the Baltimore Ravens. Suddenly, the questions shifted from what’s wrong with the offense? to this is what was coming all along, wasn’t it?
The Browns themselves know it’s not that simple, and it won’t be a 530-yard outing every week. But the win and the way they won over the rival Ravens was encouraging.
“Yeah, I think that was the blueprint,” guard Joel Bitonio said of the Week 4 victory. “We ran the ball early. It was not as successful, but we wore them down a little bit and then finally we broke some big runs in the second half. Some shots down the field. Big plays either from Jarvis (Landry) on a couple of those little passes to Ricky (Seals-Jones) running down there for the 60-70-yard catch. Just mixing it up and keeping the defense guessing.
“There were motions. There was movement, there were different looks and different routes out of the same looks. You have to think, ‘Oh this is a run look,’ and we end up passing out of it. Things like that. Changing it up and getting into a rhythm. I think it started with establishing the run. It was not perfect in the first half. We only maybe ran for 40 yards in the first half or something, but you do it, you establish it, you show them those formations and then you can do some things off of those.”
Much of what the Browns did after Freddie Kitchens ascended to interim offensive coordinator in 2018 was built out of play action, in part because of the success of Nick Chubb on the ground. Chubb found similar wins on the ground Sunday, which ideally would bring the much-needed balance to the Browns’ offense that was missing in the first three weeks.
Instead of watching receivers run deep routes while Baker Mayfield was relentlessly pressured by a defense with little regard for the threat of the run, the Browns made defenses direct their attention in multiple areas with each play. A jet sweep to Landry that put the Browns on the Baltimore 2 came with pre-snap motion. A double-reverse pass did, too. And tight ends motioned off the line to a traditional fullback location and vice versa.
In all, it made things less predictable, which helped the Browns stay on schedule and out of third-and-long. That was the key Sunday, among other important outcomes.
“Yeah, we were getting chunk plays. I thought Baker did a great job of getting the ball out of his hands,” Bitonio said. “Chubb was making people miss and doing good things. It felt good. It felt like we were in a rhythm finally. It felt like we were getting first downs on drives. We did not have third downs [and 15] where we have to drop back and pass. We had that first one where it was not great, but after that, I felt like everything was kind of just moving.”
That begins, of course, with the play of Chubb, who can keep defenses honest by gaining consistent yardage with each carry. We’re not talking multiple 75-yard scampers for scores; we mean averaging 4 yards per carry or more.
He’s done so in three of the first four games of this season, but Sunday was his first multiple-score game and also his first game in which he ripped off a run of 20 yards or more. That big play and consistent dedication to the ground game made him a legitimate force for which opposing defenses must prepare. That will complete the complementary task of football, opening chances in the passing game and allowing the Browns to build their passing game out of the run. The possibilities simply multiply.
“I think we set the standard in how we have success and obviously, starting up front,” Mayfield said Thursday. “You talk about football, it starts up front with the offensive line and getting the run game going. That allows the receivers to have open lanes and play action. Anytime you can give Nick Chubb the ball like that, he is going to make a lot of plays. We have set the standard on what we need to do and how I need to play.”
The Browns can’t get there, though, unless each person takes care of his responsibility. The offensive line was much improved in Week 4, which benefitted the entire offense throughout the afternoon. From there, it’s on the skilled position players to do their part.
This was the message Mayfield stressed Thursday.
“Everybody doing their job,” Mayfield said. “I think everybody did their job, and that needs to be our identity. To have success, everybody has to do their 1/11th. Going out there and being focused.”