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Cup of Joe: Nick Chubb's handle of wide-zone scheme makes him a home-run threat on every snap

In his weekly column, former Browns T Joe Thomas explains why Chubb is a special fit in Browns offense


Catch Joe Thomas TONIGHT at 6:30 p.m. when he co-hosts "Browns Live" powered by FirstEnergy with Nathan Zegura. The 100 percent fan-focused show, which will stream on all of the Browns social platforms, will feature multiple segments with Coach Kevin Stefanski, interviews with players, film breakdowns and more.

Each game week, Joe will share his insights, memories and more in this weekly column, "Cup of Joe."

There was a play in Sunday's win over the Jaguars that brought a little tear to my old offensive lineman face. In that moment, I just couldn't imagine how much fun the Browns offensive line was having while they blocked for a running back as special as Nick Chubb.

The difference between Chubb and the average NFL running back is 10 yards. He's turning what should be lost-yardage plays into first downs. He has that ability to hit a home run when something is not there at all. 

When you have somebody that all you do is hand them the football, the difference between the best guy in the NFL and the worst guy who's a starter is pretty small, generally. But I think Chubb is the exception to that rule because he's not a guy that catches a lot of passes, but he's able to turn those zero and minus-yard runs into big gains. I can't think of a guy who was able to do that since maybe Barry Sanders. 

Along with Kareem Hunt, who has been fantastic in his own right, Chubb has been a perfect fit for the Browns' wide-zone scheme because of his home-run hitting ability and, most importantly, his acceleration. 

Bare with me as I nerd out a bit explaining why.

The No. 1 thing that makes him the most special is not only his ability to see a backside cut-back, but also his ability to hit the brakes and get into the cut-back lane before it closes. Plenty of guys that I played with at running back could see the backside cut-back holes, but they didn't have the change-of-direction ability to get through those holes.

There was a point in Sunday's game when Chubb just perfectly executed and proved my point because Joel Bitonio and Jedrick Wills didn't do a very good job on the back side. The backside defensive lineman started to get a little bit of penetration but Chubb saw the cut-back all the way behind the defensive end. He saw the safety was closing, put his foot in the ground, accelerated and made the D-lineman miss. He chopped his feet to freeze the safety and widened the cut-back lane, which he was able to accelerate up and through to get into the second level and bull forward for nearly a 10-yard run. It was just magical watching him turn what 31 out of 32 running backs in the NFL would have been a minus-2-yard run into nearly a first down.

When you are running the wide zone, it's important to be able to accelerate up to a speed that threatens the defense on the edge. From the moment the ball is snapped, he needs to be able to get the ball and get up to top speed, so that everybody on defense is afraid he's going to run around them to the outside, which prevents them from running downhill because you have to take an angle based on who's running with the football and how fast they are. When Chubb gets the ball, he's running full speed at an angle toward the sideline, which puts the defensive linemen, linebackers, and safeties at a flat angle. That sets up the cutback lane.

All week, the defense is told, "Nick Chubb is fast. If we let him get to the outside and we don't keep him contained, he's going to hit a home run, he's going to hit his head on the goalpost." So they are turning and running to the sideline, which eliminates some of the potential for a lost yardage play because those guys aren't coming downhill and aren't able to penetrate because they have to run sideways. Once you get everybody on defense running as fast as they can sideways, now it sets things up for the cut-back. The further they run, the more likely they are to not be able to run in perfect unison and to keep gap integrity. Your nose guard is probably slower than your defensive tackle, who is slower than your defensive ends, who are slower than your linebackers. If you just line up all those guys and have them run as fast as they can sideways, there's naturally going to be gaps between how fast those guys can run.

He gets everybody running and then he's watching for that inefficiency in the wall that they're trying to build on defense. Chubb is running full speed, his eyes are being taught to look at certain guys on defense depending on the run and to find out who's overplaying it, who's running too fast, who's running not fast enough. That's when he puts his foot in the ground and he's able to cut up and find those gaps in the defense. Once he's running downhill, the gaps are forming not only horizontally, but also vertically because more and more holes emerge as defenders scatter across the field.

When I played, we would always say you need to press the outside zone until it hurts, which means as a running back, I need to run until I feel like I'm into the line of scrimmage and if I take another half of a step, I'm going to run right into my lineman or I'm going to run and get tackled. That's when you make the cut because that's what opens up the cut-back. 

Guys who are just learning the zone scheme that don't trust their eyes, don't trust the blocking and don't trust what they're supposed to do will often cut back too soon and then that's when you see them get tackled for one yard. Everyone says, "Oh, the offensive line, they're not blocking. They're not doing their job. There was no hole." Well, yeah, because the running back didn't pick the proper footwork, didn't trust the blocking was going to be there, didn't press the ball until his heels got into line of scrimmage to open up the cut-back. You have to have that trust in the zone scheme.

That's the scary thing about Chubb, Hunt and the Browns' wide-zone scheme. You just get better with experience. I mean, it's not going to be leaps and bounds, because they're already pretty amazing, but it will be an even cleaner more consistent version of what we've already seen.

The thought of that brings another tear to this old offensive lineman's face.