Everyone was expecting a shootout in Minnesota, but the Browns defense clearly had other ideas.
One week after turning in the most dominant performance in franchise history in the Browns' 26-6 win over the Chicago Bears, Cleveland's defense turned in, perhaps, an even more impressive showing against what had been a red-hot Vikings offense in the 14-7 win. The Browns got after Kirk Cousins all day and completely shut down a Minnesota offense that had posted 63 points in the previous two games.
The second-ranked Browns defense will have another tough challenge against Justin Herbert and the 3-1 Los Angeles Chargers. Herbert leads an explosive offense that features WRs Keenan Allen and Mike Williams along with do-it-all running back Austin Ekeler. The Chargers also have a top-10 defense led by DE Joey Bosa along with DBs Asante Samuel Jr. and Derwin James. The Chargers are coming off back-to-back impressive division wins over the Kansas City Chiefs and the previously unbeaten Las Vegas Raiders.
The Browns have another tall task on Sunday, but following the these three keys to victory could prove to be the Winning Mix that earns the team its fourth consecutive win.
*1. Raw Power running attack *
As was the case last week, one way to slow down an elite offense is to keep it on the sidelines while you control the game on offense. In the win over the Vikings, the Browns ran the ball 38 times for 184 yards and one touchdown while dominating the time of possession 35:32 to 24:28. The Chargers have the No. 5 ranked pass defense in the NFL but were the league's worst run defense through the first three weeks of the season and currently sit at 29th, allowing 139.5 yards per game. In those first three games, opposing running backs rushed 20-plus times in each game and produced at least 100 yards rushing in each game. They averaged 25.3 rushes for 138.3 yards (5.5 yards per carry) in those three games, and in the Chargers' lone loss this season, the Dallas Cowboys, led by an excellent duo of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard, rushed 29 times for 180 yards and two touchdowns.
The Browns have the best running back duo in the NFL, period. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt have combined for 590 yards rushing and six touchdowns on the ground through four games (147.5 yards and 1.5 touchdowns per game) and are the only duo in the NFL to achieve that level of success. Hunt is also the Browns' leading receiver, further accenuating the elite contributions coming from running back coach Stump Mitchell's room. The Browns have rushed for more than 150 yards in every game this season, and the Chargers are 0-1 when allowing 150-plus yards on the ground in 2021.
Cleveland enters Week 5 with the No. 1 rushing attack in the NFL, leading the league in rushing yards (708), rushing touchdowns (nine) and rushing first downs (41). Leaning on the ground game works very well for the Browns, who are 14-3 when either Chubb or Hunt find the end zone. This is a classic strength vs. weakness matchup for the Browns on offense, and it has the added benefit of keeping Herbert and Co. on the sidelines while the ground game wears down the Chargers D.
Check out exclusive photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Los Angeles Chargers
2. Clean sheet
Despite the dominant rushing offense in the win over the Vikings, no one would be calling it a truly great offensive performance by the Browns. However, they were elite in the one stat that matters: turnovers. The Browns did not turn the ball over to the Vikings and have posted a "clean sheet" on offense in each of the last two games, both wins. In fact, under Kevin Stefanski, the Browns are now 2-0 this year and 8-0 all time when the offense does not turn over the football. If the Browns do turn it over on offense, equalizing that with a takeaway on defense also yields incredible success. Under Stefanski, the Browns are 14-0 when winning or tying the turnover battle.
The Chargers have been excellent at taking away the football with five total takeaways in their last two games alone, both wins over the Chiefs and Raiders. In their lone loss of the season, the Chargers lost the turnover battle, 2-1. For the year, the Chargers have seven takeaways, good for sixth-most in the NFL, have a plus-3 turnover differential (also sixth), and have not turned it over in their past two games. They did, however, throw three interceptions and lose a fumble in the first two games of the season, so the Browns can force some turnovers Sunday. Regardless of what happens in terms of takeaways – and I for one would not bet against our defense — a clean operation and turnover-free football on offense will go a long way toward securing a Browns victory.
3. Get off the field and bring the pressure
Herbert is the reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and might be adding another moniker to his list, the reigning third down king. Since 2020, Herbert leads all quarterbacks with 17 third-down touchdown passes — he already has three this season – and 96 third down passing first downs. This year, he has already completed 23 passes for first downs in third-down situations, which is the most in the league. It should come as no surprise the Chargers are converting 49.1 percent of their third downs this season, the fifth-best rate in the NFL. Add in another four successful fourth-down conversions, and you see a Chargers team that is extending its drives a remarkable 56.3 percent of the time due in large part to the poise and talent of their second-year quarterback.
Third-down defense was a struggle for the Browns early in the season, as they allowed 17-of-27 (63 percent) conversions in their first two games. Over the past two weeks, however, the Browns defense has been elite in all facets, including third downs, where they have surrendered just six conversions on the last 27 tries, which is just 22.2 percent (best in the NFL during that span). A large part of the third-down success has come from not only excellent, tight coverage from the back seven, but also incredible pressure from the edge led by Myles Garrett, Jadeveon Clowney and Takkarist McKinley combined with pocket-pushing interior domination from Malik Jackson and Malik McDowell. In those two games, the Browns pressured the opposing quarterback on a ridiculous 54 percent of their drop backs, per Pro Football Focus. They'll need to do more of the same against Herbert, who is completing just 27 percent of his passes under pressure this season, sees his yards per attempt fall by 2.7 yards and his quarterback rating drop by nearly 20 points. Getting after Herbert and getting off the field on the money downs should slow down a Chargers offense that has posted 58 points the last two weeks.