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The Winning Mix

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The Winning Mix: 3 keys to a victory over the Minnesota Vikings

The Browns will look earn their first road victory of the season in Kevin Stefanski’s return to Minnesota

After arguably the most dominant defensive performance in the franchise's 75-year history Sunday, the Browns enter Week 4 with a 2-1 record after beating the Chicago Bears, 26-6. The Vikings sit at 1-2 after throttling the Seattle Seahawks 30-17 in one of the bigger Week 3 upsets around the league.

The Vikings are a couple of field goals away from being 3-0 this year and boast one of the most efficient and potent offenses in the league, something our head coach Kevin Stefanski knows very well from his time as an assistant and coordinator with the Vikings from 2006-19. In many ways, the Vikings and the Browns run a similar style of offense built around an elite ground game, play-action passing and special playmakers out wide who can turn small passes into large gains.  

The Browns are looking to win their third game in a row and get their first victory away from FirstEnergy Stadium. The Browns are 5-0 against the NFC and 9-5 on the road under Stefanski's leadership and will look to snag another win by following this week's Winning Mix.

*1. Raw Power Running Attack *

One way to slow down an elite offense is to keep them on the sidelines while you control the game on offense. That will be a tough job this week as both the Browns (third) and Vikings (10th) are dominant time of possession teams, but it is certainly possible. The Browns boast the best running back duo in the NFL in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt and should lean heavily on them against a struggling Vikings defense. The Browns are currently the second-ranked rushing attack in the NFL at 174.7 yards per game and sit third with a 5.14 yards-per-carry average. Chubb and Hunt are the only pair of teammates in the league with at least a combined 425 yards rushing and five rushing touchdowns. They are also the only duo in the league to have combined for more than 100 yards and at least one touchdown in every single game this year.   

Look for the Browns to lean on their dynamic duo once again against a Vikings defense that enters Week 4 allowing 119.3 yards per game rushing (20th) on a generous 4.8 yards per carry (28th).  So far, both running backs who have received at least 12 carries against the Vikings have produced at least 80 yards rushing and a touchdown. In Week 1, the Bengals really committed to the run and picked up 179 total yards, including 149 yards rushing and a score from their running back group, which was led by Joe Mixon's 127 yards and the score. For the season, backs are producing 140 total yards per game against Minnesota while averaging nearly 5 yards per carry and finding the end zone at least once. It should be noted that every pass attempted to a running back this season against the Vikings has been completed, and they are allowing 7.27 yards per reception to backs. Dominating Minnesota up front with a potent ground game and some quick passes to the running backs should lead to a lot of chain moving and time consuming scoring drives for the Browns, who will look to keep Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen watching the game more than playing in it.

*2. Tight Coverage and Limit YAC *

Last week, we highlighted Baker Mayfield's success in the quick passing game. This week, the Browns defense is going to have to contend with the incredibly efficient Cousins, who gets the ball out quickly and as effectively as anyone in the league right now. Cousins has not thrown an interception in 200 straight passing attempts and has only been sacked on 4.1 percent of his dropbacks, sixth-fewest in the NFL, so another Sack Fest is unlikely Sunday. It should also be noted that Cousins is not just a "safe thrower," as he has been one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the NFL over his last 10 games. During that span, Cousins is second in the NFL with 3,036 yards, third with 26 passing touchdowns, third with just two interceptions and third with a 70.5 completion percentage. He is flat out playing elite, efficient football, and the Browns will have to try to limit his effectiveness with tight coverage and good tackling to eliminate big yards after the catch. 

In 2021, Cousins is getting the ball out in an average of 2.34 seconds, the third-fastest mark in the league behind Tom Brady and Joe Burrow. In the quick passing game (57 percent of his dropbacks, sixth-most in the NFL), Cousins has been remarkable, completing 77.5 percent of his attempts for 466 yards, five touchdowns, no interceptions and a quarterback rating of 117.5. If it weren't for five drops, Cousins would be near 90 percent completions in the quick game. It should also be noted that the Vikings have 500 yards after the catch on the season, good for eighth-most in the NFL. That means 54 percent of the Vikings' 929 passing yards this year have come after the catch. A further breakdown of Cousins' passing chart reveals that 82 of his 119 passing attempts (69 percent) have come within 9 yards of the line of scrimmage. The quick, short passing game can lend itself to batted balls, and since 2018, Cousins has had 42 passes batted down at the line of scrimmage, which is the most in the NFL. Getting those hands up will be very important for the Browns D-Line this week because the ball may get out too quickly to get home and the batted ball could be the difference between getting off of the field and allowing a conversion. Furthermore, only six of his 119 pass attempts and only two of his 88 completions have been on pass plays of more than 20 yards in the air. Despite skewing so heavily to the short pass, the Vikings passing attack is very tough to stop, and Cousins is completing 74 percent of his passes for 306 yards and nearly three touchdowns per game. Forcing Cousins to make tight-window throws, jumping short routes to gamble for an interception when appropriate, batting balls down and tackling effectively after the completion will be imperative to slowing down the potent Vikings passing attack.

3. Gotta Score

So far, this Winning Mix has been all about offense, and it is going to continue here in point No. 3. I think this ultimately will be a high-scoring game and one the Browns will have to aggressively score points to win. After all, the Browns have scored at least 26 points in every game this year, something the franchise has not accomplished since 1964. The Browns boast the No. 7 overall offense at 410 yards per game and the 10th best scoring offense at 28.7 points per game. The Vikings, meanwhile, have the third-ranked offense with 425 yards per game and are eighth in scoring at 29 points per contest. It should also be noted the Vikings have only turned the ball over one time in three games, so you can't expect them to beat themselves with giveaways. You have to outscore them, and the Browns should be able to exploit the Vikings 28th-ranked defense (409.7 yards per game) that is 27th in red zone defense (75 percent) and 26th in scoring defense (26 points per game). We talked about the running backs earlier, but this game will take an efficient and explosive performance from Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr. and the entire passing offense because I think you need to score 30 to take down the sneaky-good Vikings, who have 33 and 30 points, respectively, in their last two outings against likely playoff teams in the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks.

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