Before we get into the trees, let's take a look at the forest. Yesterday against the Titans, the Cleveland Browns offense has 5.8 yards per play, split up into 3.9 yards per rush and 9.3 yards per pass. Those are pretty good numbers, so if that's all you saw it wouldn't be a shock to hear that the team scored 28 points. However, ask someone who watched every play, and they'll more than likely tell you that the offense didn't look all that great. So what happened?
I believe the problem was sequencing. In football terms, this is often referred to as "staying ahead of the sticks." The basic idea is that by picking up some "normal" amount of yards on every down, you can stay out of bad situations like third and long. The Browns had trouble making that happen on Sunday. Even though the offense played well in the aggregate, they had trouble stringing together enough positive plays to sustain drives, and were rarely able to make big plays on third and long to cover those earlier mistakes. To really break down what happened, let's get into the play calling and results.
The Browns called 18 pass plays, two of which resulted in sacks and one which resulted in a two yard scramble. Discounting the kneel at the end, they called 28 run plays. That means they ran the ball on about 60% of their plays. The highest percentage in the NFL last year over the full season was Houston at 51.8% rushing. Only three teams in the league ran as often as they passed. At this point it may be tempting to simply point to this imbalance and say problem solved, but I don't think that would be quite right. The fact is, most of the time, this approach was working.
The problem, I think, lies in how the play calling changed after halftime, and with what happened on second down. In the first half, six pass plays were called on first down. Four of these plays went for five yards or more, keeping the team on schedule. The exceptions were a two yard scramble and a screen pass that lost three yards. After this success in the first half, the Browns did not call a pass on first down for the rest of the game. That kind of disparity jumps right out, but I'm not sure it was really that big of an issue. On first down, the Browns rushed 14 times. Nine of those runs went for four yards or more, keeping the team on schedule. It's worth wondering if some first down passes might have done better, but so far we haven't identified anything that would derail an offense.
On second down, the Browns threw four passes and ran ten times. This is where the trouble starts. Of those ten runs, only three gained four yards or more, and two resulted in lost yardage. This is what stopped the Browns. There were eight pass plays called on third down, and all of them were with five yards or greater to go. On the majority, the offense needed to pick up seven or more. The Browns offense simply isn't built for that type of thing, and success on those plays is rare to begin with. Manziel completed two passes, the second TD to Travis Benjamin and a 16 yard throw to Andrew Hawkins on third and 12. He was also sacked twice, nearly losing two fumbles. This article really isn't about Johnny Manziel, but when looking at his stat line it's worth remembering that six of his meager 15 throws came on third and long. The passing game was clearly just playing mop-up duty for the rushing offense in the second half. Being in third and long situations hurt, as the Browns only managed to convert four of 11 third downs.
If the Browns had re-distributed their running plays such that some more successful ones occurred on second down instead of first, it's entirely possible some drives may not have stalled. This is why sequencing matters. A team can perform well overall, but if those plays don't happen in the right order, it may not amount to much. My initial reaction was to complain about the massive run/pass disparity, but I think what the coaches were trying to accomplish is clear. They had a big lead, a turnover-prone quarterback, and a pretty good defense. They wanted to limit mistakes and burn clock. They were playing not to lose for most of the second half, and in the end it more or less worked. It's easy for me to sit here and say I wish they would have thrown more on first and second down (which I do), but they got the result they were looking for and won the game. I do hope they take the training wheels off of whoever starts next week, because I don't think this game plan is all that repeatable. They have to trust the QB to throw on first and second down, and the first half gave some indication that Manziel can do that. Becoming so predictable in the second half worked in part because they were facing a rookie quarterback and had used special teams and turnovers to build up a lead. I think it's going to take some combination of opening up the playbook and, frankly, better luck, to put more points on the board in the future. All that said, I'm actually pretty encouraged by what I saw from the offense, especially on the ground. They were unlucky in how plays were strung together, but all of the pieces for successful offense showed up. The forest tends to be more predictive than the trees.