Last season wasn’t exactly one to write home about for the Cleveland Browns. Neither the offense nor the defense really pulled its weight. But the year wasn’t all doom and gloom, there were some bright spots. You just have to know where to look. Today, I’m going to make the case that the ground game is one of them, and should be a strength of the team moving into 2017. I’m going to use a variety of metrics to make this case, some of which you may not be familiar with. I’ll do my best to describe what all of these numbers mean but I don’t want this article to turn into math class. For those of you who are interested in the gory details, I’ll be sure to include links where relevant. Now let’s get started.
Timing Is Important
We’ll start with the traditional, most basic way to describe how well a team ran the ball. The Browns were 19th in the league with just over 1,700 yards on the ground. Now, 19th might not seem great, but teams are pretty closely bunched here. Just 102 more yards would put the Browns in the top 10. Of course, 102 yards less would put them at 25th. Getting slightly more advanced and looking at yards per attempt (YPA), the Browns came in second in the whole NFL with an average of 4.9 yards every time they handed the ball off. I’ll bet that surprises a lot of people. On average, the Browns were one of the best rushing teams in football.
Upon hearing this, your first reaction might be to ask why Hue Jackson didn’t call more running plays. I believe the answer is relatively simple: the Browns weren’t actually that good at running the ball. The YPA number above is inflated by something called “score effects.” That’s just another way of saying teams were content to let the Browns run the ball once they had already established a lead. This is supported by breaking down YPA by half. The Browns had an average YPA of 4.4 in the first half, and 5.5 in the second half. Not coincidentally, the Browns spent a lot of time in the second half of most games trying to catch up to their opponents. Defenses were content to let the Browns run the ball, and thus run out the clock a little faster. This score effect is something you can see all across football. Good teams have lower second half YPA numbers because they are trying to run out the clock, while bad teams have higher second half YPAs, because opponents don’t care if they run the ball.
Don’t mistake this for me saying the Browns rushing offense wasn’t good. That first half YPA is still well above average. So while there might be a lot of reasons they fell behind and lost a lot of games, the ability to run the ball was not one of them.
Boom or Bust
Above I talked exclusively about averages. That’s a good way to get a general picture of what happened, but it doesn’t tell you much about how it happened. In order to explore what happened in a little more detail, Let’s talk a about outlier events, namely the number of times running backs were “stuffed,” defined as being tackled at or before the line of scrimmage, and the number of big plays, defined as rushes over 10 yards.
The Browns were stuffed on 13.1% of attempts, second worst in the NFL. This is usually the result of linemen missing assignments or getting completely dominated at the point of attack. Such a high number here indicates the offensive line had communication issues or one or two particularly weak links. Meanwhile, the Browns were seventh in big plays. So if the running back could get to and through the hole, they usually went for a lot of yards.
This finding is supported by some numbers from Football Outsiders. They use a variety of metrics to evaluate offensive lines and running backs, and try to determine who is responsible for the success or failure of rushing plays. The core metric for evaluating offensive lines is known as Adjusted Line Yards (ALY). A full explanation can be found at the link above, but the general idea is that the offensive line is assigned a certain amount of credit for all yards gained in particular yardage intervals. For instance, the line is responsible for 100% of the yards gained within four yards of the line of scrimmage, but only 50% responsible for all yards gained between five and ten yards. Evaluated in this manner, the Browns came in 28th in ALY, meaning the offensive line was one of the worst in football at run blocking. But if we look at Open Field Yards (OFY), defined as all yards gained ten yards past the line of scrimmage divided by total attempts, the Browns ranked first in the league. This again indicates that if the line was able to spring the ballcarrier to the second level, the backs were capable of making the most out of the play. This speaks to Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson’s vision and ability to avoid or break tackles, implying the Browns are pretty well set at running back.
One strange observation we can make here involves the team’s success in short yardage situations. The Browns converted 71% of their power running situations, defined as third or fourth down runs with less than two yards to go, or any run within two yards of the end zone. That was good for seventh in the NFL. Weirdly, though they often struggled to even get the ballcarrier to the line of scrimmage, the offensive line seemed to excel in these situations. Perhaps this can be attributed to the simplified defenses and blocking assignments often used in short yardage plays, but that’s just speculation on my part.
Combined with the overall averages above, we’re starting to see a picture of a team that is successful running the ball in a general sense, but is creating that success through balancing negative plays with big plays. The phrase “consistently inconsistent” comes to mind.
Location, Location, Location
There’s one more thing to unpack here, and that’s what sort of runs were successful and which weren’t. In addition to overall adjusted line yards, Football Outsiders breaks down ALY by location. Each run is placed into one of five categories, based on previous research: left end, left tackle, mid/guard, right tackle, and right end. Broken down this way, it becomes immediately obvious where the Browns’ strengths and weaknesses lie. For example, the Browns ranked 32nd and 22nd for left and right end runs respectively. Whether this has more to do with the offensive line, the blocking skills of receivers, or the particular skill-set of the running backs is unclear. But what is clear is that they struggled to get to the edge.
The offensive line struggled up the middle as well, coming in 27th in ALY for mid/guard runs. Given the injuries at guard and what we’ll charitably call “inconsistent” play at center, this isn’t much of a surprise. It’s tough to know for sure, but if I had to place a bet, this is where I think most of those stuffed runs we talked about earlier occurred. In other news that won’t be shocking at all, the Browns were most successful by far when running the ball off left tackle. When aiming for Joe Thomas, the Browns were the fourth best running team in football. People have often tried to nitpick Thomas’ run blocking ability, but it seems clear to me that he’s just as elite moving his man off a spot as he is protecting his quarterback. Interestingly, the Browns were decent running off of right tackle as well, coming in 16th. I’m still not convinced there’s a long term starter at right tackle on the roster, but the potential might be there. It’s worth noting it’s hard to disentangle things like full back or tight end blocking from these numbers, and there might be some dependency on the types of defenses they played. But overall it looks like the boom and bust behavior discussed earlier applies to location as well. The Browns struggled to run outside or up the middle, but found tremendous success running off tackle.
Those of you who paid attention to the Browns free agency signings might have looked at the information above and started salivating. Last season the Browns were able to excel on the ground despite a clear weakness in the middle of their offensive line. So what did they do? They went out and signed Kevin Zeitler and J.C. Tretter. Zeitler is one of the best guards in football, and Tretter is a solid center if he can stay healthy. These signings should help cut down on the number of runs blown up at the line of scrimmage and improve the team’s ability to run up the middle. They don’t even have to be great at either of those things. If the Browns can be merely average at preventing negative plays and running over the center, they should be one of the best rushing offenses in football. Whether or not they could keep up their efficiency in closer games is a source of concern, and it’s tough to say they will be able to replicate the big plays from a year ago, but I think there’s enough here for fans to be excited about what should be a big year on the ground in 2017.