The Cleveland Browns’ offense is having a rough go of late. This lack of on-field success has led fans and some in the media to take the temperature of Hue Jackson’ seat (spoiler: it’s hot), to blame the offensive line, or even to question Baker Mayfield’s viability as an NFL franchise quarterback.
Looking at the film I’ve seen plenty of blame to go around. But I decided to look to statistics to see if I could gain any insight into why Mayfield and the Browns have seemingly regressed since his debut against the New York Jets and subsequent 42 point performance against the Oakland Raiders.
In Search of 1st Downs
Through week 7, the Browns are not very good at keeping their offense on the field. In fact, they are going 3-and-out at a dangerous rate:
3 & Outs are a killer for your team- they put the D right back on the field and in today's NFL, that's more dangerous than ever.#LARams #InBrotherhood #ChiefsKingdom #Texans #RavensFlock #GoBucs #GoSaints #GiantsPride #GoPackGo #OnePride pic.twitter.com/bNh7cAyEMG— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) October 24, 2018
3-and-outs happen when you can’t convert on 3rd down, so it should come as no surprise that the Browns are 4th worst in the league at converting 3rd downs, only converting 32.9% of the time.
Why can’t the Browns convert? Part of the problem is that they are facing a lot of 3rd and long situations where opponents know they have to throw the ball:
Browns have been in 3rd and long on over 50% of their 3rd down attempts this season pic.twitter.com/6dh096xth3— Ryan McCrystal (@Ryan_McCrystal) October 22, 2018
Looking at last week’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, this is exactly what happened to the Browns. In the first half, the Browns had eight 3rd downs. Their yardage needed to convert each of those 3rd downs was: 2, 8, 13, 8, 14, 11, 7, and 10.
The Browns converted the 3rd and 2, and failed to convert another 3rd down in the entire half. Predictably, this led to zero offense points (despite the defense forcing a pair of turnovers and a safety).
Key Opportunity: Get More on 2nd Down
Obviously, if you want to get into 3rd and manageable 2nd down becomes pretty important.
Using an interesting visualization tool from sharpfootballstats.com, we can see just how unsuccessful the Browns have been on 2nd down. In fact, when it comes to success rate on 2nd down (which in this case would mean gaining 60%+ of the yardage needed to achieve a 1st down), the Browns are dead last in the NFL:
Having more success on 2nd down would put the Browns in more manageable 3rd down situations and hopefully allow them to convert at a higher rate.
Key Area of Concern: Drop Rate
“Catching the ball is very important to the passing game”
–John Madden, probably
It doesn’t matter if it’s 3rd and 2 or 3rd and 15, no offense can convert with an incomplete pass. Currently, the Browns lead the league in both drop rate on 3rd down and drop rate overall:
Of course you can! On 3rd Down...— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) October 22, 2018
BEST: SEA / CAR / WAS - 0.0%
WORST: CLE 9.8% / PHI 9.1% / TEN 8.3%
Key Tendency: Throwing Deep
The Browns throw deep more often than anyone in the league, having attempted 41 passes of 20+ yards. A boom-or-bust passing game with a lot of deep throws isn’t a problem in and of itself, but merely a stylistic choice.
The problem occurs when you don’t get enough “boom” to go with the “bust,” which is where the Browns are currently. Though they throw deep more than anyone in the NFL, they are only 12th in pass completions of 20+ yards, and only 21st in pass completions of 40+ yards. The explosive plays simply aren’t there often enough.
The other problem with this strategy is that it does not seem to match the Browns’ personnel. The best and most reliable targets in the passing game this year have been RB Duke Johnson, WR Jarvis Landry, and WR Rishard Higgins when he has been healthy. Duke may occasionally be good for a wheel route deep down the sidline, but Higgins is best working intermediate areas with his route running savvy, while Landry does his best work from the slot underneath. None of these options are sub 4.35 players with elite deep speed or jump ball ability.
The offensive line has been decent in pass protection, but there are times when rookie Desmond Harrison and newcomer Chris Hubbard have been overmatched on the edge. This has led to players like TEs Darren Fells and David Njoku, RB Duke Johnson, and even WR Jarvis Landry being held in to pass protect or chip block the edge rushers to allow receivers to work down the field on vertical passes.
Defenses seem to be taking note, and they are blitzing additional rushers with the hopes of getting to the quarterback before slow developing routes can break open:
These offenses are seeing the most BLITZES from opposing defenses.#Browns #GoSaints #GoNiners #DUUUVAL #InBrotherhood #DallasCowboys #BroncosCountry #TitanUp #GoPats #ChiefsKingdom pic.twitter.com/6mtdpVF4TK— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) October 25, 2018
Against the Browns, that strategy appears to be working. The misdirection and balance that you need to keep a defense at bay are not present enough in this offense at this time. Defenses are teeing off, and it’s working.
The Browns are close. As Browns fans we’ve seen a lifeless team that can’t compete, and this team is far ahead of the hopeless teams we’ve experienced. The talent is there to be competitive every week and win more games.
Three keys to turning some of that talent into wins are:
- Get more out of 2nd down to make 3rd down more manageable
- Catch the ball
- Make defenses pay for sending extra rushers by giving the quarterback options to get the ball out quickly
If the Browns can do these three things they still might not win every game, but they’ll give themselves a fighting chance.