Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski likes to run the ball, judging from his days with the Vikings, and he will bring that philosophy to Cleveland.
Last year the Vikes were one of only three teams that ran the ball more often than they threw it. The other two were the Baltimore Ravens, who led the universe in most offensive categories and ran the ball 57.5 percent of the time, and the San Francisco 49ers, who made it to the Super Bowl while running 51.0 percent of their plays. The Vikes were third at 50.5 percent.
Stefanski's scheme in Minnesota emphasized outside wide zone blocking and play-action passing. They used less spread and pistol formation with Kirk Cousins and more plays under center. They also used two tight end formations and employed C. J. Ham as a true fullback. Ham started seven games and was on the field for 35 percent of the team's offensive snaps.
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The Vikes featured Dalvin Cook at tailback, and he ran for 1,135 yards and 4.5 yards per carry. Coincidentally, this fan had the opportunity to chitchat with Browns great Earnest Byner at a Browns Backers meeting at Tuty's Bar and Grill in Beavercreek Ohio, prior to the 2017 draft. Earnest was very high on Dalvin Cook, and darned if he wasn't right.
The Purple People Eaters also got great mileage from rookie Alexander Mattison, who added 462 yards, and undrafted free agent Mike Boone was good for 273 yards and an eye-popping 5.6 yards per carry. Former Detroit Lion Ameer Abdullah added another 115 yards and 5.0 yards per carry. Thus even though the Vikings had no runner as dominant as Nick Chubb, the Vikings used four running backs to accumulate yardage, which is how they ran more often than the Browns and out-performed them on the ground by 232 yards.
All that running did not diminish the stats of Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, who had another terrific year working for Stefanski. He passed less often than in previous campaigns in Washington but achieved a passer rating of 107.4, the highest in his career. He also had the highest TD percentage in his career, 5.9 percent compared to his Washington career average of 4.7 percent, and the lowest INT percentage of his career (1.4 versus 2.6 in Washington). Also, a career-high was the TD-to-INT ratio of 4.33 versus 1.39 in Washington. It's not like he suffered by being in a run-first offense, quite the opposite.
By comparison, the pass-happy Browns ran the ball only 42.2 percent of the time, good for 15th in the NFL. Despite the huge effectiveness of Nick Chubb who averaged 5.0 yards per carry, the Browns failed to make the top 10 in rushing yards. This is absolutely incredible.
Maybe the most amazing stat of all is that the Browns were 22nd in rushing attempts. How can a team be so reluctant to run the ball with Chubb, Kareem Hunt, Dontrell Hilliard, and D'Ernest Johnson as the running backs? What were they afraid of?
The new coach is not necessarily obliged to install a similar scheme at his new gig. For example, Bill Parcells was a big advocate of power football when he coached the New York Giants, but when he went to New England, he played airball with Drew Bledsoe because he did not have the power running back, at least not initially.
However, in this situation, the run-first wide zone-blocking scheme is totally what the Browns need at this time, and Air Freddie was just not hacking it. The Browns definitely need Stefanski and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt to show them how to run the ball, because last year was chaos.
Stefanski has the tight ends in Stephen Carlson, Pharaoh Brown, David Njoku and Ricky Seals-Jones. Seals-Jones is a Restricted Free Agent, which means that the Browns are allowed to match a competing offer, but on the other hand, the team might listen to offers given that they are four deep.
The desire for the wide zone-blocking scheme implies that the Browns are going to look for athletic, mobile tackles to make the system work. Kendall Lamm showed some ability in limited opportunities last year but could not stay healthy. Chris Hubbard really struggled last season, so the Browns will probably add two offensive tackles this season, probably one in free agency and one via the draft.
As for quarterback Baker Mayfield, the best way to help him cut down on his interceptions and make more big plays is to allow him to rely on the running game more. Mayfield will make fewer throws, but will do more damage. He will also cut down his interceptions if he sees more eight-man fronts from defenses. This is what happened for Kirk Cousins in Minnesota.
The Browns going to have to get more yards from additional running backs, especially Kareem Hunt. Hunt was a superstar in Kansas City, but with the Browns, he was not used in a very imaginative way last year. It's hard to prove, you but could easily get the impression that the offense was designed to get the ball deep to OBJ and Jarvis Landry, and to give Chubb the carries on the ground, and other players were excluded.
The coaching staff really did not want to give touches to Dontrell Hilliard and D'Ernest Johnson. Between the two of them, they had only 70 yards in just 17 carries and a 4.1 yards per carry. As receivers out of the backfield, they had 18 receptions in 22 targets for 163 yards and a catch percentage of 81.8 percent. Thus they put up good numbers when they were on the field but were barely utilized in 2019.
Even Hunt was used rather grudgingly and did not approach his superstar numbers he achieved in Kansas City. Hunt proved himself to be a surprisingly good blocker, delivering Duke Johnson style pops to slow down the pass rush. and give Mayfield just an extra split second to deliver the ball. However, though being used as an extra blocker is fine, Hunt's production was nowhere near the level it was in Kansas City.
His yards from scrimmage per snap was 2.56 in Kansas City and only 1.51 in Cleveland. Certainly, Chubb should get most of the carries, but Hunt is available to handle more of the workload also. One of the early tasks that Stefanski and Van Pelt have to work on is to at least get Hunt more into the game, never mind understudies Hilliard and Johnson.
The Browns also underutilized extra wide receivers last year. Combined, Damion Ratley, KhaDarel Hodge, and Rashard Higgins had only 331 receiving yards, an incredibly low total. The only logical conclusion is that the Browns concept in 2019 was to get the ball to OBJ, Landry or Chubb as much as possible, and to minimize the use of third-down running backs and extra-wide receivers.
These bizarre trends are not going to continue under the leadership of Stefanski and Van Pelt, it says here. They are going to re-establish the running game and get better use out of the entire running back corps, especially Kareem Hunt.
They will also make use of multiple tight end sets and we may see one of the tight ends line up at fullback as well. Most importantly, the effect on Baker Mayfield will be positive, as he will put the ball in the air fewer times but will do more damage.