There was perhaps no more disappointing team in 2019 than the Cleveland Browns. With Baker Mayfield coming off a terrific rookie season and the Browns trading for Odell Beckham Jr., people actually expected the Browns to be good for the first time in seemingly forever: Cleveland's over/under opened at 9 wins following the 2019 NFL Draft. Once the season began, it quickly became clear that the Browns had some fatal flaws.
First and foremost, the Freddie Kitchens-led coaching staff was not up to snuff. Even more crucially, the team's offensive line was just horrendous, to the point that it undermined everything the team wanted to do offensively. Mayfield was constantly under pressure, and even when he wasn't, he faded away from the defense and threw off his back foot. He regressed badly in every area, from completion percentage (down 4.4 percentage points) to yards per attempt (down 0.5 yards), while his touchdown rate plummeted (5.6 percent to 4.1 percent) and his interception rate spiked (2.9 percent to 3.9 percent).
At the end of the year, the Browns cut ties with both Kitchens and general manager John Dorsey. Cleveland hired Andrew Berry to take over the front office and Kevin Stefanski to take over coaching duties. Stefanski surrounded himself with a top-notch staff, with the most important piece being legendary offensive line coach Bill Callahan. Berry made a strong commitment to improving the personnel along that line, importing prized free agent Jack Conklin from the Titans and using the No. 10 overall pick on Jedrick Wills.
That offensive line has led the way in the Browns' offensive resurgence. The rookie Wills has been excellent in pass protection even while flipping sides of the line (he played right tackle in college and is now protecting Mayfield's blind side), while the veterans are just balling out in both phases of the game. There are 180 offensive linemen who have played at least 100 snaps so far this season, and each of Bitonio, Tretter, Teller, and Conklin ranks inside the top 44 in both pass and run blocking, and top 23 in overall grade at Pro Football Focus.
With Callahan coaching them up along the line, that quintet is leading one of the most interesting and diverse run games in football so far this season. Cleveland ranks first in the NFL in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards per carry, fourth in rushing EPA per play, and fourth in overall rushing DVOA. Both Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt rank inside the top seven in yards after contact per attempt, while Chubb ranks second and Hunt ranks fifth in rushing yards over expectation per attempt, according to NFL.com's Next Gen Stats. As a whole, Cleveland ranks fourth in the league in rush yards on zone runs, first on lead runs, third on power runs, and fourth on misdirection runs, according to PFF and Tru Media.
Chubb, Hunt, and No. 3 back D'Earnest Johnson have had some enormous holes through which to run, and they have taken advantage of that fact. The Browns rank second in the NFL with 18 explosive runs, per Tru Media, and fourth in the percentage of their rush attempts that gained 12 yards or more (10.5 percent).
Coming as he does from a long line of coaches who prioritize the play-action passing game, Stefanski has married these run concepts to corresponding passing plays. Mayfield has faked a hand-off on 34.1 percent of his dropbacks, per PFF, the sixth-highest rate among qualified quarterbacks.
Specifically, the Browns run bootleg action more than almost any team in the NFL. Only the Rams have thrown more bootleg passes this year, per Tru Media, while Mayfield has thrown more than twice as many passes after bootlegging to his left (15) as the next closest quarterback in the league (Carson Wentz at seven). On those plays, Mayfield is 12 of 15 for 158 yards and two touchdowns. His 150.2 passer rating on bootleg action is second-best in the NFL behind that of only Patrick Mahomes.
Having Mayfield fake the run and then boot out to one side of the field allows him cleaner reads than those he is typically afforded from the pocket. He only has to run high and low in one area of the field, rather than having to scan from side to side the decipher whether the defense is in man or zone. It's the type of simplified read that Mayfield excelled at during his rookie season when he set the first-year passer record for touchdown passes.
Also helping in that regard is the Browns' increased usage of empty backfield sets. Spreading the field horizontally and forcing defenses to declare their coverage earlier allows him to pick his intended target quickly, and get the ball there cleanly before the rush has a chance to hit home and before a defender has a chance to close in on the receiver. He's 21 of 29 for 206 yards and three scores out of empty so far this year.
The interesting thing here is that the Browns' passing game can and should get even better. Mayfield is actually attempting really difficult throws: according to NFL.com's Next Gen Stats, he's got the lowest expected completion percentage in the league so far this season at only 58.3 percent. He's completing those passes more often than expected and ranks above average in CPOE (completion percentage over expectation), but if the Browns schemed him easier throws more often than they already are, it's likely the passing game would get even more efficient.
The Browns have only recently started getting high-priced tight end Austin Hooper more involved in their aerial attack, targeting him 17 times in the past two games after throwing him just 10 passes across the first three weeks. His increased involvement over the middle of the field could open things up for Odell Beckham on the outside. Beckham has had some splash plays here and there but has yet to top 81 receiving yards in a game. Jarvis Landry, meanwhile, is clearly still feeling the after-effects of his offseason hip injury, and is averaging a career-low 5.6 targets per game. If Cleveland can manage to get any or all of those guys untracked, the passing game can leap from average to good, and take the offense to another level.
The Browns face a tough defense this coming weekend in the Pittsburgh Steelers, but despite that, according to Sharp Football Stats, they actually face the third-easiest schedule of opposing pass defenses through the rest of the year. With the run game working as well as it is, with the way Stefanski marries his passing game concepts to corresponding runs, and with the talent the Browns have in their pass-catching group, there's no reason to think they can't take the next step forward.