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Giants vs. Browns: When the Browns have the ball

Baltimore Ravens v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The New York Giants defense has a difficult task ahead this Sunday on prime time television against the 9-4 Cleveland Browns, who just lost a nail-biter to the division rival Baltimore Ravens. This Cleveland team is not your father’s team; they have an identity and they’re coached very well by rookie head coach Kevin Stefanski.

The former Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator brought the wide zone (or outside zone) system with him to Cleveland and it meshes well with the Browns two stud running backs, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. The Browns rank third in rushing yards per game with 156.2, and their entire offense is based on executing these zone runs, utilizing play action off the runs, and moving the sticks to control the game.

The Browns rank 12th in time of possession on the season, but third in the last three games against the Ravens, Tennessee Titans, and Jacksonville Jaguars. In the first three games of November, the Browns only scored 32 points; the reason for the lack of offense was mostly due to inclement weather in all three contests, along with 20+ mile per hour winds, but the clouds have since changed. The Browns are coming off two consecutive 40-point performances.

Cleveland is 13th in points per game for the season (26.8), while the Giants are 31st (18.3). Stefanski’s offense has put 30 points or more on the scoreboards seven times this season. The Giants have done it one time in their loss to Dallas, assisted by a defensive touchdown.

The Browns currently rank 25th in passing yards per game (PYPG) with an average of 217, but quarterback Baker Mayfield has been hot the last three games; he’s second with an average of 315 PYPG in that time frame, behind only Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs. Star wide receiver, and former Giant Odell Beckham Jr. went down with an injury in late October. Since the injury, Mayfield hasn’t necessarily relied heavily on one target, albeit Jarvis Landry would be the first read in most occasions.

Wide zone

The Browns often use wide zone rushing plays in their offense. The wide zone is a great scheme when coached correctly and blocked well, as it also sets up play action boot legs to the opposite side and can punish overpursuing defenders. The scheme puts a lot of lateral pressure on defenders who must be disciplined with how they pursue the football. The scheme is maximized by a running back who has excellent vision and can see how defenders are pursuing and then react accordingly to cut-back lanes within the framework of the defense.

The offensive linemen (and tight ends) step laterally to the play side and aim for the outside shoulder (or number) of the defender. If the lineman is successful in reaching the outside shoulder, then he pins the player inside and attempts to seal him from the outside. If the lineman cannot successfully reach the outside shoulder by the third step, then the lineman attempts to just run the defender through the sideline.

On these wide zone plays, to the play side, if an offensive lineman is uncovered (meaning there is no defensive lineman over the top of him), then his responsibility is the next play side defensive lineman. If the lineman is covered, then he has to finish at the second level, but that shouldn’t deter him from initially attempting to halt the defensive lineman, so his teammate can have a better opportunity to block him. Here’s my attempt at art to illustrate this play:

I know, ladies and gentlemen ... my art teacher never had nice things to say about these attempts, either. Those are objectives, but it doesn’t mean it has to be that way throughout a play. If the uncovered lineman can’t get to his assignment then the offensive line adapts. It’s one of the many reasons why a cohesive offensive line unit is so effective. Here’s another edition of me attempting my best Claude Monet:

Let’s watch that in real tim

The running back’s vision is key. Typically, his first read will be the play side end. He’ll read the end and see the leverage that the tight end has on the end man on the line of scrimmage. If the tight end can successfully hook and seal, then the running back will bounce the run outside for an easy chunk of yards. On this play, Myles Jack (44) does an excellent job beating Wyatt Teller (77) to his spot to limit Nick Chubb’s gain, but you can see the anatomy of the common Browns play. The Giants will need Blake Martinez and the other linebackers to recognize and react quickly, and the backside defenders must be cognizant of the cut-back lanes, as Chubb and Hunt will both make the Giants pay if there are running lanes.

The offense is known for this wide zone concept, but Stefanski also mixes power/gap concepts with a defined rushing hole, sometimes two pullers - other times one. There is diversification to this rushing attack and it’s difficult to defend.

These pin-pull concepts and even counter are also part of the rushing offense. The Giants should have their hands full with this offense on Sunday.

Quarterback

Baker Mayfield is coming off two 300-yard performances and is playing really good football within the confines of this offense. On the season, he has a 62 percent completion rate and has thrown for 2,785 yards. His touchdown to interception ratio is 23-8 with an 8-1 ratio in the last three games. He’s been doing a good job moving the football, keeping the offense on the field, and hitting on play action passes.

Despite the recent play, Mayfield is still a quarterback that attempts to force throws and can make mistakes. This is where Patrick Graham can devise trap coverages in the flat, similar to the interception we saw Tyus Bowser make in the Ravens game, or up the seam with robber/slice coverages from the safeties. Graham’s pre-snap to post-snap looks may be able to bait Mayfield into some poor decisions, but the Giants must hang onto the football and maximize these opportunities.

Running backs

Chubb is a top five running back in the NFL, and Kareem Hunt is the league’s best number two running back. Chubb is a unique blend of excellent vision, superior compact physicality, and subtle movements to manipulate defensive player’s tackling angles. He’s 5-foot-11, 227 pounds, and he’s not easy to bring down. He’s played in only nine games this season after suffering a sprained MCL against Dallas, but he has still amassed 881 yards (5.9 yards per carry) and 9 touchdowns on the season.

In the nine games played, Chubb has five 100-yard finishes. He’s fourth in the league in 10+ yard runs (29), despite missing four games, and he has only one fumble on the season. He’s not used much as a receiver, with only has 96 receiving yards on 9 catches (10 targets). However, 79 of those yards are in the last three games, so that’s not a great sign for the Giants.

Hunt is very talented as well. His contact balance is one of the best in the NFL and he’s an adept receiving back. Hunt has 252 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns on the season through the air on 31 catches (41 targets). As far as running the football...yeah, he’s good at that too. He has 772 yards and 5 touchdowns on the year (4.4 YPC). Hunt has 27 10+ yard runs and has picked up 41 first downs. It’s not exactly a sigh of relief when Hunt enters the game.

Wide Receivers

Jarvis Landry headlines the Beckham-less unit. Landry operates primarily out of the slot. He has 60 catches on 83 targets for 728 yards, and 2 touchdowns. He’s only had more than 100 yards receiving once this season). Landry is used on trick plays such as end arounds, screens, and throwback screens where Landry uses his arm to find receivers down the field. He threw a touchdown pass to Odell Beckham Jr. against Dallas in Week 4 and the Giants can’t underestimate this type of play as Landry has 4 passing attempts and 4 completions on the year for 74 yards and that touchdown. Landry is a tough player who brings a lot of grit to the offense over the middle of the field.

The second receiver in the offense is the 2016 fifth-round selection out of Colorado State, Rashard Higgins. He has 31 catches on 41 targets for 468 yards, and 4 touchdowns. In the last two games, he has 16 targets and 12 catches. Higgins is a solid route runner who does well as the outside receiver on comebacks, curls, and on Mayfield’s back shoulder throws near the sideline. He’s 6’1, 198 pounds, and he’s a solid athlete, but not a burner.

Rookie sixth-round pick Donovan Peoples-Jones has started to step up in the offense the last few games. He’s a big 6-2, 208-pound, receiver who possesses a lot of athletic ability. He has 10 catches on the season (14 targets) for 238 yards and 2 touchdowns. However, through the last two games, he has 8 targets and 5 catches for 1 touchdown. Peoples-Jones has vertical speed and can threaten a defense. His snap counts have risen the last three weeks and he figures to be a part of Cleveland’s 11 personnel package.

Tight ends

Former Atlanta Falcon Austin Hooper is now the lead tight end for the Browns. He reset the market (at the time) for tight ends in the offseason. Hooper missed the week 14 game against the Ravens with a neck injury, and weeks 7-9 due to an appendectomy. Hooper is a big 6-4, 255-pound, tight end who has a very large catch radius. He’s nimble for a man of his size, and his statistics don’t necessarily reflect what he’s capable of doing; he has 30 catches on 41 targets for 286 yards, and 2 touchdowns. He’s a solid run blocker, but Giants ends like Jabaal Sheard should win that matchup on the edge.

David Njoku is the forgotten tight end of the bunch, but he still plays a solid chunk of snaps for the Browns. He’s 6-4, 246 pounds and possesses a ton of athleticism and explosiveness. In the absence of Hooper against the Ravens, we saw Njoku receive more opportunities through the air. Although he hasn’t done much on the season, he still plays a good amount of snaps, he can block, and he has the possibility to break off a big play at any time.

Rookie fourth-round pick Harrison Bryant has carved out a role and plays some H-Back for the Browns. He’s a two way tight end who can pose a threat as a receiver and as a blocker. He’s not as big as Hooper, but he’s more athletic and is a bit smoother as a receiver. Much like the Giants, the Browns will line up in 13 personnel packages, so all three tight ends will be on the field at times.

Offensive line

The Browns have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. According to Pro Football Focus, they have two players as top 15 graded offensive lineman on the season (right guard Wyatt Teller and right tackle Jack Conklin). The offensive lineman that has given up the most pressures is rookie LT Jedrick Wills, who has only given up 17 pressures. For reference, Andrew Thomas has given up 51 pressures on the season.

The unit as a whole works incredibly well together. Wills and left guard Joel Bitonio are anchors on the left side of the line of scrimmage, while Teller and Conklin are arguably the most effective duo in the NFL on the right side. J.C. Tretter is the center and he does a phenomenal job. He’s the fourth ranked center, according to PFF. The Browns swing offensive lineman is Chris Hubbard, the former starting tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Hubbard is one of the better swing linemen in the NFL.

It is absolutely no coincidence that the Browns hired offensive line coach Bill Callahan and their entire unit improved. Coaching is key, and the combination of Callahan and Stefanski maximize a group of talented players. The Giants stout defensive front will be put to the test against his Browns offensive line.

Final thoughts

The Giants were flexed into this primetime matchup on Sunday Night Football against these Cleveland Browns. The Week 14 New York Giants give me little hope that the decision makers will appreciate that choice. This is not a referendum on the Giants defense, which is still a very good unit, but they can’t be asked to play 79 snaps again. New York’s offense must stabilize, move the chains, and allow this defense time to collect themselves against this run-centric offensive team.