The Cleveland Browns are on the cusp of reaching the NFL playoffs for the first time since 2002. The Browns went 9-7 under then Head Coach Butch Davis and QB Tim Couch. They would go on to lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wildcard round of the Playoffs. After a 2-4 start, The Browns spent most of the 2002 season around .500 before closing out the season, winning on the road at Baltimore and Home vs. Atlanta. Since 2002, Cleveland has not returned to the playoffs. If you were to ask most Cleveland Browns fans in recent years what they thought would happen first, Cleveland makes it to the playoffs, or man returns to the moon, they would most certainly believe that man would land on the moon again before the Browns would make the playoffs. Still, Browns fans who are considered to be among the loyalist of fans in the NFL remain loyal to their team, and that loyalty appears to have finally come full circle as the Browns are poised to reach a double-digit win season for the first time since 2007 (10-6).
The Kevin Stefanski Effect in Cleveland
During the offseason, I discussed the Kevin Stefanski effect in Cleveland, his approach, and how the Browns already had the personnel to run his offensive scheme. I wanted to quickly re-examine that analysis since the Browns are starting to get hot at the right time.
Personnel Groups and Setefanski's Willingness to Adapt
I pointed out how Kevin Stefanski utilized 12 personnel at the 2nd highest rate in the NFL in 2019 (34%). So far in 2020, the Stefanski led Cleveland Browns like to operate out of 12 Personnel on 24% of their plays, the 8th highest in the NFL this season. Cleveland operated out of 12 personnel in 2019 at a 23% rate. So the difference for Cleveland YOY is minimal, vs. his usage of 12 personnel in Minnesota; it's a significant difference. The reason? The Browns came into the season with Austin Hooper and David Njoku. Njoku missed time with injury earlier in the season, and their usage of a 2 RB or a 21, 22 personnel with both Chubb and Hunt increased. This proves that Stefanski can quickly adapt his system to the personnel based on the circumstance, which is the mark of an excellent football coach.
Regardless of the personnel groups, the Browns are more efficient in the run game out of 12 Personnel YOY, averaging 6.2 yds per rush attempt vs. 4.5 in 2019. The Browns passing game out of 12 Personnel averaging 8.1 yds per attempt in 2020 vs. 9.2 in 2019, but they are more efficient. In 2019 Browns QB's threw 2 INT's and were sacked five times out of 12 Personnel vs. 2019, where they have only turned it over one time and while surrendering a single sack. The passer rate has also improved by 3.4 points YOY from 100.5 to 103.9.
Staying Ahead of The Chains
The other area we examined, Cleveland's inability to stay ahead of the chains in 2019. During the summer, I wrote that Kevin Stefanski was a very run-heavy play-caller on 1st down, calling a run on 57% of Viking first down play calls. The Vikings averaged 5.5 yds per play, both running and passing on first downplays. On 2nd down, they remained balanced, running the ball 51% of the time while averaging 6.0 yds per play (run or pass), ranking 6th in the NFL.
2019 Browns 1st Down Offensive Efficiency
In 2019, the Browns were not bad on first down yds per play average (5.7), ranking in the top third of the NFL, while remaining balanced running the football 51% of the time. The Browns did throw 7 INT's on first down plays (Bot 3rd).
2019 Browns 2nd Down Offensive Efficiency
On 2nd downplays, Cleveland actually faired better in yds per play than the Vikings at 6.1 yds per play (5th), but again they threw 6 INT's on 2nd downplays (Bot 3rd).
In 2019 the Browns ran the football 38% of the time on 2nd down, throwing balance out the window and attributed to several early-down sacks. Browns QB's were sacked 17 times on 1st down in 2019 (Bot 3rd), likely leading to the league's 7th worst yds to go average on 2nd down of 8.4 yds.
2020 Cleveland Browns Early Down Efficiency
In 2020 under Stefanski, the Browns are 2nd in 1st down yds per attempt and have only surrendered four first down sacks (4th). On second down, the Browns are more balanced running the football on 45% of their 2nd down attempts and average 5.7 yds per play (15Th). The Browns are 12th in average yds to go on 2nd down (7.6) and have given up only nine sacks (Top 3rd). The Browns are .8 yds better per play on 2nd down compared to 2019.
Success on Early Downs Have Improved The Browns Third Down Success
Early down success and staying ahead of the chains lead to more success on third downplays.
In 2019 the Browns ranked in the bottom third of the NFL in third-down yds to go average (7.5) and averaged 4.5 yds per play (Bot 3rd). Cleveland also gave up 17 sacks on third down (Near the bot 3rd). The Browns were also in the bottom third of the NFL in third-down conversion rate (36.3%).
2020 Cleveland Browns 3rd down Efficiency
In 2020, the Browns are near the top third of the NFL in average yds to go on third-down plays (6.7) and are tied for 1st in the NFL in third-down sacks allowed (3). The Browns are in the middle third in average third down yds per play but convert at a 44% clip (top 3rd). The Browns have thrown 4 INT's on third down marking the only real negative for them in this much-improved area.
The Future of the Browns
The Browns have the Ravens, Giants, Jets, and Steelers remaining in 2020. They need to win 2 of 4 to secure themselves a spot in the playoffs completely. They can certainly go 10-6 and still be in, but why leave it to chance.
The Brown's emphatic beatdown of the Titans this past Sunday is the signature win they needed to solidify their status as real playoff contenders. If they can beat the Ravens or Steelers in the next four games, that would put them in serious Super Bowl contention, and if they beat both the Steelers and the Ravens, the spotlight will shine brighter on the City of Cleveland than ever before.
Browns fans have a lot to be excited about in 2020 and beyond. The Brown's ascension to the playoffs in 2020 probably feels like a shot to the stars. If the Browns land on the moon, that's a tremendous success; anything beyond the moon could lead them to an AFC title game, the Browns first since the game vs. the Broncos in 1989 "The Drive" and John Elway who broke the hearts of Cleveland fans with an epic 99-yard game-winning drive.
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