The last time the Denver Broncos squared off against the Cleveland Browns, they were two teams spiraling in different directions. Vance Joseph was a dead man walking after the debacle against Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers, while Freddie Kitchens was one of the hottest names in football for the progress Baker Mayfield showed in his retooled offense.
Enter 2019, and both teams sit at 2-6 after disastrous starts. The Browns are a talented mess with word heating up that perhaps Kitchens is not the right guy for the job and simply an over-matched running backs’ coach. The Broncos are starting their sixth quarterback since Peyton Manning retired after Joe Flacco led a listless offense for eight weeks. All told, they’re relatively evenly matched teams.
Here’s what I’m looking for today:
1. How do the Broncos’ bottle up Nick Chubb?
2. Can Fangio force Baker into big mistakes?
Since analytics started bleeding into football, it’s been popular to downplay the importance of running backs. Numbers bear out to show how they’re mostly fungible and that their production is equal parts back and blocking.
Nick Chubb is one of those rare talents that throws that on its head. He has the vision and athleticism to make something out of what should be nothing and really punish a defense for mistakes in their run fits. To maximize his talents, the Browns run a heavy dose of outside and wide zone plays to give him a chance to scan the opposing front to find his holes.
The cuts off of the zone runs put an enormous amount of pressure on the backside defenders to maintain their gap integrity. If they over pursue, Chubb is going to get his. With young defenders like Alexander Johnson, Duke Dawson, Davontae Harris, and Malik Reed, it’s a big concern.
Kitchens and the Browns will mix these run designs with passing fakes in order to freeze linebackers, which only puts more pressure on the rest of the defenders. For all of the ink spilled over the terrible Cleveland line, they’re a strong run blocking unit and the combination of scheme and beef up front has helped spring Chubb a ton this year: they’re one of the most dangerous teams in the league in the open field.
Luckily for the Broncos, Von Miller is an elite edge setter and did an exceptional job against the Colts’ stretch game last week. When the Browns try to run at at him, Denver should win at the point of attack.
The #Browns have an affinity for wide zone to take advantage of Chubb's vision. Something tells me he's going to look to cut it up a lot against the #Broncos: Von Miller owns his edge. pic.twitter.com/O83foJhlSd— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 1, 2019
As scary as the Browns’ zone runs are, it’s the pin and pull run game that has me worried. You can read more here, but the basics are exactly as it sounds. Down blocks to pin defenders inside while pulling blockers get out into space to open up running lanes along the edge of the defense.
To the Patriots credit, they played the initial design about as well as could be expected. They pursued to the outside and would have had Chubb dead in his tracks if he hadn’t seen the crease and worked his way through it.
What’s truly terrifying about these runs from the Broncos’ perspective is how it will count on Todd Davis and Alexander Johnson to keep up with Chubb as he runs to the edge. If neither can keep up, the duty falls upon Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons coming down from the third level.
The #Browns pin and pull runs scare me more than wide zone and I expect them to try this a good bit. Would force Todd Davis and Alexander Johnson to try to chase down Nick Chubb. pic.twitter.com/4SrmrllNBl— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 2, 2019
If the Broncos D can find a way to shut down Chubb and make the Browns’ one dimensional they have a great chance at sending Baker Mayfield on a sad plane ride home. For as sensational as he was the last time the teams met, he’s horrible now. Only four quarterbacks with 120 or more attempts have looked worse than the 2018 1st overall pick this year on a per play basis: Josh Allen, Daniel Jones, Sam Darnold, and Josh Rosen.
How bad has Mayfield been?
Mayfield is tied for the lead league in interceptions this year with 12, none of them uglier than his turnover against the Patriots. Some of the others have been missed catches by his receivers, some have been huge gaffes by the quarterback.
While there has been a lot of blame pointed at Mayfield’s line, the bigger issue has been his ability to process information on the fly. It has crept into his pocket presence and decision making as he’ll force throws he shouldn’t, take sacks when options are open, and miss easy throws.
To take advantage, Vic Fangio should channel some of the chaos Dean Pees managed to churn up in the Tennessee Titans’ blowout victory over the Browns to start the year:
Down 13-22 in the fourth quarter, the Browns come to line line in a three by one formation with Odell Beckham Jr. to the right on second and four. Prior to the snap Mayfield sees two safeties deep, which hints that it could be a Cover 2 or 4 shell. As he receives Kevin Byard slides down to take the Browns’ superstar receiver off the board with a bracket. At the end of his drop Mayfield rips the ball to Beckham Jr and instead throws it right into Byard’s waiting hands.
Few teams in the league do a better job of muddling the looks a quarterback gets than Vic Fangio. It’s one of the big reasons why the defense is among the best in NFL through 8 games. Jarvis Landry, OBJ, and Chubb present a scary test, but also a huge opportunity to make a statement.
Vic Fangio's 1st #Broncos D has one legitimate pass rusher, one proven cornerback, a guy who spent his summer with the Salt Lake Stallions, and 3 first time starters including an UDFA rookie.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 2, 2019
Through 8 games, they're the 3rd best defense by DVOA in the league. https://t.co/bwoCo6kTdC
3. Can the run game find its’ footing?
4. The mystery man revealed.
5. What will Scangarello do to protect his tackles?
The last time the Broncos faced the Browns they had just lost Emmanuel Sanders for the year two weeks prior and found it impossible to move the ball against loaded boxes. This time around they’re entering the game without a proven quarterback and down to Courtland Sutton and a lot of questions in the receiving corps.
Expect more loaded boxes, as the smart money is on the Browns daring Scangarello and the passing attack to beat them. To best help them do that, the running game has to be more effective than it was last December to provide manageable down and distance situations. Fortunately, this year’s Broncos have Mike Munchak and a better scheme.
One of the most exciting things about breaking down the Broncos film this year is how they use personnel. Even if you aren’t a big Scangarello fan, it’s hard to hate on how he mixes personnel to mask the Broncos’ questions in the receiving corps and keep defenses on their toes. Looking at the running game specifically, it’s a ton of fun to see how the blocking scheme calls on Dalton Risner and Andy Janovich as lead blockers.
On the play above the Broncos line up in 21 personnel. At the snap Risner and Jano start to move towards the right edge. After receiving the hand-off Lindsay starts to move towards it as well. The Colts’ linebackers respond by scraping to the anticipated point of attack. There’s only one issue: Risner’s stops heading there mid-pull and starts to lead the way between Ron Leary and Elijah Wilkinson, which springs his back into the second level for an 11-yard gain.
One other really exciting element to this year’s rushing attack that could come in handy against the Browns is how diverse the shotgun run game is. I’ve already covered the ill-fated 3rd and 5 decision earlier this week, but let’s take a look at a more successful run below:
Like the ‘conservative” run, the Broncos are winning the numbers game in the box. This is something you’ll see a lot of analytics and game theory nerds rant about if you dive too deep down those dark recesses of football Twitter. Scangarello takes full advantage of that additional blocker by pulling Leary out of his spot to lead the way for Lindsay.
Noah Fant pins his assignment, but gives up some penetration. This slows Leary just enough for Darius Leonard to read the play and find himself in a position to squeeze the gap and shut it down.
This is where Lindsay makes the play with his anticipatory skills. By taking an exaggerated step on his cut, he forces Leonard to adjust. This gives Leary the help he needs to make the block, and Lindsay has the space to gain half the yardage needed for a first down on 2nd and 13.
One element the Broncos’ ground attack has been missing in 2019 is mobility at quarterback. On his best days Joe Flacco looked like a giraffe trying to dodge marbles on roller skates. A bigger running threat should lead to softer edges, as force players need to respect containment off the backside. That should only help Munchak and the running game.
Which brings me to biggest question mark today.
The X-factor going into the Browns’ game will be a signal caller making his first career start after Joe Flacco’s season ending jury. No, not Drew Lock. The 42nd pick in the draft remains on Injured Reserve despite the consternation of the Broncos’ local media and plenty of fans across the country.
In his stead will be Brandon Allen. Drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 6th round of the 2016 draft, the 27-year old is now playing for his third team in as many seasons. Acquired in a trade with the Los Angeles Rams by the Broncos after Lock’s injury in the Preseason, Allen has yet to take a single snap in the regular season during his NFL career.
Unfortunately, NFL Game Pass also took down the Preseason tape before this season began, so he remains as big an unknown to me as you. Since he was declared the starter I’ve read over any and all reports I could find on the 6’2 quarterback. Here’s what I know:
- Offers more mobility than Flacco did.
- A big part of his game is shot plays off play action, over 40% of his drop-backs at Arkansas came off play action.
- Poised in the pocket SEC during his career.
- Sneaky good NFL arm.
NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein saw similarities between Allen and another former Bronco, Case Keenum. Inside The Pylon’s Mark Schofield considered him a scheme fit in a West Coast scheme that plays into his strength off play action passes.
The big concerns will certainly be his ability to read the field and keep the ball out of harms way, especially with Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams back in the secondary for Cleveland. It wouldn’t be all that shocking if he gives the ball up on a boneheaded pick.
Still, considering how bad the Broncos’ offense had slipped in recent weeks, it’s hard to believe Allen’s mobility and willingness to let it fly off run fakes won’t give Scangarello something to work with. With Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon lining up across from the Broncos’ badly over-matched tackles, that ability to move the pocket may be the difference in the game.
One nerdy reason I believe the #Broncos offense will look better with a new quarterback?— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 2, 2019
The passing O averaged -44.95% DVOA over the last four weeks.
For context: only the Jets have looked that bad over the whole season.
Win or lose today, the Broncos are clearly in the middle of a rebuilding season. The average starter is right around 25-years old. It isn’t too soon to start dreaming about free agency and April at this point. A loss will only help the draft positioning, and it’d be shocking if Allen lights it up in such a way to insert himself into the long term quarterback conversation.
Even still, the Broncos are facing a struggling Browns team with a slumping franchise passer. A victory would do wonders for a young locker room building chemistry together. It’d also help generate a little goodwill and faith in the first year head coach.
Both teams come into today at 2-6. Only one can come out of Denver with a win, so it really comes down to “who can start the second half of 2019 1-0?”