Can Kevin Stefanski Save The Browns Offense?

Baker Mayfield was the #1 pick in the draft two years ago and considered one of the most talented prospects in the game. His rookie year was very solid, posting 27 touchdowns in only 14 games, and he showed flashes of all-pro level football. Last offseason, Mayfield was one of the favorites to win MVP under new head coach Freddie Kitchens. Well, I think we all know how that turned out. Mayfield finished second in the league in interceptions behind only the blind wonder, Mr. 30/30, Jameis Winston, and the Browns missed the playoffs with an 8-8 record. 

Mayfield has talent, there is no doubt about that, the only question is how to put him in a situation to maximize it. Well, the key to Mayfield’s success might have just arrived at his doorstep in the form of new head coach Kevin Stefanski.

Passing

Stefanski had great success as Minnesota’s offensive coordinator last season. His offense was built on a foundation of outside zone runs and play-action passes. The Vikings really only came out in the shotgun on long-distance situations or third downs, and most of their deep passes came off play-action. Cousins played phenomenal in this run-first scheme and made his first Pro Bowl since 2016 in Washington. After rewatching Vikings games from last year, it’s apparent that Stefanski’s offense has one glaring flaw: it lives and dies by the rush.

In Week 4 against the Bears, the Vikings totaled only 40 rushing yards on 15 carries. They went on to lose 16-6. In Week 9 against the Chiefs, Stefanski’s offense tallied 96 rushing yards on 27 total carries, rounding out to 3.6 yards per carry. They lost that game 26-23. At home against the Packers in Week 16, Vikings running backs finished with 55 yards on 15 carries. They lost that game 23-10. In those three losses, Cousins had a combined completion percentage of 53% because Stefanski’s offense works best when the defense is biting on the play action and that only happens if the run game is effective. 

When the run game does get going, however, the passing game is absolutely incredible. Kirk Cousins had a passer rating of 107.4 last year, which just so happens to be the best of his career. He also had a career-high in touchdown to interception ratio at 26-6, and let’s not kid ourselves, that is all thanks to Stefanski’s system. The Vikings utilized play-action on 31.4% of pass attempts. On such plays, the Vikings held the best passer rating in the league at 129.2 and generated 1,373 passing yards and 14 touchdowns with only two interceptions.

Lucky for the Browns, Mayfield thrives on play-action passes. Last season, 134 of Mayfield’s 534 attempts came on play-action; that’s about 25% of his pass attempts. He gained 1,128 of his 3,827 passing yards on such plays, which rounds out to about 30% of his yards. Mayfield’s play-action completion percentage ranked fifteenth in the league at 67.1%, which is far better than his unadjusted completion percentage of 59.4%. Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry form arguably the best wide receiver tandem in the league, but they had no separation on their routes or room to run after the catch last season. If Stefanski can get Beckham and Landry open in between the zones on play-action passes and five-step drops like he did with Diggs and Thielen last year, they would become instant contenders in the AFC. 

The Vikings have a lot of impressive plays from a season ago, but one of Stefanski’s best play designs was showcased on a 32-yard touchdown reception from Kyle Rudolph. The formation has two tight ends in tight with two receivers out wide. The play starts with a beautiful play-action fake to the right after which Cousins rolls out to the left. Diggs’ route takes him from the left side of the formation to the other side of the field. The tight end on the left side of the line (Irv Smith Jr.) fakes like a blocker before moving back towards the left side about two yards downfield. Since the play-action fake was sold so well by Cousins, the corner covering the flat on the left side doesn’t notice Rudolph coming across the field behind him. He comes down to cover Smith in the flat and then Rudolph comes over the top for an easy catch (2:05 timestamp). 

This is the beauty of Stefanski’s offense. He is one of those guys that can just scheme people open in zone coverage. It doesn’t matter who you put in his system, they will find a way to succeed. It just so happens that his new QB has tons of potential and fits his play-action-heavy offense perfectly. Stefanski’s run-first mindset will take a lot of pressure off of Mayfield because he won’t be the centerpiece of the offense. I am expecting Mayfield to have 80 fewer attempts next season for about 600 more yards. The Browns will be much better off as a run-first team. 

On a lot of plays last year, Cousins had easy reads laid out for him before they even snapped the ball and he didn’t have to look anywhere else. The Browns didn’t function that way. Freddie Kitchens let Baker make reads down the field and try to fit balls into tight windows on the majority of their down-field passes. At this point in his career, I think Baker needs to trust the system and make more plays with his eyes and less with his arm, and that’s what Stefanski’s scheme can do for him. 

That being said, Baker shouldn’t be discouraged from using his raw talent. Cousins threw the ball deep a lot last year and did it well. I expect Baker to take a lot of deep shots this year, which bodes well for him, as his deep ball completion percentage ranked tenth in the league last year, and that was in an offense that created little separation downfield. Mayfield’s percentage was even better than that of Cousins’, which ranked thirteenth. Stefanski’s system combined with Mayfield’s physical gifts should be fun to watch. 

Rushing

Stefanski unleashed Dalvin Cook on the league last year. The Vikings ranked fifth in rushing attempts last season with 29.2 per game, while the Browns ranked twenty-second at 24.6 per game. Dalvin Cook is a great player, but Nick Chubb is a different beast. At 5’11” and 227 lbs, Chubb is like a human bowling ball, just bouncing off tacklers in the trenches. Cook is very shifty, but Chubb is a better fit for Stefanski’s offense. 

Chubb hits the gap hard and takes defenders with him. If the Vikings had Nick Chubb in the backfield last year, they would have been even more effective in the play-action game simply because Chubb demands that kind of attention from linebackers. If you give him four-five yards between the first and second level, you might as well give this man a first down because he will either break free or fall forward against most tacklers. 

Chubb was tied for the league lead in broken tackles last season with 32, while Cook only had a measly 20. I mean no disrespect to Dalvin Cook, but he just isn’t as good of a pure runner as Nick Chubb, and as well as Cook did in Stefanski’s system last season, expect Nick Chubb to fit the role much better. 

Stefanski’s run scheme doesn’t have a lot of movement behind the line of scrimmage like the Ravens’ does. This is old-school smash-mouth football. Mano a mano, and that is Nick Chubb’s specialty. The offensive line needs to create holes in the defense and get to the second level with their blocks. If they do that, you can expect big things from Nick Chubb next season.

Stefanski’s outside runs with the occasional counter and draw mixed in is going to elevate not only Nick Chubb’s game, but also Kareem Hunt’s. Hunt has a second-round tender on him right now, so he doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Stefanski can use Hunt on screens, counters, pitches, anything that gets Hunt into space is ideal. Hunt is going to be a great change-of-pace back in this offense, and I expect his stats to go up from last year as well.

Hunt can play a role that the Vikings didn’t have last year and that will be vital to this offense in 2020: RB2. If Dalvin Cook had an off day last year, the offense was done. If the defense figured out the RB1 in Stefanski’s Vikings, Alexander Mattison was not going to come in and take over the game, but Kareem Hunt can. Hunt is a starting-caliber running back with great vision and physicality and is amazing in space. 

If Nick Chubb has an off day or gets figured out by the defense, give Kareem Hunt the rock. Pitches, counters, draws, screens, anything to switch up the plays and get back on track. Last year, Stefanski’s biggest weakness was his lack of a backup plan if the running back gets shut down. Now he has one. Stefanski has everything he needs to go out in a Browns uniform and give the dawg pound something to smile about. 

Lastly, look at this touchdown run against the Ravens from Nick Chubb. Chubb hits the hole hard, breaks a tackle from an edge rusher, cuts back across the field, avoids two more tacklers, breaks another tackle at the three and goes in for the score. This is exactly the skill set that will take Stefanski’s offense in Cleveland to a new high.

Offensive Needs

Stefanski’s rushing attack is reliant on two things: a running back with good vision and an offensive line that can get to the next level. They have two of those running backs in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, but their protection could use some work. Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio returned and they also signed former All-Pro tackle Jack Conklin, who is a great addition and should do wonders in the passing and running game. Right now, their other tackle is Chris Hubbard, but I expect the Browns to replace him in the first round of this upcoming draft. 

If I’m the Browns, I would go with Andrew Thomas out of Georgia with the tenth pick. He has a huge frame and is great in the run game. He also has the potential to play guard because of his quickness, and the Browns could use someone with that versatility. A lot of people would go with Mekhi Becton here, but Becton is an extremely raw talent and I think the Browns should go with someone who has more technical skills in their arsenal and can contribute at a high level from day one. 

Apart from the offensive line, the Browns have filled almost all of their needs in free agency thus far. With the addition of Austin Hooper, the Browns can now run more two tight-end sets with Hooper and David Njoku like the Vikings did last year with Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith Jr. They also added FB Andy Janovich from the Broncos, who will be a huge help in the second level in the run game. I expect the Browns offense to go out and compete at a very high-level next year with Kevin Stefanski running the show.

Sources: 

https://www.pro-football-reference.com/years/2019/rushing_advanced.htm

https://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/C/ChubNi00.htm

https://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/C/CookDa01.htm

https://www.teamrankings.com/nfl/stat/rushing-attempts-per-game

https://www.playerprofiler.com/nfl/baker-mayfield/

https://www.playerprofiler.com/nfl/kirk-cousins/

https://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/C/CousKi00.htm

https://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/M/MayfBa00.htm

https://www.wkyc.com/article/sports/nfl/browns/why-kevin-stefanski-may-be-a-perfect-fit-for-baker-mayfield/95-64fa6254-0283-405e-98ca-9dc8d18dc523

https://www.clevelandbrowns.com/team/transactions/

https://www.ourlads.com/nfldepthcharts/depthchart/CLE