Browns Unlock Key To Offense Consistency In 1st Down Play-Action

CLEVELAND, Ohio –– When the Browns are dealing with bouts against the weather the way they have the last three games at FirstEnergy Stadium, they have to find ways to be creative in the passing game. With high winds and steady rains, the offense has had to find ways to combat defenses selling out against their more potent rushing attack.

Obviously, the rain conditions make the passing approach challenging in general, especially when mixed with wind, but against the Eagles today the wind finally allowed for some downfield passing. Kevin Stefanski showed his commitment to the run game in early downs isn’t going anywhere as the early quarter body blows led to fourth-quarter dominance on first down runs to close the game. However, it was the early-down play-action that unlocked the Browns’ biggest throws on the day and showed how potent the group can be if they get their deception game rolling.

On the day, Baker Mayfield went 4-4 for 112 yards on first down play-action and the offense looked at their most efficient using the schemes that the Eagles defense was ill-prepared to defend. They used a mesh of boot schemes off wide zone and their power/counter play-action that pulls the backside guard to really sell the run action.

Let’s look at the schemes used and the reason each worked in today’s game.

(Photo: Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports)

Play-Action Scheme No. 1 — 43 yards to Rashard Higgins

On the Browns’ second possession of the game, they converted a key 13-yard throw from their own endzone to provide some breathing room. The next play, they caught the Eagles’ secondary creeping downhill with this boot scheme off their heavy zone run usage early. Mayfield has two options working to his left: Higgins on the corner-post or the crossing route from his tight end. If he reads middle of the field open off the play-action fake, and has time to set his feet, he can let it rip deep middle. That is just what he does as safety Rodney McLeod (No. 23) chases the crossing route and Higgins has deep middle open once he beats Avonte Maddox (No. 29) inside. Great route, great throw, great catch.

Play-Action Scheme No. 2 — 42 yards to KhaDarel Hodge

Now the Browns start getting comfortable using their power/counter scheme play-action. Watch as Bitonio sells the run game pulling from the backside only to handle the backside end. Mayfield’s play-action holds longer with this scheme, which sets up downfield routes well. Hodge runs a well-paced out-n-up concept that is easily open due to some confusing coverage from Jalen Mills (No. 21) as he gets his eyes caught inside on the late crossing route from David Njoku. Easy pitch and catch where you can see the Eagles were not mentally prepared for the deception.

Play-Action Scheme No. 3 — 9 yards to Rashard Higgins

Now into the fourth quarter when the Browns are hanging onto their two-point lead and know they need to run the clock and put points on the board. The Eagles are still expecting a run, but Kevin Stefanski answers it well with his play-action scheme built around again taking advantage of Maddox’s poor coverage skills. We get max protection look here as Harrison Bryant protects backside after the run fake, and Austin Hooper stays in on the roll side and Mayfield has two options: Hodge on the comeback or work late to the shallow cross from Njoku.

As he comes off the fake, Hodge does very well attacking Maddozx’s blindspot to think he is taking off deep, but throttles it down at 15 yards for an easy throw and catch. Watch how much separation Hodge creates at the catch point. Great route and well-timed call.

Final Thoughts

As I have noted several times this year, the Browns have to pick up their first down play-action usage. Their desire to fit heavy personnel packages on the field in those downs has defenses keying in on the run and forcing heavy boxes by which to run. More often than not, the Browns offense is stalling early in games because of this predictability issue. Their success rate on these schemes is solid overall, but they just are not using them enough.

The weather is a factor here, no doubt. Stefanski prefers to run the ball in these situations but the EPA (expected points added) can’t be ignored off these play-action throws. Just take a look at how Mayfield stacked up in these deceptive throwing situations and more through the game. Even though the run game gets the attention, their ability to throw today was much more impactful to winning.

The whole operation works in tandem. Mayfield can find some success on these schemes against light coverage because these two running backs demand stacked boxes. The early body blows in the run game have also shown late-game impact the last few weeks as well as the Browns ran for 128 yards of their 231 total yards in the fourth quarter last week and closed with 86 of their 137 rushing yards in the fourth quarter today. It all adds up.

The problem is how the predictable nature of the first down offense is putting them in early game holes and they won’t have the luxury of playing from out in front each week. Stefanski will need to notice the success rates despite the low volume and try to balance this metric out. A higher play-action rate on first downs means lighter boxes and fewer downhill approaches from opposing defenses.

The impact on the run game could be immense and has the potential to unlock the big picture for the offense as the Browns push for the playoffs.