Through the first three weeks, the Falcons and the Browns are the only two teams to score at least 26 points in each game. Not the Chiefs. Not the Bills. Not the Packers. The ones led by Marcus Mariota and Jacoby Brissett; those are the teams with this distinction.
I bring that up because it speaks to a level of consistency that both teams have shown offensively to start the season. Nowhere has that been truer than on first down for the Falcons, who rank second by a slim margin with 0.191 Expected Points Added (EPA) per play. Cleveland ranks ninth in that particular metric, and both teams remain in the top 10 in EPA when lumping in second down.
That means both teams do a great job of dictating terms to the defense on early downs, and they do it in similar ways: with the run game.
“They’re going to throw a lot of things at you, shifts and motions, and they are going to try to grind you down,” Arthur Smith said of the Browns on Wednesday. “We’ve got to be ready to go, especially on the run defense. You’ve got to tackle well. The arm tackles are not going to bring [Nick] Chubb down. We’ve got to be able to grind this game, and it’s going to be a heavyweight fight.”
Before we get into the more advanced analytics of each team’s offense, the overall production stats serve to highlight how good each team has been at running the ball so far. The Falcons currently average 156.7 rushing yards per game and 4.9 yards per play, which rank fifth and seventh, respectively. The Browns average 190.7 rushing yards per game and 5.02 yards per play, which rank first and sixth respectively.
Atlanta has a pass rate of 47.7 percent on early downs with the game still within balance, which is sixth-lowest in the NFL. However, the Falcons are mixing up their play calls in a way that makes them incredibly efficient with both the run and the pass.
The Browns are more in the middle of the pack in regards to early-down pass rate, but they still don’t pass as much as would be expected in certain situations. This makes sense given the dynamics of their offense: Nick Chubb is a proven workhorse whose 341 rushing yards currently leads the NFL, and Brissett is a journeyman placeholder.
Chubb’s presence as well as the early-down success mentioned above allow the Browns to remain patient with the run game, and it pays off greatly. No team has a higher rush EPA on third and fourth down than the Browns, who at .908 are nearly a full tenth of a point higher than the second-place team. Much like Atlanta, the Browns can keep all offensive options on the table because of early success, which should tilt the advantage on critical downs.
“[Browns offensive line coach] Bill Callahan is a damn good football coach; they’ve got a good run scheme and they’re going to try and find every way to do it and do it with a purpose and find an advantage,” Smith said. “Philosophically, they’re coming to mash you.”
Interestingly enough, the Browns rank fifth in second-half rush EPA while the Falcons are fifth in second-half dropback EPA. Perhaps the particular way each game has unfolded played into that metric to some degree, but, to the naked eye, it does seem that Atlanta does a great job paying off some of the run game’s work in the first half with its passing offense in the second half.
Let’s take a step back from all the deep analytics talk for a second, though, and just look at the surface.
Both offenses are led by some of the game's top current running backs, Chubb and Cordarrelle Patterson, who ranks third with 302 rushing yards. Mariota and Brissett are currently 25th and 26th, respectively, with 640 and 596 passing yards through three games. Brissett’s four touchdowns are one more than Mariota’s though, and he’s been better at taking care of the football.
The receiving options for each quarterback are both limited, in terms of household names, but dangerous at the top of the depth chart. Amari Cooper has had at least 100 yards and a touchdown in back-to-back games, and he’s clearly beginning to establish a rapport with Brissett. David Njoku is a very athletic tight end who can be moved all around the offense and caught nine passes for 89 yards and a touchdown in Week 3.
amari cooper is dialed in right now pic.twitter.com/HfqGzHOkWK— charles (#1 mahomes truther) mcdonald (@FourVerts) September 24, 2022
Atlanta, meanwhile, has Pitts as a potential matchup nightmare. He’s coming off an 87-yard outing of his own, a positive sign that he’s beginning to kick into gear. Drake London’s excellent start to the year (16 catches, 214 yards and two touchdowns) is a good indicator of what he will become for this team.
So, both teams have a Big Three surrounding quarterbacks who have played similarly to start the year. They’ve done great work on early downs to keep all options on the table and defenses off-balance. The Falcons currently rank first in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards metric, which attempts to measure an offensive line’s impact on run plays apart from a back’s, while the Browns are 12th, but they’ve been dealing with injuries and the presence of Chubb makes up for that.
These two offenses have largely been each team’s identity to start the year, and it’s kept them in each game. If some of the numerous Browns defenders dealing with injuries this week do miss Sunday’s game, that should bring them closer on that side of the ball to a Falcons unit still trying to find its footing.
I know I’ve spent this entire piece on the offenses, ignoring the defenses and special teams (which really could play a factor on Sunday), but these are two offensive head coaches leading two very efficient units at the moment. I don’t think they will deviate much from what has worked so far.
So that begs the question: Can the Falcons beat the Browns at their own game?
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