It doesn’t take any advanced degrees to figure out that when you’re facing the Cleveland Browns like the Atlanta Falcons are this Sunday, you have to prioritize stopping the run.
After all, the Browns currently lead the NFL in rushing, averaging over 190 yards per game. Only the Baltimore Ravens have accumulated more rushing yards since 2020, when Kevin Stefanski first took over as the Browns’ head coach.
The Falcons are no stranger to the potential dominance of the Browns’ ground game, given that when the teams last played each other back in 2018, a then-rookie running back named Nick Chubb led them with 176 of the team’s 211 rushing yards. And the Browns have only improved their attack since then, adding another capable back in Kareem Hunt and shoring up their offensive line.
The Falcons currently rank 15th in run defense by yards allowed, but the truth is that most of their opponents have been able to successfully run the ball whenever they’ve desired to. It’s just they haven’t been overly committed to it thus far this year. Looking at mere yardage doesn’t paint a full portrait, as Football Outsiders ranks the team’s run defense 27th in their DVOA metric, which derives from play-by-play data.
Even if the Falcons decide to load up the box to try and stop the run, it doesn’t appear to be that effective against the Browns. According to Next Gen Stats, both Hunt and Chubb lead the NFL in terms of the percentage of runs where they’re facing eight or more defenders in the box. But you could probably guess that Chubb especially has overcome that thanks to his ability to break tackles. According to Pro Football Focus, Chubb currently is tied with Saquon Barkley for the most yards after contact (246), and also his 26 missed tackles forced is nearly double what the next highest running back (Aaron Jones) has at 16.
So the Falcons simply loading up the box with a lackluster run defense is probably not going to be a recipe for success. Instead, they’ll have to look at alternative methods to slow down this Browns’ rushing attack. The solution may have less to do with their defense than their offense.
Early leads and ball control have slowed down Browns ground game in past
When one looks at the last few teams that have kept the Browns’ rushing attack in check, there is a common theme. Almost all have built big leads early that ultimately forced the Browns to abandon the run.
Six teams have kept the Browns under 100 rushing yards in the past two seasons, and five of them have involved those teams building up an early lead.
Last year in Week 6, the Arizona Cardinals held the Browns to 73 rushing yards in a 37-14 blowout. Chubb also happened to miss that game, but I’m not sure he would’ve made too much of a difference given that the Cardinals were able to build up a 20-0 lead midway through the second quarter.
Then a month later, the New England Patriots similarly held the Browns to 99 yards rushing in a 45-7 beatdown. Both Chubb and Hunt were out of that game, with running back D’Ernest Johnson holding down the fort. But once again, the Browns got down early as the Patriots were up 24-7 at halftime.
Two weeks later, Chubb and Hunt were back to face off against the Baltimore Ravens, but they only combined for a 40-yard effort. However, this was not a game that featured a ton of scoring with the Ravens building a 13-3 lead midway through the third quarter before eventually winning 16-10. The Ravens' key was playing keep away against the Browns, possessing the ball for 37 minutes total as Lamar Jackson and our old friend Devonta Freeman lead a run-heavy attack that gain 148 rushing yards on 43 combined carries.
Then in Week 15, the Las Vegas Raiders held the Browns to 89 yards rushing after building a 10-0 first-half lead. To be fair, the Raiders benefited from the Browns using a pass-heavy attack despite backup quarterback Nick Mullens starting the game, playing away from their strength.
Finally, in Week 17 the Pittsburgh Steelers held the Brown to 93 rushing yards in a 26-14 victory. Pittsburgh built a 10-0 halftime lead thanks to controlling the clock, but unlike the Ravens, the Steelers did so with their passing attack. Ben Roethlisberger threw the ball 34 times in the first half alone, with the Steelers possessing the ball for over 21 minutes to build that first-half lead. Falcons head coach and play-caller Arthur Smith should borrow a page from these teams’ gameplans this week.
Patterson should lead the charge for Falcons offense
I certainly don’t think the Falcons should copy the Steelers’ blueprint with a pass-heavy attack, although of course Falcons receivers Drake London and Kyle Pitts should still be featured. High-percentage throws like the screens that were featured several times against the Seattle Seahawks last week certainly should be a part of the mix. We’ve seen London and Pitts be very effective after the catch, but we also know running back Cordarrelle Patterson can be a dangerous weapon after the catch with the ball in his hands.
Patterson’s running ability will likely be favored over his pass-catching in any successful gameplan for the Falcons this week to play keep away. The Browns' run defense should be especially vulnerable this week.
There were already concerns about the Browns interior defensive line where starters Taven Bryan and Jordan Elliott have underwhelmed. But now that issue combines with question marks on the edge where defensive ends Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney may be held out of the game due to injuries.
Injuries mount, softening on Browns defensive line
Garrett was involved in a scary car accident earlier this week. Fortunately, all indications are that his injuries were minor, but it makes his status for this week’s game questionable at best. Falcons faithful will pray that Garrett makes a full recovery, but perhaps not a swift one.
Clowney missed last week’s Thursday night loss to the Steelers with an ankle injury and may need another week to recover. Should both players be out, their replacements are rookies Alex Wright and Isaiah Thomas, along with veteran Isaac Rochell. None of those options are inspiring.
They have combined for just two pressures thus far this year, meaning that the Browns’ pass rush could be toothless without Clowney and Garrett. That will give Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota more time in the pocket if/when the team does decide to throw the ball to London and Pitts.
This should all be music to Smith’s ears. Sunday should feature a balanced Falcons offensive attack, where Patterson and rookie running back Tyler Allgeier get the ground game rolling behind a Falcons offensive line that has already exceeded expectations and should be able to push around a softened Browns front. And if that all combines to give the Falcons an early lead, it could prompt the Browns to abandon their run game prematurely. A foolproof strategy to prevent Chubb and Hunt from impacting this game is to deny them the ball altogether.
Do you think the Falcons' offense can take advantage of the Browns' weakened defense and control Sunday’s matchup? Or do you think Chubb & Co. may still prove too much for the defense to handle?