As the Chiefs head into the Divisional Round, they will have to look to stop one of the NFL’s top rushing attacks. It will be difficult, but they may already have a blueprint for how to stop the Browns run game.
After an exciting weekend of football during the Wild Card matchups, the red hot Cleveland Browns are headed into Kansas City to take on the Chiefs this weekend. The Browns are coming off of their first playoff win in many years, due in large part to their ability to run the football.
The Browns were third in the NFL for the 2020 NFL season in rushing yards with 2,374 rushing yards from scrimmage, averaging 148.4 per game, and an impressive 4.8 yards per carry. This success has come due to multiple factors, the first starting with the Browns having two outstanding running backs.
Both Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt have dominated defenses in 2020, Chubb with over 1,000 rushing yards, and Hunt with over 1,000 yards rushing and receiving. This two-headed monster has given defenses issues all season with their hard running style but also having great speed once in the open field.
Hunt and Chubb have been excellent all season long, but they are just one part of the equation for the Browns’ success running the football. The other half has been the Browns offensive line which has quietly become one of the best units in football. Three Browns offensive linemen made the All-Pro team, right tackle Jack Conklin, right guard Wyatt Teller, and left guard Joel Bitonio.
Their Center J.C. Tretter was the fourth highest-graded player at the position according to PFF, and first-round draft pick left tackle Jedrick Wills showed improvement every week. The key to the Browns being able to effectively run the football has relied on their big men up front to consistently win blocks, and be able to maintain double team blocks up to the second level, allowing Chubb and Hunt to use their tackle-breaking ability on secondary players.
Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski has lead a revolution in Cleveland, and his ability to call a solid run game has opened up every other aspect of the Browns game, as well as helping out Baker Mayfield by getting him into favorable play-action plays against teams ready to sell out on the run.
For being such a young head coach though, this is not the first time that Stefanski and Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo have faced off. As a matter of fact, they faced off last season in a game in which Stefanski, then the offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings, came to Kansas City to play the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. This was also a game in which the Chiefs were without star quarterback Patrick Mahomes, meaning the team would have to rely more on the defense. The unit did not disappoint.
The personnel groupings that the Chiefs saw this game last year match the same groupings that the Browns have primarily used to run the football this season. It has been a lot of 11 (one RB one TE), 12 (one RB two TE), 13 (one RB three TE), and even some 21(two back two TE) personnel, and around the red zone 22 (two back two TE).
To match how many bodies Stefanski had at the line of scrimmage the Chiefs ran several base looks with three linebackers on the field, but they would also walk up run-stuffer Reggie Ragland (now with the Detroit Lions) to an EMOLOS look and also have a secondary player walked up also to match the body for elite running back Dalvin Cook.
Due to the run-heavy attack that Cleveland will show this week the Chiefs could use similar personnel groupings to what they showed against the Vikings last year. This means guys like Tanho Kpassagnon, Derrick Nnadi, Mike Pennel, and Mike Danna will have elevated roles of importance as they are the team’s primary run stuffers upfront.
Of course the stars Chris Jones and Frank Clark will also have to step up to the plate and make their money this week, but for the Chiefs to win they will have to create penetration at the front line much like they did against Minnesota.
Overall in the game against the Vikings, the Chiefs held Cook to just 71 yards and a measly 3.4 per carry. A very good day upfront, but this week against the Browns will be tougher.
Instead of just one elite back, they will have to defend against two, and the Browns have a far more talented offensive line than the Vikings did last season. Will it be easy for Steve Spagnuolo and the Chiefs? No, but it is the playoffs, at this point in the season, it never is.
I could see the Chiefs using the same base looks with walk-up backers on the ends to take away cutbacks, as well as seeing likely a heavy dose of Tyrann Mathieu and Dan Sorensen in and around the box frequently.
The Chiefs are going to need a good game from Anthony Hitchens as well, but with him having his best season yet and actually matching up well for what Cleveland will want to do it should inspire confidence in the Kingdom.
Of course it will all start up front, the best way to stop good backs is to take away their lanes, while at the same time taking away their confidence in their cuts and reads. It will start and end up front, the Chiefs defensive line has a chance to have a statement game. They did when they were relied upon last season, and they have the ability to do it again.