Cleveland Browns’ 2020 playoff chances depend on the run game

If the Cleveland Browns want to contend, they'll need their offense to step up. PFN's lead NFL writer Cole Thompson believes that starts on the ground.

2019 was a tough year for the Cleveland Browns, as their offseason hype ultimately proved to be nothing more than a facade. In 2020, if Cleveland has any hope of making a run at the playoffs, they are going to need to depend on the strength of their run game. 

But back to 2019, after a stellar rookie campaign for Baker Mayfield, general manager John Dorsey followed the “isn’t broke, so let’s not fix it” approach by promoting offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens, who helped the 2018 Heisman winner set a rookie record, to head coach. Add in the additions of Olivier Vernon, Sheldon Richardson, Damarious Randall, and superstar wideout Odell Beckham Jr., Cleveland became a Super Bowl contender before a pass was even completed.

A 6-10 season proved it was all hype, leading to changes in coaching and the front office — a well-known recycling system found in Cleveland over the years. 

The 2020 season will be a “prove it” year for the former first overall pick. Mayfield significantly regressed despite having one of the top arsenals in the NFL, throwing for 22 touchdowns against 21 interceptions. With a new head coach in Kevin Stefanski, there’s no guarantee that Mayfield will be the bonafide savior for the Browns anymore should he continue to underachieve in his third year. 

GM Andrew Berry’s offseason acquisitions should help the Browns’ offense improve. Jack Conklin, when healthy, is one of the best right tackles and run blockers in football. First-round pick Jedrick Wills Jr., who played right tackle for left-handed quarterback Tua Tagovailoa at Alabama, should seemingly transition to the blindside. Smaller additions, like Austin Hooper and Harrison Bryant, should play a role in the blocking and passing game.

The Browns will be gearing up for a postseason push whenever football returns with Mayfield under center. Here’s the thing; why does Mayfield have to be the reason the team is successful? Instead, look for the running game of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt to set the tone for Cleveland fans in FirstEnergy Stadium this season.

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Browns’ run game vital for their playoff chances in 2020 

Chubb’s time to shine 

Most of the NFL now relies on a pass-happy approach as the league has transitioned to quarterback-driven offenses. However, should that be the Brown’s approach considering their talent in the backfield? Chubb has established himself as a consistent standout behind the like of a what was once  and still could be — a horrendous offensive line.

Last season, the former Georgia lead back finished second in the rushing title with 1,494 yards and eight touchdowns. However, Tennessee’s Derrick Henry outshone him thanks to 1,540 yards on the ground. Chubb might have finished on top if the offense had given him a chance to break free. 

The then second-year runner averaged 15.2 rushing attempts in his final five games in 2019. Henry averaged 23.2 rushes per game as the Titans pushed their way into the playoffs before an epic postseason run. Chubb tallied two 100-plus yard games while Henry finished with four and the title. 

The game plan used by Tennessee could be adopted by other teams who have questions over their quarterback. Ryan Tannehill served as a capable starter, but the attention was on stuffing the run. Running backs like Chubb often puts the defensive focus on which way he cuts instead of the gunslinger’s arm.

In his first two seasons, Chubb has modestly put up numbers on the ground that put him near Cleveland’s more productive running backs in team history. Four yards shy of the 1,000-yard mark in his rookie season, the 24-year-old has tallied 2,940 career rushing yards and 18 career touchdowns off 490 carries. 

The only running back to gain better numbers in their first two seasons with the team was Jim Brown. That’s not to say that Chubb will be better than perhaps the game’s greatest player at the position, but it does put things into context on what talent he possesses when healthy. 

Chubb’s ability to blow past defenders on initial contact makes him a positive player with his feet. Throw in his lower body torque, and one tackler won’t be enough to stop him at the line of scrimmage. 

Hunt’s helpful role 

Every hero needs a sidekick when conquering their foes. Unlike Chubb, that’s where Hunt should find his niche in his second season with the franchise. Most offenses would love to have a player with the former Kansas City Chiefs’ lead back on their roster, but ultimately, off-field troubles have hurt the promising runner’s early career.

Dorsey is known for taking chances on troubled athletes and revitalizing their image. While he’s gone, the addition of Chubb was worth the wait last season. After serving an eight-game suspension to begin the year, Hunt finished as the team’s secondary runner with 179 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 4.2 yards per run. 

Cleveland placed a second-round tender on Hunt to keep him around for a full 16-game season. That should only help the 2017 league-leading rusher prove his worth and keep the Browns in contention for the AFC North title. And as a change of pace player, the former third-rounder could show that the running back role still matters. 

Much like Chubb, making defenders miss on initial contact is a specialty of his. Since entering the league, only Henry has made more defenders regret trying to arm tackle with 136 missed moments against Hunt’s 123. During his rookie season with the Chiefs, the 24-year-old forced 61 missed tackles and finished with six 100-yard games on the ground. 

Where Hunt should be a factor is with his hands in the passing game. During the 2017 season, he finished with 53 catches for 455 yards. The following year, he tallied 378 and seven more touchdowns. In his brief stint with Cleveland, Hunt managed to have more receiving yards than rushing off 37 catches and a score. 

The NFL will continue to rely on the passing game, but having a player who could do both will help. Chubb’s ability to ground-and-pound should tire defenses while Hunt can mix in as an all-purpose player and safety net for Mayfield to keep drives alive on third and short. 

What kind of impact will a new scheme have? 

Running the ball is music to Stefanski’s ears after a career year with the Vikings. Although Kirk Cousins helped Minnesota move on to the divisional round of the postseason with impressive throws, it was Dalvin Cook who brought them there. 

Cook’s balance of speed and power allowed him to finish 10th in rushing with 1,135 yards. He also played a capable role in the passing game with another 519 yards off 53 catches. Meanwhile, the Vikings were one of three rosters to run more than they passed, with only Baltimore and Seattle relying on the run more behind dual-threat quarterbacks. 

Stefanski’s approach to run might go against the norm, but the plan worked out well as the second-in-command last season up in Minneapolis. With two running backs who have the capability and drive Cleveland out of the mediocrity middle and into contention. 

Every team needs a viable quarterback to win, putting pressure on Mayfield to improve. However, the Titans and 49ers proved last season that relying on your best bet will further your Lombardi, regardless of the position. For now, that bet is behind the likes of Chubb and Hunt. 

Browns owner Jimmy Haslam is building around his star player, and it’s not Mayfield anymore. With a zone-based offense in Cleveland, that should only help push Chubb to the top for the rushing title. As for the third-year quarterback, having Hunt in both aspects of the offense should ease his pressure of being the one shimmer of light in a no longer one-team division. 

To hoist a Lombardi Trophy, it’s all about trusting your gut and using your strengths as an advantage. Expect Cleveland to be running more than they pass in 2020 — they have the firepower to take down the conference with a promising 1-2 combination in the backfield. 

Cole Thompson is the lead NFL writer for Pro Football Network. Follow him on Twitter at @MrColeThompson and @PFN365 for all up to date NFL content.

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