Browns offense has a red zone problem

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The Cleveland Browns have had a number of issues throughout the 2021 NFL season. Very little has gone smoothly for the team on a week-to-week basis outside of their rushing attack. Even that was slowed down in Week 8 by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The defense has been suspect at all levels at different times outside of Myles Garrett. Injuries have played an obvious role in some of the issues but, even when mostly healthy, the defense hasn’t come together well. With the majority of the expected starters new to the team this year, hopefully, time will allow that to change.

It was the offense that was expected to lead the team while the defense got it together. The continuity of Baker Mayfield and Kevin Stefanski’s system was the foundation for much of the hope going into the season. With all starters returning, the team expected to build off the quality play in the second half of 2020.

So far, the offense has faltered.

It is far too easy to place the blame on one thing. Odell Beckham Jr. will no longer be with the team but he was far from the only issue. Mayfield’s shoulder may get stronger but he will need surgery and still needs to be better at things unrelated to the injury. Stefanski’s play-calling and decision-making have left a lot to be desired especially on fourth downs.

As noted with the defense, injuries have also played a role for the offense. Jack Conklin and Kareem Hunt will likely miss a few more games keeping the offense from hitting their stride.

One of the biggest issues for the team has been inside the red zone. Whether the team gets healthy or not, that problem has to change. The problem isn’t limited to Mayfield and the passing attack as the success of the run game doesn’t match its overall success.

(All data, unless otherwise noted, from Pro Football Reference.)

Overall Scoring and Red Zone Stats

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On the year, the Browns are middle of the pack in points per game at 22.9. For reference, the Buffalo Bills are first in the league at 32.7 and the Kansas City Chiefs are tenth at 26.0. Cleveland’s offense is closer to the bottom of the league, 14.9 for Houston, than they are to the top.

The red zone offense touchdown rate is even lower. The Browns ranked 23rd in the league with a 55.56% touchdown rate in the red zone compared to San Francisco’s league-leading 78.95%. Washington and the New York Giants are at the bottom of the league, both with percentages below 48%.

The Cleveland offense isn’t scoring at a high rate through eight games and their failures in the red zone, including a few fourth-down failures, has a lot to do with it.

Mayfield's Red Zone

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Inside the 20, Mayfield has only attempted 20 passes this season. He has only completed 10 of those passes. While the scoring area of the field is much tougher to be successful in, Mayfield is only better than two quarterbacks who have had 19 or more attempts there: Daniel Jones and Jimmy Garoppolo.

The Browns starting quarterback has three red zone touchdowns tying him with Jones, Geno Smith, Jacoby Brissett and Justin Fields. The last three have not been full-time starters this year.

As with everything in football (with 22 players on the field, coaches and schemes involved), the blame doesn’t squarely fall on Mayfield. His receivers have struggled at times with routes and drops while Stefanski’s play calls haven’t allowed for easy options at times either. Mayfield shares the blame with some poor ball placement, leaving a clean pocket early and making poor decisions.

As a whole, the Cleveland red zone passing offense has been one of the worst in the NFL.

Nick Chubb in the Red Zone

(AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

Nick Chubb has 23 red zone rushing attempts so far this year despite missing games. That ranks seventh in the NFL and only five back of third place. From those 23 carries, Chubb has two touchdowns tied for 30th in the NFL.

Chubb has gotten almost 40% of the team’s red zone carries through 2021 but only has one more touchdown rush in the red zone than Jarvis Landry, Andy Janovich and Baker Mayfield.

Kareem Hunt's Red Zone Adventures

Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The team’s other star running back that has missed time with injuries is Kareem Hunt. Chubb’s backup has fared better with fewer attempts. Hunt has four touchdowns on his 15 red zone rushes.

His four red zone touchdowns put him just one back of being tied for third in the NFL despite only taking 25.9% of the team’s attempts in the area. He has also been targeted three times inside the 20 in the team’s passing game, catching only one of the three.

Hunt has been the team’s best red zone threat but could be missing a few more games with his calf injury.

D'Ernest Johnson's Limited Attempts

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

With his great game on Thursday Night Football, D’Ernest Johnson will be a part of the Browns 2021 season story. While his usage has been minimal outside of that game, he still has had seven red zone carries and scored two touchdowns.

Even with both Chubb and Hunt missing games, Johnson only has 29 carries this year with 22 of them coming in his Thursday Night Football start. The following week, despite Chubb returning, Johnson only got four carries but punched one in for a touchdown.

Red zone Passing Targets

(AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Obviously, Mayfield’s numbers in the red zone are the majority of the team’s passing numbers in the area. Case Keenum only attempted two passes during his lone start, completing one for a touchdown.

Tight end Austin Hooper has been the main target in the scoring area with six targets, doubling up three players with the second-most on the team. Rashard Higgins, Hunt and Beckham have each been targeted three times. David Njoku has two targets while Donovan Peoples-Jones, Johnny Stanton and Landry each have one.

For reference, 15 players in the NFL have double-digit targets in the red zone this year.

Njoku has caught both of his targets while Hooper and Higgins have caught 66.6% of each of theirs. Beckham and Landry did not catch any of their combined four targets.

Hooper, Higgins, Peoples-Jones and Stanton each have a red zone touchdown. Around the league, 30 players have three or more red zone touchdown receptions.

Red Zone Struggles Everywhere

(AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

As you read through all the data presented above, it is obvious that the Browns red zone offense struggles in almost every way. The team is attempting a lot of runs with some success but not enough while the passing game in the red zone leaves a lot to be desired.

While many want to place blame onto one person, in the red zone all of the details matter. The coach must call the right play, the line must block well, the quarterback must diagnose correctly, the running back must read his blocks perfectly and receivers must run perfect routes while the quarterback throws a perfect ball.

There is very little room for error in the red zone but compared to the rest of the NFL, the Browns are falling far behind in these vital possessions.

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