Last season, the Panthers were one of the bigger “run funnel” defenses in the league as they played heavy coverage schemes and defended the pass very well, forcing passes underneath, but getting gashed up front often as a result. The Panthers have the same defensive coaching staff in place this year and haven’t significantly changed their personnel, making it likely that their defense looks very similar this year to what we saw last year . . . this is great news for the Browns.
Cleveland’s offense sputtered through the end of last season as they struggled to get things going with a clearly injured and limited Baker Mayfield. This year with Jacoby Brissett under center to start the year, we should expect a similar approach to last year when they had the 6th lowest pass-to-run ratio in the NFL. The Browns continue to have one of the top 5 offensive lines in the NFL and it should be no secret to anyone on either side of the field that they are going to look to leverage that strength into offensive success. They have a trio of talented running backs who have all shown the ability to carry the load when necessary, but should have the luxury of rotating those backs and pounding the Panthers into submission while protecting their “adequate, but not a world-beater” fill-in QB.
On the perimeter, the Browns offense will look different this year with explosive downfield options in Amari Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones starting on the perimeter, and the uber-athletic David Njoku taking over as the starting tight end in place of the “catch and fall down” style of his predecessor, Austin Hooper. Long-term, there will likely be some very fun periods from this team. However, this week in a matchup against a high-end pass defense it is unlikely we see anything close to a ceiling performance from the passing game. During the preseason, the Browns did show a propensity to use more misdirection and horizontal concepts than we’ve seen from them in the past. Specifically, they ran some jet sweeps and quick pitches to receivers in motion as a way to try stretching the defense horizontally since they are likely going to struggle to stretch defenses vertically until a QB upgrade happens.
Overall, this side of the ball should be relatively predictable for a Week 1 NFL game. The Browns are going to run the ball at a very high rate, and likely do so in an efficient manner. When they do take to the air, they may take the occasional deep shot but will mostly focus on the short, middle of the field, screen game, and horizontal concepts as a means of moving the chains. The Browns have an above-average defense and clearly based on their actions this offseason they don’t have a lot of confidence in Baker Mayfield’s ability to go out and beat a team so their game plan here will likely be very conservative so as to not beat themselves.