The “General NFL” question I received more than any other this last offseason was some variation of, “What do you think about the Browns?” All this talent. All this hype. And each time I chatted with someone about this team, I said basically the same thing: “Coaching matters so much in football, and we know so little about Freddie Kitchens. Who knows how this will turn out.” In the summer, everything he was saying looked good — but once the season started, it became pretty clear pretty quickly that he was in over his head. And while it seems like some people are still waiting for a magical switch to be flipped, I think the bigger question is, “Can this actually be fixed?”
Think about this. Each week, Jon Gruden has big playbook installs — putting in a whole new set of concepts and plays that will now be incorporated into the offense. Gruden has been around quality NFL programs for so long, and has built his playbook over such a long period of time (literally decades), that he can comfortably run his entire team (including being heavily involved in personnel decisions) while also running his entire offense and adding big pieces to the playbook each week without losing fundamentals and execution on the pieces that are already in place.
Or think about this. Nick Underhill put together a great article this week for The Athletic (albeit without an exploration of why some of the analytics cited in the article are just plain wrong) that broke down how Belichick is one of the highest-graded coaches according analytics-based decision-making within a game, but how he doesn’t look at the specific analytics for any given situation. Instead — as he has put it — “It’s an individual analysis based on the things that are pertinent to that game and that situation.” In other words: ‘I assess the situation from all angles on the spot and I make the decision that makes the most sense.’
Freddie Kitchens was a running backs coach until the middle of last season. How expansive and well-developed is his playbook? How capable is he of managing everything that goes into running a team while also building a new playbook and installing it and running the offense and calling plays and being prepared for the matchups, and being ready to make tough decisions in-game on the spot, and trying to fix things midseason? I think about last season for me — first year running the site — finding blind spots I’d had heading in (in terms of how my week would need to be set up and managed in order for everything to run smoothly and subscribers to be given the best possible product and me to not get overwhelmed), and how difficult it was to solve those problems on the fly while still taking care of everything else that needed to be taken care of. And no matter how much work I put into OWS, a coach’s life is going to be about twice as busy. Imagine being as in-over-his-head as Kitchens, and trying to get your feet under you in the midst of 17 straight 120-hour work weeks. Who’s going to help him? Steve Wilks?
Point being: we shouldn’t be surprised that the Browns’ struggles have continued. And we should be a bit surprised that this disciplined, well-coached, experienced Bills team is an underdog in this spot. Sean McDermott has coached in two Super Bowls and has brought the Bills to the playoffs with less talent than he has now. Home field matters, but it’s hard to see the Browns winning this game more often than not if we played out this game one hundred times — especially as the Browns fans are boo-heavy right now and aren’t exactly making the home team feel welcome.
As you know by now, the Bills are (by far) one of the toughest matchups for opposing passing attacks — shaving 12% off the league-average aDOT and a league-best 17.5% off the league-average catch rate, while allowing the third fewest passing yards and the second fewest passing touchdowns in the league. In spite of ranking middle of the pack in receptions allowed to wideouts, only four teams have allowed fewer yards.The Bills are the only team in the NFL that has not allowed a pass catcher of any kind to top 100 yards.
The best bet for moving the field against the Bills, of course, is on the ground, where the Bills rank 30th in DVOA and are allowing 4.56 yards per carry to enemy backs. As we have noted across recent weeks: the Bills rank third in drive success rate and are allowing the third fewest points per game, so this is not the same sort of spot as, say, the Dolphins or the Bengals. With how good the Bills are against the pass, it is difficult for running backs to take full advantage, as they need at least some help in keeping drives alive long enough to score points. But on a per-touch basis, the matchup is very attractive.
Over the Browns’ last four games, Nick Chubb has touch counts of 24 // 21 // 25 // 17. Rather quietly, he has already faced three of the top four DVOA run defenses (and four of the top eight — which does not even include matchups against San Francisco and Baltimore). This is the softest spot Chubb has had this year, so while there are “offense as a whole” concerns for the Browns against the Bills, Chubb has a shot at a big game if the Browns are able to get in scoring position a handful of times.
Also returning this week is Kareem Hunt, who should basically take on “Hilliard’s role, plus a bit more.” Hilliard is around a six-touch-per-game player when usage works out the way the Browns want, and it’s fair to expect Hunt to end up around eight to 12 touches over the next few weeks. On DraftKings and FantasyDraft — where savings are at a premium — Hunt is actually an interesting deep salary saver. The role he’ll step into would be expected to produce around 1.1 to 1.15 points per touch on DK/FDraft over time — so while the small sample size of one game could lead to a two- or three-point score, there are also instances in which the small sample size of one game could lead to a 15- or 20-point score (similar to what we’ve seen Devin Singletary and Miles Sanders do multiple times this year).
Speaking of Singletary: the Bills — as we know by now — want to be one of the most adaptable teams in football. Last week, this led to Buffalo attacking Washington to the outside in order to avoid them up the middle where they’re strongest — which meant 23 touches for the electric rookie (14 more than he had seen in any previous game). There’s actually a lot to unpack here, as Singletary’s snap share on the season (starting with the most recent) has looked like this :: 66% // 68% // 38% // 33% // 68% — with the lower games affected by injury (injury sustained in one; returning from injury in the other). In other words: his nine-touch game in Week 1 and his seven-touch game in Week 8 came on similar snap shares to his 23-touch game last week. The Bills also controlled their game last week and were able to lean heavily on the run as a result, while they enter this game as road underdogs. An optimal approach for the Bills in this spot calls on them to lean on the run to a degree (Cleveland ranks 18th in DVOA against the pass and 21st against the run, while Buffalo prefers to lean toward the ground game), but realize that Singletary didn’t see a role change last week so much as he saw a usage change — on one of the more gameplan-specific offenses in the league.
The matchup through the air for the Bills is average, with two clear ways for pass catchers to pile up production:
1) Busted plays
2) Consistent, underneath work over the middle of the field
The Browns have given up mistake-filled lines of 3-100-0 (A.J. Brown), 3-115-1 (Noah Fant), and 4-81-0 (Robby Anderson), and have also allowed 11-101-2 to Cooper Kupp and 8-78-2 to Julian Edelman. John Brown has topped eight targets only once since Week 1 and has only two scores on the season, but he has also been one of the most consistent receivers in football, joining Michael Thomas (still) as the only players with 50+ receiving yards in every game. This offense has been completely unable to get the downfield game going, but they have used JB as more of an intermediate piece, and he has thrived in this role, catching 70% of his targets on the year. Cole Beasley has seen less bankable game-to-game volume, but he can generally be expected to see six or more looks, and unless Singletary becomes the focal point again, Beasley should be able to again push for that range.
JM’s Interpretation ::
As we have talked about a couple times this year: the Bills’ offense is more conservative and “mature” than the one we were raking in money off of down the stretch last year, asking Josh Allen to operate as more of a playmaking game manager than as a central piece of the offense. As such, the best bet for the Bills posting a big game through the air would be for the opposing team to jump out to a big lead. Beasley and Brown are in the “solid score” mix, but in order for them to post a slate-winner, they likely need one of the Browns’ players to do the same. As such, tourney rosters with a Bills pass catcher should be brought back with an Upside piece from the Browns. (Given the way the matchups shake out, the likeliest Upside piece on the Browns is Chubb. A Chubb + Browns DST pairing could also be a way to capture the goodness of a quick Browns lead that forces the Bills to open into attack mode, as the Browns could scoop up a fumble-six or bring Allen back the other way on a pick-six after an early Chubb score. Just a few thoughts on how a “big, early deficit” for the Bills might come about and cause them to turn to the air.)
Elsewhere on the Bills: Singletary is an interesting guy, as he has posted a really strong score in all three games in which the snap count cooperated; and while the touches look ugly in two of those games, he picked up 5-28-0 and 4-30-1 through the air in those two — an indication that his pass-catching role gives him a somewhat solid floor even if the larger workload or one of his big plays don’t materialize. Realistically, the likeliest scenario has Singletary touching the ball only nine to 12 times and needing big efficiency to produce a score commensurate with his salary. But he is intriguing, and the upside (both in terms of touches, and in terms of big plays) is there.
Chubb is also intriguing, and while I don’t like that he has a pair of one-target games this year, and is on a bad offense against a good defense, and is now dealing with Hunt, I do like his ability to break off multiple chunk gains here. If he can turn one of those chunk gains into one of his signature big plays, he could pitch in with a really nice day.
:: Bonus feature: find current NFL Defensive Identities here!