CHARGERS // BROWNS OVERVIEW
From a real-life perspective, this is a surprisingly intriguing game five weeks into the season, as the Chargers’ only losses this year have come against the undefeated Chiefs and Rams, while the Browns are 2-2-1, with a close loss to Oakland and a home win over the Ravens since Baker Mayfield took over under center. One of the biggest challenges for quarterbacks moving from college to the NFL is how often they have to make throws when guys are covered — either anticipating the receiver coming open, or “throwing the receiver open.” This is something Mayfield has been awesome at early on the NFL field, as he is constantly looking to make aggressive throws downfield instead of checking things down. Vegas has given respect to each of these defenses, with the Chargers installed as slim one-point favorites on the road in a game with an Over/Under of only 44.5 — but there is enough firepower on each offense that there is also a good 10% to 15% chance that this game turns into a shootout.
The Browns have been refreshingly aggressive, ranking third in pace of play, while the Chargers have played up-tempo at times, ranking ninth in situation neutral pace of play (though they rank 31st overall). Cleveland has run the second most plays per game in the NFL, while also allowing the most plays per game — and while this is boosted by a couple overtime appearances, this is still a “play boost” spot for the Chargers. The Chargers’ offense (sixth in drive success rate) has a strength-on-strength matchup against a Cleveland defense that ranks third in drive success rate allowed. While the Browns gave up a fluky-high 45 points to the Raiders, they held the Steelers to 21 points, the Saints to 21 points (in New Orleans), the Jets to 17 points, and the Ravens to 12 points.
CHARGERS PASS OFFENSE
Led by sensational rookie Denzel Ward, the Browns have shaved almost six and a half percent off the league average aDOT, while also allowing the second lowest catch rate in the league. With Cleveland playing a safety deep most of the time and attacking the ball underneath, YAC is a problem for them (they have allowed the third highest YAC per reception in the league), which leads to some boom/bust for passing attacks — as receivers see fewer receptions against this team, but still have opportunities for big plays with the ball in their hands.
The Browns have faced a brutal lineup of receivers so far, and among Antonio Brown // JuJu Smith-Schuster // Michael Thomas // Quincy Enunwa // Amari Cooper // Jordy Nelson // John Brown, the only guys to top 100 yards were JuJu and Amari. JuJu got there on one big YAC play off a short crossing route, while Amari got there on one successful deep ball up the right sideline and one big YAC play up the left sideline.
Keenan Allen has seen the sort of usage that is likeliest to turn into a big play against this defense, but with an aDOT of 8.2 and only two games this year of double-digit targets, he’ll need a broken play or multiple touchdowns in order to pay off his salary. Until his price tag gets adjusted down, he’ll continue to be a tough guy to bet on in this offense that has so many weapons it can spread the ball around to.
Virgil Green has yet to top three targets in a game, while Antonio Gates has yet to top three catches. Would you be scheming plays to these guys if you had Keenan, Mike and Tyrell, Melvin Gordon, and Austin Ekeler available ahead of them?
CHARGERS RUN OFFENSE
Cleveland has allowed a middling 4.1 yards per carry — though if we take away the Marshawn Lynch “beast mode” run of 52 yards, they drop to a far more respectable 3.77 yards allowed per carry, which is backed up by their number eight DVOA ranking against the run.
In spite of already having faced Conner and Kamara, the Browns have allowed middling production through the air to running backs, with an average line of 5.6 receptions, 50.8 receiving yards, and 0 touchdowns.
While that’s the bad news in this matchup, the good news is that the Chargers have continued to use Gordon and Ekeler creatively and consistently. These two have scored nine of the Chargers’ 16 touchdowns on the year, and they’ll be in line for scoring opportunities once again, with heavy work in the pass game as well. While “long drives” will be difficult to come by for the Chargers, the fast pace at which the Browns play will lead to enough plays on the other side for each of these two to pile up touches — and the more touches each of these guys has, the more chances of an explosive play.
Consider Gordon a solid-floor, high-ceiling play, with a slimmer shot than normal for him to hit that ceiling, but with it still clearly in view. Consider Ekeler’s floor to be lower than normal, given that he is given fewer opportunities to hit, but his ceiling remains intact as well.
BROWNS PASS OFFENSE
The Chargers’ defense is much tougher to get a feel for, as they struggled against the Chiefs and Rams, and their other three games have been against Josh Allen, C.J. Beathard, and Derek Carr — holding those teams to 293, 364, and 289 total yards, respectively. While the Chargers do not have great sack numbers on the year without Joey Bosa, they are still getting pressure on the quarterback, and the Browns rank 30th on offense in adjusted sack rate.
The most interesting matchup in this spot will be the downfield shots Baker Mayfield has been looking to take so far this year, as the Chargers have a rookie superstar of their own in safety Derwin James. James has shown tremendous range early in the year, and he makes it difficult for quarterbacks to manipulate him with their eyes — often holding his spot in the middle of the field until the QB commits to throw (at which point, his range comes into play). Jared Goff is actually the only quarterback who has topped 300 yards against the Chargers, as Patrick Mahomes maxed out at 256 yards in this matchup — his only game under 300 yards this year.
If we take away Tyreek Hill, the best way to beat this defense consistently has been with short passes over the middle — hoping for yards after the catch — which sets up best for Jarvis Landry and David Njoku. Across Mayfield’s two starts, Njoku has seen target counts of seven and 11, while Landry has seen target counts of 10 and 10. Njoku has hauled in only 11 of these 18 targets, while Landry has caught only nine of his 20 looks, but the usage should be there once again.
Rashard Higgins has had a productive downfield partnership with Mayfield, but he’ll miss this week, which will theoretically open more targets for Antonio Callaway. Higgins’ plays were driven more by excellent route-running and instincts than by athletic talent, and the plays he was making are not plays that Callaway seems mentally equipped to make at the moment. He’s purely a bet-on-talent play. He played 55 snaps last week, but saw only five targets. He has 13 catches on 30 targets this year.
The actual snaps Higgins left behind were picked up by UDFA Derrick Willies, who played 26 snaps down the stretch last week after seeing the field for only four offensive snaps before that — with three catches on five targets for 61 yards. Higgins has become an ultimate “do the little things right” receiver, so Willies — a raw player — is unlikely to step right into what has been a productive role in this offense; but he should see another three to six looks in this spot, and the guesswork involved here leaves upside for more.
BROWNS RUN OFFENSE
Carlos Hyde has 16 to 23 carries in every game this year, though he has seen only six catches through five games, making him a “yardage and touchdown” guy. Cleveland ranks a respectable 15th in adjusted line yards on offense, while the Chargers rank 20th on defense. The Chargers are also 16th in yards allowed per carry, at 4.1. The Chargers have allowed only two rushing touchdowns on the year, compared to 11 passing touchdowns, though Hyde does continue to dominate looks close to the goal line, with nine carries inside the five yard line — second in the league to only Todd Gurley. Ultimately, this should be treated as a middling spot for a guy who has yet to top 100 rushing yards, but whose workload is secure, and who has five rushing touchdowns on the year. If Hyde fails to score, he’ll disappoint; if he punches in a touchdown or two, he’ll prove to be a nice piece.
That was a lot of research (and words) to discover that I’m not interested in a whole lot in this game, though Gordon and Ekeler make sense in tourneys for the upside each of them carries, while Gordon can always have a usage-based case made for him in cash games in this high-powered offense. I’ll almost certainly leave receivers alone on the Chargers, while the lack of efficiency so far in the Mayfield-to-Landry connection will make it tough for me to chase here against a defense that appears to be regaining form. Njoku is an intriguing upside piece, given the state of the tight end position this week. Each defense is also in play, given the playmaking skills each side boasts, though neither stands out as a top option.
I do have interest in game stacking here if looking for under-owned upside in large-field tourneys. This is not the likeliest spot to hit; but if this game turns into the sort of shootout the Browns ended up in a couple weeks ago, there are some serious “upside” pieces that could pay off in a big way.
SATURDAY AFTERNOON UPDATE // Full “Updates” List
Derrick Willies is out for the Browns — which may not seem like a big deal, but they are running thin at outside receiver. Expect the Browns to shift a little more run-heavy, but also expect them to get a couple extra targets to Jarvis Landry and David Njoku. Landry has the better matchup, but don’t write off Njoku as a tough-matchup, but high-ceiling play.