CHIEFS // BROWNS OVERVIEW
The world-beating 7-1 Chiefs will travel to Cleveland this week to take on a backward-moving Cleveland team that is fresh off of firing the incomparably bad Hue Jackson / Todd Haley combo. While there is not a ton that a team can change in a single week, one thing that defensive-minded interim head coach Gregg Williams and new offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens can change is their pace of play. (To be clear: no reports have come out to this effect, and I have no clue if they will change this. But given that the Browns rank third in pace of play and have been a great pace-up spot for opponents, it is worth noting that there is no guarantee that this will continue to be the case.) One justification for Cleveland slowing down the pace: on defense this year, they rank fourth in fewest yards allowed per drive, sixth in fewest points allowed per drive, and first in fewest plays allowed per drive — and yet, they rank 24th in fewest points allowed per game, and they rank 28th in fewest yards allowed per game. The Browns’ best shot at a win will be to slow down the game, keep the ball on the ground, and play keepaway for as long as possible. Who knows if this new coaching staff will be intelligent enough to take this approach.
Of course, it’s not as if we need a pace-up spot in order to like the prospects of Patrick Mahomes and the high-powered Chiefs offense (first in the NFL in points per game, at an otherworldly 36.3). Cleveland has been solid against the pass (sixth in yards allowed per pass attempt) — but Jacksonville ranks second in this category, New England ranks eighth, and Pittsburgh ranks ninth. Mahomes had no trouble in any of those spots.
As for the Browns and their dysfunctional offense: it will be interesting this week to watch how Kitchens adjusts. He coached under Bruce Arians for years in Arizona and should have some strong vertical concepts he can layer into what has already been a downfield-oriented passing attack — but the clearest things he can fix in the short term are: 1) get Duke Johnson more involved, 2) get David Njoku rolling, and 3) start using Jarvis Landry on the sorts of routes that actually fit his skill set. I have no idea if Kitchens will effectively make these changes, but this will be a good week to keep an eye on things and see how they play out.
CHIEFS PASS OFFENSE
Gregg Williams and the Browns like to blitz. Sometimes, this can rattle good quarterbacks.
Can this rattle Patrick Mahomes?
Incredibly, Mahomes has a 63% completion rate when blitzed this year (barely down from his 66.5% rate when not blitzed), with 9.1 yards per pass attempts (higher than his 8.8 mark when not blitzed), and with a 6 :: 1 TD/INT ratio (compared to 20 :: 5 when not blitzed). His quarterback rating when blitzed is 114.2. His quarterback rating when not blitzed is 115.7. Unreal.
As noted weekly in the space, Cleveland’s goal is not to take away any particular area of the field or any particular routes, but is instead to A) prevent the deep ball, and B) play sticky, aggressive coverage that makes it extremely difficult for passes to be completed. Halfway through the year, no team has allowed a lower catch rate than the Browns, with this team shaving almost 10% off the league average rate.
The interesting thing about the Browns’ style of defense is that there is really no “type of receiver” or “type of route tree” that works best against them, as this unit has stymied John Brown while getting torched by Tyrell Williams; they forced Michael Thomas to pile up 12 catches just to reach 89 yards, but they let Mike Evans go 7-107-0 on 11 looks; they gave up 119 yards to JuJu Smith-Schuster in Week 1 and held him to 33 yards in Week 8; and they let Amari Cooper, of all players, go 8-128-1. When it comes down to it, this is a defense that is going to make life difficult on a per-play basis, but that is also going to get overaggressive a few times per contest, allowing one or two guys to pick up chunk gains. Of course, it should be noted that while the Browns have allowed the fifth most wide receiver yards in the league this year, their nine touchdowns allowed to wide receivers (through eight games) is a respectable middle-of-the-pack mark.
The starting point on the Chiefs’ passing attack is Tyreek Hill, who had seen double-digit targets in three of four games before his four-target dud in Week 8 against a Broncos team that sold out to stop him. Almost every week, we single out Hill as a guy with “a much lower floor than other receivers in his price range, but with the upside to post the highest score on the slate.” That sentiment is enhanced against a Browns unit that aims to limit deep passing, but that has an aggressive streak that can lead to big plays from a guy like Hill.
The most locked-in workload on this team belongs to Travis Kelce, who has only two games all year below eight targets. The Browns have limited tight end yardage and touchdowns, but only four teams have allowed more receptions. It would take an especially difficult matchup for Kelce to be considered anything but an elite play — with his only weekly cause for concern being his periodic usage duds (a hazard of this hyper-efficient, many-mouthed offense).
Behind these guys, Sammy Watkins has recent target counts of 8 // 4 // 7 // 9, and while he has taken over what is essentially a “possession receiver” role in this offense (rarely seeing targets more than eight or nine yards downfield), he is locked into his role, with only one game in his last six (taking away his injury game vs Denver) below seven targets.
Mahomes has thrown for 300+ yards in seven consecutive games, so there should be enough yards to go around for at least two of these three to produce solid stat lines this week.
CHIEFS RUN OFFENSE
Cleveland has been most attackable on the ground, ranking 24th in yards allowed per carry while allowing the most running back rushing touchdowns in the league. Only eight teams have been worse than the Browns at preventing touchdowns in the red zone, and Kareem Hunt ranks third in the NFL in carries inside the 10 and fourth in carries inside the five. Marshawn Lynch (20 carries), Melvin Gordon (18 carries), and James Conner (24 carries) have each topped 100 yards in this matchup this year, and Hunt will have a chance to approach that range. While Hunt has topped 20 carries only once all season, he has hauled in five catches in each of his last three games (with four receiving touchdowns peppered in along the way). He is a primary piece on this Chiefs offense and should be locked into a solid touch-floor (and solid production) no matter how this game plays out.
BROWNS PASS OFFENSE
If the Browns are smart (and given how little we know about Kitchens, we have no idea yet if this will prove to be the case), they will lean on the run as much as they can this week against a Kansas City team that ranks dead last in adjusted line yards, but that ranks seventh in adjusted sack rate. No team has taken more sacks than the Browns on the year.
The Browns have also been a team in “identity crisis” mode over the last few weeks, as they have shifted from being one of the most aggressive-minded, downfield-attacking units in the NFL to being one of the most conservative, dink-and-dunk passing attacks — trying to find anything that will help the efficiency of this offense spike. This has allowed the completion rate to rise for Baker Mayfield, but the ultimate end result is turning out the same: only the Bills and Cardinals are notching fewer yards per pass attempt on the year.
When the Browns do pass the ball, they will be attacking a man-heavy coverage scheme that aims to get after the quarterback and force downfield throws. As noted earlier in the year, when this pass rush was still a mess: this doesn’t work when the pass rush fails, but it makes life tough on an offense when the pass rush is getting to the quarterback, which should be the case this week. Against man-heavy coverage units, the players likeliest to have success are polished route runners — which makes raw rookies Antonio Callaway and Damion Ratley longer-shot plays.
No matter how much the Browns choose to focus on the run this week, it is almost certain that they will eventually have to turn to the air, which should allow Jarvis Landry to reach double-digit targets for the seventh consecutive game. Of Landry’s 12 targets last week, only five came more than five yards downfield — and as has been an issue for this connection all season, only one of these passes was completed. During a Week 3 – 6 stretch in which Landry was being featured downfield more frequently, he and Mayfield managed to connect on only 19 of 45 pass attempts (42.2%).
The Chiefs are weakest against the tight end, as only six teams have allowed more receptions to the position, and only the Bengals have allowed more yards. Naturally, it should be noted that the Steelers have allowed the second most tight end receptions in the league, and Njoku dropped from recent target counts of 7 // 10 // 12 // 6 to zero looks in that matchup last week. Dysfunctional offenses always carry some risk, but he should return to his six-plus target range this week, which will give him a strong opportunity to hit.
BROWNS RUN OFFENSE
The Chiefs have been incredibly generous to running backs this season, facing just under 21 rush attempts per game (ranking in the bottom half of the league), but allowing the seventh most rushing yards to the position, on 5.31 yards per carry. The Chiefs’ seven rushing touchdowns allowed to running backs ranks fourth worst in the league, and they have also allowed the third most receptions and the most receiving yards to enemy backs.
Disappointingly, of course, the Nick Chubb role in this offense yields only one to three targets per game (and these are typically of the “desperation dump-off” variety, rather than being schemed looks — leaving little room for upside), while Duke — if he indeed gets more involved this week — will likely see limited work on the ground (he has topped three carries on only two occasions this season). Chubb is a yardage-and-touchdown back with a decent shot at both — but with a low floor if he fails to score, and with fear that the Chiefs jump out to a quick lead and his role disappears. Duke is an upside play with a very thin floor, but with some hope that this team feeds him seven or eight targets this week to help jumpstart the offense
Mahomes is always in play — in any matchup, and in any format — and that remains the case this week. Any concerns that the Browns will come out on fire this week with “something to prove” can likely be eliminated by watching or reading player interviews from this team this week, as these guys seem more bemused than anything. A group of grown men with nothing to play for beyond pride and “future” are unlikely to be pulled together by an old-school, fire-and-brimstone coach with a lengthy track record of losing football.
I like Kelce as a high-floor, high-ceiling tight end play (as is almost always the case), and I like Hill as a guy to avoid in cash games and consider in tourneys. I rarely take on Hill’s floor myself, but as noted each week: he carries legitimate week-winning upside every time he steps on the field.
One of my regrets last week was that I failed to give more serious thought to Watkins on DraftKings, where his seven-plus targets in this offense are more valuable than the five to eight looks being seen by guys like Christian Kirk and Chris Godwin (who were both priced right next to him last week). On DK and FantasyDraft, Watkins is once again an intriguing salary saver, with a solid point-per-dollar floor and a stronger ceiling than most guys in his price range. On FanDuel, pricing at wide receiver is a lot more condensed, making Watkins a tougher sell.
On the other side of the ball: nothing jumps off the page, but I expect a solid game from Njoku and will not be surprised if Chubb or Duke posts a respectable score. Landry and even Callaway are not awful plays, but there are better plays elsewhere.
Finally, I like the Chiefs’ defense as a road-traveling unit that should rack up sacks and a turnover or two. This game carries some question marks with the coaching changes on the Browns, but the issues with sacks and turnovers will not disappear overnight.
SATURDAY EVENING UPDATE // Full “Updates” List
Rashard Higgins will play this week for the Browns, which will send Damion Ratley to the bench most of the game, and could lead to a solid role for Higgins as the Browns click into “catch up mode.” He’s an interesting tourney pivot off the more popular cheap receivers.