The way to beat the Browns (or…at least, to pick up yards against the Browns) is the same way teams pick up yards against the Bills: running the ball. The Bills rank ninth in DVOA against the pass and 27th against the run, while the Browns rank 13th // 20th — with this team having allowed the sixth fewest passing yards, but the 12th most running back rushing yards. And yet, the Dolphins have gotten absolutely no production out of their backfield (Kalen Ballage is averaging a check-for-typo 1.9 yards per carry on the year), and when they fell behind against the Bills last week, they called on Ryan Fitzpatrick to throw the ball 45 times while handing the ball off to Ballage (nine carries), Patrick Laird (one carry), and Myles Gaskin (one carry) only 11 total times. There has not yet been a usable state line to emerge from the Dolphins’ backfield — but with Fitzpatrick under center (and with the Browns favored by 10.5 points at home), we do have opportunity to at least explore the Miami passing attack.
The Browns have been solid, but not overly terrifying against the pass this year, allowing a middling 7.2 yards per pass attempt and a middling 17 passing touchdowns. And while only eight teams have allowed fewer yards to wideouts than the Browns, only seven teams have faced fewer opponent pass attempts, with the Browns playing a number of their games from behind, and with teams preferring to attack this team on the ground (the seventh lowest opponent pass play rate in the league). The Browns have allowed an above-average number of notable stat lines this year (eight), with six coming from wideouts and two from tight ends.
In a fairly random (but interesting) statistical sequence, the Dolphins had five different players last week who saw exactly six targets against the Bills (Allen Hurns // Albert Wilson // Mike Gesicki // Kalen Ballage // Patrick Laird — who played only 16 snaps as Ballage’s backup, but who picked up seven touches on those snaps), but the player who has been emphasized week in and week out ahead of those names is, of course, DeVante Parker. Over his last five games, Parker has target counts of 10 // 8 // 6 // 10 // 10, and outside of his game against New England (zero catches on seven looks), Parker has picked up 50+ yards in seven of eight games while scoring four touchdowns on the year. While Parker has not shown much raw ceiling in this offense, his floor has been pretty matchup-proof as the central piece of this Dolphins passing attack.
The spread-around nature of this passing attack behind Parker has made it difficult for any other pass catchers to really get much going, as Fitzpatrick entered last week with recent pass attempt totals of 35 // 34 // 36 // 33 (a significant dip from the 45 he posted last week). No currently active pass catcher on the Dolphins saw more than five targets in a game during that stretch with the exception of Gesicki (recent target counts of 4 // 3 // 6 // 6 // 6), making this group a “bet on game flow and hope for good things to happen” block of players. Gesicki has topped 51 yards only once this year, but he’s the player next likeliest to post the sort of score you might notice — in spite of a matchup against a Browns team that is better against tight ends than they are against wide receivers.
The biggest concern on the Browns’ side, of course, is related more to volume than to matchup. The Dolphins have not suddenly given back the progress they had made over a month of quality play (a one point loss to Washington, followed by four consecutive games in which they led at halftime — the last two of which they won), and even “good teams” have bad games. (As explored the last few weeks: the Dolphins are remarkably untalented, but they are still a “good team,” in terms of being able to play their assignments and play from start to finish each week.) In other words: it won’t be surprising if the Dolphins give the Browns a tougher test than they gave to Buffalo last week — but this is still a winnable game across the board for Cleveland, given their massive edge in talent.
The pass catcher likeliest to see locked-in usage is Odell Beckham, as Cleveland has made a point of emphasizing him in their last two games — feeding him 12 and 10 targets in spite of contests against the Bills and the Steelers. These were Beckham’s fourth and fifth double-digit target games of the year (incredibly, he has topped six receptions only once, and he has topped 60 receiving yards only four times — with only three games above 71 yards), and there is obviously no guarantee he posts a blowup game in a contest the Browns are likely to control; but his 6-161-1 game against the Jets back in Week 2 is a reminder of the sort of upside he carries, and this is a good spot for him if the targets cooperate and the passes from Baker Mayfield are on point. This is the sort of spot in which we’ll likely see the Browns emphasize Beckham early, and we’ll see what happens from there.
Without David Njoku (potentially set to return this week — though it’s unlikely he would be a heavy point of emphasis in the passing attack right away), and with Antonio Callaway now off the team and Rashard Higgins simply a solid role player, the Browns have been something that they were not a year ago: a concentrated offense. With Beckham seeing recent target counts of 11 // 7 // 6 // 12 // 10, Jarvis Landry has countered with target counts of 5 // 10 // 13 // 10 // 7 — giving these two combined target counts of 16 // 17 // 19 // 22 // 17 during this stretch. Landry has topped 100 yards only once this year and has topped 75 yards only twice, but he is used all over the formation, and his aDOT of 9.1 has some upside-producing elements. He is dependent on “touchdowns or broken plays” for ceiling, but there are opportunities for one or the other of those to show up against the Dolphins.
The biggest potential dent for OBJ/Landry is the possibility that the Browns hammer the Dolphins on the ground — especially if they build an early lead. The Dolphins have faced the ninth fewest wide receiver targets in the league (and this is not because of their coverage!), and of the nine notable stat lines allowed to opposing pass catchers, five came on five or fewer receptions. Only the Bengals are facing a lower opponent pass play rate than the Dolphins, and only Washington has faced more running back rush attempts.
The Browns are regularly employing Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb on the field together (they had 70 snaps last week, with Chubb playing 51 and Hunt playing 38), with Chubb featured more as a runner (47 carries // 5 targets since Hunt returned) and Hunt being featured more as a receiver (10 carries // 17 targets). The Dolphins, on average, are giving up 168 total yards (rushing plus receiving), 4.5 receptions, and a touchdown to running backs — so it’s certainly not a given that both guys produce at their now-elevated prices (that comes out to 30.3 total backfield points per game on DraftKings/FantasyDraft // 25.05 on FanDuel). But the Browns as a team are in good shape to beat those average marks, and there is certainly upside from there.
JM’s Interpretation ::
Touchdown expectations are low for the Dolphins as a whole this week, so even with this offense willing to be aggressive and somewhat concentrating its volume, this side of the ball is more “crossing your fingers and hoping for the best” than anything else. I do think there is some viability to playing Parker in tourneys for his locked-in targets on a team that should be chasing points. I also want to single out Laird as an interesting large-field play. A team like the Dolphins should be in “evaluation mode” — and Ballage has shown them nothing all year, while Laird (an undrafted rookie who was called up from the practice squad after Mark Walton’s suspension) has looked solid in hauling in eight of eight targets the last two weeks for 61 yards. If he plays only 16 snaps again, he’ll likely disappoint; but it wouldn’t be entirely unexpected for the Dolphins to “unexpectedly” feature Laird a bit more this week. He’s a sub-0.5% owned play that has a greater than 0.5% chance of having a real role this week — which means he likely turns into nothing; but if he turns into something, that “something” would have slate-winning potential at his non-ownership and his price.
On the Browns’ side, the offense is highly concentrated on OBJ // Landry // Chubb // Hunt right now, and it is highly likely that one or two of these players posts a strong score this week. With the inconsistency and potential volume concerns of the passing attack, and with the split nature of the backfield, it’s tough to isolate any of these guys as Tier 1 options — but in the same way it made sense last week to cycle some Singletary and John Brown through any multi-entry blocks, it makes sense to feature Browns on a chunk of multi-entry play. (This is something we’ll talk about on the Angles Pod this week as well — not necessarily specific to the Browns, but of what this type of thinking/building looks like; super profitable stuff if you can nail down this approach.) Consider these four (as well as Mayfield) to be Tier 3 individually, but also consider “Browns offense” to be a sharp block this week.