While all the hype this offseason surrounded the talent-rich Browns, the “still rebuilding” Seahawks were continuing to do what they always do: build a team that communicates well, plays assignment-strong football, and continues to get better as the season moves along. Five weeks into the year, there are only two teams with a better record than the 4-1 Seahawks, while the Browns sit at a disappointing 2-3 while failing to get their superstar offseason acquisition involved, failing to keep drives alive (26th in drive success rate), failing to convert in the red zone (20th in red zone touchdown rate), and failing to stop teams from scoring when they reach the red zone (30th in opponent red zone touchdown rate). The Seahawks, meanwhile, enter this game ranked first in the league in red zone touchdown rate, having pushed the ball into the end zone on 76.5% of their trips inside the 20.
The major bright spot for the Browns this season has been their pass defense (seventh in yards allowed per pass attempt; 11th in DVOA), which this team has been able to maintain in spite of missing top cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams for the last several weeks. Williams and Ward returned to limited practice this week and appear on track to make it back onto the field for Sunday’s tilt with Seattle — but before we get to the pass game matchup, we first need to explore the flip side of “the Browns doing a good job against the pass,” and that is the fact that they have been atrocious against the run so far, ranking 29th in yards allowed per carry and 23rd in run defense DVOA, while facing the seventh highest opponent rush play rate in the league and giving up the sixth most running back rushing yards (at 5.01 yards per carry). Cleveland has been clipped by bigger backs in Derek Henry (4.4 YPC), Mark Ingram (5.9 YPC) and Gus Edwards (4.7 YPC), while allowing consistent production up the gut where Chris Carson does most of his damage. Seattle unsurprisingly ranks fifth in rush play rate through the first five games of the year, and we should expect them to come out with their typical run-heavy approach in this spot. Last week, with Rashaad Penny back on the field for Seattle, Carson handled 62 of a possible 73 snaps and took the rock 27 times on the ground; and while there is no reason to believe the backfield split will remain quite so heavily tilted in Carson’s favor, that serves as a reminder that he is the lead dog, and he’s the guy this team wants to lean on when the game is up for grabs. (Carson has also had a mini-bye to rest up from that big workload after the Seahawks played last Thursday night.)
As expected coming into this year, Russell Wilson (who has been absolutely brilliant, with a quarterback rating of 126.3 and 12 touchdowns to no interceptions) has required true shootout conditions in order to be allowed to throw, with passing attempt totals of 20 // 35 // 50 // 28 // 23, in spite of three of the Seahawks wins coming by a combined total of only four points. (His 50-attempt game came with the Saints and their solid run defense jumping out to a 27-7 lead heading into the fourth quarter.) As always: if you bet on Russ, you should also bet on pieces from the opposing team (Cooper Kupp and Alvin Kamara had slate-breaking games opposite Russ’ two biggest performances, while Vance McDonald went for two touchdowns opposite Russ’ other usable game) — though none of this is to imply that Russ can’t get there for you, as he has paths to the highest score on the slate if the Browns can force Seattle to open up through the air.
With Russ being given more freedom with his legs this year and getting a large chunk of his production from touchdowns, it is worth noting that — even if we take into account full-PPR scoring on DraftKings and FantasyDraft — there has been only one instance this season of a Seattle pass catcher outscoring Russ (and that was Will Dissly against the Cardinals and their weak tight end defense). Seattle pass catchers should really only be rostered if you are also rostering Russ (i.e., if rostering a Seattle pass catcher, you are saying you expect them to have one of the better scores on the slate at their position; which would almost certainly mean Russ has one of the stronger games at quarterback). Over the last few weeks, the Browns have gotten by without Ward/Williams by playing back and forcing passing attacks to focus on the short areas of the field, which is not a recipe for “big upside” games — on top of which, we have passing volume concerns for this offense as a whole. But if you do decide to bet on a pass catcher here (which likely means you’re betting on Russ as well; which likely means you’re betting on a player from the Browns as well), Lockett is going to be your best bet for all-levels usage, while Dissly should continue to be featured both downfield and as an outlet after seeing target counts across the last four weeks of 5 // 7 // 8 // 4. Dissly has caught 23 of 26 targets on the year, while Lockett has caught 30 of 36. If the passing volume is there, the production will likely be there as well.
If choosing to bet on the Seattle passing attack, one element working in your favor is the fact that the Seahawks run defense has been stout this year, allowing the fourth fewest yards per carry on the season, while holding running backs specifically to the fourth fewest yards per game at only 3.84 yards per carry. With Seattle buckling down so tightly against the run, they are facing the third highest opponent pass play rate in the league (behind only New England and Philly); and while Seattle has also been solid against wide receivers (59.5% completion rate // 7.1 yards per target // an aDOT over 15% below the league average // only four touchdowns allowed), volume alone can create opportunities for production to emerge.
Of course, “volume” has been an issue for Odell Beckham, who has seen descending target counts on the year of 11 // 10 // 9 // 7 // 6, while managing to bring in only two catches in each of his last two games. If looking for positives with Beckham: last week, the Browns elected to receive the ball when they won the toss (which no one does anymore, because: analytics) and opened the game with a pair of plays designed to get Beckham immediately involved. Kitchens is looking for ways to get Beckham going, and Baker Mayfield has been talking about it as well, so expect Beckham to be an emphasis this week against a team that has faced the fourth most pass attempts in the league.
With Beckham scuffling the last couple weeks in tough spots vs Marlon Humphrey (Week 4) and the 49ers (Week 5), Jarvis Landry has stepped up to go 8-167-0 and 4-75-0. Kitchens seems to not quite know what the roles are for Landry and Beckham, as Landry has seen his usage bounce between short-area looks and downfield work, while Beckham (who…you know, can take a slant to the house on any play) has been used primarily on go routes and out-breaking routes while being given precious few opportunities for the YAC-master plays that make him one of the most lethal weapons in football. As noted last week: it’s as if Kitchens is having a difficult time figuring out how to run a team and still run the offense. Maybe this is the week he gets it figured out.
The other core piece on this offense is Nick Chubb, who is a “bet on talent and workload” option in this spot behind a bad offensive line against a stout Seattle front seven. Chubb can score even in a bad yardage game, and he can break off one long run to make up for a day full of “stuffs,” but the matchup leaves floor a thin proposition in this spot.
JM’s Interpretation ::
The clear play to focus on in this game is Carson — who may not see 27 carries again (and may not have the locked-in pass game role to be a truly high-floor piece), but who nevertheless sets up well in this matchup, on a team that wants to run, vs a team that invites the run. All other plays in this spot essentially hinge on whether or not you believe the Browns offensive line (26th in adjusted sack rate) can hold up against Seattle enough times for Beckham (or possibly Landry) to post a big game and give the Browns a big lead — which would force Seattle to get more aggressive with Russ, and would immediately make pieces on the Seattle passing attack viable. If hoping to make this bet, it is worth noting that Seattle rarely blitzes; and while the 49ers are one of the only teams that blitz less often than Seattle (those extra bodies in coverage sure made life difficult against the Browns last week), the 49ers rank third in adjusted sack rate, while the Seahawks have had a tough time getting to the quarterback without bringing extra pressure, ranking 25th. With this, the Seahawks have allowed the following, notable yardage totals through the air:
158 to John Ross // 84 to JuJu (with Mason Rudolph) // 92 to Kamara // 99 to David Johnson // 117 to Cooper Kupp // 136 to Gerald Everett
Beckham (and as an outlier bet, even Landry) can be considered very much in play in tourneys, with Beckham a borderline option in cash if you feel comfortable fading the Browns’ early-season ineptitude. If betting on Beckham (or Landry — or even Chubb), you also open the door for a potential back-and-forth affair, in which Russ naked or Russ + Lockett and/or Dissly becomes viable. (As an outlier to this outlier, you could also bet on DK Metcalf connecting on one of his go routes, or on Antonio Callaway having a much better game after the coaching staff literally put him on the field for a full complement of snaps coming off a suspension in which he was not allowed to practice with the team, and did not know the playbook. Cleveland Browns: the more things change, the more they stay the same.)