Despite the Cleveland Browns entering the bye week with a 4-5 record and in second place in the AFC North, they still have a ton of room for improvement. The biggest weakness of the Orange and Brown is converting third downs. It has to improve if they want to remain legitimate.
“As you look at it I think from each side of the ball, we started as a staff talking about it a little bit from an offensive standpoint of getting better at our run game and continuing to work on that; some third downs and getting better on some third downs,” said head coach Rob Chudzinski to the media in his press conference on Tuesday, via ClevelandBrowns.com.
It is obviously a point of emphasis for the coaching staff as they retool for the last seven games of the year. While most failed third downs in the league are in longer-yardage situations, the Browns also fail in short-yardage situations too often.
Cleveland currently ranks 29th in the NFL at converting third downs. They only pick up the yards needed 33 percent of the time. If the Browns were able to run the football and pick up short-yardage third downs, their percentage would rise dramatically.
Let’s look at three different short-yardage, third-down situations from their win on Sunday in this week’s film breakdown.
Play 1: 3rd-and-1 with 5:21 left in the second quarter
The Browns are facing a very common situation which they have failed to convert many times this season. While they are just one yard away from picking up a first down, the rushing attack is so weak that they must line up in a shotgun formation.
By lining up in the shotgun, the running back now has to travel four yards to pick up a first down. Given the Browns' run game, this is almost impossible.
When the ball is snapped, the running back will try and pick up the blitz which will come from the opposite side of the formation.
The running back picks up one blitzer, but the Baltimore Ravens are sending a delayed blitz right behind it. They have all four of the Browns receivers covered in man-to-man coverage with a deep safety over the top.
The delayed blitz forces quarterback Jason Campbell to step up into the pocket and throw a pass before any of his routes come open.
The Browns' inability to run the football forced them into a predictable situation. As soon as they drop back into a shotgun formation, the Ravens know they can send a pass rush.
Offensive coordinator Norv Turner calls a play with one safety valve which is covered. Campbell has no place to throw except at the feet of the crossing route.
Play 2: 3rd-and-4 with 0:27 left in the third quarter
The Browns are now backed up inside their own 20-yard line facing four yards to move the chains. This is a tricky scenario because it is just long enough for teams that have effective rushing attacks to think twice before handing it off.
They once again line up in a shotgun formation. They will send the outside wide receivers on streak routes and the slot receiver on a shallow crossing route. The running back will be either a safety valve or pick up a blitzing defender.
Jason Campbell has perfect protection, but, unfortunately, the Ravens do not blitz and send everyone back into coverage. They have two zones at the first-down marker, two deep zones and two cornerbacks playing man-to-man coverage.
As you can see, Campbell has nowhere to throw the football and must try to scramble for the first down.
This failed conversion is the result of a great defensive call and not failed execution by the offense. When Campbell tried to scramble for the first down, he was tackled by one of the short-zone defenders.
The Ravens had been blitzing on third downs all game long and threw a curveball at the Browns on this play.
Play 3: 3rd-and-1 with 3:54 left in the fourth quarter
This was a huge play in the game. The Browns needed one yard to extend their drive and possibly seal the victory. The Browns line up an I-formation and will try to bully a run ahead for the first down.
They have substituted defensive lineman Billy Winn as the fullback and lead blocker.
The left side of the line gets a nice push, but that is not where the play is called. The right side of the line gets blown back.
Right guard Shawn Lauvao, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, tight end Gary Barnidge and Winn all get zero push forward which leaves running back Willis McGahee with no place to run.
Taking a look at this play from the end-zone camera you can see that there is no gap for McGahee to run the football. As he approaches the line, the entire side collapses on top of him, and he is stood up at the line of scrimmage.
The Browns were able to convert a huge 4th-and-1 attempt on the very next play which led to the field goal which sealed their victory. To get that first down, they had to pass the football.
While McGahee is no longer built to be a feature back in the NFL, the offensive line is less-than-stellar as well.
The Browns' lack of rushing attack makes them extremely one-dimensional on shorter third downs. While not every failed attempt is the result of their poor execution, it certainly contributes to their woes.
In the second half of the season, the Browns need to find a way to be more creative. They have to get freshly signed wide receiver Armanti Edwards and playmaker Josh Gordon involved somehow. They both have explosive abilities and can create when the ball is in their hands.
If they can only convert third downs by passing the ball, they will continue to struggle and dwell near the bottom of the league in that category.
Game-film screenshot is courtesy of NFL Game Rewind (subscription required).