This season, the Cleveland Browns have not been wanting for offensive playmakers. Though their offense isn't made up of household names or perennial Pro-Bowlers, that side of the ball has clearly been the team's biggest strength.
That offensive prowess, particularly in the passing game, should come in handy on Sunday when the Browns take on the St. Louis Rams. For all the credit the Rams have been given for building one of the most fearsome front sevens, one that has totaled 19 combined sacks so far this year, they are still susceptible to being caught by opponents' passing games.
While the Rams are giving up a 10th-best 235 passing yards per game and have held four of their five 2015 opponents to under 200 yards passing, the St. Louis offense has been outscored by its opponents, 113 to 84. Meanwhile, at 272 yards, the Browns are averaging the ninth-most passing yardage on a weekly basis. And with 227 total pass attempts so far this year, Cleveland has thrown the ball more than 19 other teams in the league.
One reason why the Rams have given up so few passing yards this year isn't just because the defense is playing well but also because teams aren't throwing the ball against them.
The Rams have been thrown against just 174 times so far this year, the fourth-fewest attempts in the league. On a pass-by-pass basis, the Rams have proven vulnerable—they are allowing 7.3 yards per pass attempt and 10.0 yards per completion, and in these numbers are the keys to a Browns victory on Sunday.
It starts with Browns quarterback Josh McCown, whose 2015 is shaping up to be the best of his career—potentially even better than his five-game stint as the Chicago Bears starter in 2013. Right now, he's completing 64.4 percent of his passes, is averaging 7.5 yards per attempt, 11.7 yards per completion and has thrown eight touchdowns to three interceptions.
It's the cast around him that has helped McCown have a good start to his year. Seven Browns players currently have at least 122 receiving yards, with receiver Travis Benjamin leading the way with 528 yards followed by tight end Gary Barnidge with 413 yards. Four of McCown's targets have surpassed 100 total yards after the catch, and the Browns have had 21 passing plays that have gone 20 or more yards.
The diversity of weapons that McCown has at his disposal will keep St. Louis' defense on its toes. While Benjamin and Barnidge have clearly been the standout receivers for McCown this year, paying too much attention to either or both of them will leave openings for the likes of Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel and Brian Hartline. And the versatility that running back Duke Johnson provides in the passing game adds another dimension the Rams will have to account for.
The one pitfall the Browns need to avoid is that St. Louis pass rush. The Rams' ability to get to opposing quarterbacks, particularly when and where it counts most, is why they have given up only five receiving touchdowns all season long and why the defense ranks second in opponent red-zone touchdown percentage, at 35.71 percent.
McCown has been sacked 17 times, or on 8.3 percent of his attempts. Pro Football Focus noted that the number goes up to 23.6 percent when he's pressured, something he's seen on 34.3 percent of his dropbacks. But when he can throw under pressure, he's doing far better this year than he did in his 2014 stint with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Currently, McCown has completed 53.8 percent of his pressured passes, for a Pro Football Focus pressured accuracy rating of 67.4 percent. Of his 52 pressured passes, he's completed 28, leading to three touchdowns and two interceptions. Last year, he saw pressure on 43.2 percent of his dropbacks, with a completion percentage of 45.8 percent and an accuracy percentage of 55.9 percent. He threw only two touchdowns under pressure last year, to nine interceptions.
And it's not as though he's being any better protected. Only two teams have allowed more sacks this year. But how McCown has reacted to pressure has changed. Most notably, he's getting the football out of his hands more quickly. In 2014, he took an average of 2.87 seconds to throw; this year, it's down to 2.6 seconds.
|McCown Under Pressure, 2014 vs. 2015|
|Year||Press. DBs||Press.%||Atts.||Comp.||Comp.%||Acc.%||Sack||TD||INT||Time To Throw|
|via Pro Football Focus|
As long as Cleveland's offensive line can afford McCown the 2.6 seconds he typically needs to get passes out, the Browns should be able to bypass the Rams' defensive pressure and be able to move the ball down the field. The amount of receiving targets available to McCown has allowed him to react more quickly. If he can rely on Benjamin, Barnidge, Hawkins and others to make plays after the catch, Cleveland's passing offense should have a good showing on Sunday.
The Browns' run offense has been too inconsistent to lean on this week, and the defense has been such a liability, particularly against the run, that it's hard to imagine the Browns getting enough stops to dominate the game. Cleveland will need McCown's arm and its receiving options to lead the team to a victory on Sunday.
It will be difficult, given the low average passing yards yielded by the Rams this year and how successful the defensive front has been at sacking quarterbacks. But there are weaknesses in the St. Louis pass defense that can be exploited by the Browns thanks to McCown's improved reaction time, his response to pressure and the numerous players that are capable of sapping St. Louis' coverage resources.