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Before we crown the Browns, let’s see them stop James Conner

The Cleveland Browns are the talk of the NFL, but the reality is they still have a lot of work to do before they are even considered the team to beat in their own division.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Unless you spent the winter hibernating, you’ve likely heard the football world buzzing about the Cleveland Browns. On the heels of a season that saw them increase their win total from 0 to 7, their rookie quarterback emerge as a potential star and their division rivals all regress in some fashion, the Browns have been rising like Build-A-Bear stock at Christmas.

In February they signed controversial but uber-talented running back Kareem Hunt. Hunt must serve a domestic abuse suspension, but once he returns he will add big-play capability to the offense. The Hunt signing was followed by the acquisition of former Pro Bowler Sheldon Richardson, who is expected to bolster the defensive front. Those moves were mere preludes, however, to the bombshell that dropped when they acquired one of the best receivers in the game, the Notorious OBJ, as well as talented pass rusher Olivier Vernon in a trade with the Giants. With a small fortune in cap space remaining, the Browns may still have a move up their sleeves.

The talking-head circuit is so impressed by Cleveland’s ascension that many have installed them as the favorites to win the AFC North in 2019. Las Vegas seems to agree. They have the Browns at 15/1 to win it all. Only New England, Kansas City, the Rams and the Saints have been given better odds. The Steelers, by comparison, have been installed at 30/1. That’s tied with San Francisco, Atlanta and San Diego for twelfth best.

Count me among the many who are impressed with how the Browns have operated under John Dorsey, who took over as general manager in late 2017. Dorsey’s 2018 draft, which included Baker Mayfield, Denzel Ward and Nick Chubb, looks promising. And his moves this off-season have drawn raves. The arrow is no doubt pointing up for the traditionally downtrodden Brownies. But before we crown them the kings of the North or discuss them as legitimate Super Bowl contenders, they will have to prove they can conquer the most formidable obstacle in their path: the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Some of you may be rolling your eyes right now. Most formidable? The Steelers? Aren’t we Team Turmoil? Didn’t we just lose Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell? Perhaps. But no team has dominated the Browns this decade quite like the Steelers. In 18 games since 2010, Pittsburgh is 15-2-1 against Cleveland with a perfect 9-0 mark at home. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been especially effective, going 12-1-1 over that stretch. The Ohio native seems to take great pride in beating the teams from his home state. Including playoff games, he has gone a ridiculous 48-9-1 in his career against Cleveland and Cincinnati.

As good as Roethlisberger has been, the Browns may want to set their sights on a different target if they hope to eclipse the Steelers. In two games against Cleveland last season, running back James Conner carried the ball 55 times for 281 yards and four touchdowns. He also caught it 10 times for another 123 yards. That’s 404 yards from scrimmage on 65 touches for an impressive 6.2 yards per touch. Conner’s dominance allowed the Steelers to amass a time of possession advantage in those two contests of almost seven minutes. If not for a host of self-inflicted wounds in the first contest that ended in a tie (12 penalties and five turnovers, including two in the final seven minutes of regulation with the Steelers up 21-7), Pittsburgh would have easily completed their eighth sweep of the Browns this decade.

Here’s a look at how Conner was able to be so effective against Cleveland last season and some thoughts on why the Steelers still threaten to rain on Cleveland’s (premature) parade.

1. TRAP CONCEPTS

Conner is best as a decisive, downhill runner. Recognizing this, offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner scrapped a lot of the zone schemes that Le’Veon Bell thrived upon and replaced them with gap concepts. Gap runs, like power, trap and counter, feature angle blocking and pulling linemen and provide the back a predetermined hole at which to run. It is a more aggressive style than the zone concept, which employs area blocking and requires a patient runner with good vision who can locate a hole as it develops.

One gap concept Fichtner used successfully against Cleveland was the wide trap play. Fichtner was especially effective using wide trap from 11 personnel sets. With three receivers and a tight end spread across the field, the Browns were forced to widen their linebackers, thus creating space in the box.

Here is an example from the first meeting in September. In a 1st and goal situation, Fichtner aligned in a 2x2 set with Conner alone in the backfield. Look at how the alignment dispersed the Cleveland defenders at the second level. Only linebacker Joe Schobert remains between the tackles. With Cleveland in a gap front - meaning every defensive lineman is positioned in the space between two offensive linemen - the Steelers have good angles to block down:

Left guard Ramon Foster pulls and kicks out the edge player while tight end Jesse James climbs to the second level to pin in Schobert. This puts Conner one-on-one with the safety (circled above), who, in man coverage, follows James inside because he thinks James is releasing on a crossing route. Conner bursts inside of Foster’s trap block and glides into the end zone.

Here’s another look at the trap scheme from the meeting in October. Fichtner is in 11 personnel again, this time with tight end Vance McDonald to the field in a 3x1 set. The ball is on the 23 yard line so Cleveland stays in their 4-2-5 base nickel with both linebackers tucked inside the box.

The formation creates a huge gap between defensive end Myles Garrett, lined up outside of McDonald, and the defensive tackle, who is on the inside shoulder of Alejandro Villanueva. McDonald chips Garrett to keep him from “spilling,” or compressing the C-gap, before climbing to block linebacker Jamie Collins. This gives guard David DeCastro ample time to pull and trap Garrett. With a nice down block from AV and a tremendous hustle play from slot receiver Ryan Switzer, who sprints to get inside position on the nickel corner, Conner squares up in the hole and rumbles for 11 yards.

The block by Switzer, by the way, is what makes a player like him so valuable. He doesn’t have the “it” factor of bigger, faster or more talented players but his effort and reliability make him dependable. That counts for a lot. Here, it’s worth an extra seven or eight yards.

Let’s look at one more trap concept from that second match-up. It’s late in the 3rd quarter and the Steelers have run the play successfully several times. Now Fichtner puts a wrinkle on it to keep Cleveland off-balance. He aligns Jesse James out wide to the trips side to get him matched up on defensive back Derrick Kindred (#26). He then motions him inside in order to run a trap RPO.

On an RPO, Roethlisberger will have the option to hand the football to Conner or throw it to one of his receivers based on the reaction of the Browns’ defenders. Here, James runs a seam route while Juju Smith-Schuster, lined up in the slot, runs a bubble screen. If either of those players are uncovered in the immediate post-snap movement, Roethlisberger will throw them the ball. However, when Roethlisberger sees Kindred follow James inside, he knows it’s man coverage and the routes will be taken away. The pass option is off. Roethlisberger will hand the ball to Conner instead.

It’s a good decision. The Steelers run the same trap concept as shown above except now, rather than pulling and kicking out with a guard, they do so with tackle Matt Feiler. Once again, the Steelers dominate at the line of scrimmage. The play-side defensive tackle stunts down to the A-gap, where Foster turns him inside. Villanueva climbs and rides Collins out of the play while center Maurkice Pouncey walls off the backside linebacker. Feiler pulls and covers up Garrett, who submarines him because, presumably, he’s tired of getting his ass kicked. Conner makes the cut inside Feiler’s trap block, bursts through the opening then lowers his shoulder into the safety’s chest to finish off a 15 yard gain.

On each of these plays we see the Steelers OL getting the better of the Browns DL and LBs. Marcus Gilbert, Foster and Villanueva all move the playside DT to open lanes for Conner. James, McDonald, AV and Pouncey each handle their respective linebackers. And all of the pullers provide effective trap blocks on the edge. Conner scored three touchdowns in the second contest last season and all came on variations of the trap scheme. One would think Cleveland would look to take this away in 2019. However, as long as the Steelers can stretch the Browns by formation to create seams in the defense and then out-physical them at the point of attack, it will be difficult to do so.

2. SMASH-MOUTH FOOTBALL

Recognizing the physical advantage he had up front, Fichtner threw in a pretty good dose of old-school smash-mouth runs from power formations. These involved the use of 21, 22 and 13 personnel groups that paired Conner in the backfield with fullback Rosie Nix and put two and sometimes even three tackles or tight ends on the field.

Here’s a run that will excite the old guys in the house who remember when football was a bar fight between the hashes. The Steelers are in 22 personnel (two backs and two tight ends) with both tight ends in an unbalanced formation to the right of the center. The play is Zone Lead, or what back in the day was simply called Iso, whereby all the linemen cover up their adjacent defenders while the fullback leads on (“isolates”) one of the linebackers. Here, it’s Nix on Jamie Collins.

The play starts right before Conner (likely by design) cuts back to his left to follow Nix. Collins ducks inside of the block but Rosie gets enough of him so the best Collins can do is reach for Conner. A great drive block by Foster on defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi and AV’s excellent turn-out block on Garrett give Conner plenty of room to run. He blows through Collins’s arm tackle and trucks Denzel Ward to finish off the ten yard run. If this doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, nothing will.

Here’s another. This is Zone Lead from a different heavy set, this one featuring Chuks Okorafor as the third tackle along side tight end Xavier Grimble. With the Browns kicking their front to the unbalanced side, the Steelers run Iso away from it. The result of the play is a five yard gain. Don’t focus on that, though. Watch the surge the offensive line creates. Every member of Cleveland’s defensive interior is on skates. The Steeler OL gets off the ball, stays on their double team blocks and creates movement (everyone except Grimble, I should say; this block is evidence of why we are in the market for another tight end). Conner keeps his shoulders square and slams the ball up inside. Five yards isn’t spectacular but most coaches will absolutely take that result on 1st and 10. If you can get it by running an Iso play where your guys physically dominate their guys, even better.

Why were heavy personnel runs effective against Cleveland last season? Because the Steelers were flat-out tougher than the Browns. When you line up in 22 personnel sets and runs plays like Iso, what you’re really saying is “We’re tougher than you.” Sheldon Richardson might be harder to move than some of the guys Cleveland had in there last year. We’ll see. But for all of the chest-pounding going on in Cleveland, they will have to out-tough the Steelers if they’re going to consistently beat them. I still like our chances in that department.

3. THE SCREEN GAME

When game-planning for the Browns, an offensive coordinator must pay special attention to Myles Garrett. The Browns took Garrett first overall in the 2017 draft because of his ability to disrupt offenses with his explosiveness and athleticism. In the season-opener last September, Fichtner failed to neutralize Garrett and the young DE went wild. He had two sacks, three tackles for loss and was an all-around menace. So for the rematch in October, Fichtner revised his thinking. Rather than block him on every snap, Fichtner opted to not block, or create the illusion of not blocking, Garrett.

Take those trap runs that were so effective. They succeeded because they used Garrett’s aggressiveness against him. By not blocking Garrett at the snap the Steelers induced him up the field, thus creating a running lane, before a pulling lineman came from the other side of the ball to engage him.

Similarly, Fichtner opted to not block Garrett at times in the passing game by utilizing quick screens to the running back. In doing so, Fichtner created a free path to the quarterback that pulled Garrett away from the line of scrimmage just enough to slip Conner in behind him. The results were excellent, as you can see below.

Fichtner didn’t just do this to Garrett. Here’s one where defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah gets caught as well:

In both instances Conner catches the football with linemen out in front of him and room to run. The screens functioned like extended handoffs with the added benefit of removing players like Garrett from being able to disrupt the play. When not bludgeoning the Browns with their superior offensive line play and the hard-running of Conner, the Steelers were effective sprinkling in a bit of deception.

CONCLUSIONS

It would be silly to argue that the Browns are the same old Browns we’ve grown accustomed to. They have clearly made some great moves in the past year and are now positioned to be taken seriously. It would be just as silly, however, to crown the Browns before they’ve proven they can win.

To do that, they’re going to have to overcome the Steelers, a team they’ve gone 2-15-1 against this decade. Baker Mayfield, Kareem Hunt and OBJ are all exciting pieces for them and may help transform their offense into something special. But football games are still won in the trenches. As the clips above show, the Steelers are clearly superior in this version of trench warfare. Bottom line: if Cleveland can’t figure out how to stop James Conner, their chances of beating the Steelers remain slim. Because stopping Conner comes down to one thing and one thing only: toughness up front.

Are the Browns tougher than the Steelers? Can they beat the Steelers in the trenches? We’ll see. The answer to those questions may determine the future of the North.