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Preposterous Weather Forecast Puts Focus on Evolving Browns Running Game

With a ridiculous weather forecast for the game against the New Orleans Saints, the Cleveland Browns will likely put a heavy focus on speeding up the evolution of their running game with Deshaun Watson at quarterback.
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When the Cleveland Browns host the New Orleans Saints on Christmas Eve, the forecasted weather predicts temperatures around 10 degrees Fahrenheit that could dip to -9 courtesy of wind gusts from Lake Erie that could reach 60 miles per hour. It's absurd to play a football game in these conditions, but it's going to happen, so the Browns, who have been evolving their running game on the fly to fit around quarterback Deshaun Watson, could use these preposterous conditions to their ground attack to speed up that transformation.

Since Watson has become the starting quarterback, the Browns have introduced a number of run concepts they simply haven't used since Kevin Stefanski was hired as the team's head coach. The Browns running game was based around a wide zone scheme. They would also utilize gap concepts including counter, power and trap.

With Watson, the Browns have introduced inside zone. It's not only a means to run the ball, but it's a vehicle to employ a series of read plays as well as run pass options. Combined with some struggles up front due to injuries, that transition has been difficult. The last six weeks, the Browns simply haven't run the ball well regardless of whether it's been new plays or their base offense.

Inside zone isn't the only way to execute some of these plays calls. For example, it's easy enough to run counter, have the quarterback keep the ball and go out the back door. Inside zone just tends to be an way to protect passes out of that framework because the rules naturally account for pass rushing threats.

Since Watson has taken over, the Browns have been combining the new concepts they want to employ with Watson into the formations the team had been able to experience so much success. It's been a struggle with the occasional glimpse of what it might be.

Baked into what they've implemented into the Watson-centered run game so far is getting to see some of the ways defenses are going to defend it. For example, the Browns would have an attached tight end and run the ball with Chubb to the strong side while giving Watson the freedom to pull it and run to the weak side. The Baltimore Ravens simply overloaded the weak side. They had a defender or two outside the tackle on the weak side and when the ball was snapped, they attacked, making it so Watson's read was to give the ball and then allowing those defenders to chase running back Nick Chubb down from the backside.

Presented with a similar look with Patrick Queen lined up on the weak side and no one over the tight end, the Browns got an 18-yard gain with Chubb, simply running their wide zone to the strong side, leaving the Ravens completely out of position to defend it. This is some of the problem solving this offense will have to do. Watson provides some so many possibilities, which is great, but it's a learning process on how and when to use them.

It's one of the benefits of this six-game stretch with Watson in the lineup. The Browns get a preview of how defenses are going to try to stop them. They have the opportunity to deal with it on the fly, but it's going to give them the entire offseason to prepare and adapt answers to what opponents will do defensively.

The Browns would prefer to be playing in a game that allows Watson to continue his development as a passer, but that is almost certainly out the window this week. Instead, the Browns can focus entirely on how they want to diversify their running game.

Ultimately, the Browns will succeed if they can move the Saints off the ball on Saturday. If center Ethan Pocic is able to play and healthy, that would provide a sizable boost. Nevertheless, the Browns can utilize misdirection to keep the defense honest, potentially creating explosive plays or quick points, which will be at a premium.

The Browns have utilized reads and run pass options. They've even mixed in the triple option and a reverse in the past month. And even though downfield passing looks like a virtual impossibility in this environment, quick lateral passes could be an effective way to force the defense to play wider, potentially opening up running lanes.

In addition to winning, the offensive coaching staff has been deliberate in using these games to build towards 2023. More aggressively than anticipated. Some of the concepts the Browns have implemented, teams typically will want to spend months on before putting into a game plan. The Browns have peppered them in after just a few weeks.

For the game against the Saints, it may help them find a way to victory while allowing them to continue to explore just how far they can push the boundaries of what they want their ground game to look like in 2023. Orbit motions, the triple option, read plays and mixing in some short passes to keep the opponent off balance to set up Chubb running over and through them.

The other element that could make this game interesting is how the Saints operate their offense in this environment. Despite their record, Andy Dalton has been pretty good this season, but he doesn't run well. Meanwhile, they have Taysom Hill, a quarterback that has been turned into a dollar-intensive weapon that occasionally threatens the opponent. This game may be right in his wheelhouse. It stands to reason that the Saints could have Hill play quarterback almost exclusively in this game in the same way Watson might be, using his legs to try to create problems and openings for running back Alvin Kamara.

For the Saints, this game likely forces a departure from their offense even if they have the personnel to do it. The Browns, meanwhile, may mix in some trick plays, but this game will presents an opportunity to advance their running game which could serve as a preview for the 2023 season.