Can the run game find success without Nick Chubb?
Cleveland Browns RB Nick Chubb being placed on injured reserve can be detrimental to the offensive production unless the position group steps up as a whole. Nick Chubb is currently third in the league in rushing yards (335), only behind Dalvin Cook and Aaron Jones. Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski has utilized Chubb as the lead back into the league’s leading rushing attack with 818 yards in four games. Stefanski enjoys the luxury of having two top-10 running backs in the backfield. Kareem Hunt enters week five with 275 rushing yards and more incoming opportunities with Chubb on IR.
Hunt is a feature back in his own right after leading the league in rushing yards his rookie season in 2017. There is confidence behind Kareem Hunt and what he can do as the lead back in this offense. He is averaging 5.5 yards per carry this season and has been used to close out games early in the season. Last week on the road he ran for 71 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries. Hunt is also a threat catching passes out of the backfield with two receiving touchdowns on the season.
Employing an outside zone scheme, the offense will be able find some success on the ground without Nick Chubb based on the performance of the offensive line. This was showcased in the week four win against the Dallas Cowboys after Nick Chubb went down with an injury in the second quarter. Against a struggling Cowboys defense the offense produced 264 yards on the ground after Chubb was downgraded to out during the game. Even taking out the two huge runs by Odell Beckham, the offense still produced 191 yards on the ground and leading rusher D’Ernest Johnson had 95 yards.
The dominant run game has found success in the past three games due largely to the impact of the Browns offensive line. Cleveland currently has four of five starters along their offensive line grading in the top ten for offensive grade according to Pro Football Focus. The highest grade player thus far is RG Wyatt Teller (94.1), who is the highest graded guard in the NFL and has the highest run blocking grade (93.7) of all interior linemen. Teller has been a force in the running game especially when he is tasked with pulling from the back side as a lead blocker. Lining up next to Teller include RT Jack Conklin and C J.C. Tretter, both of whom are ranked in the top five for running blocking grade. Tretter is the second highest rated (80.4) center in the league and Conklin ranks sixth of all tackles with an 85.8 grade.
The offensive line is a strong unit in the trenches but the players carrying the ball also mean a lot in the run game. Two of the biggest question marks on the depth chart behind Chubb and Hunt are D’Ernest Johnson and Dontrell Hilliard. Both running backs competed in training camp for the third running back on the depth chart and the nod was given to D’Ernest Johnson. Although Hilliard lost the training camp battle he was signed to the practice squad, and was activated to the gameday roster versus the Dallas Cowboys.
D’Ernest Johnson is the player that will have the most eyes on him after his breakout performance against the Dallas Cowboys by averaging 7.3 yards per carry. Johnson joined the Browns in 2019 after leading the Orlando Apollos from the Alliance of American Football in rushing yards with 372 yards and 5.8 yards per carry. Throughout training camp he should vision and burst while running the ball and took full advantage of his extra opportunities in week four. Johnson only had five career rushing attempts before leading the team in carries against Dallas. Being a relative unknown due to his NFL production, Johnson jumped off the screen rushing for 28 yards on his first carry in week four.
Johnson is the X-factor for this offense because Kevin Stefanski has to spell Kareem Hunt throughout the game and there is some uncertainty regarding Hunt’s health. Hunt went into Dallas with a groin injury and is a limited participant during practice this week. In the situation that Hunt is unable to play, Johnson will be next up in line for carries. There will obviously be a drop off from Nick Chubb to D’Ernest Johnson, yet the expectations are high after Johnson showcased good patience, vision and burst while running the ball. Both Johnson and Hunt will be tested in week five as they handle more opportunities in the offense.
It will be a tough matchup against the Indianapolis Colts who have the fourth best run defense in the league and are limiting teams to 3.6 yards per carry. The offensive line will be challenged by the Colts front seven led by All-Pro DT DeForest Buckner. Stefanksi has leaned upon the running game to a 3-1 record and will look to establish the run early. The success of the run game will rely upon the Browns offensive line, Kareem Hunt’s and D’Ernest Johnson ability to create yards after contact, and Dontrell Hilliard making an impact when called upon. If the Browns running game cannot find its footing early there could be tons of pressure on Baker Mayfield to the throw the ball.