For all the success the Cleveland Browns offense has had this season, there are limitations in the passing game as a result of their personnel due to the lack of a legitimate threat that can win on the outside.
The Browns run a remarkably high percentage of condensed formations, which offers a multiple advantages, but is partly a result of necessity.
The biggest advantage is it really highlights their offensive line, which is the identity of the offense. They win up front and it forces the defense to make a difficult choice.
If defenders try to line up wide, the Browns will attempt to gash them up the middle. Play too tight and the Browns can work to the perimeter and create opportunities up the alley like the Nick Chubb run that sealed the victory against the Houston Texans.
Particularly when the Browns utilize their tight ends, it can create a speed advantage when teams feel forced to match their size.
It's also the most effective way to utilize Jarvis Landry. He's often tightened down, whether he's flexed a few yards away from the end man on the line of scrimmage or he's lined up as a wing, such as in bunch formations or a condensed two by two look.
The downside is when the Browns struggle up front, it creates quick paths into the backfield blitzing from various angles. It puts additional pressure on the quarterback looking at an area of the field littered with defenders, smaller passing windows and less room for error.
Look no further than the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers game at what happens when they don't win the battle up front.
The Browns recognize the problem and have tried to find ways to muddle through it with little success. They want to be able to incorporate a wider attack, creating opportunities on the outside to give them more options against better defenses, but just don't have a good option currently.
Here's a good example.
The Browns have three tight ends all inline on the left with a single back in the backfield. They isolate Taywan Taylor on an island to the right. This is an incredibly potent run formation as it gives them a lot of options on where they can run the ball.
They actually have a numbers advantage here, despite the fact the Jaguars have nine players in the box and a deep safety in the middle of the field. One of the two defenders lined up over their three tight ends is a corner, which makes it that much more enticing an option to run that direction.
Nevertheless, the Browns find themselves in a situation where they have one on one coverage on Taylor. They desperately want to be able to take advantage of this situation and they can't.
Taylor runs a 15-yard comeback, but is unable to make the catch. The problem is the Browns don't have anyone really built to succeed in this capacity. If Odell Beckham was healthy, he'd be there, but he isn't and they have no one else.
Jarvis Landry and Rashard Higgins aren't built to win here. Maybe there's some long term hope for Donovan Peoples-Jones, but they can't bank on that happening. If this was a healthy Beckham, the defense might be inclined to provide some help, which only creates a more favorable situation for the rest of the offense.
There isn't one single answer to the type of receiver the Browns could use in situations. Having a blazer that can run by the corner is one option. Having someone with size and strength that can overpower the defender is another great option.
Given the Browns roster, speed is the preferable choice. The Browns have size with their tight ends and some of their receivers like Landry and Higgins can be redundant in terms of skill set.
The Browns could use increased spacing within their offense, forcing defenses to cover more of the field. A true dynamic speed threat, whether it's deep speed combined with size or elite quickness and a threat after the catch would help to create that space.
If the free safety is concerned about the single receiver either going over the top or someone that can catch a slant and go all the way, it forces him to make sure, which creates more space in the middle of the field for other receivers and tight ends. In turn, that would create more space for backs out of the backfield. All of it would benefit the running game.
One player that stands to benefit directly is Austin Hooper. He is often covered by multiple defenders simply by virtue of where the Browns are able to attack defenses with their current personnel. Better spacing would limit the number of defenders that can cover him, enabling him more favorable opportunities to get the ball.
Since the season began, the Browns have expanded the number of ways they can attack the opponent as they get more confident in different areas of their playbook. Unfortunately, for lack of that dynamic outside threat, there's still plenty the Browns would like to be able to do but can't currently.
It's also why it seemed likely the Browns would have put in a waiver claim for Kenny Stills when he was available. Currently a free agent, that's one possible avenue to try to improve the situation.
Failing that, look for the Browns to find another receiver in the offseason that can impact this area of the field. It would allow the Browns to continue to expand their offense and put more stress on the opposing defenses with the goal of being able to generate instant offense, potentially creating points in a single play.