Second Thoughts: Browns Using Nick Chubb More Over First Three Games, And Why Not?

The Steelers knew Nick Chubb would be a big part of the Browns' gameplan and they couldn't stop him. (Cleveland Browns)

The Steelers knew Nick Chubb would be a big part of the Browns' gameplan and they couldn't stop him. (Cleveland Browns)

Second thoughts: Browns using Nick Chubb more over first three games, and why not?

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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for and 850 ESPN Cleveland. He has covered the Browns since 1984.

Second thoughts on Browns’ 29-17 victory over Pittsburgh Steelers …

1. Through three games, the Browns have scored 26, 30 and 29 points for a total of 85. Granted, six points were a gift at the end of the Pittsburgh game on a failed, desperate lateral play by the Steelers. But 85 points is on par with what the Browns scored through three games in the first two seasons of the Kevin Stefanski era. They had 86 in 2021 and 75 in 2020. The difference is the previous teams had quarterback Baker Mayfield and receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, and this one currently is fielding Jacoby Brissett, Amari Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones in those roles. There were legit questions leading into the season about how Brissett and the receivers would hold up during the 11-game suspension of Deshaun Watson. No doubt Brissett is surpassing most expectations. He has been more than just a game manager at quarterback and has improved with each game. What’s evident, though, is that the Browns’ creative and powerful rushing game is operating at a higher level. The Browns’ 572 rushing yards are the most in franchise history through three games since 1958. The Browns had 524 and 499 rushing yards through three games the previous two years. The five rushing TDs also best the previous two years’ pace of four. If you delve deeper into the rushing numbers, the biggest difference this year is Stefanski dialing up Nick Chubb more. Chubb has 62 rushes compared with 48 in 2021 and 51 in 2020. While Chubb’s 5.5-yard rushing average is consistent with his career numbers, his 341 yards through three games are his most by far through three games. Prior to this season, Chubb averaged 16.2 rushing attempts per game. This year the figure is 20.6. After the game, Pittsburgh safety Minkah Fitzpatrick said, “If you can’t slow down Chubb, you can’t beat this group. They did what they wanted to. Run the ball, do trick plays, and stuff like that. They did what they wanted to do and we could not stop it.”

2. During the Amazon Prime broadcast of the game, Al Michaels noted Brissett has “the best percentage in the league right now” of converting third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 plays on quarterback sneaks. After Brissett’s first conversion, Michaels said Brissett was 29 of 30 in such situations. He raised that figure to 31 of 32 by the end of the game, which included a sneak for six yards inside the Steelers’ 10-yard line on the Browns’ last offensive drive of the game. After the game, Stefanski curiously downplayed this facet of Brissett’s game. “Quarterback sneaks aren’t complicated,” Stefanski said. “It is a matter of our guys getting low and coming off the ball, and he has a good feel for it.” The Browns had essentially the same offensive line the previous two seasons in front of Mayfield -- with the exception of 320-pound center Ethan Pocic -- yet Mayfield wasn’t nearly as effective as Brissett has been in his career with two different teams before the Browns. Brissett’s physical stature (6-4 and 235 pounds) has a lot to do with it, of course. Which may be part of the reason the Browns loaded up on bigger, more athletic QBs this year. Mayfield (6-1, 215) has 32 fumbles in 62 games over his career, including all plays not just sneaks. Brissett has 24 in 63.

3. The Browns lost starting linebackers Anthony Walker (quad tendon) and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (groin) on the Steelers’ first offensive possession of the second half. Jacob Phillips and Sione Takitaki replaced them, and the Browns proceeded to register three consecutive three-and-out defensive stops to grab control of the game. Phillips had a sack of Mitch Trubisky on the last one. With Walker going on season-ending injured reserve with his severe injury, Phillips now will take over as starting middle linebacker and be the man in the middle to receive and transmit Joe Woods’ defensive calls to the rest of the defense. The speedy Phillips wound up leading all linebackers with 46 defensive snaps in the game and led the defense with seven tackles and the only sack of Trubisky. Phillips also had a key, diving breakup of a pass for tight end Pat Freiermuth on third-and-5 after the two-minute warning that forced the Steelers to kick a field goal rather than proceed for a touchdown, which would have tightened the screws on the Browns. “The two plays he made late in the game with the blitz and the sack and then the PBU were outstanding,” Stefanski said. “I was proud of Jacob because you wish you could put 12 guys out there for the defense. We listed him as a starter with Anthony early because those guys … are both capable of starting. Now with Anthony out likely, Jacob goes in there, and we have a ton of confidence in him. He plays like he plays last night, I think he can really affect the game.” Now it’s incumbent on Phillips staying healthy. He missed games in 2020 with a knee injury and in 2021 with a torn biceps tendon. Walker's injury lessens the margin of error for future injuries at the position group.

4. Since the 58-yard game-winning field goal by Cade York in Carolina in Game 1, the Browns’ special teams have: 1. allowed a fake-punt conversion for a first down; 2. suffered a partially blocked punt because of a protection breakdown; 3. allowed a key punt return of 16 yards and three kickoff returns beyond the 30-yard line; 4. muffed a punt and a short kickoff; 5. returned a kickoff from minus-3 to the 15-yard line; 6. missed two PATs; 7. been penalized for 12 on the field on a Pittsburgh field goal; 8. failed to recover one onside kick; 9. caused heart palpitations by almost failing on another.

5. Ironman of the game: Jack Conklin not only returned to the field 10 months after tearing a patellar tendon on Nov. 28, the right tackle played all 72 snaps on offense. Conklin’s stamina and durability were needed because the Browns were without sixth man Chris Hubbard and lost left tackle Jedrick Wills for six plays. James Hudson, the only other tackle active for the game, filled in for Wills. Had Conklin not made it through the game, the Browns would have had to move Michael Dunn into emergency tackle duty, which would have taken Dunn out of his emerging role as a sixth offensive lineman and third tight end. He played 14 effective snaps in those spots.

6. Second guess: Stefanski’s time management at the end of the game was improved. After a third-down measurement in the final minute came up inches short, Stefanski called timeout with 14 seconds to go at the Steelers’ 37. A 55-yard field goal try was out of the question in the wind-tunnel closed end. Rather than try to convert fourth-and-1 and wrap up the game, Stefanski elected to punt. Corey Bojorquez finished an outstanding night with a coffin-corner punt that bounced out of bounds at the Steelers’ 4-yard line. From there, the Steelers’ Keystone Cops lateral play ended up in a fumble recovered in the end zone by Denzel Ward for the final points. Stefanski seems to have confidence in Bojorquez and is willing to accept the punt as a useful weapon on occasion. That's good.