After nine long weeks of waiting, Cleveland Browns running back Kareem Hunt finally returned to the field after an eight-game suspension and played a vital role in the team’s 19-16 victory over the Buffalo Bills. He was used in a multitude of ways that maximized his talent, and he should play extremely well for the rest of the season, provided head coach Freddie Kitchens makes some adjustments.
To get a sense of just how big of an impact Hunt made on Sunday, look no further than these stats:
With Kareem Hunt on the active roster, the @Browns used "Pony Personnel" (2 HB) featuring Hunt & Nick Chubb on the field together for 28 of 65 plays (43%).@NickChubb21 gained 113 of his 116 rush yards on 11 carries with Hunt also on the field.#BUFvsCLE | #Browns pic.twitter.com/dTk7qf7ydd
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) November 10, 2019
Having to defend two of the very best running backs in football, along with Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. is not a position defenses want to be in. The Browns have yet to show they can consistently beat a defense over the top with their air attack, so opposing teams are still playing the run first (which should help Cleveland’s play-action, but that’s a topic for another day). That hasn’t helped defenses stop Chubb, who ranks third in the NFL in rushing yards despite playing one less game than the league leader, Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook.
The last time Hunt took the field for a regular-season game, he was a top-five back for the Kansas City Chiefs. He was a great runner, receiver, and pass blocker. All of that was on display in his first contest as a member of the Browns, and more. In addition to his 74 yards on 11 touches, Hunt was often used as a lead blocker for Chubb, a luxury Cleveland hasn’t been able to afford very often since they don’t carry a fullback on their roster, and none of their tight ends fit the physical profile. Hunt more than made up for the absence of a true fullback, earning a great run-blocking grade of 73.6 from Pro Football Focus.
Hunt didn’t just line up in the backfield. He was split out wide five times and was a slot receiver for nine plays. He may not be quite as versatile as Duke Johnson was from a wide receiver perspective, but Hunt did give the Browns that Swiss Army Knife they had been missing since trading Johnson to the Houston Texans.
Yet, as well as he was used, there was on situation that really should have cost Cleveland the game. Late in the first quarter, up 6-0, the Browns drove down the field all the way to the goal line. Thanks to Beckham Jr. drawing two pass interference penalties, Cleveland ended up running eight plays from within the three-yard line. And they didn’t score.
Buffalo’s defense certainly deserves credit for that impressive stand, and it’s not like the Browns offensive line is good at run blocking. But Kitchens didn’t play Chubb and Hunt together for a single play during that stretch. It’s what got them into that situation in the first place, yet Hunt spent those eight plays on the sideline. Kitchens is still learning how to be a head coach, and there are areas in which he has improved. But gaffes like these are just more ammunition to the argument that he’s completely in over his head and the team needs to move on.
There’s no good excuse for why Hunt wasn’t used there. He doesn’t have to be on the field for all eight plays, or even half of them. But being off the field for every single one? Completely unacceptable.
This is another example of a consistent trend with Kitchens this season; for the most part, his playcalling has been fine. The offense can move the ball relatively well, in spite of a weak offensive line and Baker Mayfield struggling. But the situational playcalling has been atrocious. It doesn’t matter what the situation is; backed up in their own end zone, a key fourth down, end of the half, goal line, etc. Puzzling decisions will always occur. Is Kitchens preoccupied with other duties? Is the pressure of being a head coach too much for him in those situations? Is he just trying to outsmart opponents and failing? Whatever the case, it’s something that needs to change if the Browns want to stay in the playoff race.
Having an elite running back backing up another elite running back is a luxury few NFL teams have ever had. Kitchens must continue to maximize his backfield, but not just early on in quarters and outside of the red zone. Hunt is a special talent – so don’t ignore him when you need to score.