The NFL universe was rocked by Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb’s gruesome knee injury Monday night in Pittsburgh. With Chubb gone, the Browns have to find a way to get past the loss of the one man their entire offense revolved around.
No team has someone like Nick Chubb just waiting on the bench. So, the Cleveland Browns will have to significantly shift their running back philosophy in the wake of his loss. Chubb’s reserves were Jerome Ford and Pierre Strong Jr, both of whom have been largely untested. Ford was meant to develop as a complementary weapon. They looked at him as someone with high-end speed and soft hands to play on third downs. Strong is the ground and pound back. He’s the guy you hand it to in obvious short-yardage situations to get 2 yards when you need 1.5.
On Wednesday, the Cleveland Browns added a familiar face to the running back room: Kareem Hunt. Though this signing could be viewed as obvious, given Hunt’s familiarity with the team, it does signal a rather abrupt shift in philosophy for the organization.
What the Newest Cleveland Browns Running Back Says About the Team
Hunt, a Cleveland area native, spent the previous four seasons with the team. For most of this period, he was the 1B back to Chubb’s 1A, rushing for 1,874 yards and 16 touchdowns. Hunt was also the best receiving back on the Cleveland Browns during that time, snagging 166 receptions for 973 yards and seven scores.
Hunt wasn’t retained in the offseason because the team thought he had lost a step. Indeed, his yards-per-carry and yards-per-reception numbers were career lows in 2022. He visited with multiple teams throughout the offseason and training camp but was said to be holding out for the right offer.
The New Cleveland Browns RB1
In a bit of irony, Hunt will likely be the primary backup to the man who replaced him, Jerome Ford. Despite having only eight career carries (for a paltry 1.5-yard average), the Cleveland Browns staff believed in him enough to pass on veteran free agents. Ford missed most of the preseason with an injury and didn’t look good upon return.
Against the Bengals, whom Chubb ran over, Ford rushed 15 times for a paltry 36 yards and lost a key fumble early on. Ford lacked pop and looked like he took too long to find his holes and make decisions. That continued when he took Chubb’s mantle on Monday night… until he finally broke out of it. Early in the third quarter, Ford rushed right and found no room. But instead of plowing forward as he had been, he reversed field and showed his breakaway speed for the first time, galloping 69 yards and setting up the Cleveland Browns final touchdown.
How Will Ford and Hunt Be Used?
Neither running back has the skill set to play the three-down, bell cow back for the Browns. In another piece of irony, the football player whom Ford was often compared to when he was drafted in 2022? That’d be Kareem Hunt.
It’s a departure for the Cleveland Browns to choose to have two running backs with similar skill sets. That could say something about the team in the (for the moment at least) post-Chubb era. The fact that Hunt and Ford excel as pass-catching backs is also notable. Especially given that Cleveland Browns fans can expect significant changes to their air attack over the coming weeks.
Pinpointing the Cleveland Browns Offensive Struggles
Against Pittsburgh and their ferocious pass rush, it seemed like every time that quarterback Deshaun Watson was asked to take a five-step drop, there would already be a Steeler waiting for him. Part of this is what happens when you play a team that features all-world edge rusher T.J. Watt. Part of it is the surprisingly poor tackle play from what should be a solid Cleveland Browns offensive line. Blindside blocker Jed Wills, in particular, has struggled, managing a mediocre 45.0 grade from PFF thus far in 2023. But a large part of it is Watson himself, who still looks incredibly uncomfortable in the offense he’s been asked to lead.
With the Houston Texans in 2019 and 2020, Watson operated out of the shotgun for over 80 percent of its total snaps. Watson led the league in passing in the latter year. Despite the talk about how head coach Kevin Stefanski redesigned the offense for Watson, very little shotgun has been used. It takes an extra few seconds to drop back even three, let alone five steps. If Watson is best when he can take the snap and immediately begin his progressions, making him take longer while fearing his blindside could be a large factor in his struggles.
Putting Humpty-Dumpty Back Together Again
Quicker, faster-developing plays out of the shotgun should allow Watson to find his rhythm. Hunt and Ford are both known as willing and solid blockers in the passing game. Both are also more adept at shifting out of an empty backfield or working offset from the quarterback. Working from the shotgun allows either to step in front of Watson quicker as a blocker or swing out into space as a potential check-down receiver. Draw plays out of the shotgun allows over-pursuing edge rushers (like Watt) to get deep into the backfield before Ford can use his speed to blow right by them up the gut.
If the Browns had been looking for a player the most like Chubb, they would’ve gone after former Los Angeles Rams running back Cam Akers. Akers was essentially given to the Minnesota Vikings this week for nothing. Instead, they chose to re-sign Hunt, a player with a similar skill set to one they already had. Also a player with whom they had lost confidence in contributing to a Nick Chubb-style running game.
Either signals a distinct change in philosophy or a staff that frankly doesn’t know what it’s doing. Time will tell which.
Universal Responsible Gambling Disclaimer:
Ages 21+. Gambling problem? Call 1-800-GAMBLER
Main Photo: Jeff Lange – USA Today Sports